Do You Really Need That College Degree?

I just came back from having coffee with a young photographer based here in NYC. The way I met him was through a model friend of mine who I am shooting this weekend for my own magazine. Because he is a Breed member and because the article is loosely based on information he told me, I will keep his anonymity. He is friends with my model friend and when he found out I was shooting this story he asked his friend if he could assist and help out. We met about 2 weeks ago, very briefly. Then he sent me an email a few days ago and confessed he has been a follower of mine for about 7 years but his friend told him to be cool when we met. Today we met, just him and I, and our conversation really got me thinking. He is enrolled in a very fancy photography college here in NYC. By the time he graduates, he will be in debt for about $80,000. That is a f*ck of a lot of money. He is 27 years old, scraping by on the odd look book job or paid model test and paying for living expenses and other expenses with his student loan. When I expressed my shock/sadness/disbelief he slowly shook his head and said, “yeah, I don’t think I made the right decision.”

PHOTO BY STEVEN MEISEL

I get asked this question all the time: “Do I need to go to photography college?”

Let me start with my own story.

I made the decision to become a fashion photographer in 1980. Yes, that is a year that existed and yes, I know, it’s way before a lot of you were even born. So in 1980 we didn’t have the internet or the resources that are readily available to us today. I made this decision in the beginning of my senior year of high school and back then, college was just what you did after high school unless you wanted to make a huge life mistake. I shot a whole lot of photos in my senior year so I could put together a portfolio to get into art school. Those photos weren’t very good, in fact most of them sucked. I didn’t know how to expose film, I certainly didn’t know how to light, by any stretch of the imagination. Strobe lights scared the shit out of me. I shot mostly outdoor, available light and used my pretty friends as models and our clothing for the shoots. But I was shooting and familiarizing my eye to the camera, learning how to frame and compose an image. I knew I needed some real schooling in photography. Back then, we didn’t have many choices. In fact, there were only about 4 outstanding colleges that specialized in photography in the United States and none of them specialized in fashion photography. My father was big on me getting a college diploma so he was fine with me applying and then attending The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. In fact, he was downright proud of me going to Art Center. It was a tough school to get into at the time and even harder to stay in.

Let’s fast forward now to 2016. After my coffee with the photographer I mentioned earlier, I came home and did some research on photography schools. I didn’t do a serious count but there are at least 150 colleges now offering photography degrees. From The Art Institutes that are pretty much in every major city throughout the United States, to small 8-month colleges offering certificate programs, you can find a college to “teach” you photography pretty much anywhere. A one or two year program that specializes in photography can run anywhere from $10,000 to $30,0000 a year. That’s not including housing, supplies, books and meals.

In other words, a college education nowadays cost a lot of money. That’s nothing new. It did when I attended college in the early ’80’s as well. The question is, do you need to go to photography school NOW in order to learn photography? I wrote a post about this years ago in my infamous-not-so-infamous former blog. My answer to the question was if you can afford it, then go. If you can’t, do not. Back when I graduated in 1987 my teachers bidded us farewell and said, “Don’t worry, there are enough jobs out there for everyone”. Today that just simply isn’t true anymore. The industry is over-saturated and the competition is fiercer than ever. Why ladle yourself with student loans that are going to hover over you and weigh you down when you have a plethora of information now available via the internet, workshops, online tutorials, DVD’s, Youtube, Lynda.com, CreativeLive and yes, Breed. And at the end of the day, the best way of learning is application. That’s right, just digging in and practicing.

MARIO TESTINO SHOOTING FOR STUART WEITZMAN

No one has ever asked me to produce my diploma. I barely even get asked if I went to college. So today, if someone asked me if they need to go to college? My answer would be no. In my opinion, your best way of learning fashion photography now is the internet, assisting and then practical application. I’m not here to toot Breed’s horn, this isn’t a sales pitch. But look at the numbers: For $22 a month (that’s $264 a year) you gain online access to lighting tutorials, interviews with industry leaders and other photographers who are in the field, trying to make it just like you. We offer podcasts, Behind the Scene videos and instructional videos on retouching and direct access to working professionals. I mean, check it out: if you just watch one BTS from one of my shoots you can see where I place my lights, how far away from the model they are, what modifiers I’m using, etc etc. We provide EQ reviews, we tell you what gear we are using, hell we even give you our exposures and ISO’s. Here’s the real bonus: you’re learning from people who are actually in the industry dealing with the everyday ins and outs of this business. Most colleges have teachers who’ve never shot an editorial or a paid ad campaign in their lives. Who’ve never even seen a photography rep or estimated for a lookbook. And check this out: In the first semester of the college that the young photographer that I met with this morning is attending, do you know how many lighting classes he has had? Ready? One. One class on lighting.

So I hear the feedback that Breed charges too much. Really, you’re going to complain about a couple of hundred dollars a year but somehow give some college institution $40,000 plus? It doesn’t make sense anymore. I even put out a DVD that offers 3 hours of lighting advice for beauty and fashion, business advice on marketing and estimating, interviews with industry leaders and equipment reviews. The total cost is $149 and that includes a 20 page lighting diagram booklet. Or take one of our workshops. Mine is $1,500 but others offer less expensive ones. But just for argument sake, let’s say you join Breed for a year using the Yearly membership discount at $199. You take one of my workshops at $1,500. And you buy the DVD for $149. You’ve invested a total of $1,848 into your career. You want to compete in this industry and you’re going balk at that price?

Marius Troy once told me that there are 70,000 photographers based in NYC city alone. Do you want to prolong getting your career started and get $70,000 in debt? My advice is to use the internet. Start assisting and watch as many online tutorials that you can. You’ll be much further ahead of the game. It’s 2016 and the name of the game has indeed changed. Embrace it.

We are now offering several different fashion photography workshops. A high-fashion editorial shoot taught by Alexander Saladrigas who is a working fashion photographer based in NYC. We also have a new class taught by creative director and stylist Julia Morris who will be teaching creative directing your fashion editorial photography. You can find out more information by visiting BREED ACADEMY!

And for more products that will help you shoot stronger and better fashion photographer, here are more resources to help you succeed. Wishing all of you the best!

Memberships

Class Downloads:

Fashion Photography Exposed

Shooting Fashion on Location

Advanced Fashion Photography Lighting

Melissa Rodwell