There Has Never Been a Better Time to Learn Photography

“That’s why teaching and learning is nothing. It’s living and looking. All these photography schools are a gimmick. What are they teaching? Could you teach me how to walk?”

So said the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in an interview with the journalist and filmmaker Sheila Turner-Seed in 1971. You can find a transcript of her interview here.

Now, to some, this comment from the great master may seem a little hypocritical. After all though Cartier-Bresson did not do any formal photographic education he did attend a private art school as well as the Lhote Academy, the Parisian studio of the Cubist painter and sculptor André Lhote. He also studied painting with society portraitist Jacques Émile Blanche.

So is Cartier-Bresson differentiating between photography and the rest of art by saying the former is somehow not worthy of a formal education because it is not ‘real art’? Possibly. One always got the feeling that Cartier-Bresson, as great a photographer as he was perceived to be, was never fully enamoured with photography as an artistic medium. He retired from photography in the early 1970s, and by 1975 no longer took pictures other than an occasional private portrait; he said he kept his camera in a safe at his house and rarely took it out, preferring instead drawing and painting.

So, is it worth splashing out on a formal higher level degree course in photography or, as Cartier-Bresson says, are photography schools just a “gimmick”?

Today, if you want to take a formal, degree level, education in photography at a university here in England it’s going to set you back between £6,000 and £9,000 per year in tuition fees alone. That’s before you add the cost of books and other learning materials, let alone living costs if you choose to study somewhere other than your home town and don’t have the luxury of living in your parents house. If you are not an English native then that cost will be even more. So is it worth spending between £18,000 and £27,000 a year to get a photographic degree and could you better spend your time (and money) elsewhere?

Here’s the true irony. At a time when the cost of tertiary education is higher than ever, and likely to rise further, there has actually never been a better time to learn photography. There is such a wealth of material online, much of it free, as well as other opportunities for learning photography by actually doing, it’s hard to understand why anyone would bother going to university to learn photography (or, as Noah Bradley says here) attend any type of art school.

If I were either starting out in photography or looking to improve my skills (as any of us should be) here are ten things I would do (in no particular order) rather than going to university.

  1. Buy a decent camera body and either two high quality zoom lenses in the range 24mm – 70mm and 70mm – 200mm or four primes covering a similar range (e.g. 24mm, 50mm and 135mm and 200mm) or other specialist lenses if you are say, focussing on landscape, sport, wildlife photography etc. This is likely to be you largest initial outlay but something you would presumably have to do even if you were undertaking a photography degree. You don’t have to buy new of course. You could get a perfectly decent one or two below current generation body on eBay in good condition for a third to half the price of a new one for example. Depending on make, model and age this is going to set you back between £500 and £2500.
  2. Join a professional photographic society like The Royal Photographic Society or The Societies of Photographers (approx £120 per year). Look to build up your core skill levels and receive the appropriate recognition by taking one or more of their distinction levels (approx. £60).
  3. Look at purchasing the books by Michael Freeman: The Photographers Eye, The Photographers Mind, The Photographers Vision, The Photographers Story (£18 each).
  4. Take some courses on web sites such as Lynda.com (multiple photographic topics) or Phlearn.com (Lightroom and Photoshop). Costs vary but start at free.
  5. Follow some online bloggers who create serious posts on photography (some of my favourites are people like Ming Thein, Eric Kim, Valerie Jardin,  Dear SusanStrobist).
  6. Start your own WordPress website and blog and commit to create an online portfolio as well as write about your photography at least twice a week. Take out a personal or premium plan (£2.99 or £8.25 a month) as well as registering your own domain (from £15 per year).
  7. Subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud plan (£85 a year) and get Lightroom and Photoshop with all updates.
  8. Spend some money travelling to and visiting at least six exhibitions a year. For example the Taylor Wessing Portrait exhibition, the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, the World Press Photography exhibition or the Sony World Photography Awards. Don’t just go and look but take a pen and notebook and write notes on the photographs you see and create a review on your blog. If you want to include images from the show in your blog email the photographer asking for permission. You’ll be surprised how many of them say yes and may even send you high quality image files for inclusion in your blog.
  9. Depending on your specialist area, network and collaborate with other photographers and creatives to get experience and learn. For example if you want to specialise in portrait, fashion or glamour join a site like Model Mayhem, post casting calls and work with models and makeup artists. Many will work for free if they know they will get decent images in return. If you are specialising in travel don’t think you have to go to exotic locations to practice your art. One persons exotic location is another’s home territory so why not treat your own home town as a travel location? If you must travel then look at doing a photography tour or holiday which many camera manufacturers sponsor or support in some way (see for example Olympus Image Space).
  10. Finally (and this is actually the most important one of all) practice, practice, PRACTICE. Remember the 10,000 hour rule made famous by Martin Gladwell in his book Outliers (though now rubbished by some). Whether we agree its 10,000 hours, 1000 hours or just sheer luck there is no doubt that some level of regular practice in any pursuit is key to building up your skills. It’s not just putting in the hours of course but reflecting on what you have learned and making adjustments as you go along to improve what you do. I’m convinced that if you want to get really good at anything you need to spend at least two hours a day working at that thing. In photography that mainly means getting out there and taking photographs. It’s also about learning and improving your photoshop skills as well as spending time studying other photographers work and critically assessing it.

I reckon that these ten things can be done for less than the cost of one years university education. Of course you won’t end up with a piece of university provided paper with a qualification at the end of it and you are certainly not guaranteed a job (as you aren’t if you have a degree). What you will have though is lots of hard earned experience and good skills. More than anything you will have shown you have done all this yourself without having the ‘crutch’ (and cost) of an education establishment to lean on.

I realise this is by no means the only path and certainly not the best one for everyone. It is however one that is worth considering if you baulk at the ever increasing cost of an arts education.

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