university degree in photography

Started May 8, 2012 | Discussions thread
David Franklin Senior Member • Posts: 1,053
A serious and knowledgable answer

As a professional photographer who has hired dozens of assistants just out of college with photography degrees, and someone who has also had some limited experience teaching photography part time in seminar type situations to photo students in college, I have what I think is an informed opinion.

If you want to teach photography at some point in the future, then you can get a four year degree in any reputable college or university, but you must go on to at least a Master's degree and, preferably, a Doctorate to do so at the college level. Most 4-year colleges and universities fashion their photography curriculums with an emphasis in non-applied studies, like the history of photography or the relationship of photography to developments in other arts. Some do so more than others. If you want to be a professional photographer, these curricula won't hurt you, may inspire you, but won't necessarily teach you a lot about what you actually need to know to succeed in the marketplace. There are some exceptions to this general idea, so to really understand how each college or university approaches art-oriented studies, you must do some thorough research on your own, concentrating on students who have recently graduated from the place you're considering.

Community colleges granting an Associate's degrees are usually focused on applied photography and are more to the point, if you want to become a working photographer, but their quality in curriculum and instructors vary wildly and I'd want to investigate such a school very carefully to gauge what you could get out of it.

The best schools by far to gain a working knowledge of photography that will train you to really enter the marketplace (at least to the point of being a valuable assistant and work your way upwards) are the few really focused 4-year applied art schools in the country with good photo curriculums. They also successfully train people in industrial design, illustration, painting, sculpture and other related disciplines - all with a very serious attitude. Places like the two I'm most familiar with - Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California and the Center For Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan - are fairly hard to get into because they really weigh student portfolios and other academic factors for admissions. But, their curriculums are famously difficult and taught by people who actually have been, or still are, very successful in the field your study, so you really learn how to actually approach and do professional work. There are several other schools like these two across the country, but I'm not personally familiar enough to know which they are. If you want to study photography to be a photographer, these are the best places to try to get into.

One other thing - don't confuse Art Center College of Design in Pasadena with the many schools in the country called Art Center followed by the name of a city, like Art Center Los Angeles. They are different entities. I don't know much about the value of the education at the Art Center chain of colleges; they might be great or terrible, I just can't say that I know much about them and how really well they prepare their students for working in the real world of the photography business.

Also, a lot depends on what kind of photography you want to "practice" as a professional. If you, for instance, want to be a wedding pro, you might find a community college is all you need, along with starting as soon as possible to assist or otherwise work with an experienced wedding shooter to learn all the important things that your education can't possibly cover. If you want to work in other fields like fashion, general advertising, serious product catalog, automotive, or even high-end stock photography, you might be better off with one of the more rigorous 4-year schools I mentioned.

Last, but not least, one must understand that no formal education will equip you to go out and be a successful professional photographer in any sub-field you choose. The majority of what you will need to know, you will have to learn by experience anyway, experience you can only pick up by either being an assistant to an experienced pro, or that you pick up along the way, starting with small, less important jobs and working your way up to more complex and demanding clients and jobs. Some people who never attended any type of photo schools have become wildly successful, and some who have attended the best of photo schools now work as used car salesmen. There's no one formula for success. But, you'll have at least a better shot at applying your innate skills and intelligence to the job if you have some good preparation from a good school.

I hope this helps.

Keep learning; share knowledge; think seriously about outcomes; seek wisdom.

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