Photography Education: Formal Photography Degree vs. Mentorship

Photography DegreeWith the cost of a formal education and attaining a photography degree skyrocketing, some photographers may choose to get training another way. While the educational landscape has changed a ton since I went to school, I still feel that “book learning” has value and offers you credibility. This is very true in the corporate world, where those without a diploma are often overlooked, even when they present all the skills and experience employers are looking for. If your goal is to be self-employed, then a formal education is less critical as your clients will likely judge you on quality, skills and price.

The Pros and Cons of a Formal Photography Degree

Let’s look at the formal program first. As mentioned, the world of academia has changed since I attended school and also since I last taught in a university setting. This is largely due to the change in the professional world, and the new skills a graduating photography student needs to be successful. While the hands-on technical skills of lighting and exposure are still very critical, you now need to know much more.

The people I’ve added to my team over the past few years come to me with degrees in digital arts rather than photography. Their skills include advanced Photoshop, motion graphics, web design, web coding, among many others. So I feel that the advantages of a good degree program are worth considering, depending on what career direction you intend to follow.

Finding a good degree program is also key, as there are a ton of online programs that may or may not fall into the “good” category. There are also several specific vocational colleges that offer very good programs that include not only the technical education but also the business training that will help with your success. Most of the degree programs out there now require an internship for graduation, so some of the advantages of a mentorship are included in the formal education.

The downside of a formal education is mostly the cost, and, for some, the time commitment a four-year program requires can also be turnoff.

The Pros and Cons of a Photography Mentorship

Due to the costs of the formal education, many photographers are turning to mentorships, and this route has definite advantages, especially if you can find someone to pay you while you learn.

Real-world learning while you work is great preparation for a career, if you find a program that is in your field of interest photographically. But don’t discount a program that may not be up your alley—you will get something from everyone you work with and out of everything you do. In fact, I would recommend that you work for as many different professionals as you can to round out the experience. Each will offer a different perspective, approach and skillset, and you may find a new path that you did not realize was right for you. Or, on the flip side, you may find that what you thought you wanted to do is just not your cup of tea in the end.

I know of at least one of my fellow students in college decided to drop out and follow this path. He eventually became a partner with his mentor and now owns the studio and is doing quite well for himself.

The cons here are that the skills you gain may not be as well-rounded, and will be limited to the experience of your mentors. This is why I recommend looking for multiple mentors. As I mentioned above, many employers will not look your skills without a degree of some sort, limiting your opportunities in the future. The time factor for this can be considered both a pro and a con as the length of time you spend will largely depend on your mentor and your personal motivation along your career path.

So, all in all, if you can swing the costs, getting a degree will go further and give you more career options. If you’ve made a decision on a career path in photography, and can find a mentor who fits your goals, this can lead you to success as well.



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