What are the pros and cons of getting a photography education, and is it worth the cost?
There are all sorts of photography courses available, ranging from very short courses, such as an afternoon or a day, all the way up to several-year degrees, or even advanced educational options such as masters degrees and doctorates.
That said, there are plenty of working photographers who have no formal education in photography, and instead have taught themselves everything they know, or have learned skills and techniques while on the job.
Photography is a vocation that doesn’t legally require any official training, so it can be a difficult decision to know whether pursuing a photography course is the right option for you.
The short answer really is “it depends”. There are a lot of factors to consider - such as how long the course is, how you can fit it around your existing commitments, where you already are in your photography career (if at all) and the expense of doing the course.
With this piece, we’ll be walking you through some of the pros and cons of pursuing a course, vs the pros and cons of going down the self-taught route to help you think about the approach you might want to take.
Benefits to taking a photography course
Photographic equipment can come at a huge cost. If you’re just starting out and don’t know where to begin, and therefore want to try out a range of different products, having them available to borrow and use as part of your course can be a huge advantage. That’s especially true for niche products that you might otherwise only use occasionally, being able to borrow them only when you need them for a specific project can be a big saving.
It’s worth researching the equipment the course provider has available, or ask questions if it’s not explicitly listed in any course description. You will also have the benefit of somebody setting up and maintaining any equipment, too.
2 Direct expert tuition
Being able to learn directly from a person is a huge advantage of photography courses. Although there’s lots of things like YouTube video, having direct attention from a real person can’t be substituted. Even if the course is taught online, you should still benefit from being able to directly speak to a tutor and engage with them beyond watching videos and so on.
You will also find that lots of courses use experts in their field, bringing with them a wealth of experience that you probably otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Again, it pays to do some research to find out exactly who is teaching your course - as well as any guest lecture / teaching spots.
3 Set assignments with grading
One of the best ways to learn is via set assignments, especially those that might push you out of your comfort zone. When we are teaching ourselves, it can be easy to go down one particular path and stick with it.
With photography courses, you’ll generally get a variety of different assignments which are designed to teach you a number of skills, as well as expose you to many different situations.
Getting grading on your work also gives you something to grow and learn from, and when it comes from an industry expert, you can be sure that it’s a fair assessment of what you’re doing.
As well as grading, detailed feedback can be invaluable. Having someone more experienced around to bounce ideas off before you even try them can be a great way to grow and learn as a photography student. You can also
4 Networking opportunities
Attending a photography course, whether short or long, is a great way to meet new people. Those new people could be just the people you need in the future to help with your career. Whether it’s tutors and guest lecturers, or whether it’s those in your cohort, having personal connections with those in the industry will reap huge rewards later in your photographic journey.
You may also find that there are specific networking opportunities set up for students, as well as work experience and shadowing opportunities, which can be easier to find as a student.
Drawbacks to taking a photography course
There’s almost a cost involved with any photography course, whether it’s a short course or a much longer one.
Of course it’s not necessarily straightforward to decide whether or not it can be considered good value, or worth it in the long run, but it’s something to think about.
You might want to give more consideration to the cost if, for example, you’re already in possession of lots of camera equipment, or you’re already a working photographer. You might want to ask yourself what doing a course at this point will add to your skill set.
If you’re thinking of taking up a full-time course, also factor into your decision how much you’ll need to spend on the living costs, as you might not be able to work - or at least certainly won’t be able to work full time. Perhaps think about part-time or short-courses instead if that’s likely to be a big problem for you.
2 Less industry experience
Although you can get some great real-world experience on courses, there is another argument that if you just went “out there” and started working in the industry - finding placements and shadowing opportunities by yourself - then you will gain more experience in the field overall.
In the end, this could mean that someone who’s spent three years on a full-time photography course has less real-world experience than someone who’s managed to get into the industry and worked their way up. If you’ve already got an “in” with a photographic job, then it might be less appealing to take up a course.
3 Inflexibility for schedule (for long-term courses)
If you have lots of other life commitments, such as children, or a job you don’t want to leave just yet, fitting in a busy or intensive course can be quite difficult.
That’s not to say it can’t be done - especially with more flexible part-time or long-distance, or even short courses, available - but it’s something that needs to be considered, especially for those who are thinking of turning to photography for a second career.
4 Can be harder to find intermediate / advanced courses
There’s lots of photography courses aimed at beginners, but it’s arguably harder to find courses which are specifically aimed at working professionals who want to expand their skill set.
If you’re already working in the industry, think carefully about what any course might offer you. Perhaps you’re an established portrait photographer, but want to know more about landscapes - consider how much of this element is included in the course you’re interested in.
Benefits to self-taught photography
Arguably all you need to get going with self-taught photography is a camera, a lens and some time. You could even use your smartphone if you're just trying out the basics of things like composition and spotting subjects.
There’s also lots of free resources you can tap into, such as YouTube videos and online articles, which contain lots of information to help you pick up all kinds of skills.
A wealth of books have also been published - some are cheap, some are expensive, but they don’t usually equate to the price of a taught course.
If funds are limited and this is something you're just trying out, or want to expand on your existing skills, going down the self-taught route can be a great idea.
2 Fits around your schedule
One of the best things about being self-taught is that you can go at whatever pace suits you. Want to pause for a couple of weeks? No problem. Of course, it can mean you're not disciplined and lose focus, but for those who absolutely need that flexibility, it’s a dream.
3 Wide range of different learning opportunities
There’s almost nothing you can’t find information about on the internet. No matter how niche the skill you're looking to learn about, there’s almost certainly an article or a video about it somewhere out there. And if it's online you won't have to travel to a specific location to learn about it. Think about whether the specific thing you want to learn about might be better off self-taught.
Drawbacks to self-taught photography
1 Have to buy / rent your own equipment
Yes, the information or thing you want to learn might well be cheap, but the equipment almost certainly isn’t. That’s fine if you already own it, or have access to it, but if you don’t, you might find yourself shelling out huge amounts for something you're still learning to use.
If this is something you see doing long-term, you’ll probably consider equipment to be a good investment, but if it’s something you’re just trying out, it’s worth looking into rental options instead.
2 Lack of critical feedback
We can be our own worst enemy when it comes to honestly evaluating our work. We can either be too harsh, or too soft. Having someone available with a vested interest in providing an unbiased opinion can help you grow and learn much better than even asking a trusted friend for an opinion.
3 Harder to make connections
Picking up those vital connections can be a lot harder if you’re striking out on your own. That’s not to say you can’t with some hard work and dedication, but a course can set you up directly and conveniently, and can open certain industry doors.