Beware of Photography Schools

Reading this article in PDN today made me sick to my stomach. When it comes to photography schools people have divided feelings about them. And some have been under fire. Brooks Institute was sued a few years ago and now the Art Institute is being investigated.

Please read the PDN article . I have mixed feelings about this so let’s examine.

First, fraud is never acceptable. If it is true that the Art Institute has accepted grant money that was funneled somehow into their share holders pockets than they need to be held accountable for their actions.

The question on whether or not photography schools are worth their money is what I’d like to ponder over. Did you know that I went to photography school?  I have an actual degree in photography from the Bavarian Institute of Fotodesign in Munich, Germany. Would I say that the school gave me any type of idea about the business of photography? I would not. I don’t think we ever had a class on any type of  business issue at all. But what photography school did teach me were the fundamentals of knowing what a decent, good and what a great photo is. I also learned how to develop my own black and white film, how to make prints, a variety of different photographic styles and techniques. All but one instructor where not active in the photography industry and dedicated to teaching. That fact made us feel that some of our teachers were rather removed from reality.

In my and the class above me there were in fact quite a few photographers who went out in the world to make a mark. Enrique Badulescu probably being one of the bigger names. I know that a good number of fellow pupils have gone on to have successful photographic careers. We had 40 students in our class with a total of 80 people in the school. 10-15 ended up making a living in photography.

But, why only some and not others?

Surprise! Not everyone who has the education will make it. That is hardly different in the photography world as it is in the fashion, advertising, marketing, law, accounting and finance and any other professions. Graduating does not mean that you make money in your field of study. It is all about what you do and how hard and smart you hustle that gets you the job.

Education costs time and money. The less money you pay the more time you have to put in. The more money you put in the less time is needed to get to a certain level because you can afford the top consultants and coaches and attend conferences. You pay for the connections. In short, you pay either way. You pick the track that you (or your parents) can afford to pay for.

Let’s take a look at my career path. I had a photography degree, became a photo assistant, an intern at a magazine, a photo editor, a hair and make-up representative, a photographer representative, a producer, a stock syndication and now I am a coach, consultant, speaker and author. All of these are in the same field but I did not become a photographer ultimately. Would I have gone this road without photography school? Probably not. So I am a success story for photography schools after all. But I have been in this business for a very long time now. Sometimes it just takes time until you make the connections. I had to pay my dues like everyone else.

In summary, it’s up to you to determine what you get out. Do your research before you put your hard earned money into something. Review both, the failure and the success stories so you can make an informed decision. Figure out what the common denominators are that makes one successful. Then go and copy the actions (not their work) of the best people in that niche.

Always be reminded that success is the difference between knowing and putting your knowledge to use. Having a career takes time, energy and a significant personal investment.



  1. says

    I agree with your article. Being a very biased commentator on this, owning Light Photographic Workshops…some would call a type of Photo School.
    I didn’t go to a “Photography school” Or Photography Institute which had an on-going tuition, rather I went to a state University with a Photography department. Our first thing we tell parents that come through here? Don’t send your kids to Photography schools, send them to business and marketing schools, then go take workshops (well here of course). Simply put? Artists have a tough time running a business. Some are good with both sides of their brain, but where talented visual artists fail is in their marketing and business sense. Taxes, payroll, balancing a checkbook, a budget…these aren’t things that just come to you quickly. Some people can go to an art school and thrive but I have found that half if not the majority of artists need someone by their side doing the business end of things…or their art business fails.
    Artists should get basic schooling to help inspire or show them “what’s been done”, what works, what doesn’t and why so they can perhaps repeat what might sell later on. But my hard felt truth…go to business school, not art school- or you can always marry a math or business major.

  2. Dallas says

    Here’s the deal, as I see it… there r a ton of people who profess to be a pro based on the megapixels (dumb I know) & there r a ton of answers (by active pros) to the question “what makes a pro a pro”. That being the case having someone with an education on how to take a picture helps everyone.

    Second, how many programs that teach u how to paint like a master also teach business mgmt or how to sell what u create?

    Organizations like PPA help with business development & some schools do teach the business of photography. I attend the Art institute in Nashville & they have a class on the business of photography, taught by a well established pro shooter

  3. Mel says

    Interesting read. Attending photography school will definitely get you the credential & if your fortunate maybe even your first job. But your hustle,tenacity and pure instinct on developing a relevant, strong & ever evolving portfolio will keep you working not only in the industry…but gradually at higher levels. Sometimes hustle is enough…but rarely is school enough beyond your first gig.

  4. Markku Nyytäjä says

    The caption “Beware of Photo Schools” caught my eye. It was provocative enough to make me read the article. As a photography teacher I would like to add my comment.

    I have worked as a photographer since 1984, have an MA degree in the trade and a pedagogic competence as a visual arts teacher. Since 1994 I have led a one-year photography programme at Västra Nylands folkhögskola, a college of further education in Finland. The school offers several visual and performing arts programmes as well as non-art courses in tourism, languages, law and medicine. The tuition language is Swedish.

    I pretty much built the photography programme from scratch when I started, teaching daytime, making tuition material at night and building labs during my holidays. The first years were a rough ride, especially for my stress-sensitive stomach, but the effort has paid off. The programme has become something to be proud of. Today we have 29 students in two groups, two full time tutors, international collaboration and a good reputation.

    I feel that working hard full-heartedly will lead to its own reward. The students will feel they’re achieving something valuable and they will someday be living advertisements for the programme. I may never become a star photographer myself, but it is reassuring to know that I have helped many stars to get their careers started. Not every student will become a professional photographer, but I hope the programme will contribute to their lives in ways that may not be apparent until later.

    There are certainly some photo schools that have a dubious approach to ethics, but I hate
    generalization. As long as a photo school, like any educational institution, is straightforward and ethically sound, I see no problem. Of course a private school is always a business, but giving the students the best possible value for their money justifies the fee. In some cases the students are actually getting more than they pay for. In Finland the state funds even non-state-owned education to a substantial extent, and without that funding the fees would be much higher.

    Being a teacher here is no business either. I get by, but I’ll never become wealthy on this. The upside is that I love my job and I think our students see that I do. I sleep with a clear conscience.

  5. says

    Great topic and very timely. I have worked with several local colleges as well as a state college or two bringing sponsored events to students. Even now I find many of the local offerings to be outdated, based around film, yes film, and working substandard equipment. I have also witnessed the “shotgun” approach to training seminars, meaning, you take a 2-3 or even 8 hour class and then…what? You absorb as much as you can and then hope you remember how to apply what you have just learned?

    With that, we have are in the process of developing a linear, targeted series of training programs at the Orange County Photography Center in Brea Ca. These programs will be structured in several parts that will require students to complete assignments and return in several weeks for review and the next part of the series. So far our lineup features talented successful photographers such as Scott Robert Lim, William Innes, Video training and integration by Sony Pictures Video Manager Nick Lovell, Adobe Certified instructor Bob Killen and NIK software master trainer Janice Wendt. We are offering our spot as an alternative to a hotel conference center for the roadshow speakers and our first visitor is the amazing David Ziser. It’ll be housed in our 5000 sq.ft. co-op. Yes, I said co-op. With the cost of owning and operating your own studio being out of reach to emerging pro and some pro photographers we thought a member based studio would be a good idea. It seems to be catching on as we are sponsored by Calumet, Buckeye Proimaging and several others. The advantage to this is our up and coming members offer their time as interns for the more successful photographers.

    The point to all this is there are other options to a structured environment of a big dollar program. Unless you are going for a corporate position not many care about your credentials, it’s your portfolio, your personality and your price book.