Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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What do students learn in a photography degree that they can't learn by themselves? Most amateur photographers (and many, many pros) are self taught. A bit of reading, experimentation, practice, practice, practice, and reflection goes along way in photography education. Does a photography degree just fast track you through the initial stages of the learning curve, or do you get something extra?

I guess that access to expert criticism is major part of photo school, which certainly can't be self taught, but what else does the formally educated photographer learn that is difficult to pick up on your own?

I hope this doesn't sound like I am anyway dismissive of going to school, I'm just curious.

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8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

A fine art degree and a degree in a field such as Computer Science (CS) are not really the same. CS is a field where earning a BA is, to a large degree, a technical exercise. The technical aspects of photography are relatively limited, and you spend a lot more time learning to express yourself, which is a lot harder than it seems.

One thing that frustrates a lot of technically minded people about photography is the lack of correct answers. You can't benchmark ideas or run unit tests against expression. There is a complete and total failure of metrics. Thus, what a good school gives you is:

  • Completely removes you from your comfort zone. Suddenly, nobody who sees your photography has any interest in making you feel better about yourself.
  • An education in art in general, and in older and newer art photography.
  • The tools you need to define and express your vision.
  • How to talk about your work, accept criticism and criticize the work of others. The peer review aspect is absolutely critical. And, in the end, you learn how to defend your ideas and concepts.
  • Varying viewpoints from people who are absolutely not afraid to share them, your professors.
  • A community of photographers. This kicks your ass in a way not online community ever will because, after the first year, everybody is at least good and everybody knows how to talk about photography. Being able to discuss your projects with people who are able to understand them is absolutely amazing.
  • It forces you to take pictures that you would never take otherwise. I can't stress how important this is.

The internet suffers from what I describe as the photography echo chamber. People get waaaaaaay too caught up on gear and technical minutiae, on post-processing tutorials. Few of your forum peers will have looked at an album or a photography show that wasn't on the internet. For many of them, the best place to go for photography is flickr. Flickr's fine for what it is, but it's like learning about music by listening to local cover bands.

Besides, people like to be nice on the internet, because if they're not nice, they are often branded as trolls. For most of the photography I see online, there's no way to be nice without lying. Most pictures, even the ones people ask opinions on, are snapshots in the most derogatory sense of the word. You learn that fixing the technical problems with an image usually does nothing for the image, because most problems aren't technical, they're ones of vision (or rather, a lack of it.)

I spent a good couple of years "learning about photography" online. Then I went to art school and 3 months in, I realized that I'd really spent 4 years learning about cameras and lenses. The two years I spent there taught me so much, I recommend some sort of formal training to everybody and anybody serious about expressing themselves through photography.

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Great answer. Makes a lot of sense. I agree completely about our fixation on gear. Learning to express effectively seems to be the thing thats difficult to teach your yourself. –  Ken Jan 18 '11 at 11:56
    
daft question: what is CS? –  AJ Finch Jan 18 '11 at 15:49
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Computer Science, I assume. –  jfd Jan 18 '11 at 16:07
    
@jfd-- that's what I thought too. –  mmr Jan 18 '11 at 16:12
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This same question could be asked of any college degree, and the same things usually apply.

  1. A bit more credibility.
  2. Experience with a variety of fields.
  3. Honest Feedback.
  4. More knowledge of the professional language.
  5. A bag of tools to use when you might least expect it.
  6. The ability to reason in the field.

Still, even if you should choose not to get a BA, I would recommend that you periodically take classes. They will give you many of the same things you'll get from a degree, but will cost less and be less of a time commitment.

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Is that true, that it could be asked of any college degree? I know that in biology, for instance, you need access to a lab and some (not cheap) chemicals in order to do modern molecular biology, in biomedical physics you need access to the equipment-- school in those areas offer access to established setups. Is that not true in photography, or with the advent of digital, access to labs isn't that important anymore? –  mmr Jan 18 '11 at 5:57
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I think you've missunderstood the entry above. Given internet and a lot of free time (and a lab), you could probably learn biology to some degree all by yourself, but someone with a degree in biology will still know a lot more of all the things covered in the list than someone self-taught. –  monotux Jan 18 '11 at 11:37
    
Yes, but the 'given a lab' is only a given at a university or similarly equipped environment (ie, you get hired as a tech with no experience by a very understanding boss who will let you learn on the job, not very likely given the cheapness of undergrad labor). These things cost in the tens of thousands, at least, to equip and to maintain, plus the cost of space and so forth. It's not so easy to just assume you'll have access, because chances are you won't. I'm asking if that's the same in photography, but I assume it isn't. –  mmr Jan 18 '11 at 16:12
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The fastest and best way to learn photography is through an apprenticeship. One on one with a master.

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I have to disagree. One master will typically have many similar assignments, which means you can only learn so much from him. Also, you will only be exposed to opinions of a single person. Also, for a beginner, it will be hard to distinguish a true master from a fanatic shooter. "Best" is a word too broad. –  Imre Apr 20 '11 at 16:49
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If you boil it all down, the difference is ultimately a piece of paper. College degree or not, you still have to prove yourself in the real world through experience and skill. While a degree may give you more credence in the short term, in the long term there is little to no difference between someone who has a degree, and someone who doesn't.

What really matters in the end, particularly for artists and photographers, is their body of work. Your work will demonstrate your skill, which is what people really care about.

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BTW, I'm a software engineer who only had a couple years of college under his belt, no degree, and I rake in six figures a year. ;) Raw talent and hard work will get you farther than anything, but hard work will get you where you want to go, degree or not. –  jrista Jan 17 '11 at 22:19
    
Point well made - I wasn't going to agree, but your answer brought me round. +1 –  AJ Finch Jan 18 '11 at 15:52
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As someone who is a working professional photographer with a BA in Photography, here's my take on what you get from art school:

  • Learning through the repetition of taking thousands and thousands of photographs
  • Thorough grounding in art history
  • Access to expert critique
  • Connections
  • A student loan payment

There isn't really anything that is learned through art school that can't be learned elsewhere, what art school does give you, however, is a concentrated 2-3 year 'platform' to eat, sleep, and breathe the honing of photographic skills. Depending on how seriously someone takes their schooling this can mean a ton, or nothing at all.

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Theory.

Sometimes it can give you another way to look at things.

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How is the theory not learnable from, say, a text book? It's fine if you hold that it is, just please explain the difference, if you do. –  lindes Jan 18 '11 at 19:21
    
lindes: the self-taught photographer usually starts by taking pictures, and not by reading a book or learning theory. So, theory can be self-taught, yes, but it's rarely so. –  friol Jan 18 '11 at 19:56
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The purpose of any education is to receive GUIDED instruction. You can teach yourself, but most curricula are setup to provide you guidance to maximize your learning and experience.

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Depending on the school, you might also get a well-rounded education, including business, science, history, writing, etc. etc.

My opinion is that any college degree that focuses wholly or mostly on one subject (whether art or computer science or anything else) is of little value - the reason to go to college is to learn how to think. On the other hand, a well-rounded education is extremely valuable because it better prepares you to deal with the huge variety of situations and opportunities that you will encounter in the real world. If you get some focused training in photography, that's a bonus.

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