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27 Feb 2015

Do I need a degree in photography?


If you are reading this post you probably fall into one of four categories:

1) You have been practising photography a while as a hobby, would like to earn some money from your photography and have thought about furthering your skills by taking a degree.

2) You are a student at GCSE/A-Level wondering if you should choose to do a degree in photography.

3) You have applied for professional photography jobs but not been shortlisted despite having an amazing portfolio.

4) You are looking for a career change.

Do I need a degree in photography? If you intend to work as a freelance photographer the short answer to this question is probably “No, you do not need a degree” as long as your portfolio is good and you have a good business head you should be able to find yourself some work.

We all know someone who doesn’t have a degree in photography and produces some amazing work, and we all know someone who has a degree in photography and produces a load of rubbish. The problem occurs when you plan to work for someone else as part of a photographic team.

As a case study I would like to share with you my story so you can understand my choice for returning to university to gain a degree in photography and the benefits that it has given me.

In 2008 I worked aboard Royal Caribbean’s The Liberty of the Seas as a cruise ship photographer, for this I needed no previous experience just an ability to work with people. I was part of a team of 25 photographers on this one ship, photography involved studio portraits, events, weddings and outings so there were plenty of opportunity to learn the skills I needed. Previous to this I had been working as a landscaper but due to the recession I lost my job, which is why I decided to turn my hobby into a full time career.

Returning from the ships I worked as an IT Engineer whilst continuing with photography part time covering weddings, portraits and events. About 3.5 years ago now I started teaching photography privately, with over 1600 students sitting my Basic Course to date I fell in love with teaching. My IT work was taken over by a new firm who wanted to half the amount of staff, which got me to thinking I would like to become a full time photographer again.

Having sent CV’s out to various places including Ikea and River Island who have their own photographic teams I kept receiving rejection letters, not one was I shortlisted for. Curious to why this was I called them, the first question they asked was “Do you have a degree in photography on your CV?” having told them no they then told me “Without a degree on your CV we will not even look at your portfolio, you will be rejected straight away”. The reason for this is that like many things photography has become very popular and fashionable, especially now it is much more affordable. This has led to a massive increase in applicants, so the quickest way to get through the applicants is to discard the CV’s without a degree on them.

This was a major problem for me as only running the photography business part time meant that I did not have enough clients to leave my job and support myself straight away. Without a degree it did not give me the option to take my teaching skills to be able to teach photography in a school, college or university. Returning to university at 27 years of age was a big decision for me and one not to be taken lightly.

The benefits of taking a degree in photography and the advantages for an employer

  • You have 3 years of financial support whilst you train.
  • If you are a mature student the loans and grants are based on your income, and as you won’t be earning any money you will be entitled to full loans, grants, access to learning, low income and even if you are lucky a scholarship from the university itself.
  • The briefs given to you by your lecturers will be of mixed subjects, some which you may have thought would never be your cup of tea. Fashion, photojournalism, portraiture, editorial and advertising. By trying each of these subjects you can make an informed decision of whether you like/dislike a certain genre. You never know you may find you enjoy something you never thought of. I personally went in thinking I was a portrait guy and come out shooting cars instead.
  • Opportunity to network is phenomenal, you are put in front of industry professionals every day. This is a great way to build a network and meet the clients you want to work for. Make the most of all the extracurricular events and additional guest speakers, go and chat with them and you never know, you may find yourself on stage with a famous pop artist like I did.
  • Theory and Context – I know it sounds boring but this is vitally important, before my degree I knew nothing about theory and context, all those art movements are really important when it comes to networking as you will be able to add to a conversation you would otherwise be alienated from.
  • Professional Standards – Your workflow process and the way in which you present your product to your client are vitally important, there are certain standards that need to be met and make you look professional and not amateur.
  • For an employer if they see you have dedicated 3 years of your life to one subject you will be taken more seriously, it shows you have made an effort to become the best that you can and that if they employ you, you will be there for the long haul.
  • Research and Development – You are taught the skills that you need to be able to successfully research and develop an idea, whether this be for a fine art project or for a pitch that you will give to a client. Before my degree this was an area that I hated and wasn’t very good at, I still hate it but now understand how useful the skills are. Being able to present ideas as moodboards and a tumblog meant I was able to get the ideas out of my head and onto virtual paper, so that other creative’s could understand what I was trying to create.
  • You will be able to take part in degree exhibitions such as Free Range in London, all the agents you want to meet visit events like this looking for new talent and as a graduate you will be able to exhibit there.

There are many other benefits but I would make sure that you use the time to your full advantage, use this time to experiment with different things and make mistakes because when you are out there in the real world mistakes are less tolerated. Meet as many people as you can, visit as many exhibitions and events as possible, get your face known and seen. Do not leave it until the third year to start freelancing, freelance from day one. Use the resources to help set you up in business, some universities are better than others at getting you ready for business. Go to those website lectures, talks on accountancy, speakers on social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter.

For me it has been worth getting a degree and I think it shows in my current work.

Things to bear in mind when choosing a university

  • What is the course content? Do not assume all degrees cover the same content, some are based on Fine Art or Fashion, whilst others concentrate on Commercial and may not cover the darkroom. If like me you aren’t into Fine Art or Darkroom do not choose a course that includes it. Make sure you read the course content before applying! It is no good getting half way through the second year and realise that the course isn’t suited to what you want to do.
  • Check out the facilities! Some universities equipment and facilities are pretty poor, there are some fantastic universities out there. I am in my third year at Ravensbourne College, it is a young course so when I started there wasn’t much equipment but now there is a lot of equipment including around 8 Phase One Medium Format cameras.
  • Where is it? If you are young this doesn’t matter too much but if you have a family you should consider how far away from home you want to be. Look at accommodation, the university halls are usually the most expensive option, are very noisy but are closer to campus.
  • Who are the staff? What is there experience? What contacts do they have? Remember that university is your link into the industry, those teaching you need to be leaders in their field so they can introduce and organise contacts and events that will be beneficial to you.
  • University will not teach you photography! That is correct, you will not be taught how to photograph. You will be expected to already know how to use your camera, especially be competent in Manual Mode. If you are not you best book onto my basic course. The most you will be taught is “this is a light, this is how you turn it on, turn it up and turn it down”. You will not be given explanation of “if you move the light source closer it gets softer, move it further away it gets harder”. Why is this? Unlike school university is based around self taught learning, you will not be spoon fed. You are expected to research different artists to see how they light a subject, then research the specific methods on how to do that. If techniques to this level were taught to you it would result in a lot of photographers producing similar work, which would result in a non diverse market, thus making it harder for you to gain work by being different to the next person.

So you are still here reading this and haven’t been put off taking a degree yet? Well done, it is time you started to research the different courses available. Below is a list of useful links to get you started. Please feel free to add comments to this blog post with your experiences through this process or any questions that you may have.

If you are coming straight out of school or college your UCAS points will be important to get you into university, or if you are a mature student and do not have UCAS points do not worry. As this is an art based degree usually all you need is some good portfolio images and a passion for the subject, if you can get this across in your interview or an open day to the course leaders they will remember you and hopefully offer you a place.

Search and Apply for a Course through UCAS

UCAS Website

Statistics on Employment rate and comparison of courses can be done here

What Uni Website


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