Is Photo School Worth It?

In recent years, the world of for-profit education has been criticized in the media for making promises of high-paying jobs upon graduation. At the forefront of these criticisms have been cooking schools, thanks in part to the proliferation of reality-based cooking shows on TV, which show young, hipster chefs spinning their magic and transforming disparate ingredients into culinary masterpieces within 30 minutes. It’s easy to buy into the fantasy. Look at how cool and artistic these chefs are. All you need are some classes to acquire the special knowledge, which you can combine with your natural creative talent and off you go—a new culinary genius is born, and a high-paying career is launched. For-profit cooking schools have enrolled multitudes of young aspiring chefs with the allure of a great job upon graduation. Many of these graduates, however, have found that instead of becoming a top chef in a successful restaurant, they’re faced with a low-level, insecure job at low wages. A great many graduates felt that their schools had made promises that weren’t kept. Some sued, and over the past few years, there have been several settlements.

Art Center College of Design

We mention the cooking schools because similar issues have become increasingly prevalent among photography schools. Many of these schools are also run for profit, which has caused some students to question their motivation. Do these schools want to educate, or do they just want to make a quick buck? Have photo schools overpromised what a graduate should expect to make upon graduation?

What seems to have been lost in the conversation is the whole notion of an education. Going to a photography school, like going to any other school whether it’s for profit or not, is about acquiring the skills and knowledge to compete in the marketplace. It’s not about collecting a receipt. Certainly many schools have emphasized the successes of their graduates, but to take these successes as a guarantee that all students will achieve similar successes upon graduation is far-fetched.

Brooks Institute of Photography

There’s an old joke that says the prerequisite to being a professional photographer is owning a camera. While students in artistic fields, such as painting and sculpture, might spend years studying and apprenticing to learn how their medium behaves and how to create art from it, an aspiring photographer can buy a camera and a lens and start creating photographs. Some individuals with natural talent can take interesting and meaningful images right away. So what’s the purpose of a photography school? Put simply, photo school is about much more than just teaching someone how to use a camera.

Today, more than ever, the profession of photography is up against significant challenges. Margins have eroded. High-paying jobs are increasingly difficult to come by and the competition is fierce. Amidst these challenges, teaching the differences between an ƒ-stop and a bus stop is only a part of the benefit of going to a photography school. In an article in the November 2010 issue of this magazine, Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler summed up how modern educators are tailoring their programs to deal with these challenges and equipping their graduates to be ready to make their way in the world:

Academy Of Art University

A critical challenge for modern photographic educators is presenting students with the best introduction to the immediate, modern workforce. Although this concept walks hand in hand with looking forward, there is a more pressing need to do the best by students in the here and now. The industry continues to change very quickly, and educators can look forward to what the trends seem to be and where things seem to be going, but they have a responsibility to offer students the best possible education in the moment. The problem is, at this point in time, the purpose and expectations of established photographers are shifting, as well.

As Bill Gratton, the MAC Group National Manager of Educational Markets, travels around the country and meets with educators, he also works with industry professionals, giving him a front-row seat to the changing demands on the photographer. "It used to be really clear what was expected of us and what we were producing as final products," he explains, "and now there’s so many different possibilities with what we can do with it and so many different places where our images can end up."

Hallmark Institute of Photography

With the introduction of video capabilities into DSLRs, photographers are no longer expected to just create still images. "Figuring out what the role of the photographer is, and what the final product is that they are expected to produce, is a challenge in today’s world," he admits.

Yet educators are up to the challenge, expanding programs, changing curriculum and trying to answer these elusive questions for themselves as well as for the students.

In the case of Brooks Institute, David Litschel, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, explains, "Today, not only is digital still capture and video capture the heart of the curriculum, but the expansion of knowledge to include digital workflow, asset management, audio, required websites, the knowledge of all aspects of multimedia and a high level of business savvy is expected of graduates."

Each of these programs continues to evolve because they earnestly want to provide the best education for tomorrow’s photographers. At all levels of education—universities, community colleges, trade schools and art schools—the game is changing more rapidly and with greater impact than merely the shift from film to digital. Sometimes the change is best expressed as an inclusion of more techniques, approaches and knowledge.

Modern photographic educators have to understand not only the needs of the photo industry, but also the needs of the photo student—and how to make him or her a photo professional. The two are intertwined, yet also separate, and it’s the job of the photo educator to see where we’re going, remember where we’ve been, understand where we are and communicate that knowledge in today’s classrooms. —DPP, November 2010

Educators at the best photography schools do more than simply teach about depth of field. In addition to classes that explain the inverse square law of light and the Gurney-Mott theory of latent image formation, there are classes about business management, accounting and self-promotion. The hours spent refining the craft of photography are coupled with hours spent on the business, critical studies and visions of the future of photography.

School of Visual Arts

In all of the discussion and press about what a student gets for his or her
tuition, one particularly critical aspect has been almost completely overlooked. That’s the dynamic of students working together in an academic setting. School is more than a place to attend classes. It’s a place where students have frank and open exchanges of ideas. It’s a crucible where no idea is too outlandish and one has the freedom to give just about anything a try. This aspect of the photo school experience is completely up to the student. The school provides the forum; it’s up to the individual to make the most of it.

In an effort to be fully transparent, more and more photo schools are listing estimates of the full costs of their programs, not just the tuition. The costs are significant, and students who fund their educations through loans will emerge with a lot of debt. Against these high costs, one obviously needs to weigh the benefits. Should a student expect to be able to pay off their loans from their first job? Upon graduation, will the publisher of National Geographic be calling to offer a six-month, all-expenses-paid assignment to Asia? Will CNN be offering a huge salary, benefits and stock options along with the job of lead photographer and multimedia creator for the Summer Olympics? The chances of these scenarios happening are slim. However, graduates can expect to have a leg up as they work to break into the business, and students who have taken full advantage of the programs at their schools will have the skills to impress whoever hires them.

The bumper-sticker wisdom that says, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance" actually hits pretty close to the mark. It’s conceivable for reasonably talented and smart people to learn how to use a camera, lens and lights all on their own, but going through a full-fledged photography program at an accredited school is about much more than just that craft. There are no guarantees of fame, fortune and an endless line of high-paying jobs. What you get is an education, and with that, the sky is the limit.

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