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I get asked this question a lot. I get it from teenagers, their moms, 30 year olds looking for a career change, and so on. The disappointed look on their faces when I tell them I have no answer deserves an explanation. The truth is very simple, not sugar coated and right between the eyes: different strokes for different folks.
The two large options look like this : you either go to an Art school that teaches photography, or you pick up a camera, say a few prayers and start doing everything by yourself. A vital part in the answer to this dilemma, lies in what kind of person you are, how are you most likely to absorb knowledge, how disciplined you are, and so on.
Many years ago, after finishing high school, I went to an Art Institute that teaches photography. I did it for two reasons. One, my family has a background in art and art education. Two, for some reason I believed that the piece of paper I would get after graduating would actually help me in life. I quit after the first semester. Why? First of all I didn’t walk through their doors with absolutely zero knowledge or practice. I had a solid year and a half of taking pictures with my state of the art, 2 mpx point and shoot camera, with full manual control and CF card. Those were the days. Second, after seeing what was actually being taught and not finding any connection to my interests, I decided the best thing for me was to choose a different path. Now, mind you, this was an Art Institute, not a dedicated photography school (I don’t think there actually are such things on the planet). That meant that as a student, I would have had to go through all the boring stuff like history of art, drawing ( I don’t even know how to hold a pencil properly), theory of esthetics and so on. I just wanted to take photos and be good at it.
Looking back though, I can see how the hormones of my early manhood clouded my clear judgment and prevented me from learning things that I later acknowledged could have been useful my work. A lot of the important lessons in drawing and painting apply to photography too. All that being said, I have no regrets for not finishing that school and pursuing a self taught method. I always knew I could work and study better at my own pace.
This the real question everyone has to ask themselves: what kind of studying is right for you? There are major advantages to having something taught to you and explained in an academic language. The tasks and projects you are given to complete are also challenging and they benefit your progress. If you have the chance to meet fantastic people among teachers and fellow students.
Do I believe an art school can make a great photographer? Yes, definitely.
Do you have to go to art school to become a great photographer? Definitely not. There are countless , amazing artists who have never attended an art class in their lives.
Does any of these methods prepare you for the real world? Heck no!
I know amazing photographers who’s work I truly admire that have gotten to that level by methodically studying and practicing. I also know quite a few who do great work and have learned to do so by means of shooting all day, every day and watching youtube tutorials .Few of them however know how to survive in this market and economy. Or how to get more clients. The actual difference between pros and non pros are marketing skills. End of story. No art school teaches you that, not in photography classes anyway (painting and other art forms could be a different story).And it’s the same with the self taught. Too many spend most of their time studying technique and getting better at the craft. While I believe it’s a fantastic thing, I strongly recommend to both categories of learners to pursue further knowledge in the “art” of business.
Image credit: stylephotographs / 123RF Stock Photo