Should You Go to Photography School?

chase jarvis photo school
Photo: Chase Jarvis

Nearly every photographer has arrived at a crucial moment in his or her career when the following question inevitably comes up: should I go to school for photography? There’s a lot to be said for structured classroom learning, but is it actually worthwhile for such a creative pursuit? Let’s consider the pros and cons.

Pro: Learn How to Learn 

One of the greatest things that traditional classroom learning teaches you is how to learn. Discovering what information will be useful, how to absorb that information, and then how to synthesize it into a fresh idea is a big part of what a college education can provide that may be harder to self-teach.

Along the same lines, a college education often has the benefit of exposing you to different art forms, different kinds of creativity, or different perspectives that allow for that synthesis to occur. CreativeLive’s own founder and CEO, Chase Jarvis, hails the benefits of his interdisciplinary education:  “In philosophy, I learned how to communicate with a really structured, clear way of speaking and now I can totally do some jiu jitsu shit on those ad buyers.”

Pro: Networking

Another benefit of getting an education within the walls of a learning institution is the opportunity for networking. When you find yourself in the company of several strangers, most with similar goals, interests, aspirations, and inspirations to yours, it’s open season for some helpful brain-picking, friend-making, and mentorship-taking.

For example, in this Reddit thread on the subject of photo school, several commenters suggested that school afforded a crucial chance to network. One of them says, “I was assisting my teacher in pro magazine photo shoots two months in the school.” Another claims, “One of my teachers was a photo editor for Macleans magazine, another was photo editor for The Toronto Star, many of them sit on advisory boards or boards of directors and if you put in the work and effort, they could remember your name when it comes time to enter the work force.”

Con: Cost 

One issue with going to college is something called “opportunity cost.” We’ve already talked at length about the cost of going to school versus what you could make by working for those years. Besides having to fork over an arm and a leg and assuming a crushing amount of student debt, there is not a guarantee that a degree would even get you hired, particularly in the slowly recovering economy we now find ourselves.

There’s also a lot that creative professionals don’t get in classrooms. For example, the Gallup Purdue Index Report found that, no matter what students spent on their education, most of them got more out of extracurricular activities than their classroom activities.


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Con: Lack of Real World Skills 

In fact, the number one thing that many photographers wished they learned in photo school — but didn’t — was how to manage the business side of things. These professional photographers, including CreativeLive instructor Lindsay Adler, confirm that knowing the business of being a professional photographer was one of the most important real-world skills they needed in order to be successful. “As a professional photographer, you are a small business owner,” Adler says. “Yes, you are an artist. But if you are not successful at business, you will not be able to call yourself a professional for very long!”

Understanding business administration, contracts, customers, clients, and the photo market are key to having a career and making an income in photography.

Conclusion: Listen to Your Instincts 

Finally, to return to our favorite CEO, Chase is well known as a proponent of self-education — and he walks the walk. Chase was on track to get a degree in several areas not even close to photography, such as philosophy and medicine. Instead of pursuing any of those disciplines, he picked up a camera and started traveling and shooting photos. Pretty soon thereafter he was selling them to major brands.

“Teach yourself, take workshops, get mentors, read books, build your support network, work for other people,” Chase advises. “And most importantly, take a helluva lot of photographs.”

Avoiding the traditional classroom and instead of listening to the right instincts, finding good sources of inspiration, cultivating a hustler’s work ethic, and taking “a helluva lot of photographs” can get you further than you might think.

When a follower on Twitter recently asked Chase if he’d ever been a photo assistant, Chase responded, “Not a day in my life.”


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Keith Caswell FOLLOW >

Keith Caswell is a writer, musician, and amateur photographer who lives in Seattle, Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @kthcswll.