9 Professionals Confess: What They Didn't Teach Me in Photo School


You can go to school, learn concepts and theories, and do very well as a student. But there are some things that you won't learn in school about being a photographer and a creative. Because of this, you'll most often be learning as you go, and trying to adapt to the ever changing environment.

We talked to nine creative professionals about what they learned.

Photo is Ryan - Set up by Shineylewis. Featured in the B&H Photo Flickr Group.

Lindsey Adler

First and foremost, as a professional photographer you are a small business owner. 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!

Linsdey is an extremely famous speaker on photography and blogging. Her work can we be seen on her website.

Peter Hurley

Picking up a camera and attempting to become a photographer on a whim seemed a little crazy at the time, but luckily, it all worked out for me in the end. After modeling for a number of years, I became curious about photography and thought that maybe I could transition into it, thereby relieving myself from being the model/actor/bartender dude. Little did I know that I'd have some speed bumps along the way. My learning curve needed to be steep, because the only photography class I'd ever taken was a high-school class where the teacher wrote on my report card that I lacked enthusiasm. That was twelve years before my picking up a camera in 2000, not having a clue about anything technical. The most frustrating thing was having to figure out what a flash sync was. I'd be shooting my friends who were models, and I'd have a black line going through all my negatives. I couldn't figure this out for the life of me. I was shooting a model one day in Central Park, and I shot about 5 Polaroids in a row, which all came out black. Fortunately, he brought his brother along for the day, and he must have had a clue about it, because he told me to slow down my shutter—and shebang! I leaped over that hurdle the hard way. Another time I was actually doing a commercial job, and I had a photo assistant helping me out for the day. He asked me, "Where do you want the key light?" I said, "I have no idea, but put that light over there!" To this day, I am still not 100% sure of all the technical lingo and what not, but it seems that my 'fly by the seat of my pants' technique is working, and I have no plans of changing that. Having said that, if I’d be asked by youngsters just starting out, interested in making their way in photography, I’d advise them to seek out the best photography program they could find. But for me, I'll be sticking to the trial-and-error approach that's worked just fine up until now.

Peter frequently presents his class titled "The Basic Headshot" at the B&H Event Space.  His workshop "The Headshot Intensive" is offered in various cities around the US, and Peter is planning on taking it internationally in 2013.  Peter also recently launched HURLEYPRO, a new line of photography products that are currently in development.  His first product, ProBoard, began selling in June, and you can check it out on the website.

Mark Fisher

To be a successful photographer in today's increasingly competitive landscape, you need to work harder, and you must want it more than you ever thought possible. A successful career is 10% shooting, and 90% hustle.

Mark is a recipient of the PDN 30 award, and is an extremely accomplished photographer.

David Cardinal

Learning how to take great photographs is one thing—learning to be a successful professional photographer is another. It’s easy to focus on image quality, and not learn how to write or relate to clients. Building great customer relationships is essential to being a pro—Joe McNally is as good at this as anyone I’ve ever seen. And few photographers can survive without writing skills—for article placements, marketing materials, and professional correspondence with publishers and vendors. So if you’re planning a career in photography, make sure to round out your education with people and writing skills.

David Cardinal is an extremely successful travel photographer, and you can join him on his workshops.

John Paul Caponigro

“My academic training didn’t contain an ounce of business guidance. Everything I learned about business, I learned from my colleagues, either verbally or by example—or I learned it the hard way. Business skills are essential survival skills. They are among the keys to opportunity and success. There is no one mold that fits every individual. You can learn a lot of different things from many different individuals. Start by assisting and/or joining a professional trade organization, like ASMP. Ultimately, you can be as creative with how you structure and run your business as you are with your art.”

John has an upcoming workshop with Seth Resnick that you should check out. You'll travel to Antarctica.

Moose Peterson

Before I mention what the school of hard knocks has taught me after leaving school, I need to explain that I was rather hard on my schools. My elementary school was closed right after I left, to become a school for mentally challenged youth. The junior high school that I went to was closed right after I left, and was leveled. The high school I graduated from became a sheriff academy right after I left, and the college I attended was de-credited right after I left. So it could be said that I'm hard on my schools.

I was very fortunate to go to Brooks Institute back in its heyday, but having started there when I had literally just turned 18, I'm not sure all the lessons taught stuck. Forty years after leaving, I have come to the realization that school was never meant to teach me everything, though that's the illusion they present in class. That's the first thing school failed to teach me, that I would never know everything! As a creative, that is essential, because with the knowledge that you don't know everything, you go out looking for more knowledge.

I was fortunate to discover really quickly after leaving school the most important thing they failed to instill in me. What the world needs is not another technically perfect photograph. What the world needs are more photographs with passion! I remember spending a lot of time with f/stops, shutter speeds, and the physics of light. And while all that is important trivia to have tucked away for a rainy day when you're playing a game of Photographic Trivia, putting your heart into your visual storytelling was neglected. But then again, we were all kids, and such a lesson is not one that you can teach in class. It does require the best photographic teacher to impart it—and that's the school of hard knocks.

You can learn more from Moose by reading his blog.

Eliot Dudik

In hindsight, photography school might seem like a safe haven, or even a garden of photographic paradise, where darkrooms are always fully stocked and ready to operate, where tools and supplies are at the ready, where printers are always functioning and full of ink. A recent graduate soon learns of the prickly jungle one must climb through to successfully continue work as an artist. Not only is photography an expensive art medium, but it can require extensive upkeep, especially with so much digital technology. I just spent the past weekend tearing apart my 44” printer to its bare bones, to replace a belt. Of course, the hard part was putting it all back together again and calibrating it back to working condition. I didn’t learn how to do that in photography school. We don’t think about these things when they are provided for us, but if we are going to run our own business, whether commercial or fine art, there is going to be at a great deal of organization and preservation required.

Eliot recently made the PDN 30 with his project, The Road Ends in Water.

Brenda Tharp

Digital workflow. Okay, I've dated myself!! But when digital sprang to life, the one thing that seemed—and still seems—to overwhelm many photographers, is how to organize your images, and how to deal efficiently with the processing that's required of each image file (if you are photographing in RAW, anyway). Yet a workflow is important, whether you're a pro or an amateur, not only to protect your image files (backups), but also if you ever want to find them again! A workflow in processing images is also important if you want to spend less time in front of the computer, more time in the field making images. Digital was supposed to make our lives 'easier' but in many ways it confused a lot of people because there wasn't any up-front training to prepare us for how to deal with the amount of images we'd be creating. Now, there are courses in workflow out there, thank goodness! And the really GREAT thing about digital is how easy it is to share our photographs (once we've processed them). Aside from our own website, the social networking sites and the photography community sites (such as 500px.com) are terrific ways to get our work seen by the world.

In Brenda's newest book, Extraordinary Everyday Photography (Amphoto, August 2012), she and her partner Jed Manwaring discuss not only where/how to find great pictures all around you, but how to make those pictures more dynamic using the concepts of composition, design and visual depth.

Also be sure to check out her international tours and North American workshops.

Dan Bailey

Even the full immersion program of launching my business sixteen years ago didn't teach me this. It's taken a few years to learn it. I'm still learning it.

No one ever taught me about the difficulties of balancing all the areas of ones life when you're self-employed. This is especially true with a passionate and competitive pursuit like photography, where you literally "are" your business. 

Compound that today with all the non-shooting tasks—like editing and marketing—and the constant outlets of social media possibilities, and it's easy for a guy like me to want to "work" all day long and never stop. The consequence is that I often find that I'm letting slide some of my other hobbies and interests which actually help to round out my creativity, and aid in growing new ideas.

As a pro photographer, it's important to step away, and carve out time to be 'you'—and not just 'photographer you.'

Dan is a reviewer, blogger, and photographer with extremely useful blog.

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Great article.

More and more people would judge you on the type of gear you cary before even seeing one of your photographs.

On the other side, 'photographers' think that they can take better photos with top of the line gears and rely too much on them. Their creativity shrinks with the 'missing' features on their cameras.