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6 Ways a Formal Education Can Benefit Your Photography

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Only in the arts is the term “self-taught” worn like a badge of honor. You can’t swing a dead cat around the Internet without hitting a photographer who broadcasts “self-taught” on the biography page of his or her website. I found a website titled: “Top 25 Self-Taught Photographers.” Really?

Professions outside the arts do not promote “self-taught.” Self-taught doctor? No thanks; I’ll go somewhere else. Self-taught airline pilot? I’ll take the next flight. Self-taught lawyer? I’d rather skip the jail time.

Photo lessons from Dad, magazines, and books aside, it is cool to wear the self-taught badge, especially if people tell you that you are a good photographer. So, when the opportunity to go to art school arrived on my doorstep, I hesitated about the fact that I would have to strip myself of this badge.

I was a “self-taught photographer” right up until the moment I became a “formally trained photographic artist” and started working toward my Masters of Fine Arts degree.

With “self-taught” so celebrated, what are the benefits of a formal art education?

1. Time

Many artists bemoan that they do not make enough time for their art. Life often gets in the way. Work, friends, family, taxes, television, etc.; the list goes on.

Entering an art school forces you to make time for your art. And, unlike your other schooling experiences, if you are “forced” to do something you love, you will likely do it energetically and enthusiastically.

Art school takes time. But, by investing in your art, this is time you are investing in yourself.

2. Practice

You will practice your art in art school. Like almost everything, practice makes almost perfect. That you have to continuously produce new art leads you to unconsciously improve your craft. You are not just taking photographs every week; you are driven to compile a solid body of work for every class, every semester.

If you feel you are at the top of your game photographically, you might consider going to art school. You will learn to apply a critical eye to your work, all while receiving feedback from others. It is one thing to get praise from friends and family, but subjecting your work to virtual strangers who are also immersed in the field will certainly give you new perspective.

You might be surprised to find that there is always room for improvement.

3. Immersion

If you enjoy photography, imagine the pleasure of immersing yourself in the art for weeks, months, or years. For me, the best part of a photo workshop is the immersion in the world of photography. It is a natural high for me. Art school is like attending a continuous photography workshop.

During the school year, I was out making photographs three to five times per week. On the nights that I was not creating photographs, I was reading about photography, editing photos, reviewing classmates’ images, or engaged in class discussions about the art.

If you are passionate about taking photographs, you will love the fact that art school not only drives you to create art, but you also will study and learn about the history of the genre, other arts, and the way people view and think about art.

4. Meaning

I used to just be a guy who took good pictures. People liked my photos. Many asked for emailed copies, prints, or my website address. I felt good about my photography.

Week One in grad school: “Nice photograph. What does it mean?”

Art school will force you to articulate the meaning behind your imagery. If you don’t think that your images have meaning, art school will drive a lot of personal introspection, so you can then discover why you take some photographs, but not others. Moving forward, you can be conscious of why you create the art you create. Self-discovery.

5. Passion

There is a true gift in being able to study something you are intensely passionate about. The practicality of an art school degree can be debated. Making a living as an artist is difficult — regardless of the genre.

Remember dreading schoolwork and grumbling about homework? If you are passionate about art, or whatever you chose to study in life, you will — I kid you not — love going to school and love getting assignments. Summer school will no longer be a burden.

For me, graduation was bittersweet. If there were more credits to be had, I would still be in art school. Ph.D. program for photography, anyone?

6. Friendships

Art school also surrounds you with others who are passionate about the same things in which you are invested. You are exposed to their work and they get exposed to yours. You learn about each classmate and how they feel and think. Art education is an intimate learning experience that can create lifelong friendships, professional contacts, and photographic growth and challenges. Your friends will push you to improve your art and you will push them to improve theirs.

So long, self-taught badge. It was nice to wear you for a while, but fashions change, and I have no regrets about removing you.

Discussion 28

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Really? So if your Schooled your Better?Thats whats wrong with the world today

Hi Greg,

I hope I understood your comment.

I mentioned that I was a better photographer for having gone to art school due to the amount of time and practice I spent photographing. I did not intent to make that a blanket statement about all formally trained artists.

As far as your assertion that education is the source of the world's ills, I am not sure I agree.

Thanks for reading!

Credibility comes from your expireance and quality of work with tens to hundreds of clients.  A classroom will not teach you 90% of what practice will and self teaching yourself every day.  Youtube is a great tool as well.  A classroom only taught me things such as the rule of thirds, it did not however teach me to have a great eye for photography - that came with experience and practice and self teaching myself everyday.

Hi Nicholas,

Thanks for writing in.

I agree with some of your points, but I wouldn't rush to base credibility on client base. Quality of work, yes, but some photographers do not actively sell their work, nor do they work for clients.

Very few classrooms teach you everything you need to know about a particular subject. But I did find that the classroom experience of art school encouraged me to get out and shoot all the time—it is sometimes easy to come up with excuses to not take photos, but when you have assignments and projects due, you get out there and do them!

You are 100% correct on teaching the eye. I think there will always be a nature/nurture argument in the arts (and other arenas), but in order to refine the gift, you need the gift!

Thanks for taking the time to comment and thanks for reading!

Hello Todd, 

First of all, great article and I really enjoy viewing your work.  I live in the NorthEast, the industrial capital of the US, and I shoot a great deal of Industrial photography here around where I live.  It is a particular style that has captivated my interest.  Your photography resonates with me at a visceral level.  Outstanding.  

Now...on to the subject at hand.  I will agree with you about the "self-taught" meme...it is not one I proudly display.  I am a pro-level hobbyist...if you want to call it that.  I have images licensed by a number of clients in my local area, and across the United States.  I've done work for a number of clients, notably Rutgers University, The City of New Brunswick, Conde Nast Traveler, Ohlsson Design Corp., etc. etc.  What this means is that I have "passed muster", so to speak with clients' "critical eyes", and I've provided them a level of work commensurate with their professional expectations: to put it bluntly, they "like" my work enough to pay me for it.  I continue to work for clients and they are happy with the results...but this is all commercial work.  Fine Art is another matter altogether.  I did have a few gallery presentations (5 to date), and all went well, but I sold nothing.  After all the work of prepping the gallery exhibits, advertising the dates, etc. I decided commercial work was more lucrative and certainly more worthy of my time.  For the record, I'm a 30+ year Software Engineer and a 40+ year professional musician.  Photography is my "other" love.  

When I began I considered Photography (or Art) school.  I spoke with several professional photographers whose work I admired and asked if it would be something I should pursue.  All of them, without exception, advised that it would be fine, but not necesssary in today's photography market.  They all unanimously agreed that much of the material available today via internet courseware, independent workshops, etc. would be more beneficial and would provide almost "immediate" benefits...and after attending some, and spending a fair amount on what I like to call "internet education", I have to agree.  Still...I feel that something is missing.  I never really studied art in school (I was a Biology major...go figure), and I'd like to learn more from the great artists (including photographers) before me.  The big issue is time...how to make a living while simultaneously pursuing an education.  

You mention building a "body of work"...I agree.  I have hired a publicist and she has drilled that into my head over and over...and it has finally sunk in.  Art school certainly drills this into the students and forces their hand, so to speak.  

Finally, there is the issue of marketing one's work.  This, to me, is an absolute must.  Great art unseen is a terrible waste...people have to be exposed to the artist's work in order for the work to receive vindication.  Today's successful photographer must market his wares, or he/she is doomed to failure.  I learned this first hand with my music...and I'm learning this now with my photography. 

Thanks for your view on the matter, and a great read.  I will peruse your work (I'll Google you to find your website...it isn't mentioned in the article) and I look forward to meeting another - dare I say? - Industrial photographer whose work I admire.  

All the best...

Frank Villafañe
NJ based Architectural/Industrial Photographer
UrbanViewPhoto.com & UrbanIndustrialImaging.com
500px.com/urbanindustrialimaging
instagram.com/urbanindustrialimaging

Hey Frank,

First of all, I love your work! Really great images. We have a similar eye.

Your advisors are correct, there is a ton of educational information available for photographers today in books and on the web (including this blog!). Finding the information isn't the challenge. The benefit of school, if you can find the time for it, is that the learning becomes structured, you are forced to produce, and you get the benefits of peer critique.

But, yep...time and money are often the hurdles that cannot easily be crossed. Going to school online is a great way to get a degree. There are pros and cons, but I was able to get my MFA while a full-time active duty military aviator.

Feel free to follow up here, or find me out on the web! My short bio is hyperlinked to my name at the top of the article.

Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

I'm at the age where my state offers free tuition for their state supported universities. I got my start in photography reading books by John Hedgecoe, books by HPBooks and Kodak, and others. I looked at the Art Deparment and besides digital, they offer B&W labs. I would also be interested in the photojournalism courses offered bye the Journalism college

See you in class, Ralph! Time to go back to school. I promise you wont regret it!

As always, thanks for being one of our regulars!

I'd suggest another benefit: "credibility."

I realize that this is probably the opposite of what a proud self-taught photograoher would want, but it really is a benefit, because despite all the recent controversy over whether or not a college degree has become irrelevant in the modern world, there are still some times when college credentials make a difference.  If I see a presentation being advertised that features a "self-taught photographer," I'm not likely to attend unless I see that photographer's work and really enjoy it. But if I see a presentation being given by someone with a degree in Photography/Fine Arts, I'm more likely to think, "That person probably knows what he or she is doing."

I lot of people will probably disagree with this, and that's okay. But I believe that a degree does come with a measure of instant credibility, and that credibility is valuable. My daughter is majoring in Photography/Fine Arts right now, and I have to confess that I'm much more proud to announce that she's studying photography in college than I would have been to announce that she's "trying to make it as a self-taught photographer."   

The "credibility" issue might work both ways.  An artist who is well-schooled (as recognized by completing a reputable degree program) is in some sense "vetted" by those who know a lot about the appropriate artistic discipline.  On the other hand, a "unique" or "personal" vision is something to be prized in art. Those who are self-taught are in some sense "free" of "artistic contamination" by others and thus may express a "truly unique" art.  So we possibly have two kinds of credibility, not just one.

Holes exist in both of those arguments!  For the former, one must have faith in the artistic judgment of the instructional staff...something that becomes endlessly arguable when art/artists is/are judged subjectively.  For the latter, no man (artist or not, seft-taught or schooled) is an island.  Anyone will be influenced by what they have experienced, and that includes a whole lot of prior art by others!

Hi Matthew,

Good points as well!

Yes, we are all influenced by everything. There are those that profess an objective eye. Unless they are infants opening their eyes for the first time, they are either lying or completely unaware of their surroundings.

I will say this about "artistic contamination": I can see where that could happen in academia, and it probably has, but it is the job of the program and the faculty to allow students to express their own vision and use the guidance of the professor and the input of other students to refine that vision—not to fundamentally change it. If you compare my thesis work against the students I traveled through the program with, you will see that, not only is it unique, it does not reflect their projects in any way, shape, or form.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Well said, Jay...and a great perspective.

I would agree with you on the credibility comment. It does add some weight to your work. Just be sure you aren't the guy/gal with the degree and the not-so-good photos!

I believe I mentioned it a bit in the piece, but one of the coolest parts of the formal education process was studying the history of the art and different arts and the social interaction of art in society. You don't necessarily pick up these things at a photo workshop or from a photo magazine. Does it improve your photography? Maybe, maybe not, but it makes you a much more rounded artist.

Good luck to your daughter in her pursuits! 

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

In the course of many decades in photography, I have come to disdain the term "self-taught" as that has been the misnomered title applied to me for lack of a more concise expression. In 1984, I landed my first job in a commercial darkroom and was praised for my enthusiasm in learning all I could about developing film and printing photographs.  My co-workers had graduated from RIT, SVA, Parsons, and Germain, whereas I came in at the bottom of the ladder being "self-taught" (in other words, a photo hobbyist).   In a few short years, my eagerness to learn and profiency in the darkroom placed me among the best printers in the lab.  Soon, I was printing photographs for Eddie Adams and Peter B. Kaplan.  I have no doubt that the instruction and support I received from my formally "educated" co-workers was crucial to my success. 

Yes, I read many books on darkroom techniques and "Photographic Materials and Processes" (Stroebel, Compton, Current, Zakia, 1986) became my darkroom bible.  Additionally, Kodak, Ilford, and Agfa had Technical Sales Reps come visit the labs to help us understand in technical terms new product releases.  "Self-taught," I was not.  Even today, with the plethora of digital learning platforms, to say someone is "self-taught" needs to be redefined.

When I turned 48, I gave myself the gift of going to college and receiving a dual BA in Art History (for my mind) and Ethnicity & Race Studies (for my heart).  I can appreciate photographic talent at any level, whether fed from self-instruction or academic training.  Having lived both experiences, I can say the academic environment provides a special and unequaled place to find and feed one's unique vision.  And yes, I never ask someone anymore if they are "self-taught."

Hello José,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I, obviously, agree with you. How many of us are truly self taught? Probably not too many.

Congratulations on your degrees and thanks for reading the B&H blog and taking the time to comment!

Nice ideas … except the "meaning" paragraph.

The question "what does it mean ?" may be useful for students to improve their talent and ad some in depth thought about what they are doing to refine their work and their choice of photography and their selection of pictures they made for an assignement; But much too often the "what does it mean ?" is taken at pseudo-philosophical level and the artist is asked to comment his own work on an intellectual level he has not studied for… The end result of this misconception is we areplagued by comments which appear higly critical and philosophical but are much too often just commonplace ideas wrapped into a pseudo sociolo/semiological vocabulary that has no meanig at all… And which does a great damage both to the photos involved and to the photographer as he tends to get satified with what Hary Frankfurt, prof. emerits at Princeton, called "bull****" (see "On Bull****" - 2005)

Sadly enough is comment "bull**** is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."  is much too often seen in the arts field … 

Hi Vincent,

Thanks for your comments.

I agree with your point on a level. 

For years, I did not give much thought to why I took some images over others, and why I was drawn to some images over others. To this day, I cannot completely explain it, but I do have a much deeper base from which to draw conjecture and thought and that has improved my photography, but it honestly did not take my photography from poor to good. Assuming, of course that it is good now and wasn't poor then.

One thing you see in art school is students that can explain their art with exquisite detail (don't get me started on psycho-babble artist statements!), yet they seem to fail to execute the art portion of their vision. In a way, I was jealous of their ability to articulate their inner thoughts and the meaning of their images.

I was the opposite. I started with technically sound, yet meaningless images and was forced to articulate their meaning; first to myself and then to my audience.

Being art, someone can look at my photographs and get a completely different feeling or sense from the images. As the photographer, I accept that my work can be translated in an infinite number of ways, but I find it helpful to know what I am trying to say or show with my images and art school pushed me along that path.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

I agree with Vincent on "What does it mean?" I checked off my only bucket list item and realized after that "I need to add more". A photography tour guide of landscapes and wildlife gave a presentation to the local camera club. Among their photos were photographs of slot canyons. Their photos were in color and fantastic.

While the slot canyon photos were magnificent in color, I saw patterns in the oranges that would make a great B&W photograph. I've shot Kodachrome, Ektachrome, B&W, C-41, but I forgot about B&W until 2011. B&W has a classic look about it. For 2012, I photographed the year exclusively with B&W film. It took me about three months before I was able to visualize in B&W.

I do believe you meant "add" rather than "ad"... And that is a part of what comes with education, I think...

I enjoyed your article for two reasons:

1. After a 38 year career as a manager/engineer, I decided to retire so that I could pursue a degree in photography such that I could eliminate the "self taught" label.  I've loved every minute of my decision.

2. Being an ex-chemical engineer, I loved the night photography of a chemical manufacturing facility.  In my early years, I spent many a night alone appreciating the art that I saw while at work.

Hi Bob,

I bet you weren't a self-taught engineer! It sounds like we are drawn to similar subject matter. Good taste!

Thanks for reading!

Love this article. I used to do photography as a hobby then when I was applying to schools, trying to decide at age 18 what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I got accepted into the Western Michigan University Gwen Frostic School of Art and it has truly been amazing.

Hi Kate,

Congratulations on getting into that art school! I am glad you loved the article. I didn't go to art school until I had been years into a career as a military helicopter pilot. I am jealous you got to pursue your photographic passion earlier in life!

Thanks for reading!

Your comments about self taught is correct I love photography and would like to take it further I did some workshops here and there.Classes areexpensive I would like some small workshops.One on one Thank you

Hi Annette,

Thank you! Workshops are a great way to get a photographic education, access, and experience. I highly recommend them. Check out this recent article, if you have some time: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/8-things-consider-when-joining-travel-photography-workshop

Thanks for reading!

Three comments:   1.  Add a seventh way.  Photography has a technical side, and learning about the technical underpinnings of the medium will help one better understand it, know its limitations and why they exist, and how to use it more effectively.   2.  Most, if not all, art is judged subjectively. That in turn opens the door for anyone, regardless of level of instruction, mode of instruction (apprenticeship, formal schooling, self-taught, etc.), or level of technical skill, to be a successful artist so long as others enjoy experiencing what the artist produces.  For example, modern sculpture may be interesting (or not :-) but very little of it exhibits the technical skills required to make works like those of Bernini or Michaelangelo.  Similarly, a lot of modern painting may be interesting (or not :-) but little of it exhibits the skills in brushwork, perspective, simulated lighting, and ability to mirror reality that is present in works by Rembrandt or Titian.  3.  I take some exception to the "meaning" aspect.  This carries the sense of "significance," but art need not be "significant.".  It can be made simply for personal enjoyment and need not have any "significance" or "meaning" other than that. If it turns out that others like it, too (as did your friends when asking for copies of your pictures, noted above in the article), fine, but not necessary.  Nothing is wrong with 'It means I enjoyed making it, and looking at it when I walk by it hanging on the wall in my home' as a perfectly valid answer to 'What does it mean?'

Hi Matthew,

1. I had to keep under a certain word count, but your #7 is great. You would be surprised how many fine art photographers are not technically fluent with their gear—proving that you don't always need to know the technical to achieve the artistic. But, in academia, there are some that are extremely knowledgeable.

2. Art is subjective. It is not only important that others enjoy what you produce as an artist, I think it is even more important, for the artist, that you get pleasure from producing the art. If you aren't enjoying the creative process of photography (even if you are making amazing work), you may want to change genres of art, or find a non-art hobby! Having fun taking photos is critical to my passion as a photographer.

3. I won't debate your exception too much as I really struggled with the "meaning" aspect of my photographs—and I still do. My photography has always been about my personal enjoyment and art school forced me to dig deep and articulate that meaning. I will not pretend that I know, for certain why I take a particular photograph (or do certain things, for that matter), but I have, due to schooling, given it a bit of thought.

Your last point in #3 is spot on. If you like the process of making a photograph that you enjoy looking at, nothing else really matters—you are a successful photographer and artist!

Very well said, Matthew. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

I find myself in agreement with Vincent and Matthew.  I make an image of some thing or someone or someplace, chose how to frame it, what's in and what's out, choose an exposure.  Why? Because it was of interest to me.  Different story if it's for an editor or a customer, but mostly it's just for me.  I have no more reason to explain what it means or says to me or anyone else.

The picture / image, in my opinion, speaks for itself.  Unless it's an abstract, it is a failure if it cannot make its own case.  I have taken graduate level photo courses, and the amount of BS explaining content or meaning is unbelievable.  Never took any more photo courses.  I attend workshops for technique and process, but I have no interest in "meaning" per se.  "Purpose", yes, as it a "reason" to shoot a subject: conservation or the environment as a cause: it's a nice place and deserves to be protected.  Not quite the same thing as a meaning, in my book.

That's just me and my $0.02 worth.  Enjoy your art for your own satisfaction.  Pax.

Hello Guido,

Believe it or not, I am with you. I didn't drink all the Kool Aid they served me at grad school (Did I just say that out loud? I hope my professors are not reading this!).

I have read artist statements that made me nauseous. I have seen people so inept at capturing the concept of their art that it detracts from the images themsevles when the images stood just fine by themselves. There is a fine line that the artist must walk here. I am not much different than you. I take photos of things that are interesting to me—not of things that I think will send a certain message to the world or create a statement. There are artists that use the camera to illustrate their artistic concept...and there are photographers that create art with the camera. I am the latter.

The last two words of that section of my article sum up where the rubber met the road for me. "Self discovery." That has absolutely nothing to do with forcing an explaination of content or meaning on the viewer. Thinking about why I take a certain photo let me look deeper into my own photography. I do not feel like the viewer must understand (or accept) my internal thoughts to enjoy the images—if I did, I would have attached an artist statement to this article to explain the images! Yawn. I spared you all!

I appreciate you reading the article and taking the time to share your $0.02! Thanks!

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