Starting and maintaining a career as a professional photographer is more competitive than ever, yet the ease with which pictures can be taken and shared has made the barriers to entry very low. In the face of such professional challenges, the Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP) stands out as a trusted Mecca for intensive career training.
Above Photograph © Laura Werling
Based in the heart of Montana’s “Big Sky” country, RMSP's demanding Professional Intensive (PI) program prepares students for careers as entrepreneurial photographers. Through eight months of immersive creative and business development with more than 25 photography experts, students learn how to start and expand a successful commercial or consumer photography business.
An intensive, immersive learning experience
“My time at Rocky Mountain School of Photography was nothing short of transformational,” enthuses Laura Werling, a 2019 PI graduate. “A previous student described RMSP as ‘the Hogwarts of photography education,’ and I couldn’t agree more,” she adds. “The whole experience was magical and provided once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Our education wasn’t limited to the classroom; we were constantly out experimenting and putting to practice what we learned.”
“There’s probably nowhere else on earth that offers a more intensive, all-encompassing photography program in such a short time period,” offers 2010 graduate Ben Reed.
Now based in Hawaii, Reed came to the program with absolutely no photography experience. “I’d never heard of aperture, shutter speed, or ISO; it was as foreign to me as brain surgery,” Reed admits. “It wasn’t easy starting from scratch; I had to learn all the camera functions, composition, editing processes, color correction, lighting, and printing, at the same pace as other students with prior knowledge of photographic principles. It was an arduous task, but I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a professional surf photographer and RMSP was my path to achieving that.”
While photography was uncharted territory, Reed did have a college degree and work experience in sales. When searching for the right photo program, his criteria were pretty specific. “I knew I wanted a school that was all photography, but I didn’t want to spend four years in school learning,” he explains. “I had already spent five years at university, so I was accustomed to the typical higher education learning environment. While those experiences were great, RMSP does not represent that form of learning in any way, shape or form. You don’t feel like a student at RMSP, it’s more like you’re part of a family.”
Hands-on instruction and professional contacts for ongoing business support
Seattle-based wedding photographer Krista Welch, also a 2010 graduate, offers further perspective on RMSP’s unique learning process. “In today’s world, there is so much information on the Internet that anyone can learn new skills by watching videos online,” she notes. “But nothing beats learning in real time from experienced, practicing photographers. You can’t beat making those personal connections with teachers and other students.”
She describes how to get the most from such a dynamic learning environment. “If you go, go with all your heart. Ask a ton of questions and work your butt off. Try new things with an open mind, and take advantage of the time you get with RMSP’s teachers. They’ll have your back in the real world if you need them. Build a network of trusted friends while you’re there. You can help each other build your businesses.”
Discover new passions and channel new strengths
Jim David, a 2010 RMSP graduate considered himself a highly skilled amateur when starting the program. “I had more than the basics down (so I thought), but when I decided that I wanted to pursue photography as a career, I knew there were a number of areas where I needed to build my skills. The immersion program enlarged my understanding of photography’s fundamentals. Initially, I was very uncomfortable with things like lighting and studio work, but I emerged from RMSP with a solid foundation in those areas, which have become central to how I shoot today.”
2018 graduate Aly Johnson echoes David’s comments, saying, “I think RMSP has one of the most effective learning models for a non-traditional photography education that will equip you to succeed. Through assignments in both lighting and visual concepts I learned what my creative perspective was and polished my style both behind the camera and in post-production.”
With previous photo experience as a wedding assistant at a local studio, Johnson entered the PI program with high expectations and a strong desire to expand on her fledgling career. It didn’t take her long to discover a love of studio photography and food still life. “With the guidance of fantastic commercial photography instructors, I was able to explore just how far I could take that passion to reach aspirations of a career in food and lifestyle,” she explains. “By the end of the program I had orchestrated two on-location shoots for my final, involving lifestyle models, food styling, and prop management. My confidence and photography technique grew exponentially, and I realized I was capable of pulling off projects I would have felt grossly underqualified for prior to the program. In the year following graduation, I hit the ground running as a freelance food photographer. I’ve already worked on a retainer basis with restaurants, making a substantial side hustle while I work myself into the industry full time.”
Setting a Course for Personal and Professional Growth
In 2017, New Jersey-based Scott Rafferty found himself at an impasse. A passionate photo enthusiast with a high-intensity career in retail, he was barely making it through each day; burnt out from work, and unfulfilled both emotionally and creatively. “I knew I needed to make a drastic change to reclaim my joy,” he notes.
For the better part of a decade, he had flipped through RMSP’s promotional catalogs, imagining himself in Missoula, immersed in the photography buffet of a lifetime. But the reality of uprooting his life and moving to Montana seemed laughable. “There would be so many obstacles to overcome,” Rafferty explains. “Changing careers, the logistics, the finances, the housing, and certainly not least of all, my husband. All of it added up to what seemed like a mountain too high to cross.”
Yet, one random Sunday morning, he and his partner decided to take the leap, enrolling him in RMSP’s PI program, “without a plan of action, and having no idea how we would pull it off.”
According to Rafferty, “To say that the PI program is intense is an understatement. The amount of technical information that is instilled in only 9 months is staggering. But perhaps more worth noting is the internal transformation you’ll experience” he asserts. “Not everything you’ll be asked to do will be comfortable, so come with a spirit of openness and an eagerness to learn. If you commit to bravery and personal growth, the RMSP team will not let you fall. They will support your artistry, and you’ll come out more confident and self-assured, not only as an image maker, but also in life.”
Looking back on his recent accomplishments as a newly minted graduate and a licensed drone pilot, he reflects, “It seemed impossible at the time, but if you set your course and move forward with intention and determination, it is possible to make these kinds of huge changes in your life. This RMSP journey is worth the hard work it takes to get to day one—and let me tell you, that’s when the real hard work begins!”
Learn to leverage your photography for business success
Missoula, Montana-based Mike Malament had been working as a self-taught professional photographer specialized in whitewater action sports since 2009. “RMSP has been on my radar since I started my company,” he notes. “Over the years, I watched friends who attended the program and saw the quality of their work improve drastically.”
While he was very familiar with the demands and challenges of making a living as a photographer, Malament reached a point where he was feeling stuck and unsure how to expand his career. “I made the choice to attend PI because I didn’t want to waste any more time trying to figure it out on my own,” he says.
“The PI program moves at a fast and demanding pace, which, in my experience, is not unlike the actual job of being a photographer,” Malament says. “Yet my technical competency has grown by leaps and bounds, and I have significantly more confidence in my abilities. Additionally, RMSP strongly emphasizes personal growth and development. The staff really pushes you to go beyond who you are as a photographer and explore who you are as a person. Coming out of PI, I’m not only running my existing company more efficiently, I’m also getting new opportunities and constantly expanding my abilities.”
Adds Mike Tittel, a 1999 graduate and a current instructor in RMSP’s PI program, “RMSP opened my eyes to the many ways I could make a living with my camera. Attending the program also taught me to be my best critic, and to strive to learn more and grow with every shoot. That continual desire to push and grow creatively has served me incredibly well in my career.”
Tap the drive to grow and innovate
Given the hindsight of 19 years in shooting for global brands, Tittel identifies several elements that have contributed to his success. “First is a solid brand and consistent marketing that involves creating new work and pushing it out through multiple marketing channels. Yet, having solid work will only get you so far,” he says. “You have to know who is hiring for the type of work you create, so you need a highly targeted list of prospective clients.”
With this target in mind, Tittel continually expands his portfolio, “in a way that pushes me as a photographer. Without the constraints of a client, I am free to really struggle or fail, which is where the growth comes from,” he says. “Bottom line: clients want to see that you can offer more than pushing a button.
Looking back on her recent experiences, Laura Werling points to a quote that RMSP founder Neil Chaput de Saintonge offered up during one of her first days of class: The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. “This could not be any truer,” she notes, “as my world has been opened to the possibilities in this career. My education doesn’t end because I graduated, it is only just beginning, and I thank RMSP for opening the door to my future.”
To view more work from the photographers who contributed to this article, click on the names below.