This is a questions which lands in my inbox extremely frequently: Do you think I need to go to university to be a successful photographer?
There’s no easy answer to this question, because honestly, I don’t believe that anyone can tell you what to do. You’ll know what works for you, and what doesn’t. But I’m hoping that in this blog post I can give you a bit of help on making that decision.
I went to Falmouth University and studied a degree in Fashion Photography. It took three years, and I came away from it with a “First Class Degree.” I was pretty happy with that result, if I do say so myself! I went to school in Switzerland, and quite an academic school at that. Never was it once suggested that university was something I could skip, if I wanted to. Everyone was going, no questions asked!
So when the time came for me to choose, I chose what I loved the most: art. Falmouth has an incredible reputation for the arts, and it sounded like a dreamy place. I’d never been to Cornwall before (or spent much time in the UK at all), so we visited, and I loved it. I did a foundation degree for one year, and then went on to take the very first BA(Hons) Fashion Photography course that the university offered.
Its hard to sum up three years into a blog post, but I’m going to break it down into the good and the bad.
Independence: Uni to me is all about becoming independent. Before I left for uni, I’d not really spent much time away from my family. It was a chance for me to explore being an adult, living on my own, looking after myself, without the full responsibility of having a job yet. I didn’t have to fully fend for myself, but I go to get used to being on my own, and doing life on my own.
Time to explore: Especially with creative degrees like photography, you do get quite a lot of free time. I used to this explore, get creative, shoot lots and lots of photos, and start Atlas Magazine. I’m so grateful to the time I had at uni to explore my interests, because I know that if I’d skipped uni and gone straight into the world of work, I wouldn’t have had so much free time.
Technical skills: Uni is definitely where I got to hone my technical skills. I knew how to shoot manually before arriving at my degree (although many people didn’t, and were taught how, so you can be a total newbie and still do a photography degree), but I’d never set foot in a studio, experimented with lighting, or even that many lenses. The experts at my university were always on hand to help me, and I learnt so much. I’m certain that if I hadn’t gone to uni, I’d have taken a lot longer to experiment with studio equipment.
Access to kit: I’m not sure what all universities are like, but Falmouth has an incredible amount of photography equipment. There are also 8 industry standard studios that students can use (and external photographers as well - for a price). This access to kit and studios FOR FREE is incredible. I’d go back to uni just to have permanent access to this all over again!
Time to collaborate: One of the best things that I took away from uni was the collaboration and working with my friends. I’d always been quite a lone wolf in my work, but once I was on my degree, I had no choice but to learn how to work in a team. We all helped one another out on our various shoots, became incredible friends, and still help one another out today.
Access to resources: The university I went to has a huge library filled with books on every topic you can imagine. It also gave me access to many different subscription websites like WGSN, which are amazing, but expensive for a small business owner to have access to.
Experts in the field: This didn’t happen very often, but once in a while we would have visiting lecturers come and talk to us, look through our portfolios, and share industry experience with us. This was always incredibly valuable.
Friends all interested in the same topic: I don’t know about you, but while I was at school I found it hard to make friends with people who were interested in the same things as me. When I get to uni, and found that I was surrounded by people my age who loved fashion and photography as much as I did, it was incredible!
Inexperienced lecturer: This isn’t always the case with degree courses, but sadly we were the very first cohort of students to go through our degree. We were the guinea pigs in a way, and were also given a lecturer who was most definitely not experienced enough. We learnt very little from her, and much more from one another/visiting lectures/the technical instructors at the university.
Being far away from the industry: Falmouth (where I still live now) is 5h away from London. This makes access to the industry quite tricky, so we did feel a bit “cut off” at times. As I’ve spoken about in the past, you don’t need to be in London to make a career as a fashion photographer work, but you do need to be there sometimes. I wouldn’t let it put me off attending a university, but I would take into consideration how far I’d like to be from “where it’s all happening.”
Lack of in depth business training: If there is one thing I feel highly critical about universities for, it’s the lack of training in business. It’s all well and good setting photography brief after photography brief. If students are not taught how to actually run a business, they will never succeed. Everything I know about running a business as a photographer I have learnt AFTER my degree. I’ve read books, attended workshops, bought online courses, watched hours of Youtube, and done a lot of trial and error. Don’t go to uni expecting to be taught how to run a photography business, because it’s highly unlikely that you will.
Too much free time: I mentioned free time as a bonus earlier, because I used my free time well. I spent it shooting, learning and building the start of my career. I know that some people aren’t that disciplined, and struggle without more structure. The cost of a degree these days makes it seem silly to me that so little time is spent in lectures or with tutors. If I was to apply again today, I would check how much time per week will be spent in lessons, throughout the three years of the degree.
Cost: I mean, it goes without saying that going to university is VERY expensive.
Honestly, different people will always give you different answers. In my case, university was well worth it. I learnt a lot, made great friends, became a real adult, and started my business. For some, it might not be worth it. You can learn everything you need to learn about photography through Youtube these days. You could attend a few workshops lead by photographers in the industry, and you’d learn just as much.
But everyone learns in different ways. Everyone is so different full stop. I think the best advice I can give to anyone considering studying a degree in photography is:
do your research. Ask lots of questions. Think about how you learn, and what you’re hoping to achieve.
I hope that this was helpful, and if you have any questions about this topic, leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org