Earning a degree in photography is not a necessity for becoming a professional, working photographer. However, there are still some good reasons to seek out more formal training in the medium.
In this day and age, you can easily learn the ins and outs of photography without paying a dime. There are innumerable YouTube channels and videos out there to teach you just about anything you could ever think of related to photography. And, if you are wanting something a bit more structured, there are all sorts of educational websites that host short courses for different aspects of the medium. So, why would anyone pay the hefty price tag of college to study photography?
Before diving in, a bit of a disclaimer: I love school. If I could be paid to be a student for the rest of my life, I would be very happy about that. Also, I went to school for photography for seven years all said and done. Four years were spent on Bachelors's degrees in Photography and Art Education, followed by three years earning my Master of Fine Arts in Photography. So, it should be pretty clear at this point that I am a supporter of going to school for photography. That said, I also am a firm believer that college is not for everyone, especially in a field like photography. But, there are a handful of reasons that I think earning a degree in photography is beneficial for the right people.
One of the biggest benefits of going to school for photography is simply the fact that it is very structured learning. Watching a few YouTube videos is fine and well, but without having guidance or a specific path to follow for watching videos, you may not get as much out of it. It could even lead to more confusion if you watch videos from different creators saying different things. Photography classes are structured to make sense for learning how to use the equipment and build up your skills, instead of just being a random approach. Having one person teaching you can also be helpful if consistency is beneficial for your learning style. If you are the type of learner that doesn't do well without structure but wants to learn photography, then college classes may be a good answer for you. Even just taking a few introductory courses instead of going all the way and earning a degree could set you up on the right path for learning once you have the basics down.
The Push to Produce
This stems from the idea of structured learning, but the other reason formal classes are great is that they push you to put the things you are learning into practice right away. Instead of watching a video about using flash and then waiting months to try it out, you have to get to work right then and there, as there is a deadline looming. Plus, you are given a specific project that relates to whatever concept was just covered, which can help reinforce the things you learned.
For some, the idea of earning a grade is also extremely motivating, and without having that bit of pressure, it is much harder to put the nose to the grindstone and take images. Having a specific milestone like a graded project deadline can force you to dedicate time to the work, as opposed to putting it off because you have other things going on. Since leaving school, I am definitely guilty of not setting aside consistent time to create just for the sake of creating. That said, I do go through spurts of making art, and when that happens, I can apply the knowledge and skills I learned during school in regards to working at art. Having the experience of and getting into the habit of making art on a regular basis during school has made it easier for me to dive back in when I get a chance.
One of the things I miss most about school is formal critiques. Getting regular feedback from those in the same boat as you is extremely beneficial. And while you can absolutely get feedback in various online formats, in my experience, those are less productive and meaningful and can quickly turn into just bashing of the work or only glowing reviews about how wonderful the images are. Having a group of people in a room that worked on the same project or are working towards a similar goal typically lends itself to more specific, helpful conversations. Of course, I've also taught courses where it was like pulling teeth to get students to speak up during critiques, but in general, I've found critiques in photography courses to be extremely helpful and inspiring. They have led to some big breakthroughs in my work and inspired me to keep pushing forward with a project that I had previously felt stuck on.
Exposure to Different Techniques, Mediums, and Creative Approaches
If you are in school to earn a degree in photography and thus taking a whole series of classes, you will likely be exposed to a wide variety of techniques, mediums, and creative approaches. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to take a film class with full access to a darkroom and film-developing materials. Or maybe you can take an alternative processes course, giving you the chance to try out ways of making photographs that you otherwise wouldn't have. Or, maybe you take a course in another medium and it sparks ideas of how you can go beyond a straightforward, printed photograph.
College, in general, is a great chance to get exposed to things that you may not otherwise be exposed to, and this is absolutely true when it comes to photography and art. While I was in undergrad, I had to take a sculpture class that had one project focused on an installation-based artwork. That project sparked a love for installation art that ended up carrying over to photography and inspiring the work that got me into graduate school and then became my thesis project. Even if conceptual fine art isn't your thing, you never know what will inspire and drive your work when you are exposed to many new things and ways of thinking.
The Push to Go Beyond Your Comfort Zone
Building off of the importance of critiques and being exposed to new things, formal education in photography can push you to go beyond your comfort zone and what you are used to creating. In graduate school, I started cutting up photographs and manipulating them after they were printed, which was a scary step for me. With how I operate, I likely wouldn't have thought of this idea or had the courage (or knowledge) to pursue it if I wasn't in art and photography classes with professors that challenged me. Having that encouragement, and then the time, to try new things and push the boundaries of your creativity can lead to big strides in your photography that may not otherwise be possible.
Bonus: Teaching Photography
The main reason I went to graduate school was so that I could then teach college photography. As mentioned, one of my undergraduate degrees was in Art Education, but I knew I only wanted to teach photography and not other art mediums, something that wouldn't happen in a traditional K-12 setting. So, I went on to earn my Master of Fine Arts since most colleges and universities require that for instructors and professors. If teaching, specifically teaching in a formal setting, is something that you are interested in doing, then earning a degree in photography is more or less essential.
At the end of the day, the decision of going to school for photography is a very personal one. You have to understand how you learn best, what resources you have available, and what your goals are with photography. It is absolutely possible to make a career in photography or art without a degree, but going to school for photography can also be an invaluable experience for some.