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Photography Education: Formal or Self-Taught?

As an educator working in the college sector, I find this topic incredibly interesting. There is so much information out there that we can digest. So, what's the way forward?

There are the basic rules in photography, and once learned and understood, we can break them, to a point. There's the theory behind the practice, where everything comes together, is studied, digested, and repeated. The theory and practice of why it all comes together for me is the main focal point of photography. Not understanding the why is a failing point. But that's just my opinion.

Photography education over here in Scotland is on the cusp of changing for the better. Previously, each subject (portraiture, landscape, editing, documentary, for example), we're taught as individual units with the students left to join the dots. Now, it might not seem such an arduous task joining the dots, as they are all photographically based. But not everyone is able to join the dots straight away, as we all have different types of learning profiles. At first, some see them as individual subjects without connection, although quite quickly, they see the connection throughout the genres due to the underlying theory of photographic practice. 

There's so Much Information Out There

And in this, is there a problem? Now, I am in no way saying that everyone should be formally educated before they can say they are a photographer. That would be totally untrue and plain stupidity. There are thousands upon thousands of phenomenal and very successful photographers out there who have no formal training and are self-taught. So, where does the formal study compete with the self-absorbed study, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

I personally learned more useful practical information from the likes of the Fstoppers tutorials. This is not an advert for them; it's my personal experience. I learned more from the likes of Mike Kelly, Elia Locardi, and Peter Hurley than I did when studying at university. That's not insult to my lecturers at the time. For some, I feel it was a job, but for one in particular, it was his passion, and you felt it when you entered the room, which made it was an absolute joy to learn from him.

So, Where Do You Start?

Photography information is so widely available via the internet and books these days. How do we know which ones are the best or provide the most succinct information? My simple answer to this is to digest and keep what is useful to you and your practice. We can learn from everybody no matter where they are on the photographic learning curve. Thinking that because you have owned a camera for five years makes you better than someone who has only owned one for two is the wrong way to think. Ask them how they shoot and listen. Give advice, but only if they ask.

With there being so much information available, you will connect with whatever resonates with you. These are the photographers that will send you down the path of self-study in both practice and theory. Are they correct in what they are saying? More than likely, yes. It's been their passion, so they have been down the rabbit hole of study and practice already and are providing you, the viewer or reader, with how they have improved and enhanced their photography. It's the passion that you can see straight away and passion that drives us forward.

Your Opinion

I am not looking with this article to side with any form of education. I am formally educated, but does this make me a better photographer? No. Practice makes you a better photographer. Formal education allows me to teach where I do, and I enjoy teaching and watching the students develop their skills. That's the joy I get from my job. Have I sat on the fence with my opinion? There's not exactly a fence to sit on with this article from my point of view. Honestly, I've learned from both formal and self-study and am still learning.

And this is my question to you: are you self-taught or formally educated, and where do you see the advantages or disadvantages in both?

Photos courtesy of Jeshoots, Markus Winkler, Robynne Hu on Unsplash.

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31 Comments

Adam Rubinstein's picture

Framing the question as a binary choice is rather reductionist in its approach. Like many art forms, photography doesn’t rely on formal education and certification and a significant majority of the proclaimed greats were self taught or apprenticed. In contrast, many fields including medicine and law require structured education as well as mentorship programs (residencies, internships), testing, and regulation. Personally, I look at expertise as a blend of formalized teaching, practice, and mentorship over a lifetime of learning and experimentation. Be glad that becoming a photographer is not predicated on licensing boards, strict prescriptions of training, and other restraints. What a dull profession it would be.

Dennis Hill's picture

Formal training vs. self taught? It's really about what you want to learn. I went to ArtCenter and learned not only the technical side but more importantly the aesthetics of my art. The idea of 'concept' was taught from day one in even the the more technical classes. Since leaving school some 40 years ago I continue to learn. But, I also, on a daily basis, utilize the thought process I developed whilst in school. Plus, the network of contacts from the other departments was very beneficial to my career.

Timothy Roper's picture

A high school class, or an adult education class, is all anyone needs to get up and running with the photography part of photography. As for the creative and/or art part, a course or two in art history would be a good place to start, as that would cover the art of landscapes, architecture, portraits, social documentary, etc. A design course or two wouldn't hurt, either. Then you need to take it from there yourself.

Steve Powell's picture

I took a photography course as a freshman in high school(some 50 years ago), and took an Art History course in college. I tend to agree with what you are saying.

J.d. Davis's picture

If you are just a 'happy-snapper' either is fine. IF you want to run a studio, take a business class first.

It is truly a pity that photography is only a trade and will remain so. There are no codes of ethics, oversight boards or formal licensing required to hang a shingle.

Mike Ditz's picture

Who would you recommend being on the licensing board?

J.d. Davis's picture

Bring back 'GUILDS' - there were levels of experience; Student. Disciple, Master. Now, in the trades we call them Apprentice, Journeymen, and Licensed.

Honestly, I would make it tough to get a license to practice photography ~ a minimum of 5 years apprenticeship or a Masters degree from an accredited college or university.

In terms of who would judge work - a panel of gallery directors/owners and museum board members.

With everyone running around with a cell phone and many doing 'natural light' mini sessions - 25 images for 50 bucks in the park, it isn't any wonder why this trade gets no respect.

Charles J's picture

Gatekeeping: institutional with socio-economic barriers.

Galleries are driven by commerce, cultivating and promoting what sells. Even manufacturing demand among the wealthy with "discoveries" made exclusive by edging out other artists.

As for museum board members, they are hands-down the ABSOLUTE WORST people to judge art. I cannot emphasize this enough. Look up the board members of major museums. Very few have educational backgrounds in the arts and humanities. The majority of board members have backgrounds in business and law. Bankers and career politicians are also found, but they fall under business and law. For example, the president of MoMA, Ronnie Heyman, is a lawyer. Practicing for almost 50 years.

Even if the proposed licensing system was in place, who are they to judge whether someone can pick up a camera?

J.d. Davis's picture

Honestly it would be better than the shitshow we have now!

Mike Ditz's picture

It would sure be a lot more boring with all that regulating of when is it appropriate to use "butterfly lighting" and what are the proper lenses for shooting the "Tunnel View"...

J.d. Davis's picture

At the very least you wouldn't get someone offering an 80 dollar wedding!

Mike Ditz's picture

Not too sure about that... LoL

J.d. Davis's picture

The difference being no one would expect good work for 80 bucks

Michael Krueger's picture

I'm self taught with the aide of websites like this, YouTube, and Google kung fu. I see a type of image I like and I figure out how to recreate it, I still have a lot to learn about proper portrait lighting though.

Brian L's picture

i took two classes. one was beginner photography in 2002 learning everything there was about the exposure triangle and film SLR's. then i took a 3 month photoshop class at a community college 3 years ago. Everything else has been trial and error, books, and youtube videos. I have a successful business

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

Today with the cell phone camera in wide use for photos and video 98% using auto mode there is no real self teaching. Most all are just for the moment capture and with everything digital computers and phones are overflowing with images of mostly "Look what I saw or am doing" and then you add social media then you add more.
Now to Photography! The camera shooting in RAW and the software that makes an image or shooting say jpegs using in camera processing or simple Auto mode (you pay for it as part of the camera). The image that is captured, there is so much mumbo jumbo about this that and the other that identifies it like paintings of old.
First, there has to be interest, but one's eye(s) will see that something that is not just a snapshot. There is the WWW full of instruction of the cameras (brands) with lens perceptions and the many locations to go along with workshops that are paid for like a college course being paid for.
I bought a camera years ago to remember/catalog the many places I would go while in the Navy, I carried it and lenses everywhere but with film the cost of development and time I had to make every image worth the capture. That experience made me look more to see what is worth a capture. Today like a hunter waiting for a critter to come into sights my eyes wonder all about driving or walking, I watch the weather for good light for a cloudy day flowers and things have great color where whispery clouds make sunrise/sets the best wide screen view ever. On a night of stars and Milky Way I awaken from a nap without alarm with gear at the ready but will go out after sunset and spend all night (if June or July) going from place to place and in the morning stay for the sunrise and golden light then head to a morning of birding or just misty landscapes. There are others like a telephoto shot of a rising dirty moon over a cityscape or a sitting sun all orange perfectly timed over the center of a bridge like a huge rubber ball.
My point is a photographer is not only just there but also dreams and plans of a possible capture and will wait for days or years for the right time using to day many planning apps and well as planetarium apps to be in just the right spot at the right time.
But where a class or two at higher learning will help with is for the tool, camera, operations and the power of lighting to show and not so much test or pass/fail. There are so many different cameras but all do the same thing rather film, point and shoot, DSLR or Mirrorless. If you do not believe me go back to some old images of the many cameras you have had and you will find with today's software anything can be fixed or made better than.
Photography is a never ending learn and getting on the right foot is key to enjoyment for many years!!

Justin Sharp's picture

Like yourself, I’m formally educated in the arts and teach at a college. It seems my story is similar to yours. A formal education allows you to continue in that world. It doesn’t make one a better photographer. I too have learned better and more practical information through other resources. I tell my students that a true education begins after the diploma. The most effective education has little to do with accumulating knowledge and facts. Great educators guide students to think and learn how to learn. Once a student graduates, they must become their own teachers. I was fortunate to have some fantastic professors that challenged how I thought about making art and the creative process. Like I said, I’ve learned so much information from online tutorials and YouTube videos, but no video has yet to create the same type of connection I experienced in school.

Tony Clark's picture

My father gave me a camera for Christmas and I read a lot of books on photography and looked at Fashion magazines. I did some free shoots, tested models and started to make a little money. After about eighteen months, I started assisting and eventually had a decent book that got me a few jobs. I don’t consider myself to be self taught because my knowledge grew tremendously after assisting for more than four years.

Dave Cook's picture

While a book of technical information was helpful in the beginning with the basics, I found Henri Cartier Bresson's "The Decisive Moment" and looking at the collections of Magnum's early photographers (including Life Magazines "Photos of the Century") the most helpful on the artistic side of things.

Fermin Iturbide's picture

I really enjoyed this article……I believe, that which path to take first, has a lot to do with one’s personality. I was self taught and now I’m getting the formal education and to be honest, for me, the formal education has been nothing but a wasted of my time.

When I started, people would tell me that I have “that natural eye” for photography, I took that as a standard to exceed in all the genres of photography (I’m nowhere near closed to this lol) and become a “master” in the art. Now, when I started, it was after serving 11 years in the U.S. Army as an Infantryman, I understood and continue to understand the fine line between humble and still learning and an arrogant dumbass. So when I started with the self education, I embraced my failures, I shot everything and screwed up everything till I fully understood the exposure triangle.

I was confident enough to go against the best, only to see how well I actually I understood the art while learning from the best. I get better everyday and when asked for advice, I encourage to embrace one’s failure, go out and shoot, fail, learn then repeat.

I always get weird looks hahaha

Love the article.

Gary McIntyre's picture

Really appreciate the comments on this one as it's providing me with greater insight on how the different factors of study and learning take place. I haven't replied individually, although I do really appreciate your time in writing the comments. I am gathering the different perspectives to take forward into a class debate.

Some of us have been photographing for years, some only starting out, so I do think it's important that learners understand the whole process.

Some of you mention business courses, some mentorships, others mention the trade, other the school connection route. This is invaluable advice that I can accumulate and pass on to the students. We all have different methods of learning and it's the passion that drives us in this lifelong learning. I really appreciate your time in commenting. Thankyou.

Charles Mercier's picture

Why doesn't anyone ever mention feedback? At some point and it doesn't matter when, you're going to need some feedback from someone who knows. I have a friend Sue who posts photos on FB and her friend keeps saying that Sue's photos are incredible and should be in National Geographic. Hardly. They're average. Sorry but people can be blind to their own talents and can be reinforced in that belief.

Justin Sharp's picture

Yes! Exactly right. The one thing I miss most from school is that culture of critique and feedback, both positive and negative. It was a way of making you think more deeply about your work as well as the work of others. Social media is horrible. You can pay for online portfolio reviews that might be ok, but a formal education is especially good at providing a space for feedback from people you know and see your work as it develops over time.

Graham Glover's picture

I took a distance learning course (formerly called correspondence course) in professional photography from the New York Institute of Photography. My main reason for doing so was that in the course they would review 6 photos. While that's a fairly expensive price to pay for having half a dozen photos reviewed, it was worth it to me.

The reviews were helpful, and even caused me to redo at least one photo. Feedback was in the form of a 10 minute audio recording from an instructor. Additionally I could get direct feedback from an instructor over the phone. While I only did the phone feedback once, it was very helpful.

What I found to be the most useful however was that I had to shoot things I didn't want to shoot, specifically sports. I had zero interest in sports photography, but one of the assignments was to:
* photograph a newsworthy sports event,
* submit one photo, and
* caption it.

To me sports was boring. Regardless, I shot a high school girls varsity basketball game. After one game I was hooked. I shot more basketball games to the end of the season, and then went to shoot high school girls varsity soccer.

https://www.grahamglover.com/OHS-Girls-Varsity-Soccer-and-Basketball

I never would have considered sports photography if I hadn't been required by my school to do it. That changed the trajectory of my photography.

As regards tutorials, I find them to be uneven and of mixed quality. While video tutorials have the advantage of being viewed multiple times, I've simply not been impressed by them overall. I've purchased tutorials from many places. I've also found at least one tutorial instructor to be marginal, with the proviso that this person is successful in their genre.

Rafael Cavalli's picture

I've learnt the most when I was the assistant of the main photographer for an Oakley editorial. We went to Fuerteventura twice for a few days to shoot some apparel and sunglasses for their website. Everything was shot with a 5d3, 16-35 and 70-200 with 2x adaptor. The only thing that made me think about the way I used to take photographs was how the photographer created situations and how he moved to find different angles changing from the zoom to the wide lenses. That was crazy, and at the end of the day he showed up with a selection and a small moldboard with the shots of the day showing stuff like friendship between the models, action, fun and challenge. 20 days total with that guy and was almost like start from the beginning with photography.

Mark Bucher's picture

I had a ton of theory and book knowledge when I got out of college. It took about 10 years and thousands of rolls of film, courtesy of the US Air Force before I knew the applications of the knowledge. A camera became an extension of my mind.

Kent Tarbox's picture

I am asking this question all the time in a slightly different tone, "does one need formal training to be creative?" I am a self taught photographer, no formal education in photography, other than a darkroom in my high school in the late '70's where I learned to develop BW film and make prints.

I do hold a BS in Computer Science and an MBA and my day job is in IT. I have been a freelance photojournalist for 20 plus yrs now, working for local news publications, etc. I have had personal work published outside of the PJ world, placed in photo competitions, sold prints through local businesses, all without "formal" training.

Now have I learned over the past 20 yrs, you bet. Could I have benefited from formal training in photography, possibly. Would my path to "success" been shorter with formal training, who knows. I just know I keep trying to learn more, shoot more and try to become a "better" photographer, whatever better means.

In my opinion, the one thing I appreciate about the arts is there is room for both. As stated by Adam Rubinstein in his post on this thread, there are no licensing boards, no tests or certifications needed in the field of photography. I know artists (yes, I extend this concept to all artists, not just photographers) that have had yrs of formal training and others that have had yrs of "on the job" and at the end of the day, when people view their work, the viewer is not wondering if they have formal training, rather they viewer looks at the piece for what it is, a work of art. Hope this conveys at least a small bit of my thinking on this subject. I could discuss this over a couple of pints for hours... go out and create...

Matt Edwards's picture

I found the art classes I took in college to be invaluable in learning about color theory, composition, form, art theory, history, etc. I never took a photography class, but all of these subjects are important to the art and practice of photography.

Now that I have been dipping my toes in photography as a hobbyist, I recall many of the subjects from my art education and appreciate that knowledge.

Mike Ditz's picture

I don't really know what self taught means these days, is that "on your own" or watching videos and reading books?.
I think "formal or self taught" depends on what you want to do in photography.

If you want to be a commercial or advertising photographer, or work for a corporation as a staff photographer then a formal education is probably a good thing. Many corporations and govt job require a degree. I went to art school and learned a lot from very good teachers (and little from not so good teachers) great feed back from teachers who cared and knew their shit. The good thing school did was to create a network of people who I kept in contact with for years, the 10 years after school I could trace back a lot of clients to people I knew or references from school people. So maybe $50-70k per year x10 years adds up...you don't make connections like that watching the "Hi Guys!" videos

Being self or internet/youtube/workshop taught is easier now than ever. There are hundreds of people who put out a lot of great information and how-to videos. Are they "qualified"? Sure a lot of them are. Some are not, and just review equipment but there is always something to learn. I have watched a few of the Pro EDU videos and picked up with some great tips from PS experts online.

Online is a great place to learn how to do things but sort of light on why to do it and the history of a technique or style.