What I Wish I Learned At Photography School

There are countless photography schools across America. Our list of the top photography schools describes 24 of the best. That list was never meant to be comprehensive though so it’s great that so many people have weighed in with comments about their own schools. But while photography courses today cover just about every conceivable photography topic from equipment and lighting  to post-production and editing, are there things that photography teachers aren’t telling students that – as they head out into the real world – those new photographers really should know?

Technique is certainly covered pretty well. Any accredited three or four-year degree course should have enough time to teach students about composition, lighting and equipment use. For the Art Institutes, a series of private art schools across America currently teaching around 2,600 photography students, those lessons are good enough to deliver an employment rate in a photography-related field within six months of graduation of 83.8 percent for Associate degree-holders and 90.4 percent for Bachelors degree-holders.

But today, photography schools don’t just teach what to do with a camera, they also devote at least part of their teaching time to running a photography business, skills that new photographers are certainly going to need. And those courses aren’t taught by academics who have never had to earn a living with their camera but by professional photographers who have faced the real challenges of finding clients and selling images.

“The curriculum consists of business-related courses like Advanced Communications, Composition and Language, and Business of Photography, as well as course-focused practicum,” Suzanne Cibotti, a spokesperson for the Art Institute told us. “Our faculty generally have backgrounds as photographers and have real-world experience in everything from fine art to event to photojournalism.”

And yet, when we asked a few young photographers what they wish they’d known before graduation, the answers were never about technique but always about specific aspects of the photography business.

How Much Am I Worth?

Ritchie Patton, a photography student at Glasgow Metropolitan College in Scotland, felt that his school did an excellent job at preparing students for the realities of the job market, emphasizing the importance of persistent networking and describing the legal aspects of photography, for example. But it was the nitty-gritty of pricing that was puzzling him as began selling his images.

“[A]s far as I know our lecturers don’t really hold anything back. The lecturers at Glasgow Met really are the business. It has been explained to us how difficult the market is and how the best way to get noticed is to just never disappear,” Ritchie says. “I suppose the one thing we haven’t covered a lot is the finance aspect of starting your own business. How much to charge clients etc. We have covered certain legal areas like copyright, model releases etc. but one thing I never know myself is how much my abilities are actually worth to someone requiring them. I think I tend to sell myself cheap.”

That’s a problem that even many old pros would identify with. Pricing is one of the hardest issues facing any self-employed professional and rates can vary tremendously depending on location, skill, experience and fierceness of competition. The degree to which you actually need the job plays a big role too. While there’s never going to be a simple answer to a student asking how much he should charge someone who wants to hire them for a wedding job, it is possible to explain the factors that go into setting a price — and point out that those fees will change with experience and specialization. And the good news is that photographers who charge too little tend not to do so for very long.

For other students though, the most important unanswered question wasn’t about money but visibility, especially when it came to landing their works in the most prestigious photography sites of all: art galleries.

“What is the best way to get my work seen? How do I really communicate and connect with galleries and art spaces?” asks Melanie Diaz, another young photographer.

Again, it’s easy to see why photography teachers might have skipped around this issue. Susan Kirchman of the Kirchman Gallery in Texas has told us that of the 50 enquiries she receives from photographers each year, she might accept just three. Walking in off the street with an armful of pictures and no appointment is never going to work but starting with juried group shows that build a resume and enhance credibility might. And following the submission requirements posted on the gallery’s website is always important too.

How Do I Persuade Someone to Buy My Pictures?

For any photographer though, much depends on an ability not just to shoot good pictures but to persuade a buyer or a gallery owner to look at them — and then to help them to recognize that the photos are sellable or usable. That’s an issue that concerns Caitlin Durlak, a young Canadian photographer who studied photography at a fine art school:

“I think showing your work in galleries can be similar trying to sell your work… They overlap when it comes to the idea of being your own representative or ‘salesman,’” says Caitlin. “You have to know not only how to talk about your own work  but also how to make different people interested in it. We never talked about this at school. Making photographs was always a very personal method of working, almost never working as a team or having to prove its worth.”

That’s certainly a big difference between school and the commercial world. In the classroom there are no consequences for failing to talk up your own work and the only benefit of doing so is the compliments of classmates or the grades of a teacher. In the real world, the ability to sell determines how much you earn.

But ultimately, a photographic work should be able to speak for itself and there’s a limit to how much you can teach the ability to pitch to wedding clients or gallery owners. And it’s also helpful that if no schools are teaching salesmanship then competitors aren’t going to know how to stress sales points and overcome objections either.

Photography schools have come a long way in preparing students for life outside the classroom. Most teach basic business skills. Some even have links to galleries that enable the best students to build their resumes. But really no school can prepare students for every eventuality that they’ll meet when talking to clients and selling their work. There are some questions that can only be answered with experience.

5 comments for this post.

  1. Denver Engagement Photographer Said:

    I was wondering if you had any suggestions when it comes to going back to school. I didn't get a degree in photography, but I'm thinking about taking some night classes. However I don't want them to be too remedial.

  2. Marc Said:

    I graduated from one of the top schools on the list back in the early 1980s. While it was an excellent school as far as learning technique, I wasn't taught anything about how to start and run a photography business and consequently, I wasn't equipped to become a professional photographer. I had to take a job in sales because I the starving artist thing got old.

    Learning how to become a good photographer without learning how to make a living doing it is practically worthless.

  3. larryheard Said:

    I never thought that this industry is this tough. I always thought that selling photography is easy and it applies to almost all industry specially in advertising alone to education. You could also start your own site and draw traffic then you can start earning.

  4. Photo Marketing Said:

    I think the persuasion part is key. You can have an amazing product, but if you can't persuade people to buy, you'll starve. That's where a good study in marketing comes in. Thanks for a great post.

  5. Gord Evans Said:

    I am a true believer in education, but most of the colleges just teach technique not business; which I believe is wrong. I am a firm believer that my public speaking training at Toastmasters has made me more money than my collage training. They taught me to turn off the artist side of the brain and talk to a client, which in turn offers a better opportunity to sell more products. Simple but effective.

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