Introduction to Photography Schools and Education

by W. Randy Hoffman
Introduction to Photography Schools and Education

Aim. Shoot. A newly married couple happily shoves wedding cake into each other's mouths.

Point. Click. A soldier crouches in the ruins of a wall, watching a tank inch up the street.

Wind. Press. A well-dressed baby sitting with a teddy bear in front of a backdrop grins widely.

Scroll. Select. A misty cityscape takes on a bizarre soap-bubble iridescence.

Before Choosing a School

Modern photography is as diverse as the selection of pictures in a large album, and though it seems terribly easy in these days of disposable cameras and emailed image attachments, trying to pursue it as a serious hobby or career is more complex than meets the eye...if you'll pardon the pun. The pictures you take with your cell phone might look really good on a two-inch screen, but you can't use a cell phone to take fine-art photos that look good when they're blown up to the size of a poster or an entire wall. And if you're in rural Bolivia on vacation, or on assignment for a news agency, and you want to get your pictures done as soon as possible, you can't take your film to a one-hour developing service. Maybe you can use software to fix "red eye" in your pictures, but unless you can use it to erase that annoying strand of hair that fell on your subject's cheek, or import a company logo so that it looks like she's wearing it on her shirt or earrings, or make it appear as though she's standing on the surface of Mars, you're probably not ready for that advertising job. Getting an education in photography is your gateway to the knowledge, skills, and experience you need to make photography a career.

While you're still in high school or pursuing your GED, there are many things you can do to prepare for an education in photography. You should certainly be taking pictures and experimenting with different cameras and photo software if possible -- and being involved with a school or community photography club couldn't hurt either.

Eugene Mopsik, Executive Director of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), starts to weigh in on this subject with: "There are two facets to photography: The creative side and the business side." Before you choose a photography school, he says, you need to learn what you can about the day-to-day procedures and cost of doing business, including budgeting and insurance. "You can be a great photographer, but if you have poor business acumen, you might be in business for a while, but you'll be losing money." Mopsik suggests that working as a photographer's assistant "is a great way to break into the business, so seek out professional photographers in your area." He goes on to point out that many local and regional professional photography organizations have monthly meetings where you can meet such people and network with them (he pauses here to pitch student memberships in ASMP as "reasonable" and recommend ASMP's Professional Business Practices in Photography as the "industry bible").

Another thing you should do before choosing a school, according to Jean Ferro, Photo Artist and President of Women in Photography International (WIPI), is to "assess what type of photography you're interested in," and decide, at least tentatively, what type of photographic career you want to get into. As mentioned in the introduction, photography is a diverse field; more diverse than many others. (In fact, an anonymous staffer of another professional photography association that shall remain nameless told me, "You say you're doing an introductory article about photography that aims to present options for all students across the entire industry? We thought about doing that once. It can't be done. There's too much ground to cover." Maybe so, but I'll give it my best shot.) Ferro suggests that going to short-term seminars and workshops about different photographic fields and techniques is one way to discover what types of photography you enjoy, and if there are any evening photography programs available in your area, "night school can help students decide what they want to do."

What Kind of Photographer Are You?

Here is a small sampling of the photographic occupations you can aim for (there are many others):

  • Advertising and corporate photography is in high demand; photographers in this specialty work up pictures for ads, billboards, catalogs, packaging, brochures, newsletters, annual reports, and anything else that companies need. If you do this kind of photography, you'll normally be employed by the company or their advertising agency rather than being self-employed; you won't be your own boss, but your workflow and income will be more predictable than in other jobs.
  • Newspapers, magazines, and websites have a steady demand for editorial photography (photojournalism); they need photographs that they can run with their news stories and feature articles. This can sometimes be dangerous; photographing police standoffs, war zones, and natural disasters involves certain levels of risk, although taking pictures in the middle of the crowd at the grand opening of an outlet mall does as well. ;-) It can also be heartrending when you photograph families who have lost homes, loved ones, etc.; you'll need to be very sensitive to people's feelings.
  • Sports photography is a subset of editorial photography, but instead of rushing to crime scenes or standing in the back of the room at news conferences, you'd be kneeling by the hoop or in the end zone, trying to get the best possible picture of the winning score without getting run over by a 200- to 300-pound athlete. Sports photographers are notorious for going through a lot of film or digital storage, because instead of leaving "the perfect picture of the perfect catch" to chance, they usually take 30 or 40 quick exposures over the course of the critical second or two to make sure at least one of the shots is "just right."
  • Fashion photography is sort of a cross between corporate and editorial photography. Although some fashion photographers are employed by labels and apparel manufacturers to take pictures of models and fashions for their catalogs, ads, and websites, more are employed by the fashion press to fill the pages of their magazines with the latest designs. Either way, there isn't much pretense at objective presentation; a fashion photographer is helping to sell either clothing and accessories or information and opinions about them.
  • Do you find that lots of people tend to want copies of the pictures you take, but they want them for entirely different reasons or purposes? If so, you might do well in stock photography. If companies want an image of something besides their products, personnel, and facilities -- for example, if they want to use a photo of a bike race in a brochure that compares their speedy response and hard-working customer service to a competitive bicyclist -- they don't normally send out a photographer to a local race, even assuming there is one. Instead, they look for such a picture in the repositories of stock-photo companies such as Jupiter Images, Corbis Images, Image Source, and Getty Images and (unless it's on a free service) pay to download and use it.
  • If you enjoy people and want to help them celebrate and memorialize their lives, you might want to get into wedding and portrait photography. Most non-wedding portraits ("How many wallet-size do you want? 3 x 5s? 8 x 10s?") are taken in the context of either studio photography -- at the photo studios that can now be found almost everywhere, including many department stores -- or school photography. For the latter, you'll need the seeming contradictory traits of boundless patience and being able to take large numbers of generally appealing pictures as quickly as possible.
  • If you enjoy people...well, women, at least...glamour photography is a subset of portraiture that involves making women look as glamorous as they can in portraits. Before taking any pictures, glamour photographers and any assistants they have will help women select gorgeous outfits, style their hair, apply makeup, and generally beautify them as much as possible. They often take or process pictures with a hazy soft-focus filter to add suggestions of warmth or fantasy. Glamour photographers draw different lines in terms of the nudity and sexuality they're willing to image: Some are involved in pinup, lingerie, nude, and/or pornographic photography; others stay clear of most or all of those areas.
  • If you enjoy beauty...well, the beauty of the natural world, at least...outdoor and wildlife photography can be a challenging but tremendously enjoyable field. To do this, you'll need to be physically fit and able to handle "roughing it" regularly. If you want to photograph animals rather than just landscapes, you'll need to have high-quality zoom lenses to focus in on wildlife at enough of a distance to prevent their becoming aware of you, and you'll need to become very good at tracking wildlife through those lenses. Unless you're employed or sponsored by a major magazine or two, you might need to become adept at writing grant proposals as well. Underwater photography is very similar, but also requires swimming/scuba skills and gear and special underwater camera equipment.
  • Laboratories and science and engineering firms often make use of scientific and technical photography for research, papers, announcements, presentations, and other purposes; education companies use it for textbooks. This line of work calls for a thorough understanding of the science or technology underlying what you're imaging, a desire to communicate it with your audience, and sometimes a willingness and ability to use particularly complex imaging hardware and software.
  • If structural design interests you, consider architectural and industrial photography. Architectural and industrial-design firms often need pictures of sites from many different angles and distances and at many different times of day, both to check for visual problems with the current structures on the site and to build and refine software models of the site for their design work.
  • Believe it or not, restaurants, restaurant and supermarket chains, and food companies of all sorts use specialized food photography for advertising, menus, circulars, posters, marquees, and more. There is definitely an art and science in making soup look maximally chunky and steamy, steaks look supremely juicy, green veggies look invitingly moist and crisp, and jellyfish look edible.
  • Law enforcement needs good evidence and forensic photography. Careful photographs of crime scenes and autopsies can make or break a court case, or enable detectives and scientists to discover when, how, or why a crime was committed. This type of work can require a strong stomach.
  • If you have a keen eye and you like detective work, another field to consider is photographic analysis. If you can learn how to interpret exactly what is shown in images and whether or not they've been altered or tampered with, there will be many opportunities for you in investigation, law, intelligence, and related fields. The defense industry has a particular need for people who can analyze satellite images.
  • Those who enjoy photography primarily for its aesthetic value should look into the demanding but rewarding field of fine-arts photography. Like any painter or sculptor, fine-arts photographers will follow their artistic vision to craft images that qualify as works of art; with luck they'll be able to sell originals at galleries and prints or posters everywhere.

Many Schools to Choose From

In Jean Ferro's opinion, "photography tends to be much easier at one level" -- advertising and editorial photography, for example -- "than it is at the high end" -- say, fine-art photography. She says that editorial photography doesn't require the same breadth of skills or swath of equipment that fine-art photography does; you can do well in editorial photography "if you have the eye" and can capture the "decisive moment" (a phrase coined by legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson). So you'll probably want to make very different educational choices depending on the career avenue you're aiming for. Ferro characterizes some schools, such as the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, as being geared toward the fine-arts end of the spectrum, while others, such as the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, CA, are slanted toward the practice of photography as a business. It's clear which side of the fence Eugene Mopsik comes down on: "To the extent that the school concentrates on craft rather than business, you'll have a steep learning curve after you graduate."

Fortunately, photography is a field of study with many schools from which to choose:

How can one best afford school? Ferro cautions that many photography schools are expensive and some require that you own or purchase expensive photo equipment. Fortunately scholarships are available, from schools, photography associations, and other organizations.

You might also be able to earn money, and gain valuable experience, by interning with an established photographer, studio, company, or organization. Mopsik points out that many local ASMP chapters work closely with colleges in their area and have established co-ops, apprenticeships, and other internship opportunities for students. He suggests investigating the local chapters of any professional associations you are interested in to find work with established pros.

This brings up the fact that, both while you're still in photography school and after you're finished with classes, membership in professional associations can help you to continue learning your trade, gain valuable contacts, get jobs and assignments, and sell your images. In addition to ASMP and WIPI, you might want to look into:

Also, take a look at this Photographer's Index list or the WebRing of Professional Photography Associations


The Skills You Need and Where They'll Take You

Besides the core photography courses and the skills of your chosen specialty, you should try to learn several other important subjects during your photography education. Ferro recommends that the history of photography "should be number one to start," but also says that "the digital part of school is very important." She enthuses, "Digital is huge! Huge! All I can say is, 'huge'!" She contrasts the current situation with previous eras of photography: "Before, you'd learn the properties of all of the different types of film and how to work with them in the darkroom. Now, it's all Photoshop," referring to the popular and ubiquitous photo-manipulation software package by Adobe. "Before digital, photography was a male-dominated field; now women have much more opportunity." She does have two words of warning, however. The first is that, "Even when people understand digital photos, they don't always understand file systems and file transfer," so you should try to master those processes by which images are stored on computers and transmitted between them. "EPSON provides seminars," she adds helpfully. The second cautionary note is that digital technology allows photography to be "not just about what you actually saw, but what you want other people to see," and that this creates temptations to abuse your role. She cites the recent case of a photographer who was fired for combining two separate pictures from the conflict in Iraq into a single, supposedly more powerful image and passing it off as an untouched original; everyone in the field needs to study and practice "ethics in the application of photography."

Mopsik agrees that it's vital to learn digital photography and processing: "The editorial and commercial worlds are all digital." He says that now that digital technology is allowing photographers to "fulfill all the work previously done by service bureaus and prepress outfits, you need to know color management" and other facets of photo-processing and -printing. But he also insists that "You need to learn human skills, personal skills." He proposes the hypothetical experiment of charting the relative percentage that various activities would contribute to the total professional activity of the average photographer over the course of a 10-year period, and says, "If 20% is taking photographs, I'd be surprised." He continues, "Most is preparation and prospecting clients, especially in today's marketplace. There are so many photographers today that you need to find a way to distinguish yourself." You can do that, he says, with client contacts, and by providing more personalized service and human consideration than other people. "For the most part, everyone you talk to will have somebody already doing for them what you want to do. You have to convince them that there's a benefit to them for using you instead."

When it's time to leave school behind for the "real world," Jean Ferro encourages every photography student about their prospects for breaking into the field: "I believe that every door has a knob. That knob can be turned, and the door can be opened." Nevertheless, it can be tough to get work or make sales, regardless of your specialty. Mopsik warns that it "takes multiple contacts to get assignments," so don't be discouraged if you aren't picked up as a result of your first call. He adds that the "Internet is an invaluable resource for finding clients," and that you should always try to leverage any work you do get into additional opportunities. He talks about a phase in his career when he "did work for some heavy-equipment manufacturers"; he didn't try to sell images to their competitors at the same time, but he did get in touch with non-competing firms in similar fields: "While I was doing pictures of my client's forklifts, I was looking at the man-lifts on the site to see who manufactured them; while I was shooting my client's trucks, I looked at cranes and booms; and so on." He was able to parlay this information into contacts, and these contacts into agreements to buy images that he was able to take at the same sites where he was already shooting.

When asked what types of work probably will and won't be available for photography students in a few years' time, Mopsik cautions that the field of photo-illustration, in which photographers create new images specifically for books, magazine articles, and other presentations, is "dead," having been killed off by the widespread availability of royalty-free and stock photos. Instead he suggests looking for opportunities with the "kinds of products and services [that] have an ongoing need for images; for example, new car models come out every year" -- although he notes that "nobody goes out onsite with cars, you just shoot locations and [digitally] add the cars later."

As for other options, "Editorial work is very difficult to get into, and -- with few exceptions -- while it might be philosophically rewarding, it isn't financially: The New York Times now pays only $200 for an image, and Knight Ridder (purchased by The McClatchy Company in 2006) wants joint licensing rights on every image they buy. There's more money in advertising and corporate work." He continues sadly that "shooting stock is tough" as well, because the stock companies aren't exactly generous either. He's leading an effort at ASMP and elsewhere in the industry to help photographers use the Internet to license their images independently of the stock companies and other corporations; this will require a robust Net-wide image database, but he says optimistically that he's "looking toward the day when photographers have [full] control of their own images."

Image Isn't Everything...Or is It?

There's that word again: "image." It isn't everything, as some have said. But it's the stock in trade of the pro photographer, whether you're capturing the perfect shot of a fashion model, a school-board meeting, an exchange of vows, or a blackberry pie. Nevertheless, while the image is central to your business, you mustn't allow it to become more important than the living things, objects, or ideas you're portraying. In each picture, no matter how mundane, you should strive to capture a little of the essence of your subject, so that it reaches out from the frame and touches the viewer. Being able to do that consistently is what separates the good photographers from the great ones. A photography school can't teach that to you if you don't already have some grasp of it, but it can hone your instincts and help you to tease out that essence, even in different media and under difficult conditions. Learn, and someday you'll attract a powerful image and reputation of your own.

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