Photography Education: 7 Quality Revelations
Photography Education Myths
As a professional photographer, I get fed up listening to the sceptics and naysayers who claim: “Photography education is a waste of money: It’s all theory and you won’t learn how to take a decent photograph.” Likewise, many claim “you don’t have to be a good photographer to succeed, you just need good business sense.”
I totally reject those arguments and explain here why a formal photography education can be of massive benefit to you as a photographer and, perhaps just as importantly, as a person.
Like many people I have owned a camera for as long as I can remember. I have boxes of pretty awful photographs in the attic from my trips around the world as a Royal Navy sailor. My photographic ambitions didn’t amount to more than family snapshots until a decade or so ago.
In 2011 I was forced into early retirement as a result of PTSD. Music and photography quickly became my release, and in many ways, a means to preserve my sanity. I began blogging about the gigs and music festivals I attended and soon found that this could be a means whereby I could get into these events free.
My blog gained some popularity and I was soon invited to write and photograph for a couple of UK music magazines. Suddenly PR companies were pitching their artists to me and I found myself photographing, interviewing, and writing about many of my favorite bands. Things were going well, it was fun and it was exciting.
WHY GO BACK INTO PHOTOGRAPHY EDUCATION?
I had reached a stage where I had built a strong portfolio, particularly in music photography and portraiture, but I felt unfulfilled even though my work for music magazines had taken me to some amazing places on press trips. I still felt like something was missing.
I have always had a commitment to learning both formal and informal. I believe that you stagnate as soon as you stop learning and I was beginning to question why I was taking photographs. I was increasingly hating what I was producing.
I was fortunate in that I had the very well regarded Arts University Bournemouth just a few miles from my home. I had undertaken a couple of short photography courses there and knew that the facilities were excellent. After doing some research I contacted the course lead for the Photography Master of Arts course Prof. Paul Wenham-Clarke who invited me to visit the faculty. Spending a couple of hours with Paul and some of his students was enough to convince me to enroll.
THE BENEFITS OF FORMAL PHOTOGRAPHY EDUCATION
Let’s clear up the biggest misconception about university level photography courses. Even at Master’s level you are graded on your work, not on photographic theory. Your photography accounts for some 80% of the available marks for the course. The MA course at AUB consisted of 3 modules, Redefining Practice, and Master’s Project’s 1 & 2.
Of course there is written work and there is research. A 15,000 word Professional Development Record is required for each of the three units and projects must be researched and planned in detail to allow for success to be measured.
You need to understand the theory to be able to explain why you have chosen a particular aesthetic or approach. For me at least the reading and visual research proved to be a key generator of ideas. It is hard work, and so it should be, but the rewards are immense. So what did I gain from my studies? Here are 7 major benefits.
BEING TAUGHT BY GENUINE LEADERS IN THE WORLD OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Paul Wenham-Clarke is a multi-award winning photographer. He has won awards as prestigious as Association of Photographers Gold Awards and the Portrait of Britain as recently as 2019. Paul is very much an active and successful photographer as well as a brilliant educator.
Having the support of people like Paul when you are developing your career is worth it’s weight in gold. When you are challenged you know you are being challenged by one of the very best. It really motivates you to up your game.
Sure, you can undertake photography education online, but nothing beats face-to-face tuition from a genuine expert and leader in the field.
WORKING ALONGSIDE INCREDIBLY INSPIRATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHERS
I was 57-years-old when I enrolled on my MA. I wasn’t the oldest person on the course. We had photographers from all walks of life and from all stages of their career. There were recent BA graduates and a very successful commercial photographer with a 25-year career under his belt. We had a married couple who were over 80 and studying for fun. Everyone shared one trait, an ambition to succeed and a desire to help others to achieve the maximum benefit from their photography education.
Students from my course have won numerous awards and created truly inspirational and ground breaking work. One was immediately signed by At Trayler, arguably the UK’s leading Photographers agent and has gone on to work with the like of Stella McCartney.
My photography education was immeasurably enriched by it being a multi-cultural experience. We had three students from India, one from China, one from Spain, and one from Greece in our 15 strong student group.
ACCESS TO PHOTOGRAPHY INDUSTRY EXPERTS
Throughout your studies you are encouraged to make industry links. I had the opportunity to work as assisting photographer on a couple of projects. Mentoring days are arranged to help you to form links industry.
I had mentoring sessions with a winner of the Taylor-Wessing prize, a winner of multiple AOP gold awards, gallery owners and photography book publishers. One of my mentors, Wendy Carrig, a very successful multi-award winning photographer is very kindly still mentoring me on a project I am currently working on. Money can’t buy that sort of support and you certainly won’t get it from a free online photography education.
We had seminars from well-known and successful photographers on a very regular basis. Viewing their work and hearing the thought and decision making processes behind that work, offers a unique insight into the mind of the artist. Analysis of those thoughts and decisions can act as an ideas generator for your own work. It gives you license to try things. If you don’t experiment in your work you will never know if you might have found the key to self-actualization.
ACCESS TO WORLD BEATING PHOTOGRAPHY FACILITIES
To be frank, attending the school of photography at an Arts University entitles you to expect top notch facilities to support your photography education. AUB certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. There are seven studios equipped with Profoto and Broncolor lighting, all the modifiers you could dream of and unlimited access to those resources. You have the ability and support to build sets in the studio if you so wish.
There are both color and black and white darkroom and developing facilities, digital retouching suites, and printing facilities with equipment that matches the top London labs.
You have access to Profoto location lighting kits, Phase One and Hasselblad digital cameras and a host of medium and large format analogue cameras. Of course you can also borrow digital and film SLR’s and lenses.
There is a technical team who are there to support your work, to demonstrate the equipment, and to assist if you are struggling with anything.
COLLABORATIVE OPPORTUNITIES WITH OTHER FACULTIES
One huge benefit of photography education somewhere like AUB is the access you have to others who are working in the same and associated fields. AUB had costume makers, actors, dancers, make-up artists, fashion students, set designers, film makers, illustrators, to name but a few.
All of those people are willing and able to collaborate with photographers and film makers because they need images for their own portfolio and for their assessments. The opportunities for collaboration are virtually endless.
FIELD TRIPS AND EXHIBITIONS
I would argue that any photographer worth their salt should be mindful of the work produced by others. We should be attentive to what has gone before and what is happening in the wider world of photography right now.
In my opinion, publications like the British Journal of Photography are essential reading for any photographer wishing to build a career in photography. Visits to galleries and exhibitions are also fundamental means to develop your understanding of photography as an art form.
Visiting galleries and exhibitions with other photographers is an incredibly eye opening experience. Discussing the work of people like Cindy Sherman, Martin Parr, and even Ansel Adams with others really brings home how differently individuals perceive images and how we interpret the semiotics in their work.
One highlight for me personally was a week long visit to Berlin. Visits to the Jewish Museum and memorials were moving and visits to a host of exhibitions were interesting. However, it was a visit to the Helmut Newton Foundation that proved to be a seminal moment in my personal development, but not for the reasons you might expect.
Many of my artist friends revere Newton’s work but for reasons I could never understand I just didn’t see what they saw. I could appreciate that his work was technically excellent, I could admire the aesthetic, but I just didn’t buy into his reputation as a genius. The, somewhat controversial, reality is that I just don’t like his work.
Seeing so much of Newton’s work gathered together in one place, and discussing it with others helped me to understand exactly why I didn’t like it. For me, the overt phallic symbolism, and his constant flirting with lesbianism as a male sexual fantasy just left me cold because, to my eyes, it was so obvious.
My comments and feelings on Newton’s work are not meant as a critique, and I know that millions of people would strongly disagree with my interpretation. Rather they are an expression of how viewing the work of the masters through other people’s eyes can help you to understand yourself as a photographer. I would argue that understanding oneself is a key benefit of a photography education.
UNDERSTANDING ONESELF AS A PHOTOGRAPHER
I frequent a number of photography sites and forums, and something I frequently hear is that people take photographs for fun and as a form of relaxation. They have no wish to have their work critiqued and no desire to do more than take pretty images of girls or sunsets.
Let me be clear, I see nothing at all wrong with that, and I certainly don’t look down my nose at those photographers. In fact, I would argue that those photographers have achieved something that most photographers never do. They understand themselves and their reasons for taking photographs even if they don’t recognize this in themselves.
However, for many, myself included, photography is much more than pretty pictures. Photography holds a mirror to society, it . It offers the opportunity to connect with an audience of millions, and in a few instances, photography can change the course of history. A formal photography education can help you to achieve that.
I realise that this is a huge claim, but just look at how the images coming out of Ukraine today have united the world in condemnation of Russian aggression. Consider Nick Ut’s famous “Napalm Girl” the image is credited with helping to change American attitudes to the war in Vietnam and helping to bring that war to an end.
I wouldn’t dream of arguing that studying photography at Master’s degree level is for everyone. You do need a bachelors degree or considerable experience as a photographer and a strong portfolio under your belt. It’s definitely an advantage to have both.
However, whilst I can only speak with authority on one course, I strongly believe that there are massive advantages to gaining a university photographic education for those who want to forge a photographic career, especially if you want to chase high value commercial opportunities.
I also believe that there are numerous opportunities available for those who want to develop their photography skills. Check out short courses at your local university or college. Attend workshops with credible successful photographers, read books, and above all practice your photography skills.
If you want to improve your photography I have one final tip for you. Practice the things that you find difficult, and give yourself permission to fail, often spectacularly. No one improves by practicing things they are already good at.
If anyone wishes to ask me questions about my experiences feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.