a letter from a reader – decisions, decisions about a photo education

Today I’d like to share a letter from a reader. Questions like this are always welcome and they give genuine purpose to what I hope to accomplish with prophotolife.com. This young man is the future of the profession…

Hi, my name is Matthew,
I’m 17 years old, and a Junior in High School.
I’ve been taking Graphic Editing and Graphic Design classes for a few years, and photography has caught my interest. I love cameras, I think they’re incredible. I started saving up for a Canon Rebel XTi, and I should have the money for it by next week. I’ve been using an old Canon full manual film camera for the past year, and I’d like to know what kind of classes / college I should be looking into. I’ve been looking into Portraiture, and it seems interesting, but commercial photography seems to be where I could make a career. I’ve been talking to my counselor about a couple colleges, but none of them seem to catch my interest.
I’ve been watching your videos and you give some really useful advice.
How long have you been interested in Photography? What college did you attend?

The fact that you are planning this far ahead bodes well for your future. I’d like to be concise with my responses but that’s a lot of ground to cover…it’s all very important ground and they are all great questions.

deck exterior daylight photo

Random Photo School Assignment

Q: How much light does it take to fill in shadows and add detail under a shady deck?

A: The back of this house received only partial sunlight and was a nightmare of harsh shadows. In this case a 4,000 watt second Norman power pack with strobe head was used under the deck and another 4,000 watt second Norman pack with strobe head was aimed directly onto the house for fill light. Mother nature provided the rest.

I picked up my first camera at 16 years of age and it’s probably safe to say we’ve had similar initial experiences with photography. At that point, for me, it became a life-long passion that turned into a profession.

As for college, I never attended school beyond graduating high school in 1982. As the son of a truck driver and a coal miner’s daughter, my upbringing in rural West Virginia pointed more toward hard work than continuing education. This was at a time when college wasn’t a necessity in the photographic world. As a matter of fact, for commercial photographers it was more like a craft where apprenticeships (photo assisting) were recognized as a common point of entry. A year after graduating high school I packed my motorcycle and headed to Columbus, OH, with $20 and a determination to become a photographer. Looking back now at the past 25 years it’s been a great journey that has ultimately led me to my current business, Daylight Photo.

Today, though, I feel a college education is a near necessity to make it as a commercial photographer. Now it’s vital to understand digital technology, software, computers and post-production. In the fast pace of today’s world there’s not as much time to learn these things “on the job” and technology is constantly evolving. This makes college more important than ever.

As for recommending specific schools, it’s hard to pinpoint just one or two. For a list of top photography schools visit this great resource at photopreneur.com . They concentrate on sharing business information with photographers and have some very helpful articles.

I will throw out some school names, though. When I was younger the two most recognized sources for a commercial photography education were the Brooks Institute on the west coast and, undoubtedly, the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York (the home of Eastman Kodak). They should still be considered near the top of anyone’s list. One of our photo assistants attended the Hallmark School in Massachusetts and received an intensive, practical ten month commercial photo education there. I must say he really learned his stuff in this “real world” based educational environment.

Being located in Cincinnati, OH, we’ve hired talented graduates from OIP&T (Ohio Institute of Photography and Technology) in Dayton, OH, and they have all arrived with very practical skills and a well-rounded understanding of what is required. My studio makes the occasional presentation at OIP&T and their students are always welcome to visit Daylight Photo (hey, Dave, when are you bringing the next group by?).

I also have an advisory position with one of the schools on the photopreneur.com list. Currently I serve on the advisory board for the photography school at Antonelli College, located here in Cincinnati. In our bi-annual meetings I get to see all sides of the photographic education question. We all (photographers, educators and students) are doing our best to adapt to quickly changing times.

window random assignment
Random Photo School Assignment

Commercial photographers don’t look at this and see a window, they see dozens of surfaces (different textures of glass, many cut facets and shiny metal). The basic techniques for lighting glass were used here with four monolight strobes providing the light.

So, with that all said, where should you go to school? If you want to make a happy, sustainable career out of photography it involves more than just having great photo skills. If the school concentrates only on technical skills, for example, that might not be adequate preparation for the real world. These are the questions I’d ask of any photo school:

  • May I speak to recent graduates? What are the student success stories?
  • Will I be receiving a degree that might translate into other job opportunities? A diversity of skills is becoming more highly valued.
  • Do you have a healthy co-op or internship program?
  • Do you offer an integrated approach to evolving forms of electronic media? Looking forward, I believe photographers possessing the most commercial value will also understand how photography integrates into evolving forms of content delivery: the internet, video and audio.
  • Are there business-specific courses, including business ethics?
  • Do you have a personal relationship with national and / or local chapters of professional photography organizations? Do you work closely with the professional photographic community?

I’m sorry I can’t tell you where to go to school, Matthew, but I can try to tell you how to start thinking like a professional photographer (do you know the story about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day or teaching him to fish and feeding him for a lifetime?). I’d also suggest looking at this list of professional organizations and contacting local photographer members, asking them about school information that might be specific to your geographic area. You’ll find most members are helpful when they aren’t too busy to respond.

As for the Rebel XTi, it’s a great little camera, Canon is a wonderful company dedicated to helping professionals (and budding professionals) and it comes with really nice software (DPP), right in the box. What’s not to like? Just be aware that they’ve already come out with the next model, the XSi, with some new features. The XTi is being discounted now, making it an even better buy than before. New camera models help keep the economy churning. It’s hard for me to personally keep up with what’s going on so sites like photographyreview.com are great resources for camera-specific information.

Thanks again for the questions, I hope this has been a help. If any other readers can help Matthew out I hope you’ll leave a comment.

And welcome to the world of photography! Keep us posted…

- Jim T.