[Pho.Talk] Insider's Look at Photography Careers: Degrees, Courses, Talent, Gear

This article explains what it takes to be a professional photographer, providing an overview of what degrees are best for photography.

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Required University Degrees or Equivalent

Can you have a photography career without a university degree/ MATRIC or equivalent?

Yes. You don’t need a university degree, Matric or equivalent to be a professional photographer. For most genres, all that matters is that you have good work and people see it. A photographer’s currency is the strength of his portfolio. Other relevant skills include client servicing, marketing and project management, which is learnt by doing.

Throughout my photography career, I have never had a client ask me about qualifications. Not in the pre-sale stage, though some did ask out of curiosity while we chatted during the shoot. No one asked to see my LinkedIn, nor inquired about photography-related certifications, nor did anyone ask if I went to university.

The reality is, unless your clients are students, 99% of the people who are potentially going to be your clients are themselves too old to care about university. As soon as someone enters the workplace, as those in it will know, degrees and qualifications become hardly relevant.

And since this is most likely the situation your clients are in, they would assume the same for you. By default, the topic of university degrees and courses does not come up as part of the negotiation process before signing on a new client. Even during the service delivery, clients only care if you have their best interests at heart and whether you are able to produce images that they like. Period.

This is not just theory I made up myself. We do see many working photographers either 1) not attending university at all, or 2) dropping out halfway realising that they are not learning what they signed up for. Throughout the history of photography, we have countless of cases like these, but I want you to know this is happening right here, right now, among today’s rising stars. An example of 1) would be Ian Hippolyte, that of 2) would be Williem Verbeeck, among others.

There are niche genres of photography where a (related) degree is required, for instance, photojournalism roles with National Geographic require an official accredited degree. But this is obviously not something you’d worry about right when you begin; you can always pursue a photojournalism course as a mid-level photographer should you desire to go down these specific paths with your photography.

Is it possible to be a self-taught photographer?

Yes, becoming a self-taught photographer is possible. The ability to self-learn is essential as a photographer. Being a visual language, there are vital aspects of photography that cannot be taught, even if one were to take a course on photography. Some photographers learn from mentors, but they certainly are teaching themselves new things every day.

Most things in photography can be self-taught, especially in relation to operating camera gear and shooting techniques. If you are doubtful of that, look no further - this blog along contains heaps of information on techniques and tricks, in the following categories:

If you are looking for information related to art theories and inspiration, my blog has you covered too:

At some point, young photographers can get to a bottleneck in their careers, and this is where mentors can be of great assistance. However, the job of a mentor is not to be conflated with that of a teacher. Mentors don’t exactly teach; they mostly inspire and point the mentee to the right direction. At the end of the day, the mentee is still responsible for learning the things that he doesn’t know.

But for the most part, especially when just starting out, Youtube is your best go-to source, completely for FREE! For instance on my channel, videos are densely packed with goodies. It is absolutely possible, if not actually desirable, to be a self-taught photographer!

How do you pursue a photography career without a degree?

Being a photographer has nothing much to do with a degree. Firstly, build a portfolio of photos showing the type of work you want to be hired to shoot. This can be on a website, Instagram, or in print. Then, network with potential clients. Send cold emails and DMs introducing yourself and showing them your work. Pitch your services to them.

My blog section on Business of Photography contains a wealth of information on how I started my photography business, and a lot of the work actually started when I was still in university. None of these things have much to do with completing a university degree of any sort - you can start building a photography career whenever you decide to.

Specifically, here are guides I have written specifically to give you a brief overview of starting a photography business:

But here is a highly-simplified list of steps to build a photography career, and it will be the same regardless of whether or not you have a degree.

  • Learn how to use your camera and gear

This is the absolute basic, something you need to clear before thinking of taking clients. During the actual shoot, there are more higher-level things that should be occupying you, including art direction, helping the client feel at ease etc, which means you will need to know your gear inside-out.

  • Build a strong portfolio through self-initiated shoots

Clients need to see that a photographer can do the work before they decide to hire him, not the other way round. Clients will absolutely not risk their money on a photographer who does not have proof that he can already do what he claims he can. Therefore, curate a portfolio of around 10-20 shots of the subject matter that you want to shoot. For instance, set up collaboration shoots with models if you want to shoot portraiture; use your own kitchen and style your food if you want to shoot food; offer to shoot your friends’ weddings for free if you want to shoot weddings, for example.

These shoots are perhaps going to be unpaid, but it doesn’t matter, as long as the quality of work is there. For a more detailed walk-through of how I built my portfolio, refer to the following articles:

  • Show your portfolio where your clients are looking

Now that you have a portfolio together that you think is up to standard, start getting people to see it. The most standard way of showing your work is to host it on a website. The greatest perk of putting together a website portfolio is that you will have a high level of control over the design and layout of how your work is being presented.

For a fuller account on how to do this, refer to my earlier article “The Art of Promoting and Selling for Photographers”.

For certain types of clients, usually retail customers, Instagram tends to work really well. These are people scrolling their Instagram feed the first thing they wake, and are glued to the app throughout the day. For genres mainly targeted the general public, it would be wise to build up a following on Instagram and regularly refresh your work there.

For other types of clients, for instance businesses, Linkedin would perhaps be more relevant. You will be talking to people holding a high position within a company, for instance the CMO, the Art Director etc. People in business (which is wildly generic, I am aware) are usually active on LinkedIn, so consider brushing up your profile on the platform if you are mostly looking to shoot for businesses.

  • Devise a pitch and pricing plans

Where a potential client is interested in working with you, they will take the conversation further and ask for more details. Them showing an interest is already a great start, though this really is only the beginning of the sales cycle.

In order to convince them that they should actually give you their money in exchange for your services, you will need to pitch them and tell them why they should hire you. And this is done through a pitch and eventually, the price.

This would involve researching into their aesthetics, their preferences and styles, and offering solid reasons why they should work with you, but not another photographer.

Pricing is a tricky issue to work with, though I would advise you to not be too worked up about it for your first few gigs. In this video, I share how I started charging, and pretty much stumbled into it.

  • Serve your clients well to have them recommend you

It goes without saying that you have to deliver what you promised to in your pitch, and in later correspondence. But it is also ultra important that you serve your clients so well that they love you and recommend your services to other people.

This way, you will massively increase the effectiveness of your marketing mechanisms, because the word of mouth is the marketing channel with the highest conversion rate.

In the process, you will have trouble - misunderstandings happen, there will be conflict. For tips on how to deal with difficult client situations, refer to the following articles on my blog, also under the “Business of Photography” section.

As you can see, none of these have anything to do with a university degree, or a course, or anything in relation to your credentials. The photography business is for and only for go-getters. These are steps that people without a degree are perfectly capable of taking.

Do you need to know math to be a photographer?

There is no particular association between math abilities and success as a photographer, but it wouldn’t harm to be smart with numbers in business. Good math doesn’t benefit a photographer much as to photo quality and the operation of the camera, but it does help in pricing work, calculating costs and preparing budgets.

In other words, the type of math that would help your photography career is business math, which is not exactly the same thing as the typical academic math you learn at school. Being good a business math helps you stay in business, which is the case not only for a photography business, but any business in general. Here is how business math plays out in professional photography:

  • Pricing your services at a competitive yet profitable rate;

  • Save costs and stay lean, especially for beginner photographers;

  • Invest wisely in gear, courses, marketing and mentorship;

For your information, photographers are actually pretty bad at math, at least stereotypically.

What qualifications do you need to become a photographer? What kind of degree do I need?

You do not need any particular qualifications or degrees to become a photographer. Photography is a skill that is mainly learnt through practice. While there are theories that can help with the photography practice, they are far from the core of good photography and most photographers eventually educate themselves on it. Qualifications are a good-to-have, but generally, photography credentials are earned by shooting prestigious jobs.

Recommended Courses, Minors, Studies or Equivalent

Can I study photography?

Yes, you can. Full-time BA in Photography degrees are typically offered by most art schools in major cities, such as the University of Arts London in the UK, Yale University School of Art in the US. If you already an undergraduate degree in another discipline, there also are institutions which offer MA degrees such as Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons School of Design etc. There is also the option of taking shorter-term or online courses of a segment in photography at institutions like the International Centre of Photography.

What should I study if I like photography? What subjects are best?

Fine Arts, Art History, Film, Visual Communications, Photography and Photojournalism/ documentary photography are among the most common university degrees photographers took, using Magnum Photographers and Harpers Bazaar’s list of 62 Best Wedding Photographers in the World. Many took a subject tangentially related to photography as an undergrad, and then pursued a postgraduate degree in photography.

Here is a full breakdown of my research on Magnum Photographers, compiling the data on their university degree where the information is available. Do note that this segmentation is a rough one, as many of the photographers hold a degree that spreads across a few neighbouring disciplines, such as ‘Literature and Art’, ‘Philosophy and Art History’ etc. As for the N/A column, these photographer either did not mention holding a tertiary education degree, or that their subject discipline is unclear.

This first chart plots out the degrees held by 99 Magnum Photographers as of 2021.

Screenshot 2021-06-30 at 3.31.36 PM.png

Out of the 73 Magnum photographers’ whose degree discipline is known, 31 did a degree in photography, photojournalism or film, amounting to over 40%. The distribution of other subjects are relatively concentrated in the humanities space, totalling 36. Sciences, economics and law consisted of 4, 1 and 1 counts respectively.

This second chart plots out the degrees held by 62 ‘Best Wedding Photographers in the World’ as rated by Harpers Bazaar as of 2021.

Screenshot 2021-06-30 at 3.38.35 PM.png

Out of the 38 top wedding photographers whose degrees are known, 13 studied photographer, representing approximately 33%. As for the rest, we have a good mix between humanities and sciences.

When reading the data above, do keep the following in mind:

  1. The data does not represent a correspondence between degree discipline and a photography career, but rather a coincidence. Just because many photographers happened to have had a photography-related degree, it is not sufficient to prove that the degree has helped their photography career.

  2. These two sets of data only represent the top performers in two genres of photography, namely documentary/ photojournalism and wedding. There certainly are many other genres of photography that can be very lucrative and rewarding, such as real estate, product, landscape, to name a few. Also, you don’t have to be at the absolute top in your industry to make a living out of photography.

  3. For some of these photographers, photography was not their first career. They typically have had a day job for the first 10 years or so of their working life, and then did a photography degree, which they think would facilitate their transition into the industry as a professional.

What stream should I choose to become a photographer?

The general direction taken by most top photographers is to pursue a degree in photography, photojournalism, or film. Among 99 Magnum photographers and Harpers Bazaar’s 62 Best Wedding Photographers in the World, 40% held a photography-related degree. Other common degrees include Arts, History, Communication Studies and Social Sciences.

There is no solid prove that doing photography-related degrees are a surefire way of making it as a professional photographer, because the technical aspect of photography can be very much self-taught.

Where such a degree does make a difference though, is the network of alumni and like-minded creatives a degree provides, which makes it much easier to get your feet into the industry.

Timeframe

How long do you have to go to school to be a photographer?

The bottom line is, it is not necessary to go to school to be a photographer. But for those who do, most spend 1-2 years on a masters degree in photography after earning a degree in an unrelated discipline. Some spend 3-4 years to complete an undergraduate degree on photography. Do note that going to photography school does not guarantee you success in running a photography business, however.

How long does it take to become a photographer?

From starting to make money as a photographer to being a financially sustainable photographer usually takes a minimum of 2 years, averages about 4 years, and can take up to decades for some. Before that, photographers usually have been shooting as a hobby before they feel confident in transitioning it into a profession.

That being said, the timeframe and paths is certainly going to look different for you. It will depend on your:

  • Talent level. The more talented you are, the quicker you will be able to amass an impressive portfolio.

  • Financial health. The more side money you have, the more you can invest in yourself, whether it be gear, courses, trips to documenting unique places, softwares etc.

  • People skills. The better you are at making connections and showing your work to the right people, the more readily you catch opportunities coming your way.

  • Discipline. The more you pick up the camera and practice, the more insightful your images become.

How to become a photographer as a kid/ teenager?

Social media is a great place to start. It has no entry barriers, everyone can create an account and start sharing work. It is increasingly where clients look for emerging talent, and also tends to be where a younger client base is active. Good photography does not know age; simply start creating and start sharing, word will spread if your work is good.

Assuming that you are still financially unstable, you will have to start with the gear you have and make the most out of it. If you are in the position to pick, get a camera that comes with manual exposure modes. Learning manual exposure is the key to really understanding exposure and getting a concept of stops of light, which is of ultra importance if you want to produce work of a commercial standard.

As a young person, being internet/ social media savvy is a massive edge. Most established photographers, say in their 40s, did not grow up with these tools that permits the democratisation of photography. You, on the other hand, grew up knowing how social media works, or at least have a better idea of how it works, so use that to your advantage. People do look for photographers on Instagram - Instagram feeds are seen as a candid portrayal of a photographer’s style.

Should you become a professional photographer?

For a personalised analysis of whether you should pursue a career in photography, check out this quiz I have made “Should I become a photographer?, also available here.

How do I know if I have a talent in photography?

Strong signs that you have a talented for photography include:

  • Your friends and acquaintances remark so without you asking

  • You are able to make subjects appear more photogenic than they actually are

  • You have a sense of what makes a photograph or a scene memorable

  • You are getting industry recognition (eg. submissions, competitions, collaborations, commissions etc.)

Ultimately, it is down to you to decide how confident you are in your abilities as a photographer, and the above are factors that typically contribute to a budding photographer’s confidence level. Do bear in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all model in evaluating talent because it flourishes in so many shapes and forms.

Is photography a skill or a talent?

Photography is a skill, but people have varying levels of talent in executing on and presenting the skill. Talent enables one to see good compositions and visualise the image better, but such an ability needs to be refined and encouraged through discipline. When it comes to professional photographers, talent becomes less relevant because it is a prerequisite. The success of a working photographer depends largely on being reliable and presentable.

What qualities and skills does a photographer need?

Skills essential to being a successful photographer include technical skills, people skills, business skills, and problem-solving skills. Technical skills enable a photographer to deliver high quality images. People skills are important when working within a team with other creatives to deliver a project. Business skills brings in jobs and keeps clients coming back, and problem-solving abilities are required to cope with unexpected issues.

I’ve made this video to show you what the day-to-day looks like for a professional photographer, and to break down the areas of competences that are crucial to becoming successful as a creative entrepreneur.

  • Technical skills

To begin with, clients need to like what they see on your portfolio before they consider hiring you. A good portfolio is a culmination of your technical competence in understanding your gear, and your knowledge of what makes a great photo.

This will include knowing how to use your camera properly to the very least, and depending on the type of photography you would like to shoot, how to use lights properly. Here are more detailed tutorials for your reference:

Exposure settings and lighting are the two main core areas of competence in relation to gear for photographers.

Other areas involve developing your ‘eye’ for good photography, as I have explained above.

  • People skills

This is especially so for some segments of photography that involves a creative crew, such as portraiture and fashion, but working as a photographer in itself means running a business, which will inevitably bring you in contact with people to work with.

On the teamwork side of things, you will have to align visions of a shoot with fellow creatives so that the resulting images come out as everyone expected. This looks like creating mood boards for your makeup artist, directing your model’s posing, and understanding the designer’s brand direction, for example.

On the communication side of things, there are a lot of negotiation that can happen between you and your client before the sale comes through. After that, a lot of work involves keeping the client in the loop, on the same page with what you are working on, to make sure that they are expecting the same thing that you are going to deliver.

  • Business skills

As mentioned above, making a living as a photographer is running a small business, so your competence as a business person will determine largely your business’ success.

Some examples of business skills include sales, marketing, pricing, budgeting etc. You are responsible for putting your work in front of the right people, and convincing them why they should hire you over the next photographer.

It also falls under your job scope to market yourself, and to create a unique brand to yourself that is reflected in the vibe of your marketing platforms.

Other more technical aspects of running a business also applies to the photography business, such as creating pricing proposals, drafting contracts and invoices etc.

  • Problem-solving skills

Last but by no means the least, working as a photographer means you are going to run into issues that are totally out of your expectations. Unpredictability and excitement are essentially the two sides of the same coin.

Many of these issues take the shape of logistical issues. A typical example would be handling expensive equipment and materials in a shoot that has to take place at an exotic location.

Other challenges include getting permission to shoot at a certain place, which otherwise would count as trespassing if you simply go ahead and shoot nevertheless.

Equipment and Gear

What equipment do I need to be a photographer?

You need a solid camera body and 2-3 lenses. The typical choice of camera among professional photographers today is a full-frame DSLR or Mirrorless. Photographers usually own a mixture of zoom and price lenses to cover different situations. The ‘nifty fifty’, 24-70mm are more accessible options. For genres like events and portraits, portable lights are also essential.

Here is the types of gear that actually makes a difference to support your photography business, as I consolidate my experience as a photographer so far in my career.

Camera Body

The most common camera body that professional photographers shoot with today is a full-frame DSLR/ Mirrorless. As compared to other camera types, like APS-C, medium format and film cameras, they sit at a point where the best balance is achieved between image quality, convenience and business considerations.

That being said, you don’t need to get the best camera bodies when first trying out photography, because camera bodies evolve constantly. By the time you’ve decided to take on photography clients professionally, the options on the market are going to look very different from when you started.

Lens

Most photographers have around 3 lenses that they use extensively that they know well and have consistently produced reliable results over the years, and rent other lenses if a very specific need arises. What exactly to buy will obviously differ from the genre of photography that you do. But generally speaking, it will be good to own lenses in your collection that stops down to f/1.8, equipped with full manual focusing capabilities, and covers frequently used focal lengths.

I am a prime lens person, and I shoot predominantly portraits (fashion) and streets (photojournalism). So for my needs, I have a 24mm f/2.8 prime by Canon, 50mm f/1.8 prime by Yongnuo and 100mm f/2.0 also by Canon that goes with my Canon 5D Mark IV. This is the set of gear that I feel covers my shoots fairly well, though previously I have rented telephoto lenses like the 70-200mm telephoto lens for a shoot with Ferrari/ Instacarhk, and a 100mm macro lens for a menu shoot for Ming Kee Dessert.

Check out the latest prices on Amazon.

Lights

Lights usually only become relevant when you have made up your mind that you want to start making money from photography. Before that, you will do fine by simply renting lights from equipment rentals, which would make more sense financially if you are just looking to dabble with different lighting techniques.

Great options as a starter are portable LED lights. They typically fit into pockets and come with a small tripod. This set up acts great as a fill light, and comes to your rescue when shooting under dim lighting situations. Getting a tiny continuous light source also helps you visualise how artificial lighting looks like on your subject, which is not possible with a flash.

The basic option is to go with Bi-Colour LED lights which only allows you to adjust the temperature of the light, aka warmth. For more creative freedom, RBG LED lights would be a great investment, which enables you to create light of every imaginable colour on the planet, basically.

Hot-shoe flashes lights (also known as speedlites), as I mentioned in the video, are the best way to get used flashes, and learning the mechanism behind syncing the flash with your camera shutter.

I personally have a Bi-Colour LED light Phottix Kali 150, and a RBG LED light Phottix M200R RGB as far as continuous lights go, and a Yongnuo YN 560 II, which is now the Yongnuo YN 560 III or IV, as far as flashes go.

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Summary

In this article, we covered:

  • Required University Degrees or Equivalent for becoming a professional photographer;

  • Recommended Courses, Minors, Studies or Equivalent for becoming a professional photographer;

  • How long does it take to become a professional photographer;

  • What it takes to be a photographer; and

  • Necessary gear and equipment used by photographers.

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