The Photography Blog: Is a photography degree worth the paper it’s written on?

Alex Hare
photography 300x225 The Photography Blog: Is a photography degree worth the paper it’s written on?


The new academic year is almost upon us and as universities prepare to open their doors to the latest batch of students paying the highest fees in history for their education, we take a look at whether embarking on a photography degree is still a worthy option.

First, let’s consider why someone would want to study photography. I teach one morning a week at my local university and I ask all my year one students what they want to do when they graduate. Everyone says they want to be a photographer. Will they all graduate and instantly become professional photographers? No, and I’d eat my 70-200mm L Series lens if they did. Will some make it eventually? Yes, inevitably, and this doesn’t mean that, for the rest, the degree has been a waste. Not every history student becomes a historian, after all.

Karen Shepherdson is a Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University and she’s clear on why a degree is worth doing: “a degree gives a graduate advanced skills; the ability to absorb a lot of complex information, to approach problems coherently, to be logical, strategic and considered. These transferable skills are pushed and developed by the photography degree and are applicable to almost any career.”

She has a point. Someone going straight into assisting might be getting closer to the action in terms of genuine, paid photography, but there’s no plan B. If you fail, you’re just an A-Level student who didn’t go on to make it as a photographer. Not a brilliant CV. If you’re a graduate with a photography degree, the world of graduate training is open to you. I have friends who studied history, music and English before becoming lawyers, for example.

My own career path has been somewhat circuitous but every step has helped make my photography business a reality, including my higher education. I studied Journalism at Cardiff, then converted to Law, served in the Royal Marines then practiced as a solicitor before starting my photography business a couple of years ago. Not exactly a time honoured route into the profession but one that has served me well.

After serving in the Marines, long and ungodly hours don’t faze me, running the administrative side of a business is a breeze after managing multiple legal cases and learning the principles of journalism means contributing words and pictures to the press makes me a more attractive option than those supplying pictures alone. In fact, you could say I’ve been training for this job all my life!

But, it’s taken me 10 years to get to where I want to be and Karen thinks a photography degree can drastically cut the time spent getting ‘Life Experience’ down; “a photography degree is not some glorified camera club, we interview and assess candidates before accepting them. We ensure we have the brightest, most committed students and in return we give them a genuine means to an end. The degree opens far more career doors than it shuts and they leave with enough technical knowledge to hold their own as well as a range of intellectual rigour, academic, political and ideological awareness that employers in any industry look for in any graduate.”

As to whether it’s a ‘soft’ subject, Karen is robust on this issue: “in the Seventies a Sociology degree was seen as ‘soft’, in the Fifties English Literature was ‘soft’. Now they are popular, mainstream degrees and generally accepted as ‘proper’ in the jobs market. Given the education we put the students through it’s anything but ‘soft’!”

I’m also keen to find out more about the substance of a photography degree; what are they learning, why do they study black-and-white print making in a digital world and how are they adapting to the changing camera technology that puts Hi Def video cameras in people’s hands, as well as Hi Res cameras?

Karen says: “we strike a balance between the academic, theoretical side and the technical, practical training side. I think it’s important for them to understand the basic principles of exposure and this is what traditional dark room techniques teach. It would be anachronistic for us to send out photography graduates who had no idea about developing a print in a traditional sense, even if they opt for a digital workflow in practice.

We also have the flexibility and the means to provide up-to-date training on the latest technology. Many young people won’t have the funds to own a Hi Res camera, the latest MAC computers or software, but we can and we teach basic video work to reflect the growing nature of this in a professional photographer’s workflow.”

I’m left wondering what a first year student can do then to give themselves the best possible chances of succeeding, whether they choose to become a photographer or enter a different career path on graduation. Karen says; “they have to live and breathe the subject, not just stroll in, do their lectures and go home. They have to put in time and effort to push their creativity and their intellect beyond what we’re teaching them.”

I suppose she’s right; a first is a first after all and my contemporaries and I have shown that an arts degree is not a stopper on becoming either an artist or entering a more conventional profession.

Finally, I ask Karen about the issue over the higher fees and whether the degree can still ‘pay for itself’. “Higher fees are a fact of life now,” says Karen, “and parents and students are naturally keener than ever to see what they are getting for their money. We have confidence in our programme and what we offer and I think it’s a positive thing that people are more considered about deciding to come and do a photography degree. If ever there was a chance to shed those just coming along because they thought it was an easy option this is it and I think it will help us attract the brightest, keenest and most committed students to the degree, which can only be a positive thing.”

Have Your Say:

1. Do you think a photography degree is worth doing if you want to be a photographer?

2. Does a photography degree seem viable to you with the increased fees required to undertake it, or would you opt for a work experience based route into the profession?

3. Would the higher fees put you off an Arts course? Would you prefer to attend a purely vocational degree with a clear career path and more predictable income following the heavier investment made in your initial education?

And finally…

Competition time. National Geographic Traveller are running their annual travel photography competition. For a chance to win an all expenses paid trip to the American mid west, enter online at:

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  • Stephen Potts

    I see adverts seeking students who will work for free (or almost free) every week, if nobody made the mistake of being taken for a ride in this way then the adverts would die out, instead they are rife. People doing this spoil the market and are ensuring that they will not have a paid future in the industry. This needs to be taught, not just f-stops and Fox Talbot.

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