Best education for commercial photographer?


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Feb 3, 2012
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I am a mature student trying to make a choice between the Digital Photography BA at London Southbank and a Photography FdA at City and Islington - the difference in expense is considerable! I want the best set up possible as I am making considerable sacrifices returning to university for a second time. Is a first class degree at Southbank really going to open more doors than an FdA at City and Islington? What do future employers think? What are my employment prospects?
Welcome to the forum.

Every situation is going to be different...but I'd suggest that a possibly 'better' path, may be to intern/apprentice with actual working photographers, rather than going for a degree. Photography isn't like being a doctor or engineer, you don't need to be certified to do the job. You could get a degree and apply for a job, only to have someone walk in without any formal education and get the job you wanted. It's more about your skills, talents and your drive to succeed.

I don't know about commercial photography, but usually when someone asks about what education route they should take to be a photographer, the most common recommendation is to major in business, rather that photography or art. Way too many great artists fail because the don't excel at the business side of things. And many average artists succeed because they are good at the business.
You will get the better commercial internships through Universities. Intern your first year if you can, even if you don't get credits for it. In commercial photography it is ALL ABOUT WHO YOU KNOW. A lot of the internship is moving equipment and fetching coffee and you won't even take one shot with a camera but it is more about learning the ins and outs and making contacts. You can try for internships outside of the University but most of the good ones require you to be enrolled in one. Even if you go for the less expensive training, contact as many commercial photographers as you can an ask about internships
I feel, the best photographers usually have an art background of some form. If you going to just shoot babies and weddings, then maybe its not as important. But if you are going into commercial photography, you'll be working with art directors and other creatives, and will need your creative chops developed. There is a big difference between spending a day shooting a wedding and taking 1000 pictures, and spending a day shooting one picture for an ad campaign.

I have nothing against weddings or retail portrait photogrphy. I've done a fair amount myself. But it is a different animal than commercial photography. For instance, compare a wedding videographer versus Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer from Lord of the Rings. Different skill sets and artistic requirements. School is super important. I disagree with anyone who opposes it, and challenge them to speak about it first hand, meaning that they earned a visual arts degree but find llittle value in it. Business school is overkill for most freelancers. Business classes wouldn't hurt but you are not running a super complicated business as an independent contractor. Just find a good accountant, learn how to price for the market, and learn about copyright and licensing. There are organizations out there with a wealth of commercial photography specific information like ASMP. I think your time will be best spent learning about photography in an educational environment. Plus you can pay people to assist you with the business side, but you can't pay people to take pictures for you. Good luck.
Yeah, why art education is rarely mentioned, boggles the mind.
I have to agree with kkamin. Except for the importance of an an art degree.

I went to an art school for a while. I was done with it after 3 classes: Design 101 and 102, and Art and the Law. Those were tremendously useful in the long run but I lucked out as far as professors were concerned. Your mileage may vary. I didn't seek a degree because I saw no use in it except for the possibility of one day teaching (and even there the degree is not absolutely required. You can teach if you make a name for yourself,) and, of course, having grown up surrounded by artists I may have had an advantage...

Business wise, I learned about it by reading books and listening to friends with experience.

That art school had nothing to teach me about photography, I had 12 years of pro photo behind me at that time as a PJ, but 2 years of assisting a couple commercial photogs was most certainly a major plus. But again, not everyone learns the same way. Some, like me, learn better by doing and others do better in a classroom environment. You first need to figure out which way you are than make your decision accordingly.

As far as the two schools you are talking about, I don't know them but here are a couple thoughts that may help you: the photo schools in France turn out technicians, few real photographers because they teach the technical aspect of photography and nothing about the artistry. English schools may be different however.

Schools are partly about making contacts and in that respect, the better regarded school, even if more expensive, would be the best bet.

Coming out of school you most probably still will have to go to work as an assistant and your schooling may not be of much help then. I hire mostly assistants with very limited knowledge so I can teach them my ways. Re-training someone is way more complicated that training them in the first place.

Good luck to you.
I did the math before, and I estimated I spent close to 10,000 hours in school engaged in art projects over four year time. BFA, art programs, are different than other undergrad degrees in the sense you are pretty much doing art the entire time. It wasn't uncommon to not sleep for several days to get projects done; people in art school tend to be passionate and it created an exciting environment to be in.

I think the main benefits of art school for me were:

•10,000 hours dedicated to learning and creating art in a thoughtful program.

•Guidance from professors. If I were an aspiring golfer and Tiger Woods was my coach, he would have incredible insight into my game. It helps to have professional educators give you feedback.

•Crits: You don't just learn from your own work, but you get to see the successes and failures of other students. You sort of are vicariously traveling with them on their journey. Crits also teach you to "see". Most people aren't very good at crits the first semester at school, but by the second year, people are becoming very articulate and insightful. Being able to talk about art is intensely important.

•Interships. Companies usually prefer upper level college students from accredited schools over random people off the street. Many students go on to work at where they interned.

•The degree. It helps despite some people's dismissal of it. You are forever connected to the alumni and the school. I'm pretty sure art buyers and art directors will prefer to work with someone who has shown this level of commitment. And it holds a certain amount of cred when you tell people, as opposed to saying you are self-taught. When's the last time you saw a self-taught dentist or put your finances in the hands of a self-taught accountant? The accreditation opens up doors is all I am saying.

Of course most people who finish school are not quite ready to fully engage in their occupation. They need some real world training and experience. But school is one way to get you ready for those challenges. And I'm not talking about retail photography (baby pictures and weddings), you could probably skip school and do an okay job. The retail market is different than the commercial market. The commercial market demands a different skill set. I made the analogy above, comparing a wedding videographer to Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer from Lord of the Rings.

I can't believe I'm defending education. This always happens on these forums. I don't get it. I can understand if you are a junior project manager with an English Lit degree and feel your schooling was irrelevant. But if you go to art school for photography and want to be a photographer, that makes sense to me.

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