Eight Lessons My College Photography Instructor Never Taught Me

Since I currently teach photography to college students part-time, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my own formal education in photojournalism. I’ve realized that many of the most important lessons I’ve learned — ones I hope to impart to my own students — were never actually taught in school. Here are a few of them.

1. Humility is paramount to growth.

No matter how gifted you think you are, if you project a know-it-all attitude, you will be left in the dust — in school and in your career. More than in most professions, mentors can be incredibly valuable to photographers. But nobody wants to take a smart aleck under his or her wing. Be humble and show respect for those who share their experience with you.

2. Equipment only gets you so far.

Most working professionals don’t dwell on gear. I’ve found, ironically, that hobbyists focus a lot more on equipment than many pros do. Perhaps this is because these hobbyists tend to have day jobs, so having the latest equipment is a fun luxury rather than a cost of doing business. Believe it or not, some of my students actually have better gear than I do.

Working photographers, on the other hand, are too busy taking pictures for a living to stop to learn the latest version of an application or check out the latest camera on the market. Brand names like Nikon, Canon, Hasselblad, Lenovo, Mac, Lightroom, Aperture are all just that — names. In the right hands, even a blunt stick can be a dangerous weapon.

3. You don’t need to travel to faraway places or spend lots of money to make good photos.

Nurturing a curiosity about the world around you will serve you better in the long run than having a well-stamped passport. I can say this with authority, because as a former airline cabin attendant, I used to hop on airplanes more often than buses. Pretty scenery does not a photographer make.

Not only that, but “exotic” photos aren’t as exotic as they used to be. Subject matter that once could only be found in National Geographic or a few other periodicals is now all over the Web, as photographers in every corner of the world upload their work.

Which means that storytelling must come to the fore to get your pictures noticed. And stories can be told in your neighborhood just as well as somewhere else.

4. Your future is in your hands — literally.

After you learn the basic techniques of photography, it’s up to you to decide how you want to fill your frame every time you hold up your camera. The more often you use that camera, the more likely you’ll come up with a muse. Imagination and persistence can make up for bad breaks, a bad economy, cheap microstock competition, and lots of other excuses for not succeeding.

5. Where you go to school doesn’t matter as much as the quality of your work.

I still have a copy of a chart a former boss used listing all the candidates he considered when he hired me. He was kind enough to share it with me after he brought me on board. That chart showed how he awarded points for education, resume, portfolio and other criteria. It was an eye-opener — especially when it showed the high-end schools my competitors had attended.

I have nothing against brand-name art schools, only the sham that by attending a certain school, you will have success handed to you.

6. Your work will not sell itself.

Most college kids don’t realize that art schools gain standing largely by virtue of their ability to market themselves. If an alumnus ends up becoming famous, a school will latch on to them even if they only attended for a semester.

The irony is that while a school’s “rep” is a product of marketing, few art schools incorporate any marketing or other business courses in their curriculum. That’s ridiculous — because in today’s market, learning how to sell your work is as important as learning how to create it.

7. Succeeding in business is not about what you make, but what you keep.

Learning how to market your work is important. But as an independent photographer, you also need to understand how to manage a business.

Sadly, one of the famous photographers in the world, Annie Leibovitz, had to teach us this lesson. As the New York Times described her situation: “One of the world’s most successful photographers essentially pawned every snap of the shutter she had made or will make until [her] loans are paid off.”

8. Mistakes are inevitable.

Don’t fret, because we all make them. The key is learning from them.

12 Responses to “Eight Lessons My College Photography Instructor Never Taught Me”

  1. Well said!

  2. Very inspiring. Just what I needed to read today. Thanks.

  3. Great post and ohhh so true, especially the part about equipment. I've never been able to afford a gazillion lenses and I currently shoot with a Canon EOS A2E (10+ yr old film camera) and one of the first Canon Digi Rebels, now about 6+ yrs old. They're not pretty looking anymore but they do the job.


  4. Thank you Peter for such a great article and for your mail, I will put together a couple pics for you..Kind Regards, Dania

  5. Some great points. Def food for thought. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Great article. I did my first family shoot last nite and with 5 people going every which way and one crazy puppy that listened to no one...I learned about 10 different lessons from that shoot. Took this semester off just to shoot and learn. The best way to learn for me is to just go do it and review my images and say ok..that's what I did wrong.

    Thanks for the lessons you are totally on the mark.

  7. Great points Peter, thanks for sharing them. The only point I don't fully agree with is your mention about equipment. While I concur that even an extremely basic camera in the hands of a good photographer will yield great results, I've yet to meet a professional photographer that didn't have serious equipment. As well they should, as someone being paid to use the gear can justify its purchase a whole lot easier than someone that's just going out birding on weekends.

    I suspect that not having the absolute latest gear or being up on the latest app has much more to do with comfort-levels and a need for solid reliability.

    As it's business and not a hobby they're going to triage their knowledge a bit and focus on what they need to be the best at their craft, rather than just get submersed in the hobbyist culture that loves reading the latest reviews or downloading beta releases of Adobe products.

    Still, I know a lot more professional photographers with $10K+ of equipment that hobbyists can only afford to salivate over. It might not be the newest, but it was generally the best when it was new.

  8. Ryan, Alicia, Eve, Dania, DiamondDayz, Susan See & Claudia,
    Thanks for taking the trouble to comment.

    I'm pleased that you found this post worthwhile even if it is anecdotal.

  9. Peter,

    You are truly a "teacher". These eight lessons are words of wisdom and I thank you for them.


  10. Cate,
    That is very kind of you. Thanks for saying so.

  11. Hello Peter,
    I stumbled across this article and I find your info very valueable. I plan to pass it on to a few of my fellow photographers. Thanks for the advice.

  12. This is great advice for photographers -- and anyone else who pursues an artistic and creative life. Bravo, Peter!

Leave a Reply