What Schools Really Need to Teach About Photography

Most freelance photographers spend much of their time looking for new business, which can come as a surprise to new graduates entering the marketplace.

“Basic courses in photography cover equipment, processes, and techniques,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “Learning good business and marketing skills is important and some bachelor’s degree programs offer courses focusing on them.”

Some? Seriously? I can’t imagine the irresponsibility of a school sending a graduate off with a diploma without a skill so key as business. Perhaps this is why we find our markets diluted with hungry, idealistic photographers being churned out only to find there isn’t a market for them.

They’re educated, they’re smarter, more savvy, and by default, artistically talented. But having the skill and passion to create visually stunning images is not enough to survive as a photographer. There is a critical need for business savvy – contracts, accounting, marketing, etc.

Setting the camera on Program and hoping for the best isn’t the solution, nor is ignoring that pile of bills and thinking elves will pay them and send out your invoices.

Business Skills Must Be Emphasized

So, what’s to be done? The school of thought at some point was that starry-eyed students would flock to institutes of higher learning under the promise of education leading to higher dollars in our profession.

But look at these numbers from the Labor Department: “Median annual wages of salaried photographers were $29,440 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $20,620 and $43,530. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $16,920, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $62,430.”

New Generation Must Embrace the Challenge

There is a critical need for a new generation of photographers, visionaries who can make a difference. Whether they come to us through an institute of higher learning or as an apprentice of an experienced photographer, they are a necessity.

Even newly graduated freelancers are professionals and are worth the money they make in the same way that a young lawyer charges for his or her time.

We are business people, part of an industry. We want a good standard of living. That’s why it’s vital that schools teaching photography recognize their responsibility to teach the business skills necessary for their graduates to succeed.


8 Responses to “What Schools Really Need to Teach About Photography”

  1. Amen.

  2. I hear you about the need for business skills, and for teaching business skills, but to suggest that students coming out of photography schools/programs are "...smarter, more savvy, and by default, artistically talented" is absolute hogwash!?!

  3. well said

  4. John,
    The curriculum in most schools ignore that for the most part because their faculty are not practicing their craft as a business.

    In a sense, few school are teaching anything real world, only how to take pretty pictures.

    This is becoming more and more important as more and more graduates flood the marketplace. Schools have been extremely slow to revise their curriculum if at all, to prepare them for the real world.

    My transition from newspaper photography to freelance would have been a whole lot easier if the college I attended 'mentioned' a business side of our craft.

    Thanks for sharing this John.

  5. I started out on my own 11 years ago with no idea on business, I have had to teach myself over the past 11 years and it has been a steep learning curve. We learnt nothing at college about running a business. It is interesting that a good friend of mine who lectures photography is now getting students looking at how a business runs and what you need to do. They will probably be better prepared than I ever was

  6. It does indeed make sense that at least a basic level of business training is given, but I would hate for it to be at the expense of producing independent thinking, quality photographers with a sense of purpose to their work. Depending on which part of the industry you pursue, the basics of the business side of freelancing are not especially complex and I think a substantial application of common sense will deliver far more bang with a little guidance than an in depth business course will deliver without it.

    The 'business' side of my college course was bizarre, more like a two term course in basic economics that took in stock markets, government borrowing and national budgets, but left out book keeping and marketing. But my main photographic tutors, both seasoned freelancers, hammered into us from day one the unswerving ethos of quality, commitment, inspiration, comprehension of the brief and the absolute resolution to get the prints/scans to the client by their (frequently tight) deadlines with no ifs ands or buts. Essentially; never forget who pays the bills or why.

    In 25 years of successfully (and very, very profitably) working in the industry, I have shown a portfolio to a prospective client on only one occasion, to a lead picked up at my end of year show. All subsequent work has come from the network built from that first contact, usually calls or emails from associates or acquaintances of a client who have seen my recent published work in my clients office - in other words word of mouth. While I certainly wouldn't recommend it to a college leaver as 'plan A', the reason it has worked for me (healthy dose of luck aside) is a total commitment to producing the best and most 'fresh' work I possibly can, to the brief (and offering alternatives), on time, on budget, taking on as much of the end-to-end production and logistics as I can in-house. But by doing all of these and making the clients life as painless as possible, you get the holy grail that keeps the ball rolling; trust and loyalty, and through those more work. The same ethos has worked well for many (but not all) of those I graduated with, and has led us in the end to often different places photographically than where we started. Perhaps it wouldn't work in the modern era, but I certainly wouldn't exchange the photographic education I did get for a course that left me as qualified to be a salesman as a photographer.

  7. ive always said photography is the easy part

  8. I just discovered this site and appreciate the discussions. After 25 years running a commercial studio I am now teaching Photography at a local Technical College, offering a 2 year AAS degree in Commercial or Wedding/Portrait Photography. We have one dedicated class called The Business of Photography. We deal with pricing, estimating, insurance, copyright, contracts, marketing, sales,social media, attitude, motivation... About half way through the class someone always asks "Is there any good news about the photography business?" I truly believe that the 2 year technical schools offer an intensive REALISTIC view of how to break into the business. Our schools missions statement is to prepare students for the workforce in an ever changing global economy. We start out with about 60 new students every fall. After 2 years about 15 graduate and 3 years after that about 2-3 are making a living from their photography and 5 are doing it part time, and I tell this to my students.

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