Can You Teach Yourself Photography?

I recently received an email from someone who was interested in becoming a professional photographer. She wanted to know if she should go to school for it, or could she do it all on her own.

My answer … Yes.

We are living proof that you don’t have to have a degree in photography in order to become very successful professional photographers. Andrew studied business in college, and I have a master’s degree in financial management. No photography or art classes anywhere in our background – on a college level.

Yet what we did have was a knack for photography, a love for business, and a passion for putting the two together. And that’s really what started it all.

We also realized that there were two ways to become better at the art of photograph. One, take more photographs. Like everything, practice makes perfect. The more you practice, the better you get. And two, study under other successful photographers to learn the secrets along the way.

If someone has “been there, done that” it makes sense to follow in their footsteps. Why reinvent the wheel? Instead, if you look to them for guidance, whether its reading a book or taking a one-week intensive training program, you gain the knowledge that they are willing to share with you.

Pros and Cons of Teaching Yourself

The top benefit of teaching yourself photography is the cost. College is expensive these days. A friend of mine has a student in an art college studying photography, and it will be well over $120,000 for a four year degree. Add in the extras – books, cameras, computer equipment, software – and you are looking at a very expensive path. While a four year program can be pricey, the one thing they do give you is intense training. You live and breathe photography for four years, and learn everything about the arts. If you teach yourself, you have to be dedicated to living that same type of lifestyle and subjecting yourself to the same intensity level.

When we started out, we had a camera, and a desire to grow the business. So we started taking every tutorial, and attend every program we could. We joined Professional Photographers of America, and set out on a course to become certified professional photographers. Not only did that provide guidance and a path for us to travel down, it also allowed us to prove our worth in the photographic community. Yes, you can just shoot and sell to clients. But if you want to be a great photographer, it also requires understanding everything you can about the industry. That’s why we put ourselves on the path of certification – to get a top ranking within the industry as well.

Another benefit of teaching yourself is you can decide your pace of learning, as well as the focus on what skills to acquire. With a formal degree, you’ll be studying many different aspects of the industry. Perhaps you already know what you love, and what you want to pursue. You’ve always loved landscapes, and would love to spend weeks at a time backpacking through rainforests. Or you adore babies, and want to spend every hour of the day creating portraits of small children. You are ahead of the pack. You don’t have to learn about other fields; pick the mentors at the top of your area of interest, and start learning. Buy books, attend seminars, and get one on one coaching if possible. You have your focus, so it’s easy to put the next steps into place.

A third benefit of teaching yourself is you will most likely develop your own unique style, and become an innovator along the way. With no one telling you how to do something, why something is “wrong or right”, you’ll develop your own style. You will take pieces of what you see and what you learn, and put them together in a way that is unique to you. You won’t be tested, so you’ll never develop the “fear” of not doing something the “right” way. While there are always design elements that hold true, and make you better at the art of photography, you’ll learn them on your own by watching and listening to other professionals.

While I am a firm believer in your own self-innovation, this can also be a difficult path if you continue to do something wrong, with no way of knowing how to fix it. By having a teacher around you every day, you can simply ask a question when you can’t find the solution. Yet by struggling on your own, it may take weeks or even months to discover the solution, and how to incorporate it into your business. Don’t close your mind to other potentials. With the Internet, you can search for many things, and can look at one problem in many ways. Look for several solutions, and choose the best for you.

Self-education is great in many ways. However, you are limited by the choices you make. With formal education, you will be introduced to a variety of thoughts – some you like, and some you don’t. All will help develop your skills, and give you your unique fortitude. Through self-education, you will avoid the things that don’t resonate with you, and therefore miss the opportunity of picking up valuable advice that can change your perspective. The more you commit to the art of photography, the more you should explore every aspect of it. Take classes and read books and training guides from people you like – and people you may not, but are still well respected within the industry.

Even if you pick up one tiny piece of knowledge from someone, it still can have a profound affect on how you present your art to the world.

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