Choosing what degree to study is a big decision. A lot of us (in the UK anyway) will only be able to get student loans to study one degree, so it’s important to know what you are getting into. Here’s a little bit of background of what led me to my photography degree, and how I made the decision.
Side note: Also accompanied by my old photography work at the time.
I always found academic things at school fairly easy. I enjoyed learning so I didn’t find it difficult to pass my GCSEs. At the time I was torn between going into some sort of academic work and pursuing my love of acting – therefore the A Levels I chose where Drama, Psychology, English Literature – I wanted a ‘softer’ subject to choose as my fourth option so I landed on photography because I knew photoshop and enjoyed making things. As it turned out – this was not how it all panned out. Due to some health reasons I had to drop drama and psychology, meaning I was left with two a levels in English Literature and Photography. I loved both of these subjects by the end of it, but the biggest surprise was Photography. Initially taken as a fun fill in, it soon became something I was so fascinated by and loved creating. I was good at it, and I only wanted to create more.
After A Levels I had a decision to make – what could I do with 2 good a levels? At one point I had decided to go back to college to study sciences (sometimes I wish I had) but the one subject I knew I could succeed was photography – and I suppose that’s how I ended up applying and getting accepted into the University for the Creative Arts.
Making the Decision
Looking back it was quite a snap decision. I thought I had to go to university straight away, I didn’t have any kind of plan for the future and I chose a subject that I thought I would enjoy and be okay at. I think nowadays a lot of university decisions are made in this kind of situation. If I could do it all again, I think I would have taken a year out working to think about what I really wanted to do rather than rush into a degree, but that’s how it worked out.
Okay, on to the things I wish I had known before studying a degree in photography.
What I Wish I Had Known
1- Photography is a lone subject and 100% means you need to put in the effort to make it something. In a lot of other subjects (eg. english, illustration) you can work all evening on your projects to perfect them. In photography you have to go out there and get the shots at the right time / place / moment. Therefore to get on well in photography, you need to be a proactive and self motivated kind of person. You can’t leave things until the night before it’s due apart from that one time.
2 – There are quite a lot of theory lectures. At the end of the day, it’s studying a degree and there are essays and a dissertation. A lot of universities have a department to help if you’re struggling, but be prepared to learn all about post modernism, psychoanalysis, image punctums and the social and cultural effects of photography. There is reading list like with any course.
3 – You get to use some pretty awesome state of the art equipment for free. Use it as much as you can! It’s amazing. I spent hours in the dark rooms, shot on a digital Hasselblad and huge old film cameras, rented a big studio whenever I wanted and had the run of a huge library full of the best books. All the computers there had the full Adobe Creative Suite too. Oh man, I did not take enough advantage of that and I MISS it now.
4 – You will probably leave doing a completely different form of photography than you started. I went in all photoshop heavy and over edited and came out wanting to make meaningful documentaries. It’s all part of the process. You learn a lot, and it changes how you work.
5 – They probably won’t teach you much about digital technical skills. I’m not sure if this was just the uni I went to, but we had next to no training on cameras, lighting and studios. These where the things we were expected to already know, or if we didn’t, to find a book about it.
6 – A lot of universities (definitely UCA) focus a lot on analogue film photography. It’s fun, but be prepared for that.
7 – Different lecturers will have different opinions and mark your work very differently. It’s frustrating and subjective but that’s just art. I once was doing a documentary project and my tutor told me to remove an image because it stood out as being too different. In the next tutorial, a different tutor told me I should 100% KEEP it. So, who knows. I also had a tutor once who would talk about Martin Parr forever. (PS: I really like Martin Parr’s work it just became a bit of an in joke)
8 – When you leave there are no jobs. Okay, so there might be the lucky few who fall into something salaried, but a lot of photography work is freelance or personal projects. A degree in photography is not a ‘fast track’ to earning a lot of money as a photographer. Afterwards, you’re on your own with how you choose to apply the skills to your life. Out of the people I’m still facebook friends with, only a very small handful are still pursuing photography. A few people have gone on to related skills like design or marketing, but I think most have left photography behind.
9 – It can be really expensive. The equipment side of things is sorted (and amazing) but like with any art subject, projects are self funded. If you want to photograph a series abroad then you need to fund that, or if you want to creative a2 framed prints you need to fund that too. There is a lot to be done to keep the costs down, but it can get expensive. When you study analogue film, which for me was compulsory, the cost of dark room paper and buying film is a lot.
Overall, I’m happy with the knowledge and experience I got out of studying a photography degree. There are some times that I wish I had studied something with a more linear career path in the sciences, but there are also some times that all I want to do is photography. It’s hard to know right now. I’m still finding my path.
I hope this has been useful to anyone who’s thinking of taking their study of photography further, please feel free to ask if you have any questions and I will help if I can.
As someone who relies on external hard drives for everything, I knew that one day I’d be writing a post like this. At some point, technology fails, and I count myself as super lucky that this is the first time ever I have had a hard drive fail on me. I just plugged it in one day, and along with some very questionable noises coming from it, it never showed up again.
Luckily, I was pretty much prepared for it to happen after hearing about horror stories from a lot of other photographers. All of my work for clients is safe and the only things I lost were a few personal photos and a few random files. I am very lucky, and I’m glad I took the basic measures to get things backed up. HOWEVER, this has given me warning for the future – I think there comes a (usually disastrous) moment in everyone’s life where they see the need to back things up, and this just happens to be mine. If you haven’t taken to back up or protect your files, then please let this little post be a reminder to do that. Share it far and wide to get the message to everyone one there.
1 – Create a ‘Mirror’ hard drive which doubles up your current hard drive.
There are various softwares that can do this for you, or you can always do it manually by copying photos to both whenever you import.
5 – Don’t wipe your memory cards for important jobs
A more expensive way of doing things and not necessary for everyday things – but if you have that Really Important Job™ it might be worth adding the cost of new memory cards that you never delete from or reformat.
6 – Don’t store things directly on your computer if you can help it.
Working off of backed up hard drives and online storage is generally more reliable.
Previously, I was probably utilising 3 of these methods on a consistent basis which is how I was able to get over this pretty unscathed. However, I’m still going to try and go through some data recovery to get back anything that I lost. It’s expensive though, and can be so easily prevented.
Honestly? I’m up for experimenting with pretty much anything to see what can be made with it. In general I do prefer shooting with prime lenses (ones that don’t zoom!) because it adds a) a visual consistency through your work and b) absolutely gorgeous results and depth of field (my favourite). I don’t have the budget to expand soon, but I would love to try:
85mm f1.4 (Sigma or Canon)
50mm f1.4 (Sigma or Canon) and perhaps have a go with a…
Canon 5d Mk4
Sony Mirrorless cameras!
I’m always interested in finding out what people use and why they love it.
Something which I have started doing recently is taking some time after a key photoshoot to write a brief but detailed review on everything from how it went to how I want to improve.
I suppose I first learned to do this while studying photography both at a level and degree level. Remember back in art subjects where you had to fill sketch books with ideas and inspirations? It’s sort of like that but without the pressure as you’re the only one it has to benefit.
Why it’s a good idea
It keeps you on track with your work It allows you to learn and become a better photographer It helps keep your portfolio look consistent It helps you identify what you love and what needs more work
What kind of photography will this benefit?
I can’t think of any form of photography that this might be a bad thing for. Personally I use it for family photography, documentary and fine art just the same.
Some prompts to get you started…
What went really well? What obstacles did you face? How could you have prepared more? What did you learn? How will you do it differently next time? How does this fit into your portfolio? How does this fit into your goals? What did you enjoy / not enjoy about the process? What’s your best image/feature and why?
And some key areas to focus on may be…
Interaction with people (models, clients etc.) Lighting and equipment Tones & colour Concept, message & storytelling Planning Editing Writing Movement and emotion
Okay…. so do I need to do this every time?
You can do it as much or as little as you want. Personally I’m doing it for almost everything I shoot at the moment because I’m very much young in the world of photography and I want to learn and grow as much as I can. Sometimes I group a few similar shoots together, sometimes I focus on just one image.
What do I need?
You pretty much have three options: physically journalling in a notebook, finding a way to do it digitally or a mixture of the two.
Personally I use my bullet journal to work out what it is I want to get out of the shoot, to explore new ideas and get things down on a page. I then write the actual review after the shoot on Google Docs on my photography account so that it’s all there together backed up and always accessible.
Taking some time to review your own photography is a skill that I think is really helpful in advancing as a photographer. Of course, everyone is different. Some people may prefer to write this down, some may find talking it over with another person is more helpful or even just having a think about it while you’re in the shower.
If you review your work I would love to see, please feel free to link me in the comments, send me message or tag me on instagram if you’d like to share it with me. Journalling and bullet journalling are both things I bloody well adore, so I’m always up for seeing more.
Have a great day,
Jasmine Aurora xo
Hey! I’m Jasmine.
Photographer from Surrey, England trying my best to navigate through my 20s. Journaller and anxiety warrior. Read more…