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.
If you would like to know how to keep your photos backed up properly at uni I have another blog post waiting for you.
Thanks for reading!