Learning to Capture Art Through a Camera Lens
The world of professional photography is full of creativity, challenges and excitement. However, it is a very competitive business, and a number of successful photographers have gone to school to hone their talent, build their portfolio and learn the technical skills needed in the industry today. There are several degree options for those pursuing an education in the field of photography, and finding the right school can be a big job. Explore the different types of photography schools and what they have to offer, find out which type of degrees will be the best fit based on your location, needs, and special interests, and learn what jobs might be available to photography school graduates.
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San Francisco has been home to many iconic artists and photographers, including the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and famous photographer Annie Leibovitz. Both attended the San Francisco Art Institute, which was founded in 1871, making it one of the oldest and most prestigious art schools in the country.
Many famous photographers started out as painters before making their name in photography, including iconic artists Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Annie Liebovitz and Cindy Sherman.
The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) which was founded in 1877, consistently ranks as one of the top fine art schools in the U.S. and has been recognized as one of the top schools for photography internationally. The photography school at RISD has had some famous faculty members: Photographers Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind and Diane Arbus all taught in the photography department there.
Photography Schools and Programs
Professional photographers work as freelancers, contracted employees or as staff members. Many enjoy the flexibility of being self-employed as wedding and portrait photographers, or working for magazines and advertisers doing food, architecture, product or fashion photography. Other examples of career options include science, aerial, real estate photography, photo journalism, documentary or fine art. Some professional photographers go on to become teachers, studio managers, photo editors or art directors. Whatever career path they choose, photographers start out with raw talent, but must also have the technical skills to stay competitive in the industry. A firm grasp of lighting, a strong working knowledge of equipment and photo-editing software, business skills and good communication with clients and subjects are all key factors to success. There are many different types of photography schools located all over the U.S., and finding the right school will help you gain these skills as well as give you a leg up on the competition.
Most art schools are private and typically offer AAA (Associate in Applied Arts) degrees or BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degrees in photography, although some do offer graduate degrees, such as a MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in photography. The majority of the curriculum will be focused on photography, with the emphasis of these degrees varying from fine to commercial art, with students choosing an area of specialization. The advantage of choosing an art school for photography is the possibility of internships, making connections in the industry, having access to state of the art equipment and developing a dynamic portfolio.
Some community colleges offer AAA (Associate of Applied Arts) or AAS (Associate of Applied Science) degrees in commercial photography, as well as certificate programs related to photography. These degrees focus primarily on commercial and digital photography, and are designed to get students working as professional photographers upon graduation and into entry-level positions. This can be a smart option for students wanting to turn their AAA degree in photography into a BFA degree by transferring to a four-year college, as some community college credits may be transferrable.
University and four-year colleges are typically for students wanting to get a general education in fine art with an emphasis on photography. These schools typically offer BA or BFA degrees. Some photography students in this setting may choose to go beyond the four-year degree for graduate work, possibly earning a MFA in photography. Students will get to experience a more typical campus life at a university, as opposed to being in a smaller environment and in direct competition with others going for a more commercial degree, as in an art school setting.
Some schools are dedicated only to photography. These type of schools rarely offer degrees, but will most likely offer a certificate of completion. These are small private schools typically structured like vocational schools, and are geared towards students wanting to work as professional photographers. They usually offer courses in a specialized area of photography such as weddings, portraits, fashion, advertising, travel, documentary, editorial and corporate photography. They may also offer fine art courses and various workshops for current and former students, or people looking to expand their photography and digital imaging skills.
Photography Schools & Programs Must-Have List
Choosing an accredited college is important. It comes into play especially when pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree. An accredited school will adhere to the guidelines set forth by the accrediting body, financial aid may be easier for students to obtain based on the credentials, and it may be easier for students’ credits to transfer to another institution. There isn’t a specific accrediting organization for photography, but for art schools and university art programs, the NASAD (National Association of Schools of Art and Design) and the WSCUC (WASC Senior College and University Commission) are two to look out for.
State of the Art Equipment
Having state of the art equipment is very important when choosing a photography school. In order to work as a successful professional photographer, students must learn technical skills using the newest equipment available. This applies to both digital photography as well as traditional photography processes. Students should have access to modern lighting equipment, computers and darkrooms, all in excellent working order.
Part of a photography student’s success is based on the teaching staff. Students should seek out photography schools and programs that are staffed by photographers and artists who are active in their field. Not only does this inspire students, but photography teachers should have a current working knowledge, connections in the photography and art community, a current portfolio and body of work, and be up on all the latest trends and technology.
Most photography schools offer students the opportunity to gain work experience while still in school, and an internship is an excellent way to do this. It provides students with a chance to gain work experience prior to graduation, make connections within the photography community, meet potential employers and help students gain confidence. Some internships may be paid, which provides students an opportunity to bring in some income while gaining experience in the real world, all while obtaining credits towards their degrees.
The end result of photography school will be a portfolio, which is a collection of your work that will show potential employers what your visual style and technical ability is. This is what will get your foot in the door, and it is important that the school you choose will help you build a cohesive body of work that reflects who you are as an artist, showcases your photographic talent and technical abilities, and sets you apart from other photographers.
Photography Degrees and Certificates
Figuring out what level of education in photography you want to pursue is the first step in finding the right school. Post-secondary schools can vary significantly on what they offer for photography degrees. Depending on the photography school, they may offer certificate programs, undergraduate and/or graduate programs. A certificate program can take anywhere from one to four years to complete. An AAA or AAS degree in photography, which typically takes two years to complete, will require about 65 credits, and will primarily focus on commercial photography. A four-year degree will result in a BA or a BFA, will usually require about 120 credits, and can have a commercial or fine art focus. A MFA will be about 60 additional credits and take at least another two years to complete. PhD programs are rare, but it is possible to pursue this degree in photography.
Some photography schools offer entry-level certification programs teaching the fundamentals of photography, while others offer specialized courses such as wedding, portraiture, photojournalism, travel photography, and digital imaging. These programs are designed for novices or working photographers looking to expand their skills. They take between one and two years to complete and are typically found at private art schools, community colleges, online, and in extended studies programs at universities. Programs vary in the amount of credits or units required. The following shows examples of typical courses that might be offered in a fundamentals of photography certification program.
Introduction to Photography
Introduces fundamentals of photography from both a technical and an artistic point of view. Students will learn basic camera functions and image composition while exploring their creativity and critical thinking.
Introduction to Lighting Techniques
Introduces students to lighting techniques using natural light and studio lighting, light temperature, filtration and lighting ratios using a variety of equipment and cameras.
History of Photography
Explores the history of photography from the nineteenth century to modern day, including the social, economic, political and cultural implications of photography. Students will become familiar with influential photographers in history as well as photographic processes and technology used throughout the years.
Photography Associate Degrees
An Associate degree (AAA or AAS) in photography mainly focuses on the commercial side of the photography business, and can typically be found at private art schools and community colleges. These programs are designed for students wanting to work as professional photographers as soon as possible, whether they be right out of high school, or older students seeking a career change. An average associate degree will take about two years to complete, requires about 65 credits, and depending on the school, may be transferable to a four-year college. Basic pre-requisite classes are required, but the majority of the curriculum will focus on the technical and business aspects of photography. Here are some examples of classes:
Digital Imaging I
An introduction to imaging software for creating and manipulating images. Students will learn the basics of digital image capture, processing, output and storage.
Professional Business Practices
An introduction to small business development and management for the professional photographer. Students will learn about marketing, accounting, copywriting, pricing and negotiating as it applies to professional photography.
Students will learn portrait and wedding photography lighting techniques, marketing materials, presentation, pricing strategies and time management in retail photography.
Students will begin to work on their portfolio, producing traditional and computer generated images for both physical and web-based portfolios. Students will also create a resume and explore various marketing materials for self-promotion in the photography field.
Photography Bachelor's Degrees
Bachelor degrees in photography will vary slightly depending on the institution. Typically, a BFA is offered at private art schools and BA degrees at universities. Both degrees are designed to prepare students to become professional photographers, and the focus depends on what the student wants to accomplish. With a BFA, students will complete a core curriculum, then choose their area of study, such as commercial, editorial, fine art or documentary photography along with electives. With a BA in photography, students will get a more general photography education, and will choose a minor degree. A bachelor degree takes about four years to complete, and requires about 120 credits.
A core requirement class that teaches basic writing skills through reading, research and writing activities such as journaling and essays.
A core requirement class teaching basic design, layout, typography and color theory to communicate specific ideas. Explores aesthetic issues in professional photography.
An introduction to lighting techniques, color theory and the science behind artificial and natural light and how this is applied in photography.
This course examines the history and practice of documentary photography and allows student to work on their visual story telling skills, with the final project being a photo essay on current affairs, social issues, or everyday life.
A continuation of portfolio development, students will work on a cohesive presentation of their current body of work. Physical and web-based portfolios as well as self-promotion materials will be produced, showcasing the student’s vision and talent.
Photography Master's Degrees
Following a BFA or BA degree, an MFA (Master of Fine Art) in photography can be earned in about two-years, requiring an additional 60 credits. Students must apply and submit samples of their work in order to be accepted. These programs can be found at private art schools and universities. Depending on the school, the MFA may be an interdisciplinary degree or will focus only on the photographic arts. Typically, the curriculum will include core requirements and electives along with intensive photography courses, along with a thesis project, further developing the student’s personal vision and technical skills. MFA photography students often take part in a MFA exhibition of their work upon graduation.
As a photographer, your portfolio is who you are. This is your personal vision, and this is what will get you hired. All the pieces in your portfolio need to have the “wow” factor... anything less does not belong in your portfolio.Melissa Wilson
Graduate students will develop and execute a long-term project, which will be critiqued by others. Students will work at developing better articulation by speaking and writing about their projects and others’ work.
Graduate students are required to define and develop a photographic body of work supported by a written thesis, students will check in periodically with advisors to discuss progress, refinement of ideas and the students’ personal vision.
Photographic History and Theory
An in-depth look at the history of photography and critical theory, with exploration and critique of visual culture.
Explores the social and political issues of portraiture from the nineteenth century to the present.
In the world of photography, more than just raw talent is needed to be successful. The following is a list of some things to have in your toolbox to help you to shine as a student and become a successful professional photographer.
Students are required to be working on several projects at once, and expected to juggle it all, and it’s no different once they are out on their own. During a photoshoot, there is usually a lot of activity going on, with many details and variables to consider. There may be numerous people on the set, malfunctioning equipment and uncooperative light. Commercial photoshoots tend to be very fast paced, and can have strict time constraints, so it is very important to work on multi-tasking skills and develop the ability to pull all the variables together to get the results both the photographer and clients desire.
Photographers are visual communicators, but in order to communicate effectively through images, they must be able to communicate in other ways. They must be able to give and receive instructions, criticism, and feedback. At times the photographer will be required to communicate to several people on the set, such as clients, stylists, assistants and the subject, and working conditions may be less than ideal. In order to get the job done well clear and effective communication is key.
Professional photographers absolutely must have a working knowledge of the latest technology and techniques in the field of photography. Ideally, students will have the opportunity to work with the newest technology and equipment, while also learning about photographic processes and equipment prior to the digital revolution. Having the right equipment-cameras, lighting equipment, props, and digital tools (mainly Photoshop and a good computer) will help you be successful in this very competitive field.
It is necessary to have both a web-based portfolio and a physical portfolio. With the latter, presentation is of upmost importance, in addition to having very strong images. Many photographers will have several portfolios tailored to what jobs they are going after. A portfolio is a work in progress, and should not contain outdated images, but dynamic, well-executed photographs showcasing the photographer’s talent.
There are many opportunities for students to gain work experience while still in photography school. This may be the most valuable tool to have as a student getting ready to graduate, because it puts you one step ahead of the competition. An internship or working as an assistantto a photographer are both excellent opportunities for students, and can turn into jobs once the student has graduated. This type of experience will help build confidence in abilities and technical skills, give a real life view of different working environments, and is a good opportunity to build connections in the photographic community.
All photographers must have a basic set of skills, mainly a working knowledge of natural and artificial lighting and other technical abilities, from the camera to the dark room or computer. An eye for detail and composition, organization skills, flexibility, and trouble-shooting skills are also important to be successful. Students will learn and develop these basics skills while in photography school, but may be presented with opportunities to focus on and excel in more specialized areas of interest. Depending on the school, students can branch out and pursue a specialized area of photography based on their interest, passion, and talent. Some photography schools offer a general commercial photography education that encompasses many different genres of photography, while at other schools, students will choose an area of focus and the curriculum will be based on the area of specialization. Here are some examples of areas of specialization in photography:
- Fashion Photography: Working on location or in a studio with models, clothes, and accessories and producing photos for advertising or fashion magazines.
- Architectural: Taking photographs of interior and exterior structures for builders, real estate companies, magazines and other publications, which can often involve travel.
- Weddings/Portraits: This is considered retail photography, and includes weddings, special events, pregnancy and birth photos, and senior and family portraits. Some retail photographers only do weddings or portraits, while others do it all.
- Food/Product: Most of this photography is done in the studio or very controlled environments and is usually for advertising purposes, retail websites, or stock photography.
- Documentary: Documentary photographers record historic events, social issues, and snippets everyday life. Documentary photographers often work as photojournalists or produce photographic essays or images for publications, providing a visual account of events, people and places.
- Fine Art: Fine art photographers can work as commercial photographers, and vice versa, but most fine art photographers prefer to sell and exhibit their work to make a living. Their main focus is photography as art and personal expression.
After Photography School: What’s Next
After photography school, some photographers will specialize in one particular thing, while others will cross over and work in several different genres of photography. A lot of newly graduated photographers will start out as assistants to other photographers to gain confidence and valuable work experience. The duties of an assistant vary, but equipment storage, maintenance, help with cameras and lighting while on photoshoots, computer work, and even running errands are typical. As a freelance photographer, you may need to rent studio space, travel to various locations on assignment or to photograph events, meet with clients, retouch and store photos, and invoice your work. Some photographers prefer to work as staff photographers and are considered employees with benefits. Catalogues, websites, magazines, and portrait studios may hire photographers on as staff. Some photographers eventually decide to teach photography, or take on non-shooting roles such as stylist, location scout, photo editor, art director or studio manager.
Photographer Salaries & Job Growth
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports photographers' annual salaries for 2020 as follows:
|Mean||Median||Bottom 25%||Top 25%|
The five top-paying states for photographers as of 2020 were:
- District of Columbia: $91,720
- New York: $73,110
- Massachusetts: $66,120
- Minnesota: $60,630
- California: $60,150
The BLS projects employment for photographers to decline by 4% from 2019-2029, contrasted with the projected 4% increase in employment across all occupations.
- As of 2019, there were 133,500 photography jobs in the U.S.
- The photography field should lose 4,800 jobs from 2019-2029.
Related Degrees: Salaries & Job Growth
Work in retail, theater, manufacturing, and the fashion industry, designing clothing, accessories, and footwear
Median earnings, 2020: $75,810
Outlook: -4% from 2019-2029
Education required/available: Bachelor's degree
Creates visual concepts by hand or computer using composition, images, typography, space, and color for packaging, publications, websites, and ads
Median earnings, 2020: $53,380
Outlook: -4% from 2019-2029
Education required/available: Bachelor's degree
Designs interiors of rooms and buildings based on function, aesthetics, and clients' needs
Median earnings, 2020: $57,060
Outlook: -5% from 2019-2029
Education required/available: Bachelor's degree
Create art using various medium and techniques for the purpose of sale and exhibition
Median earnings, 2020: $49,120
Outlook: Little to no change from 2019-2029
Education required/available: Formal education recommended
News reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts working for various media outlets delivering local, national, and international news and events
Median earnings, 2020: $49,300
Outlook: -11% from 2019-2029
Education required/available: Bachelor's degree
Photography Degrees and Career Resources
American Society of Media PhotographersASMP is an international trade association for photographers that focuses on the business aspect of professional photography and the rights of photographers. Photographers can get connected with potential clients through this website.
ApertureAperture is a non-profit foundation, started in 1952, that is dedicated to the advancement of the photographic arts. Aperture produces, publishes, and presents photography projects via the magazine, website, and books. Students can find out about awards, contests, internships, and view inspiring work.
Photographer's ForumThis is the website for Photographer’s Forum, Magazine for the Emerging Photographer, a quarterly publication that focuses on publishing the work of emerging photographers. In addition to featuring photographers’ work, the magazine has articles about photographic techniques and equipment, and hosts contests for high school and college photographers.
Professional Photographers of AmericaPPA is a non-profit association made up of professional photographers. It has its own certification and testing process, online workshops, articles regarding the business of photography and an online community forum.
Scholarships.comA free college scholarship search site and financial aid resource for students looking to find help paying for college. Searches for scholarships and grants can be made via the website by using the search engine or signing up and being matched.
2021's 5 Best Photography Schools and Colleges
The following colleges rank as the top five photography schools and colleges of 2021. Each school holds national or regional accreditation, and some also hold accreditation from photography or art-specific accreditation agencies. Accredited schools and programs meet rigorous third-party standards for education.
Relevant accrediting agencies for our ranking include:
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE)
Based in Provo, Utah, BYU is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The school enrolls more than 33,000 undergraduate students annually, featuring 186 undergraduate majors and 64 master's programs.
BYU's bachelor of fine arts in photography focuses on photography methods with an emphasis on lighting, photographic language, darkroom techniques, portraiture, art history, and alternative photographic processes. The limited-enrollment program requires 71-72 credits and only admits 40 students annually.
The core curriculum involves courses in digital imaging and moving images, plus a sequence of 12 photography courses upon acceptance into the major. Students complete a professional internship as part of the program.
Applying to BYU
Prospective applicants to the BYU photography program must receive department approval. The process requires the declaration of their pre-major intent, completion of the introduction to photography and digital workflow design class, and submission of an online portfolio of photography work.
Founded in 1867, U of I enrolls more than 47,000 students annually and offers nearly 5,000 courses in 150 fields of study. Many faculty members hold Nobel Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, and the Fields Medal in Mathematics.
U of I offers two routes to an undergraduate photography degree: a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of fine arts. The curriculum combines art and design courses with photography courses, along with art history, electives, and general education credits.
The 122-credit program encourages the study of photography for personal expression, social implications, and career development. By graduation, students can control the procedural construct of an image through camera, software, and darkroom techniques. They can also recognize and convey photography's narrative structure.
U of I also features a master of fine arts in photography, in which students complete a final oral exam when their final projects are installed in the Krannert Art Museum.
Applying to U of I
Prospective applicants must gain admission to U of I before applying to the U of I School of Art and Design. Undergraduate photography students submit their intention to concentrate in photography within the first year of their acceptance into the university. Students at the graduate and undergraduate levels submit a portfolio as part of their application into the U of I School of Art and Design.
New Paltz enrolls nearly 8,000 students annually and features a 16-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. New Paltz offers nearly 100 undergraduate degree programs and 50 graduate degrees through its six academic schools.
New Paltz features a robust photography and art program, including a bachelor of fine arts in photography, a bachelor of science in visual arts: photography, and a master of fine arts in photography. The photography program allows students to use New Paltz's state-of-the-art facilities to study black and white darkroom processes, large-format view photography, video, and studio lighting, and other advanced techniques in digital imaging and printing.
The undergraduate curriculum explores the technical, aesthetic, and conceptual aspects of contemporary photography and related media. The two-year graduate program delves into artistic research, creative practice, and critical dialogue.
Applying to New Paltz
The bachelor's-level program requires foundation courses and at least one basic photography course as prerequisites to admission. The MFA program recommends a facility tour visit and establishing communications with faculty before applying.
Located in Bennington, Vermont, Bennington enrolls 700 students annually. Bennington is regionally accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education.
The photography plan, part of the visual arts curriculum at Bennington, allows students to create a pathway of courses focused on their interest areas. Course options include photo zines, photography foundations, analog and digital, and photographic portraiture: rethinking representation.
Photography at Bennington offers students an introduction to analog and digital opportunities. Students in the photography plan work in the Helen Frankenthaler '49 Visual Arts Center, which features digital labs, teaching studios, workshops, and seminar spaces. Students also enroll in a fieldwork term during their studies, during which they join creative spaces such as artists' studios, galleries, nonprofit art organizations, design firms, and production houses.
Applying to Bennington
Prospective applicants to Bennington's visual arts program may submit a dimensional application to share their work and creativity. They can also use the Common App, through which they submit recommendations and transcripts.
Founded in 1877 and based in Providence, Rhode Island, the private RISD enrolls more than 2,200 students annually. RISD offers 22 majors at the graduate and undergraduate levels and boasts a 9-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio.
RISD features a two-year master of fine arts in photography program and a four-year bachelor of fine arts in photography. The department explores technical, conceptual, and aesthetic aspects of photography within social and cultural contexts. Students take classes in advanced digital imaging, collaborative study, contemporary photography and research, and antique and alternate processes.
The department studio, Red Eye Gallery, provides a central hub and showcases student work in a series of rotating exhibitions. Students curate these exhibitions from proposals submitted to faculty.
Applying to RISD
RISD uses different graduation requirements based on the type of enrollment. First-year students in this undergraduate program must complete an online portfolio review.