You Are What You Learn

While not all great photographers have a photography degree, going to a photography school isn’t a bad choice. I chanced upon this article posted on PetaPixel’s Facebook page with the title, ”Why You Shouldn’t Study Photography and What You Should Do Instead”, written by a street photographer based in Berlin, Oliver Krumes. This debate has been ongoing for years, and everyone had their views on it. However, I find this article misleading in many ways; it should have interpreted in a much broader aspect. As a photography graduate from Melbourne Polytechnic’s Photo Imaging program, I would like to share my views based on this article.

Before I go on, I would like to clarify some points here. I wasn’t an aspiring street photographer before stepping into a photography school at the age of 37; I was a noob that knows nothing about photography. I didn’t know what genre of photography I wanted to venture into before starting the two years Diploma course; I learnt with an open mind. It’s only after graduation that I photographed intensively on the street, with an iPhone only. 

Based on my limited knowledge, I haven’t come across any public or private schools that teach street photography as a subject, at least not in Australia, which photography, in general, is list as a trade skill. Schools work in close collaboration with the industry to maintain the standards among photography students. Usually, people enrolled in the course are seeking a career in the related industry, be it fashion, editorial, architectural or portraiture. However, street photographer is never a profession in the first place, have you ever come across anyone with their job title listed on LinkedIn as “Professional Street Photographer”?

So my point here is, you don’t necessary have to go to a photography school if all you want to be is just a street photographer, aspiring or not. However, if you plan to discover more than what you already know, research on the school and it’s courses. Make sure what they offer is what you are looking for.

It wasn’t “love at first sight” when comes to photography for me, neither was I passionate about it. But the school environment and being open mind makes learning so much easier. In fact, the more I discovered, the more I fell in love with photography. I did struggle in the beginning with the number of assignments, but that is down to my poor time-management. As I progress slowly, I understand that if you can’t even meet the deadline in school, how are you going to meet your client’s deadline when you turn professional?

The school environment also provided me with plenty of inspiration from my fellow peers and teachers. Every research presentation is an opportunity to discover new trends, emerging artists, and fresh ideas. Like I always said, if the people around you do not inspire you, you are probably in the wrong group.

Here is my observation, if you go to a school with an idea of what you already want to be after graduation, most likely you will not want to try new stuff, explore new ideas or technology. You have one path and one path only. 

If you want to improve your photography skill and decided to attend classes in a private school, prepare to pay that extra more. Unless you do not qualify for public or government funded school, I see no reason why you need to go to a private school.

True, photography can be very expensive, but education is the first step to learning how not to spend on the unnecessary. You can’t put a price tag on the knowledge you attained in school; you can’t buy experiences. You could have used the money to buy a Leica or Hasselblad, or travel to many parts of the world, but these doesn’t guarantee you excellent images. A great street photograph can come from anywhere; you don’t need to travel too far or use an awesome camera to capture it.

First of all, a degree of whatsoever doesn’t guarantee you a job after you graduated, this applies to everywhere in the world. Education provided you with the skillset, how you make a living out of it, is entirely up to you. If you completed your studies, you would probably realise there are more than three ways of making a living from photography; you just didn’t research hard enough. However, if you are in a hurry to put food on the table, get a job, any job will do.

Photography is a journey of learning how to make images, not money. If the financial side is all you care about, I would suggest taking a business degree. 

Going to a photography school has, in fact, got me a job in photography, and the opportunity to meet extraordinary photographers who later on, inspired me in the work I did. I’m not too sure how the author defines “awesome” portfolio in this case but curating a collection is another level of skill set you are not going to learn by just making photos on a regular basis. Your portfolio will just be stash with lots of trash that YOU think they were great in the first place.

I have met many photographers along the way; the Instagram community is just one of them, but the school provides the platform to reach out to a more diversified industry. I’m lucky enough to have come across many great photographers during my studies, who were either invited to the school as guest speakers to talk to us about their work, or during a visit to their studio or exhibition. Likewise, I’m also honoured to be a guest speaker to talk to students about my street and mobile photography after graduating from school. 

If what you want is to keep taking photographs and hoping it will get better and better or pay for the coffee with every photographer you met and chatted, the answer is yes, you don’t have to go to school to learn photography.

Again, it’s hard to define a unique style, HDR is unique, Bokeh is unique, same goes for black and white, these are things I can’t see with my naked eyes, and I find them unique. However, in reality, style is not permanent. It evolves and progresses as we learnt during different stages of our career. What your teachers did in school is not for you to please them, but to understand a brief and execute it. In a real world, your client will expect you to understand this process and not submit a product that doesn’t meet the brief. In another word, you will have to please your client to put food on the table; they are your paymaster.

Ego, is a photographer’s biggest enemy, especially when one is emotionally attached to his or her work. Instead of losing faith in your discernment, ask questions, lots of question. I remembered a teacher who has never give negative feedback about my assignment, until one day I walked into his office and said, “Tell me what you don’t like about this photograph”, I got the best critiques of my life from him.

In life, it’s easy to put the blame on everything other than ourselves, but our approach to learning is what makes the real differences. If you are not tough enough to take criticism, then yes, don’t go to a photography school.  

  • It’s good always to have your camera with you but one year is not enough to transform you from an amateur to a professional photographer.

  • Books are great teachers, but books can’t demonstrate to you what is a 3:1 lighting ratio nor explain to you why you should never have an open bottle of spotting dye anywhere near your prints that you are spotting.

  • Online platforms are places to trade “likes” and comments, where you lived in a virtual world thinking you are a great photographer, fantasising from those eulogised comments like “excellent photo!”, “nice one!”, “love it so much!”. Go to a portfolio review; you will get the most honest opinion because you paid for it.

  • You can form boys band or a rock band; it doesn’t matter, there are plenty out there. If no collective found you, start one yourself. It doesn’t matter if anyone heard about the group, just include the name in a blog and makes it goes viral.

  • Attending workshops is another great way to improve your skillset, to add on to what you already know, but there is only so much you can learn in 3 days. If you walk into a workshop with no idea what is the exposure triangle, you are not doing anyone a favour.

  • Going to photography exhibitions expose you to the many genres of photography. But there is more going on behind the scene in an exhibition that you won’t realise just by visiting them or having a chat with the artist. Organising an exhibition can be a complicated process, from curating to printmaking, frames to the different hanging device, these are the information the artist wouldn’t have time to share with you. But I’m glad the school provided the opportunity to let students organised their graduation exhibition, which benefits me when I had my exhibition early this year.

  • Oh yes, everyone love travels, provided you have a stable income to do so. Travel gained life experiences where you will encounter different cultures and practises. However, if you don’t know how to change your shutter speed, you won’t know how to do it wherever you go.

  • “You only need Google and YouTube!” That’s what most of my friends said when I told them I’m studying photography. But I reckon the progress I had made in two years as compared to many self-taught photographers who have been practising for many years, the money and time were well spent. The internet can provide you with tonnes of information, but the school gives you the hands-on experiences you need in the real world out there. 


So here is the conclusion. We all love photography, but how we learn it depends entirely on ourselves. Personally, it is much faster for me to pick up the basics in a school environment. When people asked me where I learnt street photography, I always said 50% of what I know comes from the school. From lighting, design element, printmaking and much more, it all makes me who I am today, and I had never stopped learning since I graduated from school. The most important part is what we do after graduation, do we continue to learn and progress or just sit there and think we knew everything? The decision is yours.

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