Photography Education: Formal or Self-Taught?

As an educator working in the college sector, I find this topic incredibly interesting. There is so much information out there that we can digest. So, what’s the way forward?

There are the basic rules in photography, and once learned and understood, we can break them, to a point. There’s the theory behind the practice, where everything comes together, is studied, digested, and repeated. The theory and practice of why it all comes together for me is the main focal point of photography. Not understanding the why is a failing point. But that’s just my opinion.

Photography education over here in Scotland is on the cusp of changing for the better. Previously, each subject (portraiture, landscape, editing, documentary, for example), we’re taught as individual units with the students left to join the dots. Now, it might not seem such an arduous task joining the dots, as they are all photographically based. But not everyone is able to join the dots straight away, as we all have different types of learning profiles. At first, some see them as individual subjects without connection, although quite quickly, they see the connection throughout the genres due to the underlying theory of photographic practice. 

There’s so Much Information Out There

And in this, is there a problem? Now, I am in no way saying that everyone should be formally educated before they can say they are a photographer. That would be totally untrue and plain stupidity. There are thousands upon thousands of phenomenal and very successful photographers out there who have no formal training and are self-taught. So, where does the formal study compete with the self-absorbed study, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

I personally learned more useful practical information from the likes of the Fstoppers tutorials. This is not an advert for them; it’s my personal experience. I learned more from the likes of Mike Kelly, Elia Locardi, and Peter Hurley than I did when studying at university. That’s not insult to my lecturers at the time. For some, I feel it was a job, but for one in particular, it was his passion, and you felt it when you entered the room, which made it was an absolute joy to learn from him.

So, Where Do You Start?

Photography information is so widely available via the internet and books these days. How do we know which ones are the best or provide the most succinct information? My simple answer to this is to digest and keep what is useful to you and your practice. We can learn from everybody no matter where they are on the photographic learning curve. Thinking that because you have owned a camera for five years makes you better than someone who has only owned one for two is the wrong way to think. Ask them how they shoot and listen. Give advice, but only if they ask.

With there being so much information available, you will connect with whatever resonates with you. These are the photographers that will send you down the path of self-study in both practice and theory. Are they correct in what they are saying? More than likely, yes. It’s been their passion, so they have been down the rabbit hole of study and practice already and are providing you, the viewer or reader, with how they have improved and enhanced their photography. It’s the passion that you can see straight away and passion that drives us forward.

Your Opinion

I am not looking with this article to side with any form of education. I am formally educated, but does this make me a better photographer? No. Practice makes you a better photographer. Formal education allows me to teach where I do, and I enjoy teaching and watching the students develop their skills. That’s the joy I get from my job. Have I sat on the fence with my opinion? There’s not exactly a fence to sit on with this article from my point of view. Honestly, I’ve learned from both formal and self-study and am still learning.

And this is my question to you: are you self-taught or formally educated, and where do you see the advantages or disadvantages in both?

Photos courtesy of Jeshoots, Markus Winkler, Robynne Hu on Unsplash.