How to Become a Pro Photographer: Photography School or Self-taught?

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Do you need to go to photography school to become a professional photographer?

I received a nice e-mail from a reader recently asking this question:</div>
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“My dilemma is either use all my funds to go to a 10 month photography school in Massachusetts, have no money and job security at the end of the school year and having to start over with nothing but my newly acquired skills OR use the funds I have to start another business- which my family and friends believe is the safer bet between the two.”</div>
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She asked what I thought about this plan, and also to help her to have a better picture of what the day to day life of a photographer looks like. This is what I think:

An advanced degree in a creative field like photography is a bad idea.

Photography editors will judge you on the quality of your portfolio, not on the degree hanging on your wall. Focus your efforts on putting together a group of fifty top-notch images and I can guarantee you that you will be well on your way to getting published.

But skipping photography school doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to learn, it just means you need to teach yourself. Better to take the money you planned to use for photography school and invest it in a top-notch lens or two and perhaps a better camera body. Then get out there and learn by doing.

Here’s my advice for getting started:</div><!–more–>
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<h2 class=”content-page”>1. Learn about your camera (Yes, read the manual)</h2>
If you’re like me, you put your camera’s instruction manual in a drawer or tossed it when you bought it.

Reading the instruction manual for your camera isn’t much fun, but it can definitely help you get the most out of the equipment you have.

Don’t know the difference between aperture priority and shutter priority? Read about it in your manual. And if you’ve tossed it, you can usually download a PDF on your camera manufacturer’s website, just Google: ‘your camera name instruction manual’.
<h2 class=”content-page”>2. Learn Photoshop and Lightroom</h2>
Ansel Adams had as much skill in the darkroom as he had with a camera. Using techniques such as dodging and burning, he was able to create a final picture that matched the vision of the scenes he had in his head from the day before.

Today the ideas are the same, but the tools are different. Darkrooms, chemicals, and photo plates have been replaced by <a href=””>Adobe Photoshop</a> and <a href=””>Adobe Lightroom</a>. You’ll need to learn these two programs if you want to compete with other professional photographers.

Wonder how that sky got so blue or the colors in a magazine photo turned out so bright? Everything you see in print or on a professional photographer’s website has been enhanced digitally to bring out the photographer’s vision.

You’ll need to move your photos to the next level by learning about the digital darkroom.

But learning Photoshop and Lightroom doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and go to photography school, you can learn online in your spare time. By far the best online school for all things digital is <a href=””></a>. I use this site all the time to keep up with the latest updates and techniques in digital photography and I’d highly recommend you do the same.

To start, take Chris Orwig’s “<a href=””>Photoshop CS5 for Photographers</a>” or “<a href=””>Photoshop CS4 for Photographers</a>”. This will give you a great introduction to the amazing things you can accomplish with your photos in Photoshop.

Next, take Chris Orwig’s “<a href=””>Photoshop Lightroom 2 Essential Training</a>”. Lightroom will make your life as a photographer so much easier and more productive. The sooner you learn how to use Lightroom in your journey as a photographer, the better.

And as a special offer to members of my site, I’ve arranged for a <strong><a href=””>free one-day pass to</a></strong> for you to try out the courses there. Just <strong><a href=””>click here</a></strong> to take advantage of this special deal.
<h2 class=”content-page”>3. Put your work out there</h2>
Now that you’re up to speed with your camera and making your photos look their best in Photoshop, it’s time to put your work out there.

It’s always nice if your friends and family like your work, but if you hope to grow as a photographer you will need to get some stronger <del datetime=”2010-05-24T03:17:41+00:00″>criticism</del> feedback

Start by creating a free Flickr account and posting some of your best photos for other photographers to see. Be sure to write very descriptive captions and use accurate tags to make sure your photos can be found.

For me, some of the best criticism I received was by submitting my work to stock photography websites such as <a href=””>Istockphoto</a>, <a href=””>Fotolia</a>, and <a href=””>Dreamstime</a>. The editors there are very focused on the technical perfection and salability of your photos, so if your work is not up to a professional standard it will be rejected.

I remember the first time I had a photo turned down and it was a strong motivator to push me to get better both behind the camera and in Photoshop / Lightroom.
<h2 class=”content-page”>4. Join a photography club</h2>
Learning from a professional photography instructor can be great, but you’ll also find that you can learn a lot from other photographers who are facing the same challenges you are.

Ask at a local photography shop or do a Google search for photography clubs in your area.
<h2 class=”content-page”>5. Be your own Photo Critic</h2>
You know the cliché about long, boring slideshows after someone gets back from a trip? It’s true (and I’m certainly more than guilty of this myself). The reason many amateur slideshows are boring is that the photographer wasn’t a very good editor of their own work.

If you want to take your photography to a professional level you need to be your own toughest editor.

Boring slideshows and lackluster portfolios are the result of poor editing. Top photographers often show 10% (or less) of their work and this is a habit you should also adopt. Thinking of showing off ten different camera angles of the nice hot tub in your hotel suite? Don’t do it.

Use Lightroom to grade your photos on a scale of 1 to 5 and narrow the selection from there, trying to use one photo to communicate the story rather than using four or five.

When it comes to sharing your photography with an editor from a magazine or your friends from high school, less really is more.
<h2 class=”content-page”>6. Get out and Shoot!</h2>
Taking good photos comes from practice. The more familiar you are with your camera, the better you are at Photoshop, and the more critical you are as an editor of your own photography, the better your work will be.

And with digital photography, the old excuse of spending too much money on film processing costs goes out the window. You can shoot over a thousand photos in a day and it will cost only pennies in hard drive storage space.

So get out and experiment! Try shooting your subject from an unusual angle (lying down, from a tall tree, etc.). Overexpose, underexpose, feel free to break the rules of composition to find out what works for you and develop your own style

Learning photography is a process and a journey. Never stop learning and never stop improving your work and you’ll find that you’ll be well on the way to your new life as a full-time photographer.

What do you think? Did I leave out any suggestions you might have for a new photographer or advanced amateur? Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments so we can all improve together.</div>