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How to pursue a career in photography

Every single year, armies of hopeful young creatives send in their university applications as their first step towards a career in photography. Like a greenhouse, the universities feel like a safe place to start out, an environment set up for growth and success. Going to university can be a wonderful experience but becoming a photographer might not be as simple as that. We wanted to take a closer look at what the future looks like for today’s photographers. What exactly will a university degree offer you? Are there any risks? And are there any alternative pathways to photography careers? To get better insight we spoke to Lisa Chadwick, photography tutor at University of the Creative Arts (UCA) in Farnham which was awarded “Modern University of the year” by the Times and Sunday Times university guide this year.

Portrait of a girl with different personality
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What makes UCA different to other universities?

On awarding UCA with the title Modern University of the Year, The Times said that UCA challenges all the conventions surrounding specialist arts institutions and is breeding a new generation of arts graduates ready to face the challenges of the modern working world.

I think the way that the university allows students to engage with all kinds of different art disciplines, and the opportunities that students have to collaborate and work across different fields, whether they are traditional or modern, makes UCA a really special place to study. To add to this, many of the teaching staff are practising artists and are inspirational in the way they share their drive and passion for their subjects.

What are you top three tips for photography students?

Be curious and energetic; don’t be afraid to try new things with your work; and immerse yourself within and network with the wide and wonderful world of photography.

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How do the students get the most out of their three years in training?

I’d encourage all students to be open minded, ready to try new things and learn new skills, engage in research, theory and practice, and continuously test new ideas and exert their curiosity. We are committed to both experimentation in analogue and digital photography here at UCA, and to equip students with the skills they need for the modern workplace and enhancing their future careers.

What are the universities doing to prepare the students for their chosen career path?

Professional Practice is embedded throughout all of our courses. Photography careers are broad and exciting, and we take care to introduce a wide range of opportunities and give instruction on how to get into specific photography-related careers. We also strongly encourage students to engage with work experience and live briefs such as short commissions or competitions.

Are there any risks in choosing a creative career path?

Creative careers are fulfilling and it’s an exciting path to follow with endless possibilities. The skills that one learns when studying for a degree in a creative subject are hugely transferrable to many different careers. A creative degree encourages creative thinking and industry is crying out for these types of professionals. Society is in real need for passionate creatives and those who are willing to take risks. In all types of industries, being a creative is an asset that is certainly worth having.

What can a university provide that workshops, tutorials and online training can’t?

It provides an education that encourages critical thinking and research as a vital part of any creative practice. Students learn to engage with the wider contexts and meanings within their work and to better understand the breadth of the applications of creativity in the wider working world.

Besides getting a job at the end of it, what else is university for?

University really encourages personal growth. Whether that’s through making new friends from interesting creative disciplines, networking with peers and making plans to work together, learning about the histories and theories of the creative fields, or experimenting in a way that is not often possible in the outside world. In a creative sense, it offers that connection to the global field of creativity.

In your experience, what is it that students value the most within their degree?

Students really value the freedom that comes through being allowed to explore creatively. The opportunity to learn in lectures and workshops, the access they have to resources and equipment, as well as staff and mentors.

Taubanesentralen. Cable car junction for coal mining cable car system in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
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Alternative pathways 

In a profession where the majority of people are self-employed, is a degree really needed? The truth is, you’re not likely to ever be asked to show your degree papers, it will all come down to your photography portfolio and business knowledge. If you are already confident in your photography skills, there are several alternative options available allowing you to learn and gain experience more quickly and cheaply than by doing a full degree.

Short courses and online training platforms can be more focused on the business side of being a professional photographer than more academic avenues. They can offer valuable experience in the field and by the time you’ve finished your course you’ll already be set up with your company, a website, a marketing strategy and a portfolio of real client shoots. These courses are usually specialised in specific commercial directions so if you already know exactly which field you want to specialise in, this might be a more direct route towards your end destination.

A huge amount of books are also available on professional photography, so if you have a determined personality, there is nothing stopping you from reaching your goals through practice and self-learning. Organisations like AOP can also give you valuable insight and help you connect with the industry.

Infrared desert landscape with red foliage, and dirt road leading up a hill under a bright blue sky.
John Andrus / Alamy Stock Photo

Yet there are two serious barriers to going it alone – time and money. Firstly, the photography industry is a competitive environment and most professional photographers would agree that it is more important than ever to develop a distinctive photographic style to make it as a photographer. For some students starting out, having that extra time to explore and experiment is vital to finding their own visual voice.

Secondly, university facilities give you access to more resources and expensive equipment you could ever afford to buy yourself. That allows you to experiment and find your way, so when the time comes to invest in the right gear you know exactly what you’ll need to pursue your specific style.

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Jerin Micheal / Alamy Stock Photo

Another thing a degree can offer that workshops and online courses often don’t, is the nurture of personal development and critical thinking. You learn how to extensively research your projects and overcome challenges. These are transferable skills that are considered valuable across many types of careers and can open up more than just one door to your future. Of photography students will enter a job within art, design or media, 37.7% will enter non-photography specific jobs like PR, marketing and retail and the final group making up 22.2% will be categorised as “other” which presumably includes freelance photographers. You can find more info on opportunities after university at Prospect.ac.uk.

If you’re sitting in your room daydreaming about your future right now, my best tip to you is to grab a pen and paper and start writing down what your daydream looks like. If you want to become a photographer, what kind of photography inspires you? Do you see yourself starting up your own business or working for an organisation? What would be your optimum life goal and how do you get there?

Putting words on your dreams and answering these questions could really help when researching universities and career options. One thing is for sure, if you are opting for a degree, you have a lot to look forward to. As part of the Alamy 100% students project, I’ve visited Universities across the country, and I’m always welcomed by knowledgeable and enthusiastic tutors, ready to share every trick in the book to prepare their students for a career in photography.