How To Learn To Be A Photographer: Formal, Online, Self-Taught
August 31, 2021
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Photography is a skill that many people want to learn, but most don't know where to start. There are many different options for learning photography from formal education, online courses, and self-taught methods.
The biggest problem with learning photography is deciding how you want to learn it. Do you take a class? Do you watch youtube videos? Maybe read some books on the topic? Each of these has its benefits and drawbacks depending on your situation and your type of person.
We will go over each method in detail, including pros/cons and examples of everyday situations where each would be best suited for use. This article should help give an overview of exactly how to learn photography, whether through formal education or self-taught methods like YouTube or reading books/magazines/articles online about the subject matter!
Ultimately, you'll know how to learn to be a photographer and everything in between. So, grab a pen/paper to take notes on, and let's get started!
We're going to start with determining why you want to learn to be a photographer.
Maybe you want to take amazing photos and are entirely content with it being a hobby. Or perhaps you're the complete opposite, and photography is your passion, and you want to build a long-lasting, lucrative photography career. You could also be the type that feels photography is more of a hobby, but you don't want to take the plunge into making it a full-time business, a side-hustle.
Those are just a few examples of why - there are many more.
The point to this question is pretty simple. The reason you want to learn photography should weigh heavily on the way you choose to learn it.
Diving A Little Deeper...
Suppose you're a hobbyist; you probably wouldn't want to enroll and pay for a formal 2/4 year college. I mean, most people don't formally train for their hobby's - and if they do, their hobby's have become much more than that. Does that make sense?
You could look at the opposite side and agree that beginner photographers are looking to better their photography skills. They then plan to turn those skills into a legitimate full-time business - should do so with more training than just YouTube/books/self-taught.
Going forward in this article - I will reference back to this section and recommend the 'type' of reason and which of those I would recommend for that kind of learning. The 'types' of people would be:
Hobbyist Side-Hustle Professional photographer
Let's move on to the different types of photography and how that may impact your learning decision.
Different Types Of Photography (Or Niche's)
As you probably already know or can at least imagine - there's a version of photography for nearly anything you can think of. Each type is taught and executed differently.
First, look over this list of the most common and lucrative to get a better idea of what is possible - and who knows, you may see a type/niche that interests you more! These include:
Wedding/Event (one of the most lucrative - yet most challenging)
Real Estate (extremely lucrative right now - housing boom - 6 figure possibility in a short amount of time)
Automobile (cars, trucks, motorcycles)
Product (traditional, lifestyle)
And the list can go on and on... If it exists - there's a market for it to be photographed.
The type of photography you choose or are most interested in can determine how you learn that type.
For instance - if you want to learn how to work a camera, camera settings, manual mode, exposure, shutter speed, composition, posing, etc... you can learn that anywhere. All forms of photography education offer it.
But, not all forms of photography education offer training in maternity, cars, wedding, or pet photography. Usually, you would want to lean more towards online photography courses to better understand something that specific (or niche).
Keep this in mind going forward!
4 Ways To Learn Photography (And Become A Photographer)
There are 4 common ways to learn photography today. Every photographer on the planet has learned from at least one of the 4 methods. These methods include:
Formal Education (Community College/University)
Self Taught (YouTube, books, trial/error)
Years ago there were only 2 main ways to learn - that being formal education or self-taught. During that time digital photography wasn't mainstream either...
But, with the power of the internet - anyone is able to share their experience and knowledge to teach people like you or I, everything they know. It's revolutionary in terms of technology and education.
Let's dabble into the pros and cons of each of these methods.
Learning Photography Through Formal Education (College/Degree)
You may or may not have known that most colleges offer degrees in photography. Most offer a one or 2-year degree and various one-off courses that you can take either on-campus or online.
But do you need a degree in photography to be credible and stand out from the rest? The short answer is no. But, there are significant benefits to obtaining a formal degree in photography (we will get to that here in a second).
First, there are a few fields of photography that may require a degree. These types include:
This is where the 'big' money in photography is (aside from real estate and weddings). It makes sense though, right? If these industries are paying big money - they want to hire the best - and usually the best have some type of degree in their field (this isn't always the case - there are always exceptions to everything).
Let's talk about the pros of formal education in the field of photography.
Taught by experienced people in that field
Out of those 4 - the most beneficial is networking. The old saying, "It's all about who you know," couldn't be more accurate in photography. The networks that you can build from within a universities network can be pretty incredible. In addition, this network can lead to consistent work with high-end brands/clients. If you want to make photography a full-time career - networking (and marketing) is more critical than nearly anything else.
According to Cole Humphus' article, Why 85% of Photographs Fail & How You Can Succeed, 60% of all photographers fail/quit within the first year - and of the remaining 40% - another 25% will fail in their second. Networking and putting yourself out there is essential to success.
The other aspects are essential, especially if you want to get into editorial photography (which almost always requires a degree of some type).
On someone else's time
It doesn't guarantee you anything
Obviously, the biggest con about formal education is the cost. According to Collegeboard.org, College Costs: FAQ, the average cost of a single year of tuition and fees, in state, is about $9,500. So, for a 2 year degree you're looking at a $20,000 investment, minimum.
You're also on someone else's schedule. Meaning, if you wanted to learn faster than the material - you couldn't. You have to stay on pace with everyone else (and the processor).
You'll find that many formal colleges don't offer much in terms of 'niche' training. Meaning, you'll learn everything, inside and out, about a camera, the camera's sensor, shutter speed, focal length, depth of field, how much light is needed in a given scene... you get the idea... But you'll be pressed to find a class-specific for automobile photography, for instance - or real estate (I've never seen a single one, personally).
And all of this with no guarantee that you'll ever use or do anything with the degree (esp if you're interested in photojournalism).
So, who should think about formal education as a means to learning photography?
This is pretty obvious:
Aspiring Professional Photographers
But, this should only be for those needing the degree, education, and credibility of that degree in fields like editorial, journalism, fashion, or commercial. You should also love structure and following a plan - and need the networking potential.
You should not consider it if you're a hobbyist or someone that has a side-hustle.
Now, let's move on to online courses and everything they have to offer.
Learning Photography With Online Courses
Online courses (in general) have taken the internet and consumer market by storm. If you take a minute to think about nearly anything, I'm sure you'll find a course on it. Moreover, anyone can take a course and sell it to you online.
There's an obvious problem with that. How do you know what they are teaching is even correct or the best ways to go about doing what they're teaching? The short answer, you don't.
Not only that - there are internet 'gurus' that offer high ticket items ($2,500-$10k+) with nothing but fluff content - all while preying on the weak and those who're looking for an easy way out of their current situation.
Well, there are legitimate online courses by reputable people/brands. However, I currently only recommend one (because their cost-to-content is ridiculously good) - I will include other courses that aren't as good - but offer great value in their own right.
Learn at your own pace
Much cheaper than a semester of college (my recommendation is about 1/3 the price of a single class)
Access the material anywhere
Groups attached to the course (usually Facebook - it's a version of networking)
One time charge (most of the time)
The biggest factor(s) here are the cost and learning at your own pace. Remember when we talked about in state tuition and the cost involved? That's 20k for a degree. There are courses that offer the same (if not more) education, for a fraction of that. We're talking upwards of 20x less.
You can also learn as fast as you want. Want to learn the basics of photography fast (less than a month) - your best bet is to do it with a good online course.
Now let's dive into the negatives.
No actual obligation to learn (aside from you spending money on it)
Nothing is graded/looked over/critiqued (usually)
The drop-off/failure rate is high
Not much in terms of real-world connections/networking
The major con(s) of online course learning is the failure rate. I'm not saying you fail the course - I mean the rate of people who purchase and take the approach fail to achieve success in that field.
This is mainly because you are obligated to do anything. You don't have to show up every day - do exercises/homework. No one is critiquing or going over your work. It's all on you - your success depends entirely on you and what you do with the material that's given to you.
Professional paying connections are hard to come by online too. This is about the Facebook groups that were created in-leu of many online courses.
I recommend online courses to...
That's right. I recommend them to all three types of people. Why? because there is a ton of value in some of these courses for very little in investment. Online courses are where all of the niche specific courses come to help.
Circling back a little - I learned everything I know today from an online course. I never went to college for it or learned from a mentor or anything. At first I watched a couple dozen YouTube videos and knew that I needed more structure to my training and knew that I would have to invest in a course.
Josh Dunlop's photography for beginners course is where it all really began for me. Within about two months I had learned and practiced enough that I could start charging within my local area.
Before long, I had purchased a couple of different courses of his (milk way, pet portraits, and landscape). I started with nothing and knowing no one about seven years ago... fast forward to today, and I book about 200 portrait sessions and 25 events every year. His courses are non-subscription and have a one-time purchase fee. Very affordable and packed with knowledge.
The above links are to Josh's courses at 66% off.
If I can do it, believe me, so can you.
Other very worthy courses that are either not as fleshed out, considerably more expensive, or are subscription-based include:
SLR Lounge (stand-alone courses (very expensive) - Yearly subscription (expensive) - Lifetime Access ($999 one time for everything current and in the future).
I'll be honest - this is something I have only dabbled in a few times, personally. It was great for what it was - but let's dive into the pros and cons now so that what I say afterward makes sense.
Hands-on training with the leader of the workshop
Great supplement to online learning
Inexpensive for the value (assuming they teach well)
The training unique
Workshops are a great way to get to know one of the 'experts in that niche and supplement along with an online course. This gives you the hands-on experience and training that's lacking in an online environment. Usually, they're inexpensive for the experience and training ($50-$100 per ticket ~4 hours of training).
There's also marketing potential here. You're a photographer, at a photographers workshop, along with other photographers wanting to learn. There's huge potential in this. You may find people that need help with work - which puts your name out there even more.
Workshops filled with 'fluff' (be aware of this)
The photographer may have less skill than you do (do your research)!
You can't learn photography from just workshops - you need a course or online training
Tickets can sell out
All of these are very valid points. However, I highly recommend researching the person or brand running the workshop before purchasing a ticket. Also, be aware that there may be a lot of 'fluff' in the discussion bit. You may find the one running the workshop will use that time to plug in an advert for something else - or 'waste' a big chunk of time to fill time - essentially making sure the workshop lasts as long as the ticket stated (even though they don't have enough material to cover or go over).
I recommend attending a workshop to:
That's right - all three again. Why? Because I think that everyone should attend a workshop at least once. Who knows, you may find that going to workshops works better with your learning style than a formal or an online course. But, on the other hand, you also may find that it's not your learning style, and you go back to what you were doing before.
Weight the pros and cons and make an educated decision on this one. Some workshops are costly - you wouldn't want to waste your money.
Self-Taught Photography - Learning From Reading/YouTube/Trial & Error (Bootstrap)
Believe it or not, a lot of photographers claim to be self-taught. While they may claim it - it's not entirely true. If they have read a book or watched a youtube video and learned anything from it - that's not teaching themselves. That's someone else guiding you something, right?
I think many of them mean to say that they're a hybrid of two forms of learning - with an overall idea that everything they've learned has been free. It didn't cost them anything but their time, effort, and determination. That's fair enough.
With That Being Said
There are many great things to be said about bootstrapping a business, your side-hustle, or your hobby. There is nothing wrong with it, and honestly, it will probably make you a better photographer for it. You don't expect to buy something, and it magically makes you a better photographer (like people think with high-end gear and lightroom presets).
The person with this mindset is more determined to make it in most cases. They see something like a pose, an edited photo, or a BTS picture and actively learn how to replicate and incorporate it into their workflow/skill-set.
Here are the pros of bootstrapping/self-taught/spending nothing on learning photography.
Learn at your own pace
Self-learner/starter. You solve and find solutions easily
You don't spend anything on education
You'll take more pride in what you've accomplished. You've learned it all by scavenging for it.
Find more creative ways to do things - again; you aren't being told what to do. You're making it work however you can.
I like to think of self-learning/YouTube learning photographers as more independent. They're just more determined and can figure something out no matter what.
I was very much like this my first year. I didn't spend a dime on education - and learned photography basics (mostly photoshop and lightroom) through YouTube.
Ultimately this did not work for me at all (we will get to this in a minute) - but that does not mean it won't work for you. You can make anything happen with enough consistency and determination.
'Failure' rate is of the highest
No one is keeping you on track
The internet is littered with false information - photography info and tutorials included
Very hard to find proper training outside of the 3 main niches (portrait, real estate, weddings).
No real direction (requires you to know that)
Zero obligations (hence the reason the failure rate is so high)
It May take much longer to learn
Learning all of this on your own requires the most determination out of all of the others. You're alone with zero guidance. All you have is a search bar on Google/YouTube and another on Amazon for books.
This is what nearly made me quit photography altogether. I didn't really know what I was doing. I would gather bits and pieces of information here and there and try to connect them together in some way. I had zero direction and didn't really know if I was doing anything right. When it came to the business side of photography - I was all over the place... doing facebook, Instagram, youtube, linkdin, blogging, even started a podcast...
That's what I thought I needed to do but in reality, I didn't. I needed to focus on one thing at a time, work on that until I gain traction, and then move on to something else that will benefit the business. But again, only after I have seen success in the first thing, first.
If it wasn't for me taking the plunge and purchasing courses through expert photography - I wouldn't be where I am today. Period.
This is not to say it won't work for you. You could be much more self-sufficient and have a great idea of what you need to do and how to get there. All I'm saying is that I didn't - so don't feel down or afraid if you feel the same way at some point. A lot of new photographers do.
I recommend this method for:
While people completely invested in the idea of becoming professional - you can learn the absolute basics from YouTube and reading - You'll want to invest in yourself and your business by either attending college or purchasing a course online.
The Best Way To Learn Photography
In this section - I'm going to break down each of the different types of photographers and my recommendations on how they should go about learning photography. While this may be somewhat opinion-based, I'm sure at some point while reading this you'll agree with what I'm saying.
Best Way To Learn Photography And Become A Professional Photographer
You can start by looking on Youtube and the web for blog posts relating to the basics of photography (like the exposure triangle, composition, color balance, proper lighting, etc.).
The next step (in a relatively short amount of time would be to either purchase a course or apply to a university).
At the very least, you want to have a few courses under your belt. This will keep you on track and stay in a better mindset (not as frustrated) than you would be if you were bootstrapping.
Remember, you want to be a professional. To become proficient, you have to be trained. This leads to the fact that you'll need to invest at some point to get to where you want to be.
Consider University only if you plan to do high-end fashion, commercial work, or editorial/journalism photography.
Best Way To Learn Photography And Make It A Side Hustle
Side hustles can be pretty damn lucrative - especially in the real estate/wedding industry.
I've been a part of a real estate photography group for about 3 years now. There are a handful of them who make north of $500k with a 3 man team. Yes, 3 photographers. And remember, once you have the gear you need, there isn't really much of an investment after that other than driving and running a website. You don't have inventory and everything involved... One of the guys doesn't even have a PR/reception... he runs hit entire half a million-dollar business by himself from his cellphone.
It's a possibility that your side hustle could become more lucrative than your primary job. This could then lead to your side hustle becoming your main job - so keep that in mind.
If you're learning photography to side hustle - there's nothing wrong with learning a pretty good deal from YouTube/books/blogs. But at some point, you may find yourself wanting to step up your game and evolve. This could be the quality of your images, the speed at which you complete each task/job, or even how to market better to your target audience...
All of these are best learned through a course designed specifically for that area.
Best Way To Learn Photography For A Hobby
Hobbyist photographers are very common these days - considering you can get an excellent digital camera with a lens for less than $600. Even eight years ago, you couldn't find that.
Not only that - technology is advancing, and everything is getting easier to use. The learning curve isn't nearly as steep as it used to be...
With that being said - there is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist photographer. You have more freedom than the ones who do it for a living. You don't do your work for anyone other than yourself... There's no one there to tell you you're doing something wrong or that you can't take a break right now. You can do and say anything you feel like. I respect that.
Now, I recommend learning by self-teaching and by coursework. First, you'll be able to learn a great deal online for free about photography basics - then, if you feel like you want to take it a step further - look into purchasing a course. There is nothing wrong with investing your hard-earned cash into education and yourself.
How Long Does It Take To Learn And Study Professional Photography?
It's better to know what to expect than to shoot from the hip... It's the motto I live by on a daily basis.
With that being said - how long should it take for you to learn photography? Well, it depends.
If we're talking about beginner photography which would be:
Different camera bodies and how they work (crop sensor vs full frame)
Focal lengths and how they affect your image
Zoom lens vs prime lens
Proper exposure using the exposure triangle (Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO)
Fundamentals of lighting
If you were to 'power though' and learn it as fast as possible - you're looking at a couple of months for the average person. This would include learning it on paper, doing it in practice, and executing it in the field.
If you're the type that learns at a 'normal' pace - you can expect to have a solid foundation within 6 months. By the end of the 6 months, you could very well have the knowledge and executing it with clients or improving immensely if you're doing it for a hobby.
Anything past the fundamentals mentioned above can take months or years. This could be getting better at editing, more comfortable with clients, improving your website or online presence... being more creative. Many business owners and creatives work on many parts of their work for their entire career... improvements never end...
But again, the fundamentals and how photography works aren't something you can't grasp in a short amount of time. Just know - it isn't easy... and developing your style that sets you apart from other photographers can take years.
The main thing is to stay focused and motivated. When things get tough, repetitive, or you feel you aren't growing or getting enough recognition for your work... think back on what you decided to do this. Think back on the goals you set for yourself and what you saw your photography skills becoming in the future.
Make that become your driving force to keep you going. Believe me, even now, I have to think of this from time to time. If you truly love being a photographer your drive to become successful and better will drive you through the down times.
That About Does It!
There you go! You now know various ways to learn to be a photographer, different types of photography, and different intentions or reasons you want to become a photographer. Furthermore, you're now able to take this information and use it to further your learning, but creatively and more productively.
Quite a bit of planning and time went into this article - if it helps you somehow, it was worth my time, and I hope it has done just that.
Be sure to check out our other related article, 25 Photography Exercises For Beginners, where we give actual exercises that you will benefit from (if you stick with them over time). I would recommend reading it and implementing those exercises in your daily learning workflow.
It's been a pleasure - and until next time, be safe and keep creating!
How do I start photography?
You first want to purchase a decent digital camera. It doesn't have to be the best or even brand new. You want to look at ones from about 2014 to the current year (Something with 16 MP, autofocus, decent ISO capabilities, etc). And then start taking pictures. Look at YouTube and blogs for questions and education - and Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration. Photographing what you're passionate about and interested in will help a lot with keeping you interested and focused on getting better.
What qualifications do you need to become a photographer?
It depends on what field of photography you're attempting to get into. There are some types that require no more than a solid portfolio (portraits, weddings, auto, etc.) - then there are those who require as much as a bachelors degree in photography (editorial, journalism, some commercial and industrial, etc.). Again, it all depends on the type of photography you're trying to get into.
Is photography easy to learn?
The basics of taking a photograph is not hard. Most cameras have a decent automatic mode - which will produce great, yet basic, images. Producing images that inspire you, or say, "wow, that's amazing" - takes quite a bit of time, effort, and skill to master. But, the more technical and creative the result - the harder that will be to learn. Creating your own style and look takes time and skill. It's all relative to how fast and easy you learn something new - and how determined you are to learn it.
How do you become a beginner photographer?
Becoming a beginner, much like anything else, would require you to purchase a camera and have the ambition and determination to learn. The camera doesn't have to be new or even of the current year - just something from about 2014 to the current year. Once you have that - pick a type of photography you would like to learn (and have interest in) and start shooting. Consistent practice and determination will get you anywhere you want to go in photography.
2022 marks our fourth year in business and my 8th year in photography. I have learned so much about not only photography, running a business, and everything web-related... I've learned so much about myself. Truly determining my passions and constantly learning and improving has gotten me to where I am today.