Becoming an Educated Photographer in the Digital Age

Often in my career, I've looked back on my education - whether it was during the struggles of finding work with two degrees, or when my photography career blossomed at times and the questions of where I went to art school came up. The following article was written for Fstoppers and their readers as an attempt to show people struggling with making the choice to invest in their artistic side and how.

Originally posted on Fstoppers.

Something I've been asked a lot during my career is where I went to art school. Whether I took that as a compliment on my dedication to my craft or an insult saying that I couldn't have gotten to that point without years of instruction, I still really don't know. As you can probably tell, I was self-taught, not even finding photography until I was a senior in college, already committed to grad school for my MBA.

I can't lie; I looked up some intensive programs and the Hallmark Institute in Massachusetts was calling my name for a bit, but the idea of taking on more education debt after four years of college majoring in advertising wasn't very appealing especially when I was already considering graduate school to get my MBA. However, after just immersing myself in photography landed me my first real job at a high end photo studio while studying in grad school. There I learned tons more about lighting and got to play with the best gear, like Broncolor lighting, Canon 1Ds cameras, L glass, and cyc walls.  It was a great way to learn more about some industry standard practices like lead generation, client etiquette, retouching, using Capture One Pro, and various setups that involved metering six different lights in the studio before a shoot.

However, my answer when asked me if I then think art school is a waste shocks most people: Only you can answer that question for yourself.

For hundreds of years, people have undertaken the demands of a traditional educational system concentrated in the fine arts. However, only in the last few years of the 21st century did people realize there's another way. The Internet has been a huge vehicle for bringing education to people who either can't afford traditional student loans or assistance for traditional 2-4 year schools or others who simply learn better on their own with guidance and hands-on doing. Suddenly, prospective students of the arts have multiple options to choose from, whether it's the traditional art school route or the newer online alternative. Either way, like I've said, since only you can answer that question for you, I won't tell you which is better in a direct comparison, but instead, I'll shine a little light on what has worked for me individually.

It's Different for Everyone: You Are a Snowflake

You see, everyone's reasons will be different and that's okay, since we're all unique humans after all. The best thing I ever heard in terms of advice was that just because a certain career path to success worked for someone famous doesn't necessarily mean it will work for you. Consider the simple fact that everyone learns differently; some creatives need structure to help keep them on task and motivated, while growing from constant feedback and direction. These people will love art school. Other creatives are hands-on learners with a hunger to digest knowledge and a free-flowing creative mind. These people will hate art school. It's obviously a very personal decision that will vary from individual to individual. With that in mind, for some, the best thing to do would be to pick and choose various things you admire and appreciate from various creatives you respect.

For me, that's been a few different people, some were classically trained and others were self-starters whom I've come to know over the years:

  1. Chase Jarvis: Having followed Chase for years on YouTube and Facebook, I've always loved his energy, how down to earth and approachable he always seemed, and his sharp business sense. You may also know him as the Co-Founder and CEO of CreativeLive, which I'll talk more about in a moment. I was even lucky enough to have won a contest a few years back in which Chase flew me out to San Francisco for a live taping of "Secrets of Silicon Valley" in their unveiling of the new San Francisco studio (Seattle was the original). All those things I felt about Chase for years were spot-on. He's amazingly down to Earth, has an amazing support system in his wife, mom, and aunt, who all were sweet and hilarious to hang out with, and as if flying me out wasn't enough, I got to spend a good 30 minutes just one-on-one with Chase chatting about life, our experiences, and why he picked me. It's a conversation that's profoundly stuck with me ever since.  
  2. Gary Vaynerchuk: If you've ever watched some of Chase's #CJLive videos over the years, you've probably seen this guy. He's loud, in your face, a crazy Jets fan, and truly tells it how it is. He's a NY Times best-selling author, YouTube pioneer, media genius, and CEO of VaynerMedia. However, the biggest thing I always took away from his teachings is that you have to take the long haul, big picture view on success and really get your hands dirty. When he started making videos on YouTube for his family's company, Wine Library, he was doing it every week for eighteen months before anyone actually started watching them. It's that kind of dedication, persistence, hard work, and guts that I respect the hell out of him for — so much so that I even applied for a Digital Project Manager position at his company and interviewed there as well.
  3. Nick Saglimbeni: Chances are, if you've seen a photo of any of the Kardashians that's actually pretty good (not the usual paparazzi material plastered on magazine covers), Nick shot it. He's been the longtime owner of Slickforce Studios, but one thing many people don't know is that he is actually is a classically trained cinematographer who was shooting commercials and music videos before he made the switch and picked up a stills camera, which was actually a Hasselblad. One of the strongest things Nick did from the start was really invest in the idea that a photoshoot is about the experience. It was this concentration on ensuring every person who walked in the studio was given the A-list treatment that not only brought people back, but attracted some A-list celebrities as well. However, this Hollywood success hasn't changed Nick much from his roots in Baltimore, Maryland; he's still the most transparent guy ever, who will meet up for a drink to talk shop, swap stories, and help out a fellow creative anyway he can. Another thing Nick has done exceptionally well is develop a signature style. Over the years, that led to people easily recognizing his work on various magazine covers by his lighting style alone. Dedicating yourself to developing a signature look is no easy task as a creative.
  4. Bill Cramer: I actually had the pleasure of meeting Bill through an internship at Wonderful Machine many years ago. Cramer had enjoyed a long, successful career as a commercial photographer for many years when he decided to start an artist collective, Wonderful Machine. From its humble beginnings to now having 700 photographers represented worldwide, it is a full production house, helping with anything creative (ad agency and photographer alike) needed to put on a great shoot.  Bill was a big influence on me because like Jarvis, he too aspired to create things that went well beyond photography, instead choosing to create forward-thinking companies that helped others through education and services that everyone could benefit from.

The Internet Is Actually a Wonderful Place

While most people refer to the Internet as the devil's cesspool sandbox, it is a great resource for young people to learn about their craft. Jarvis' Creativelive is on the forefront of online education today with their model of offering free live-streaming classes from industry leaders on things such as photography, art and design, music and audio, business and marketing, and even life practices like yoga and meditation. If you ever want to download a show to watch over again at your own pace, for a reasonable fee (it varies on class length and presenter), it's yours to keep digitally.

Another great resource for learning the Photoshop side of things is Phlearn, founded by photographer and retoucher Aaron Nace, who was a pioneer of the idea that you don't need tons of fancy gear or a huge studio to produce great work. Instead, a vivid imagination, some solid knowledge of lighting, and some Photoshop skills can have you putting out a strong portfolio in no time.

For some people, it's learning their camera that's the biggest hurdle to start taking the types of photos they really want. Don't fret. We've all been there and you have to start somewhere, right? Through teaching some Intro to Photography classes at several local colleges, I've seen some students go from knowing nothing to producing killer photos after just learning the basics; sometimes all we need is a push. For people who are starting out, there are some amazing offerings like Improve Photography, founded by lawyer-turned-photographer, Jim Harmer, which has tons of amazing articles and videos, most of which are free for people to enjoy.

Another great resource for many people are the Internet staples of forums and Facebook groups, which offer creatives a chance to meet others in their area who are in the same boat, learning just like you and falling in love with creating art. You can also peruse some of the knowledgeable legends on the forums and groups to use as a source of inspiration and possibly mentor you as well.

In The End, Just Do It

That's right, you're thinking of Shia LaBeouf flexing right now aren't you?

The truth is, though, he's right. The hardest part about learning anything new is merely starting. Real world experience is the biggest teacher in life; make mistakes and missteps, learn from them, and then, adjust. No one is perfect out of the gate, but if you're able to make the mistakes, own up to them, and mitigate those times you feel crappy, you'll find success a lot more quickly than you think. The biggest thing is just doing it and moving forward to the next thing; don't stay forever in beta, getting left behind and never actually putting anything out there.

At the end of the day, one cannot deny the recent explosion in online education in various forms. Sites like Fstoppers provide people with a great number of amazing tutorials, helpful articles, and useful advice to help anyone along their creative path. In the end, the decision on whether art school or learning via the Internet is best for you is ultimately yours and yours alone. However, there is no doubt that there is a huge shift going on in education — especially in the creative sector — that will surely change the entire landscape in a few more years, the very same one that has been around for hundreds of years, yet one that people are starting to question more and more.