Choosing which photography course to take is a decision that may ultimately have a big impact on your career. RACHAEL D’CRUZE looks to pro photographers, current students and academics for their advice.
SO, YOU HAVE DECIDED TO GET A PHOTOGRAPHY QUALIFICATION –WHAT NEXT?
With so many institutions offering a plethora of courses, the choice seems overwhelming. The first thing is to consider what type of course appeals to you and then, if you know what photographic career you want to follow, to see if there are any qualification requirements – for example, in the medical field, clinical photographers need to have a BA (Hons) degree as a minimum requirement.
The first major decision facing prospective students is whether to do a degree, or a shorter, more practical course. With both options, you then have to decide whether to do a general course, where you explore many genres (and on the degree courses study a lot of theory too), or to take a course on a specific area of photography – documentary, for example.
Talking about degree courses, Sarah McAdam, senior lecturer in photography for the media and journalism programmes at University College Plymouth St Mark & St John, said: “My advice is to choose a course that is open to a variety of styles to give you the most flexibility when you graduate.”
News agency press photographer David Hedges agrees: “My degree course helped me to get where I am today by giving me the freedom to pursue my own path in photography, so I could discover what aspects appealed to me, as I didn’t know exactly what line of work I wanted to go into when I started the course. A turning point was the optional four-month period abroad, which I spent in Romania. After that, I had my heart completely set on press photography. Then when I narrowed down my options, the course focused on professional practice elements of photography, which was a great help in making the transition from student to professional.”
Studying a general photography BA has many benefits, as do shorter vocational courses, such as the year-long ABC diploma in photography that professional photographer Matt Thompson completed last year at London College of Communication (LCC). We asked Adrian Notts, one of Matt’s tutors, for his advice on the courses available at LCC and how they prepare students for the working world: “A BA (Hons) course is more of an arts degree; the photo journalism course we do should get you a job and our course prepares you specifically for getting one.”
Which route you take and how specialised the course you choose is a personal decision and there is no right or wrong route. However, when choosing a course you should make a point of finding out about the teaching staff at your short-listed institution: are they working professionals with tons of industry knowledge?
What do past students say about them and, more importantly, what have they gone on to do? Also, find out the student-to-faculty ratio to get an idea of how much personal tutoring you can expect. You should also attend open days and look at the resources on offer. “A good studio with a range of cameras and lighting equipment is essential. Some places charge for equipment and studio hire but won’t always advertise that in their literature, so always ask,” adds Sarah McAdam.
Press photographer David Hedges studied at the University of Plymouth on its
BA (Hons) photography degree course. He graduated in September this year and now works as a press photographer for South West News Service (SWNS), one of the largest agencies in the UK. David, who at the start his course was unsure which area of photography he wanted to pursue, recommends doing a general photography degree. “A photography BA gives you the chance to try a broad spectrum of photography and then over the three years, you can whittle it down to your specialisation and concentrate on that. Without at least trying some different paths of photography, I think it is hard to make an informed decision."
Clinical photographer Ceri Haddon has a BA (Hons) photography degree from
Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. He graduated in 2008 and now works at St George's, University of London (www.sgul.ac.uk) as a clinical photographer. “After graduation I was lucky enough to go straight in to medical photography – for which a degree is essential – as well as on-the-job further postgraduate education,” says Ceri, who now also holds a clinical photography PG CERT, which he did at Staffordshire University. “With out my BA, the door would have been closed completely and left me bereft of a deeper understanding of photography as a greater whole.” So, as someone who has a BA (Hons) photography degree, but also needed furthermore specialist training, does Ceri think a photography
BA is the way to go, or is it preferable to specialise earlier? “A specialist photography course is a fantastic route, if that is your heart’s desire when you apply, that is. For most of us, a general photography degree allows the choice of which direction to take to be made at a later stage, once you have had a chance to experience what is out there, as well as providing an all-round education.”
Photographic art BA (Hons) student Sam Cornwell has just finished his second year of a photographic art BA (Hons) degree at Newport University. Sam had been a professional photographer for five years before starting his course, but wanted to go to university because he did not get the chance when he was younger. Sam chose to study photographic art in order to understand the theory behind the subject and in particular learn how to use the darkroom. “Within six months I had had my brain rewired in the way I look at photography. There is so much more to it than I had first thought. Discovering the darkroom has literally changed my life,” he says.
Portrait, editorial, interiors and architectural photographer Matt Thompson is a professional photographer based in London, who graduated in 2010 with an ABC diploma in photography from London College of Communication (LCC), part of the University of the Arts London (www.arts.ac.uk). LCC is the former London School of Printing whose alumni include Rankin, Michael Hoppen and Charles Saatchi. Matt applied for this one-year course because he says it is designed to equip you with the skills to become a professional as soon as possible. “I wasn’t interested in the academic side of photography, I just wanted to learn the practical skills. Besides, I was 36 and the reality of my situation was I didn't want to become a student for three or four years; not to mention I am always impatient to get on and do it.” One of the biggest benefits of the ABC photography diploma for Matt was being surrounded by other people with similar ambitions –many of whom have since appeared in Photography Monthly. “Photography is a pretty singular pursuit, so to be able to learn from your peers, bounce ideas around, assist and be assisted on realising projects, was not only of great benefit, but hugely enjoyable,” he says.
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