Photos © Todd Vorenkamp

6 Ways a Formal Education Can Benefit Your Photography

by Todd Vorenkamp


Only in the arts is the term “self-taught” worn like a badge of honor. You can’t swing a dead cat around the Internet without hitting a photographer who broadcasts “self-taught” on the biography page of his or her website. I found a website titled: “Top 25 Self-Taught Photographers.” Really?

Professions outside the arts do not promote “self-taught.” Self-taught doctor? No thanks; I’ll go somewhere else. Self-taught airline pilot? I’ll take the next flight. Self-taught lawyer? I’d rather skip the jail time.

Photo lessons from Dad, magazines, and books aside, it is cool to wear the self-taught badge, especially if people tell you that you are a good photographer. So, when the opportunity to go to art school arrived on my doorstep, I hesitated about the fact that I would have to strip myself of this badge.

I was a “self-taught photographer” right up until the moment I became a “formally trained photographic artist” and started working toward my Masters of Fine Arts degree.

With “self-taught” so celebrated, what are the benefits of a formal art education?

1. Time

Many artists bemoan that they do not make enough time for their art. Life often gets in the way. Work, friends, family, taxes, television, etc.; the list goes on.

Entering an art school forces you to make time for your art. And, unlike your other schooling experiences, if you are “forced” to do something you love, you will likely do it energetically and enthusiastically.

Art school takes time. But, by investing in your art, this is time you are investing in yourself.

2. Practice

You will practice your art in art school. Like almost everything, practice makes almost perfect. That you have to continuously produce new art leads you to unconsciously improve your craft. You are not just taking photographs every week; you are driven to compile a solid body of work for every class, every semester.

If you feel you are at the top of your game photographically, you might consider going to art school. You will learn to apply a critical eye to your work, all while receiving feedback from others. It is one thing to get praise from friends and family, but subjecting your work to virtual strangers who are also immersed in the field will certainly give you new perspective.

You might be surprised to find that there is always room for improvement.

3. Immersion

If you enjoy photography, imagine the pleasure of immersing yourself in the art for weeks, months, or years. For me, the best part of a photo workshop is the immersion in the world of photography. It is a natural high for me. Art school is like attending a continuous photography workshop.

During the school year, I was out making photographs three to five times per week. On the nights that I was not creating photographs, I was reading about photography, editing photos, reviewing classmates’ images, or engaged in class discussions about the art.

If you are passionate about taking photographs, you will love the fact that art school not only drives you to create art, but you also will study and learn about the history of the genre, other arts, and the way people view and think about art.

4. Meaning

I used to just be a guy who took good pictures. People liked my photos. Many asked for emailed copies, prints, or my website address. I felt good about my photography.

Week One in grad school: “Nice photograph. What does it mean?”

Art school will force you to articulate the meaning behind your imagery. If you don’t think that your images have meaning, art school will drive a lot of personal introspection, so you can then discover why you take some photographs, but not others. Moving forward, you can be conscious of why you create the art you create. Self-discovery.

5. Passion

There is a true gift in being able to study something you are intensely passionate about. The practicality of an art school degree can be debated. Making a living as an artist is difficult — regardless of the genre.

Remember dreading schoolwork and grumbling about homework? If you are passionate about art, or whatever you chose to study in life, you will — I kid you not — love going to school and love getting assignments. Summer school will no longer be a burden.

For me, graduation was bittersweet. If there were more credits to be had, I would still be in art school. Ph.D. program for photography, anyone?

6. Friendships

Art school also surrounds you with others who are passionate about the same things in which you are invested. You are exposed to their work and they get exposed to yours. You learn about each classmate and how they feel and think. Art education is an intimate learning experience that can create lifelong friendships, professional contacts, and photographic growth and challenges. Your friends will push you to improve your art and you will push them to improve theirs.

So long, self-taught badge. It was nice to wear you for a while, but fashions change, and I have no regrets about removing you.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.