20 effective ways to learn photography without going to photography school

Photography is undoubtedly the art form of the modern day – almost everyone has access to a camera and simple, high level editing software has exploded the medium.

Due to all this, a new generation of amateur photographers are upon us, in numbers greater than ever before. But for those who want to exit the rookie realm, do they need photography school?

Teaching any kind of creative discipline enters touchy territory, especially for people’s ideals and bank accounts. But, in a day and age where many career photographers struggle to get paid work – do you need the formal training to stay competitive over the millions of images on Instagram and Flickr? First it’s important to figure out why you want the skills.

What’s the purpose of your photography?

Not everyone can take a hobby and flip it into a career, and not everyone wants to. When weighing up the importance of enrolling to study, you have to ask yourself if it’s a good investment. As anyone with a degree can tell you – they’re not cheap. The average annual cost of tuition fees in the US is $33,000. That’s a lot of money to throw at a hobby.

If you want to take good photos but don’t want to drop big bucks on being qualified, there’s a ton of ways to develop your skills—we’ll get to those in a bit.

Passion, patience and hustle

If you take a passion and run with it, can you be successful without the formality of the classroom? Can drive, thick skin, and persistence be all you need to get skills, money and connections? For some, yes.

Take Chris Ozer—in 2010, he quit his 9-5 job to pursue a career in photography. Seven years later, the self-taught photographer has an Instagram following of over six hundred thousand and some pretty impressive clients, including Apple, Target, and The New York Times. In an interview with icanbesociety, Chris said, “I made a conscious decision to improve my skills and just began studying photography and shooting like crazy.”

Regardless of what you want to achieve with your photography, here are some sure fire ways to improve your skills without a degree.

1. Get familiar with your camera

I know what you’re thinking – no way am I reading the camera manual. But, it really is a great tool when trying to master your chosen model. It’s not to say you have to read 300 pages cover to cover, of course you can skim areas you already know about or leave particular sections for later, but the humble camera manual holds more importance than you think. Taking the time to research your kit is important for a couple reasons:

  • You need to know about every aspect of your camera.
  • No one knows the camera better than the people that made it.

2. Watch online tutorials

With the inception of the internet making most people think of manuals as artifacts, you can also go to the net to learn. Especially if you find reading difficult/uninspiring, there will be countless videos and blogs on how to use the model you’ve picked. This is great when looking for reviews from people who have actually used the rig for a while. YouTube in particular is filled with reviews, tips and warnings for photographers, check out popular channels like Mango Street or Peter McKinnon for easy to follow videos. And remember to put what you’ve watched into action!

3. Hit the books (and online portfolios)

Indulging in a good book or online portfolio will help you absorb details in a creative, colorful and interesting ways. They will inspire you and help you figure out niches that you want to play around with. Whilst you’re learning portfolios can also be a source of great frustration, as you look at what others can achieve and struggle to mirror it. Don’t let it get you down though, just like every good art form, it takes time to master.

Here are three great photo books to start with:

  • ZZYZX by Gregory Halpern: ZZYZX is the result of Halpern spending six years travelling to locations across California, often randomly selected from Google Maps.
  • The House of Seven Women by Tito Mouraz: Based on a ghost story, Mouraz explores the myth of seven mysterious women who cast a spell on his adult imagination. This is a great book for people interested in black and white imagery.
  • Border Cantos by Richard Misrach: Since 2004, Misrach has been documenting the border between Mexico and America. Alongside images of landscapes and buildings, he has photographed evidence of migration, like water bottles, clothing, shotgun shells and parts of the wall.

And, three great online portfolios to check out:

  • North Landscapes by Jan Erik Waider: Jan Erik Waider’s online portfolio is a collection of raw nordic landscapes. He’s amazing at taking photos of misty mountains, snow covered trees and flowing waterfalls with some high profile clients like The British Museum, Apple and HTC.
  • Nicholas Evariste Photography: If you want to see someone take black and white photography and turn it into minimalistic aesthetic perfection, have a look at Nicholas Evariste’s online portfolio.
  • Cassandra Klos Photography: A true testament to ‘film is not dead,’ Klos uses 4×5 film to capture insane scenes that look like they were taken on Mars, but are really in locations like Hawaii and Utah.

4. Practice, practice and practice!

Nothing is going to help you more than experience—so bring your camera everywhere and shoot anything remotely interesting! You can take fifty photography courses, read every book about lighting and exposure and talk about it all day – but taking photos is what is going to allow you to unlock your style and natural skill. As hundreds of photos build up on your memory card, you’ll see what needs improvement and where you excel. It’s good to keep some early evidence of your trials and errors so you can look back and see how far you’ve come!

5. Expand your network

Studying, reading and ogling photographer’s works and words is important, but you also need to hit the streets and network. Contacts and referrals enable you to gain valuable skills and, if you want to make money, get clients. Networking is all about figuring out who you need to know and how you’re going to build long-term relationships with them.

  • Photography is a very personal business, networking lets you get to know people.
  • You are your brand, making yourself known as a person and not just a photographer helps you get repeat customers.
  • Networking is cheap in comparison to other marketing strategies.
  • Without good relationships – no business will succeed.

6. Get a mentor or apprenticeship

Mentors and apprenticeships are a surprisingly overlooked way of breaking into photography. Ask many successful self-taught professionals how they learned the ropes, and many will credit working their way up the ladder at an internship.

A big tip though—do your research into who you are going to be working for. You need to connect with someone who is generous with their knowledge and encouraging in their style. The wrong kind of experience can leave you sitting behind a desk all day, filing paperwork and answer phones.

Stefen Chow is a photographer based in Beijing. In 2008, he said he saw the true power and impact of mentorship: “I went to the Eddie Adams Workshop… the instructors [were] from the biggest magazines such as National Geographic and Time…. they were all there for the singular purpose of teaching and imparting their knowledge and wisdom to emerging photographers like me,” Chow said, “I felt there was no greater gift than to be a receiver of such unsolicited goodwill.”

7. Attend a workshop

Continuing from above, going to a workshop is another great way to learn. Workshops are particularly good for people who might want to go to photography school, but don’t want to commit to 3+ years and shell out tons of cash. That’s not to say that workshops aren’t expensive, some are quite eye watering—but—put it in comparison to a degree and it’s quite the bargain. Workshops also tie in to a lot of things we’ve already discussed—they’re great for making connections, finding internships and discovering styles/niches you love.

8. Join a photography forum

Photographers love talking about photography – and where do they unleash? Forums. Whether you want some honest feedback on your work, want to learn more about a particular style of photography or have a question about your camera – forums more often than not will hold the answer. Don’t always take what someone has said on a forum as gospel though, it’s always good to back up claims with further research.

Here are some good forums for general info:

  • Digital Photography Review
  • The Photo Forum
  • Digital Grin

There are also thousands of forums for more specific enquiries—Google away!

9. Set yourself a photography bucket list

Is there any better feeling than writing a list of challenges and working through them till there’s none left?! I don’t think so. Your photography journey can benefit from this as well. By setting goals or a photography ‘bucket list,’ you can find yourself feeling more motivated to get out and get shooting.

10. Enter a photography competition

Photography competitions are a great way to get some feedback on your work if you’re finding it hard to get critiques from anywhere else. Some photography competitions can also have pretty hefty cash prizes, so if you’re looking to make money off your shots then this could be your chance. But, be warned—a lot of photography competitions are more of a money making scheme for the host than a legitimate way to celebrate talent—research the comp and don’t pay more than $30 or $40 for an entry.

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