The studio arts, including photography, may not be the first subject that comes to mind when you think about online educational opportunities. But, as user interfaces and digital platforms have evolved and the demand for the affordable convenience of online degree programs has increased, more and more colleges, universities, and art institutes have begun to effectively tackle the challenges of teaching the art and application of disciplines like photography through online formats. This guide will explore online photography degrees, look into the demands and rewards of pursuing the degree, and go over the various skills necessary for different career paths in photography.
Photography is a well-suited field for online degree programs because it allows the learner to access coursework from wherever they are. Students learn about many different formats of the art, including using digital platforms and editing equipment that they can use from the comfort of their computer. An online photography degree is a good fit for those working in freelance photography and wanting to improve their skills and for those who want to get into the field. We’ve outlined some of the things you should look for when looking for a degree and the best schools available.
In her 1977 essay collection On Photography, writer and cultural critic Susan Sontag observed, “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” If that was apparent four decades ago, it’s even truer in today’s world, where the proliferation of smartphone devices equipped with digital photographic capabilities and apps such as Instagram have made the once exclusive and complicated art of image capture as easy as pushing a button. In fact, photography is so deeply woven into today’s media culture that it’s hard not to take it for granted. How often do we stop to ask questions like, “How was that picture taken?” much less “What was the exposure time?” or “How was the subject framed and lit?” And yet, these are important concerns for professional photographers.
A degree in photography is an excellent place to start looking for answers to these questions and to delve deeper into the art and business of photography. Increasingly, online photography degrees are a sensible, affordable, and practical means of attaining the skills, confidence, and technical knowledge necessary to thrive in the competitive world of professional photography, whether it’s in the realm of the fine arts or in the commercial marketplace, in portraiture or in journalism, in science and technology, or in arts and entertainment.
Despite today’s media-saturated culture, technological advances have made it cheaper and easier for just about anyone to snap a picture. As a result, the market for professional photographers has tightened and the competition for the best jobs has increased. The latest estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics predict a slower than average rate of job growth for photographers of just three to seven percent for the decade ending in 2022.
The BLS also notes, however, that the need for quality, compelling images will continue to be the focal point of product advertisements. In other words, just about everything today still exists to end in a photograph, it’s merely a question of who has the talent, the skill, and the qualifications to do more than take a couple of quick snapshots. An online degree in photography has become one reliable way to reach the next level.
There are a variety of ways to approach earning an online degree in photography, in part because there are currently no explicit educational requirements or licensure constraints to restrict anyone from working as a professional photographer.
The path to a professional career in photography can involve many different facets, from mastering the mechanics of cameras and other photographic equipment, to studying the technical aspects of lighting and composition, to cultivating an eye or an instinct for the right shot. So, while in theory all one needs is a convincing portfolio of photographs to gain employment as a photographer, it’s somewhat rare in the professional world not to have some kind of formal training. The BLS notes that while a postsecondary degree is not typically required, most professional photographers have earned a degree or at least taken several classes to develop their craft and increase employability.
While many employers primarily look for photographers who have the right combination of creativity and technical skill, a college degree is often a prerequisite for photojournalism positions, as well for jobs in the industrial, scientific, and corporate sectors. This generally translates into a four-year bachelor’s degree, which could take the form of a BFA in photography, but doesn’t have to. For example, a photojournalist might major in communications studies and minor/concentration in photography; a scientific photographer might major in a particular science and minor in photography; or a person interested in fashion photography could combine a BA in art and design with a minor in photography. A one-year online certificate program in photography offered through a university extension school, a community college, or an art institute could also easily be combined with a bachelor’s degree in another area as a means of entering the field of professional photography.
For those aiming to keep their focus on the camera, there are also a growing number of online programs for two-year associate degrees and more in-depth four-year bachelor’s degrees in photography. It is not unusual for photographers already working in the field or who have completed a certificate or associate degree to transfer credits and enroll in a bachelor’s degree program. Indeed, most online programs are designed to accommodate this transition. And, for those who desire to move further in the academic world after completing a bachelor’s degree, there are now several master’s degree program in photography available online.
It takes a unique combination of skill, talent, and technical knowledge to work as a photographer on the professional level. An online degree program can help define and streamline career objectives in a field that offers much in the way of possibilities. But, it’s never a bad idea to have some sense of how you might like to eventually put your talents to use before you enroll in an online program. Let’s look at a few ways you might want to think about a career as a photographer and some of the kinds of people who would be likely embark in a course of online study in photography.
According to BLS, nearly 60 percent of all people considered to be professional photographers are self-employed. Of course, in a competitive field like photography, self-employment brings with it certain risks in terms of job security. So, you’re going to want to make sure that you’re someone who has a naturally proclivity and affinity for photography. If you are a person who enjoys taking pictures and who appears to have a knack for using a camera, capturing a shot, and notice how composition and lighting can drastically change an image, then you might have the right kind of entrepreneurial spirit to use an online photography degree as a means of moving into the field.
Self-employed photographers can work doing portraits for individual, families and/or larger groups or events. There are also photography entrepreneurs who find employment on a freelance basis, working in print and online for magazines, newspapers, and other publications. There are event photographers, who are hired on a contract basis to do weddings and/or corporate events. And, there are professional photographers who do all of the above and more, including finding work in the public relations and advertising on a job-by-job basis.
For people who are drawn to photography and who want to make a professional career out it, the entrepreneurial route can be a good one. But, it’s also a reasonable path to consider if you’re an artistic person who’s looking for a way to use your natural gifts in a creative endeavor that can also be a full- or part-time jobs. Photography, as an art form, is rooted in realism and it’s also a realistic way to apply artistry in a practical setting. There are photographers who thrive in the rarified realm of the fine arts, showing their work in galleries and other public venues, selling their work to collectors, and doing work on commission for individual collectors or institutions. And there are others who thrive in a more commercial context, working creatively for public relations firms and advertising agencies. There are also any number of in-between variations on these themes, including photographers who might work a day-job in a gallery or museum, a photo lab or even a technical/scientific setting, while showing and selling their own artistic photographic work. The online photography degree brings with it a practical set of real-world skills and abilities that can be used both in the pursuit of art and commerce.
Increasingly, it does pay to have more than one set of skills and the proficiency in photography that comes with an online degree program might be one of them. This is particularly true in the realm of journalism and publishing, where employers are often looking for candidates who can do more than one thing well and individuals generally benefit from being able to work in various media. Journalists who can bring back great images as well as a great story are more in demand than those who can’t. And a photojournalist who’s also capable of reporting a story brings added value to the job. Print journalism certainly has an important visual component that requires great photography, but online and digital media tend to be even more image driven. So expertise with a camera can be a major advantage across the board in journalism and publishing.
At another end of the employment spectrum, there are a wide variety of applications for photography in the sciences, particular the natural and environmental branches of scientific inquiry. If you’re interested in ecology, botany, climate science, or even archeology or anthropology and you have an artistic leaning, you might want to consider adding an online degree in photography to your skill set. The BLS lists among its various photography specializations, commercial and industrial photographers, who may work on location at engineering projects or provide images for commercial publication; scientific photographers, who may go out into the field to photograph subjects for investigation, or work in a lab setting using software to enhance or otherwise manipulate photographic images. There’s even a subspecialty of aerial photographers, who capture images of landscapes, buildings and other terrestrial features.
Whether you’re simply looking to add photography to an already established foundation of skills in the arts, in publishing, or the in the sciences, or you’re primarily interested in becoming a professional photographer in an entrepreneurial or corporate setting, an online degree in photography can be a means to that end.
Online students of photography have essentially the same options that have traditionally been available to students attending campus-based programs at community colleges and vocational schools, four-year universities, and art institutes. These begin with one-year certificate programs that cover the basics of professional photography and move on to two-year associate’s degrees, which are mostly aimed at preparing students for entry-level jobs, or to begin work as an apprentice or a freelance photographer.
Certificate and associate degree programs are vocational in nature and design. Typically, these programs aim to introduce students to the hardware and software used in the profession, from cameras and lights, to digital editing and design programs, as well as some of the areas of specialization, such as studio portraiture, landscape and architectural and action photography. An associate degree involves 60-credit hours of coursework, which usually means a two-year commitment.
A certificate is generally just a starting point, which might lead to an apprenticeship or internship and there may be opportunities for entry-level jobs at some photo labs for associate degree holders. But, the industry standard for most employers looking to hire a photographer is a bachelor’s degree and it’s the degree that can play the largest role in your career trajectory as a photographer.
A bachelor’s degree program is the best way to receive the supplementary coursework in disciplines related to photography and in particular areas of specialization in photography. At this level, schools generally offer two types of degrees: Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA). The BA is akin to a standard four-year, undergraduate degree, which means that while a significant portion of the typical 120-180-credit hours of study is devoted toward subjects in your field of study, there are also general educational requirements outside of that field, for example, in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. A BFA, on the other hand, often includes fewer general education requirements and places a stronger emphasis on course and studio work in photography. The differences can be subtle and there are potential advantages in either case, so it’s something that’s worth looking into when considering a bachelor’s degree program.
Year one of a online bachelor’s degree program in photography, whether it’s a BA or a BFA, tends to be more focused on art and photography than a traditional four-year liberal arts degree, in large part because students have essentially declared a major from the outset. While there may be one or two gen-ed credits scheduled for these first two semesters, often the coursework centers on building a foundation in art and design, which begins with classwork in drawing in two and three dimensions, special relationships, color theory, and the fundamentals of photography. For gen-ed credits, a typical course of study might include classes in the history of western art, English composition, math and/or computer science, intro to sociology or psychology and communications.
In year two, students begin to tackle more advanced photographic techniques, including controlled lighting, black and white imaging and large-format photography. It also typically includes classes in the history of photography. The sophomore year is also a good time to start finishing up your gen-ed requirements by moving on to further coursework in literature, art history and/or the behavioral sciences. This is also the point where students should begin to craft a career plan so that they can tailor their studies outside of photography to the field they aim to specialize in. For example, a student interested in online photography and web design might want to do extra coursework in graphic design, while a student aiming toward a career as a wildlife photographer might want to take a biology class.
By year three, most, if not all general education requirements should be met and the curriculum should primarily include upper level coursework in the elements of photography and their specific application in various areas of specialization. Most online programs allow students to choose from among a number of electives, such as photojournalism, scientific photography, studio portraiture, and digital photography. And, usually there is a junior year seminar or project of some kind that involves focusing on the creation of a portfolio.
By the final year of an online photography degree, students are primarily focused on creating a complete portfolio that reflects their individual style, interests, and career objectives. The process is facilitated by a senior seminar or project. This is also an opportunity to complete coursework in the business of photography, which is crucially important in a field where so many professionals are self-employed entrepreneurs.
For studio photographers, the terminal, or final degree is typically an MFA, or Master of Fine Arts, although there are also Master’s of Science degrees available for students wishing to pursue higher level of study in medical or scientific photography. However, the MFA is essentially the gold standard for students who are aiming to teach photography at the college level and for photojournalists who want to reach the top level in their profession. An online MFA in photography is designed to address the higher-level technical aspects of digital and traditional photography and aesthetic theory. In addition, students complete a thesis tailored to their specific specialty, which can then serve to bolster the portfolio they’ve already amassed. Prior completion of a bachelor’s degree in photography, or a related field, is a standard prerequisite in applying for an MFA in photography.
It’s important to look carefully at the various online degree programs in photography and chose carefully. Prospective students should see that the school has a highly trained and qualified faculty and should also look into what kind of experience the faculty members have had outside of academia. This type of professional experience can be extremely valuable and such experts can serve as mentors during and after college.
There is no specific accrediting agency or organization for schools offering degrees in photography. But, prospective students should check to make sure that the college, university, or art institute offering the program has been accredited by an agency or organization that is recognized by the US Department of Education as well as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Online photography degree programs provide students with a range of artistic, technical, and business skills to help them not only refine their craft, but also succeed as a professional in this competitive field. Take a look at some of the skills and knowledge graduates gain:
Explores the applications of color theory in photography and how to translate this from the analog world to the realm of digital imaging This is a foundational aspect of all professional photography in the sense that color imaging is the industry standard.
Provides students with a detailed understanding of the aesthetics and techniques associated with lighting in photography, from studio work to outdoor settings. Most photographers work in a range of different locations and it’s crucial to be able to adapt to various surroundings.
Explores the materials, processes, and techniques of working with the kind of large-format photography equipment that can be used in industrial, scientific and even fine art applications. This is the kind of knowledge and experience that separates the amateur from the professional in photography. A familiarity with different kinds of cameras and formats in photography broadens career options.
Provides students with the tools and knowledge necessary to navigate the digital world of imaging. Students use various imaging software and master the art of digital image manipulation. Most photographs end up in a digital format, where they can be retouched and otherwise manipulated for different effects, a skill that also separates the professionals from the amateurs.
A survey of the evolution of photography as a technology and art form and a mode of communication. Provides students with grounding in the role that photography plays in society and its various application in the realm of art, culture and business.
A course that explores the technical challenges and aesthetic approaches to photographic the great outdoors. An elective that solidifies a student’s understanding of how to approach working in various outdoor photographic settings.
What are the academic prerequisites for applying to an online degree program in photography?
Most programs require applicants to have completed high school or attained the equivalent of a high-school diploma. Additional prerequisites vary from program to program. In BFA programs, for example, colleges rarely ask for the submission of SAT scores and, while a high-school transcript is often required, GPA is often not a consideration.
What kind of camera and other photographic equipment do I have to own before I begin an online degree program in photography?
This can vary from school to school and program to program, but you will need a camera of some kind, as well as basic software and interfaces that allow you to upload images to you computer, in order to begin most programs. In general, a camera with the capacity to shoot and store an eight-megabyte image should be sufficient and Adobe image production software is optimal. As your course of study continues, you will want to upgrade to a high-definition SLR (single-lens reflex) camera and may need to invest in Adobe CS6 or Creative Cloud, which includes Photoshop, Lightroom and Illustrator, all of which are industry standards.
It’s not uncommon for a student in a four-year degree program to invest between $2,000-$5,000 in additional equipment, such as lighting gear, a photo-quality printer, and a professional-quality flash. These costs are generally incurred incrementally and the idea is that by the time a student graduates, he or she will have the necessary equipment to set up a photography business.
How do online classes in photography work?
Online classes in photography are similar to campus-based classes in that there are students and instructors, as well as lectures and assignments. Student interaction happens through online forums, video conferencing, and email. Instructors are available by phone and email and often participate in online discussion forums. There are deadlines for the submission of graded work, but lectures can usually be viewed online at any time. Assignments are uploaded by students for grading and assessment.
Are internships and work-study opportunities available to students in online programs in photography?
This can vary greatly between online programs and schools. That said, this is an important consideration when choosing an online program. Apprenticing and working in the field is a crucial part of learning the trade in photography, so prospective students want to make sure they’re choosing a program that puts a premium on internship on work-study opportunities and that has a well-established network for placing students in the field. If you’re already working as a photographer, this may be a less crucial element of the program. But, photography is an applied skill and you’re going to want to at least have the opportunity to experience some of its various applications in the real world.
Given the great strides in digital interfacing and design platforms in recent years, numerous institutions have added photography degrees to their online offerings. With options ranging from certificates to master’s degrees, prospective students can enter the field from a variety of angles. In addition to these considerations, many students will want to know that any potential program provides other important services such as technical support, opportunities for real-world experience, and a flexible course structure. The search tool below allows students to find an online photography program designed to equip them for success.