Why I Went to Photography School

I remember when I was pondering if I should attend a photography school or not. My father noted that one valuable aspect of a trade-specific education is that it would accelerate my career, compared to trying to learn the skills on my own. But shortening my learning curve was not the only positive thing I acquired from a formal education.

I attended a relatively short “intensive” photography program (similar to RMSP’s Professional Intensive program), which gave me the basic lighting, grip, camera operation, and business skills to allow me to move immediately into an entry-level position of freelance photography assisting in San Francisco as my first step after school. The photographers who I worked for expected me to have a base of knowledge in camera operation, strobe and hot-light use, and the safe use of grip gear; all of which I was qualified for — because I was trained in these exact skills.

Interestingly, I also realized that there were some photographers I was assisting who did not know how to work strobe lights! And many more who did not know Photoshop as well as I did. They had experience with what they had experience with, but they were limited in what they could do with what they knew. I did my job and gleaned from them what I thought I could and then moved along. I worked with some extremely talented and experienced photographers, and others not so much. I learned what to do, and in some cases, what not to do.

Because I had learned just enough entry-level Photoshop, I was able to quickly marry what was happening on-set with what was possible with a computer; and before too long, I was able to move upward from assisting to working as an on-set digital retoucher and digital technician, which came with more responsibilities, and more income.

Having a solid foundation in exposure, light, digital technology, and color theory gave me a leg-up in situations where I could lean on the foundational knowledge I had acquired in school. I’ll never forget working on-set with a photographer who was mixing HMI, strobe, and daylight lighting. The rental HMI had gone past its half-life on the bulb and was emitting a green cast. The photographer wanted me to remove the green cast from the file in Photoshop, which would have been very difficult and time-consuming considering the color of the other light in the scene. Because I had anticipated this, I had requested that the photo assistant rent a color meter with the HMI. I grabbed it and gelled the HMI to match the daylight and strobe, which removed the green cast. This was one of the moments where I had taken my earned-knowledge of color and was able to apply it in a real-life situation, saving me from having to do some complicated Photoshop work. I created cleaner light for the shot and saved myself a ton of time.

Photography is a trade that one can try to learn from YouTube and online courses, but it will eat up many of your hours after work. You may have questions that you want to ask to clarify a detail — but you can’t easily get the question answered. You may fall into some Google rabbit holes while you search for the answer you need. A foundational education connects you to a network of people to correspond with and to bounce ideas around with, as well as those who might refer you to potential jobs. This networking is key.

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You may harbor a deep desire to derive your income from image-making. Beyond the foundation of skills in the craft, a photography education will also expose you to a valuable education in business. Photography businesses are different than the type of business one learns about in a university business school, so having access to professionals who have fallen into some pits before you is extremely valuable. Learning from the failures of others, and their successes, and being present to ask direct questions is another benefit of attending photography school.

Whether you are just starting out in photography — or have some experience — if you have the burning desire to acquire skills that will accelerate your career, and you want to enter the image-making field with confidence, you may want to consider an intensive photography education such as RMSP’s Professional Intensive! Contact us here at the school to find out more.


  • Jeff McLain

    Jeff McLain is a photographer, videographer, digital technician, and location sound mixer. After his photography education, Jeff got his start as a freelance photo assistant in San Francisco working on editorial, catalog and advertising shoots. His skills in Photoshop and computing allowed him to help photographers bridge the gap between the film days and all-digital workflows, and he stood at the forefront of the advent of the career of the "Digital Technician." Jeff then moved laterally to video capture. Locally, he is the Director of Arrowroot Productions, LLC, a commercial videography business. His background as a multi-instrumental musician has also benefited his understanding of sound design and audio capture, which can be a technically challenging aspect of film-making. He is regularly called by filmmakers and television networks to record sound-for-video. He has been a freelancer for over 20 years and takes a 'real-world' approach to his perspective of the photographic and video industry and the skills needed in today's market.