Should You Major In Photography?

I recently found myself in a spirited discussion on Twitter about the merits of a photography degree.  Our good friend Evan had sent a picture of his son with an SLR in his hands and announced to the Internet (jokingly) that he wouldn’t be paying for a photography degree:

Picture of a camera tweet.

Evan’s Innocent Tweet

What followed was an emotional discussion about the relative merits of various degrees, unfortunately buttressed by too-few numbers and facts.  Evan himself followed up that chat with an excellent discussion about whether parents need to pay for every possible degree, or whether they have the latitude to shape choices when they spend their own money.  (Be sure to read his post after ours.)

However, no argument about college diplomas needs to go un-researched –  luckily for us Americans, the University of Minnesota makes the CPS survey data available for curious observers like us to run these sorts of studies.  So, with March 2012 survey results in hand, let’s look at the Photography Profession – and its closely related but not-quite-the-same thing cousin, the Photography Major.

The Short Answer – Should You Major in Photography?

Majoring in Photography is a recipe to under-earn relative to the cost of your education.  I would not recommend it, especially for a four year degree.

The Long Answer – Should You Major in Photography?

The answer to the question requires us to take a step back from what we think we know and look at a few statistics.  Let’s start with the cost of education:

  • The median cost of room, board, and tuition for a 4-year private not-for-profit school in the 2010-2011 school year was $38,129
  • The median cost of room, board, and tuition for a 4-year public school in the 2010-2011 school year was $15,788
  • Of all students who entered repayment in 2011, 9.2% (!) had defaulted by the end of the year.
  • In 2011, 2/3 of college graduates graduated with loans, and the average borrower was $26,600 in debt.

One rule of thumb for college students (a rule of thumb in the same way the 100x rule works for buying houses to rent out) is to not borrow more than you might make upon graduation (I hear doctors moaning – rules are made to be broken, my friends!).  So, if you’re going to be $26,600 in debt – be sure your profession realistically pays more than $26,600.  On that point, I’ve graphed income quantiles for photographers in the following graph:

Income quantiles for photographersNote: these are averages for all ages of photographers, a data set which consists of people who make their primary income from photography.  Upon producing this graph, I didn’t run any numbers for age, say ‘Under 30’, because the data set is small enough as is (note that 70% and 75% are the same).  If you truly want to see the numbers for under-30s, please complain in the comments section.  (It will not be directly comparable since I will pull 2011 and 2010 data as well.)

There you have it – half of photographers of all ages make less than $30,000.  The median per capita income in the United States between 2007-2011 (read: before these numbers in 2012) is listed by the Census Bureau as $27,915.

As for averages, the all-age photographer average income is $49,337.69.  That includes all photographers – from Annie Liebovitz, David LaChapelle, and Steven Meisel down to the humble press photographers in your closest town that still has a newspaper.

Additionally, photography in our data set was often a business pursuit – while there are salaried photographers, a significant amount of the incomes above were earned through self-employment.  Suffice to say, photography is a pursuit which likely will require a fair amount of entrepreneurship – salaried jobs in the press pool are hard to achieve.

For all those reasons, think hard and do your research before majoring in Photography – especially at a four year school.

Additional Points In Detail

On Profession vs. Major – There is a Major Difference

A constant refrain heard in discussion like this is that by arguing against a particular major you are either getting in the way of dreams, or somehow making a point that “no one should be xxx” or “xxx is unworthy”.  Nothing could be farther from the truth: many Majors correlate with professions which haven’t historically needed a degree!

This is certainly true in photography.  Although the Big Three American photographers listed above all have degrees (and Ansel Adams, to pick one famous photographer, didn’t), that isn’t true for photographers as a whole.  Here are the educational attainments for the 10%, 25%, 50%, 75% and 90% (ordered from lowest to highest):

Educaton acheivement quantile

For reference – 73 is High School Diploma or Equivalent, 81 is Some college but no degree, 91 is Associate’s degree, occupational/vocational program, and 111 is Bachelor’s degree.  (It’s sort of a useless number, but the average photographer was a 94.572 – a bit more than an Associate’s)

A comparable situation came up the other day on Tyler Cowen’s excellent Marginal Revolution blog.  In it, Tyler pointed out that a College in Nottingham was beginning a Heavy Metal degree.  The absurdity of this move was lost on many commenters, however, who accused Professor Cowen of disparaging anyone who chooses to make their money off of Heavy Metal.

On the contrary, Professor Cowen was merely stating that the college was credentialing something that was unnecessary.  As I sarcastically pointed out in the comments, could you imagine a band tryout where a hopeful member presented a resume listing where they majored in Heavy Metal?  That question goes to the readers as well – the last time you hired a photographer or commissioned a painting, did you ask where the artist or photographer went to school? Or, did you simply look at his or her portfolio?

On Barriers to Entry

Sitting next to me as I write this article is a Canon Rebel XSi with a 28mm – 75mm Tamron Lens currently attached (It’s a good lens if you’re looking!).  I have unofficially shot a few events – various weddings and other large gatherings, with a decent amount of praise for the shots I’ve produced.  And, yes, I’ve received requests for me to shoot events for friends (I’ve always politely refused).  A few-year-old SLR with a decent lens attached, plus a few wide primes in my bag?  Check.  I’m a telephoto away from fulfilling the entry requirements to be a hack photographer – but I’ll stay a hobbyist.

Do you see the issue?  While the top 10% of photographers are bolstered by reputation and large portfolios of epic shots, the world of photography is full of the Craigslist posting advertising the $500-$700 wedding photographer.  Obviously, top photographers on The Knot are going to charge $2000+ for a wedding, but there’s a reason that competition at the bottom of the photography rung is doing damage.  No, Mrs. DQYDJ and yours truly didn’t just stick a camera in Aunt Jane’s hand and tell her to shoot away (Mrs. DQYDJ happens to have a cousin who is highly rated on the aforementioned TheKnot – and no, she didn’t major in photography), but we recognize that some couples have economized on their wedding shots.  As the link just above shows, it’s not just weddings where people are compromising.

Add that to the anecdotal data we have on photography in general (the plural of anecdote is not data, thus this paragraph is buried) – I have two coworkers who shoot weddings on the side, but who maintain their day jobs as a project manager and an engineer in my department, respectively.  Additionally, my Father-in-Law made his living as a photographer – his lucky break was selling a Jimi Hendrix concert photograph (he’s now a VP at a photography supply company).  Finally, “photographer” is often listed as a “side hustle” in those dreadful lists of side jobs put out by my personal finance peers.  When college students doing side jobs is an alternative to professionals with credentials, it’s solid proof that there is serious competition risk in the industry.  No, Vogue isn’t going to contract with a class of 2014 Business Major with a late model Canon.  However, that person’s cousin might go with them for some engagement shots.

On Comparisons to Other Professions

When discussing this topic originally on Twitter, I mentioned that photography was very similar to sports.  Why, you ask?  Simple – excellence in sports is a unique combination of natural talent (and characteristics – like strength and height) and endless practice.  Even if your humble host practiced a few thousand hours of photography, I doubt I would ever have the impact of, say, an Ansel Adams (and he did it without color!).  My point?  Just like sports, photography is a profession with an incredibly long tail of results.  Most children in America pick up a sport when they’re young, but only a very few will ever achieve the level needed to play in a professional league – let alone go through the unpaid or little paid minor league or college gauntlet.  That’s why, in aggregate, athletes are underpaid.

Perhaps I was mistaken in my analogy, however.  I now feel that a better comparison may be blogging.  There are few barriers to entry in blogging – it costs only a few hundred dollars a year for me to run this site, for example.  There are also many bloggers who do make a living – ask any blogger and he or she can tick off names of (in?)famous bloggers who pull in huge amounts strictly on the brand they have revolving around their site.

Compare this to people who rebut this argument with comments like “well, I know # number of people who make good money in xxx profession”.  While Photography is a much easier profession than blogging, the point remains:  Half of Photographers made under $30,000 in 2012Only the top 10% of photographers made 6 figures – and the one percenters made $280,000 and up.

On Motivation

A few years back, we posted an article that didn’t quite set the world on fire with its conclusions – people who earned more money in general worked more hours.  Although I’m sure people can point to bad luck cases of others who worked hard for little pay and never received a break – in aggregate, motivation and longer hours leads to better results.  With that background, we can analyze the number of hours worked for photographers.  The weighted average hours worked for photographers was 33.486 hours worked per week.  Here are some breakdowns by decile:

Hours worked for photographersBefore you send me mail (after not looking up how this data works on the wonderful IPUMS-CPS site), let me explain:

  • Anyone labeled ‘Photographer’ made a majority of their income from Photography
  • Hours worked was average hours worked per week in the previous year
  • All data in this article includes both salary and business income – so if a Photographer had a side job it would still be included

So, what accounts for the low hours in photography?  You might assume it is just lack of motivation – that if photographers worked more they would certainly edge out the per capita income in America by more.  However, consider that this graph also reflects the lack of opportunity for some photographers – in some cases, a photographer can’t find enough work to put in a full time job (whether that reflects the 30 hour definition in the PPACA, or the traditional 40 hour workweek).

The general rule, however, is true in photography – if you can work more hours, you will probably make more money.  The problem?  Those hours may be hard to find.

On Arguing in Bad Faith

Have you heard this old joke about Engineers?

“How do you tell someone is an engineer?  Oh, they’ll tell you – then disparage your profession.”

Very funny, perhaps – but that stereotype seems to cause some people to assume that engineers are approaching a topic in bad faith.  That isn’t the case – while I’ll allow that some engineers have a certain, uh, lack of tact, I’ve never understood the accusation that engineers either miss the point or possess some universal superiority complex which disqualifies them from any discussion about the arts.  It’s as if an engineer who reads the great philosophers can’t contribute to discussions on philosophy because he was never graded for it.  Is it true that there was no art before colleges started awarding degrees for it?

That applies here as well.  I didn’t have Uncle Joe shoot my wedding; pointing out that a degree likely won’t pay off isn’t an indictment of the entire profession of Photography.  I also wouldn’t recommend someone major in Quilting, although I personally know people who make more than a living Quilting.  If you prefer, I also wouldn’t suggest majoring in Heavy Metal.  On that particular profession, keep that instrument in your hand and practice, practice, practice.  For all of the other things I just mentioned, it helps to know people.

Sources and Where to Find My Data

  • Miriam King, Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Sarah Flood, Katie Genadek, Matthew B. Schroeder, Brandon Trampe, and Rebecca Vick. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 3.0. [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.
  • To reproduce my data, pull EDUC, OCC, INCBUS, INCWAGE and UHRSWORK.  I removed all UHRSWORK of 0, and I combined INCBUS and INCWAGE into a single income column to mean Income from Job (since many photographers are sole proprietors).  My sample set was March 2012.

So, How Does This Apply to Your Photography Degree?

There are certainly reasons to pursue Photography, far short of being a scion of a rich family on the East Coast.  As I stated before, hewing to the “debt = one year salary” rule of thumb can make for a happier post-graduation experience.  Recognizing that even the median Photographer makes $30,000 a year (remember, that data includes all ages) means all efforts to reduce the amount of debt you graduate with will pay off if you choose to go down that path.  As shown in a recent article on CNNMoney, often times graduates will lose control of their debt – graduating 6 figures in debt with little chance of a payoff.

That applies here – apprenticeships would be a wonderful foot in the door, especially if you could shadow and support a well known photographer.  The majority of photographers have Associate’s degrees or used an apprenticeship or vocational training program to begin – consider those options before matriculating in a four year program.  If Photography is your passion, a Minor (followed by a side job) might be a good option as well – consider all those paths when enrolling.  Most majors would also allow some electives to be taken in Photography.  Check with your advisor.

So, what do you think?  Are you considering a degree in Photography?  How should parents approach a potential Photography Major?  Minor?  Should Evan break out the checkbook now?  Let me know in the comments below!



    • says

      Closest I could come would be to try and look at usual hours worked versus the income. The CPS data set (unfortunately – anyone listening?) doesn’t include the degree type – it’s possible that some of these folks majored in something completely different. I can only get degree status.

  1. says

    Oh data, always leading to even more questions. I’m also curious of the photographers, who consider it their primary occupation, but also part time. For example, my wedding photographer was a stay at home parent, who likely made the average you have listed here, but it was a part time job.

    • says

      I think one quick modification I can do is screen out the people who work less than 30 hours, then redo the quantile math. I’ll try to do it tomorrow – I still have the whole package open on my laptop.

    • says

      Anne, once I split the data set into 30 hours or more… well, the set gets tiny. I’d feel more comfortable trying to assuage your concerns (and Evan’s) in a 2010-2012 data set. Any objection?

  2. krantcents says

    This reminds me of an (college) orientation speech that emphasized that they did not teach toward particular professions. They prepared you for multiple careers! Photography is almost a trade! I know a former graffiti artist turned photographer who is starting to do very well. No degree and barely any training. Any artistic profession probably does not need training unless you plan to teach it. :)

    • says

      It may not mean much since it was but one opinion, but my Art Historian friend told me that success in the American art world (at least a few years back) pretty much hedged on connections and a writeup/review in the New York Times. That was the big break – and it was, at some level, political, since there was so much talent. Any thoughts on newspapers as talent scouts?

  3. Robb Engen says

    I’d suggest that if parents were more selective in the types of degrees they paid (or helped pay) for, we’d have far fewer career students and fluff majors.

    • says

      If you were in Evan’s situation (well, with a 17-year old anyway), you’d withhold the money?

      I still think it’s a tough call for an 18 year old (or 16-17 year old!) to make a call on the rest of their career anyway.

      • Robb Engen says

        I’m not sure – I’d strongly encourage my kids to take something more useful and explore their interests on the side.

        But here’s a similar scenario: I work at a University and so one of the benefits is that our kids can go to school here for free (free tuition – you pay for other fees and books). So, if my kids attend the local University they’ll save at least $20,000 to $25,000 versus studying elsewhere. Should I demand they attend local University?

        • says

          Tough call on that one – is your University part of a network allowing discounts at various locations? That might be more palatable for a child who doesn’t want to, you know, see his or her parent every day while at school.

          • Robb Engen says

            No, there isn’t a network. They go to UofL for free or they go somewhere else and pay full price. Besides, I think kids get over that stage of not wanting to run into mom and dad in public by then.

            Anyway, it’s something I’ve been thinking about since it affects the amount of money I’ll need to put into their education savings plans.

            I’m going on the assumption that the tuition benefit will no longer be available when my kids are ready to go to University in 15 years.

          • says

            You could set it up with carrots (not unlike the $45 a kg lost thing that Dubai was doing. What’s a kg anyway? Keg?). Feel free to steal this: my parents offered to buy me a car if I picked a cheaper school. I carefully considered the benefits of driving American Muscle and living a bit closer to home (cheaper for me meant a full boat at URI), but ended up 3,000 miles away regardless. With 1/2 the scholarship and none of the in-state discount. But the offer was on the table.

            From an Americo-centric perspective (I know, the world hates that), our education savings accounts generally let you change the beneficiary at any time. This was necessary if someone went to a cheaper school, or picked a different path than college. Does Canada let you do the same?

        • greg says

          “if my kids attend the local University they’ll save at least $20,000 to $25,000 versus studying elsewhere. Should I demand they attend local University?”

          Pay them a cut, but with half directed to a trust?

    • says

      How do you know you’re talking to an extroverted engineer?

      He looks at your feet while talking to you, not his own.

  4. says

    If you are good at photography, or art in general, that means really talented, you don’t need a degree. If you are half talented, you may need a business degree to market yourself well. If you are below average, why be a photographer?

    I went to business school but even there I learned really little (per dollar of tuition), less than I had in the previous decade of side hustles and employment.

    Aside from med school and law school where you have to get a degree, I am not sure a lot of professions really need one. If we learned by apprenticeship, the job market would also be smoother, as the wannabe photographer could be told from age 18 he is not talented enough for an internship, and become a great butcher instead.

  5. Andy Hough says

    From a monetary standpoint it doesn’t look to be a good degree. Education does have value other than the money that can be made from the education though.

    • says

      Certainly, but I’d say the value has come down quite a bit over time. When you’re looking at 9.2% of students being in default in their first year after college, perhaps the monetary criteria should be a bit higher on the lists of many students?