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How to Choose a Photography Course or College.

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I seem to get asked the question "where should I study photography" more and more these days, although it's often tangled up with the bigger question of "should I study photography or go straight into work/assisting/selling cameras/shooting weddings?" Obviously the answer to the 2nd question varies from individual to individual, and I can't go into it here, but I can offer a few guidelines for choosing a course/college to study at.

  • Take a good look at as much of the current student's work as possible. Is it the sort of work you see yourself producing in a couple of years time? What feeling do you get when you look at the work - does it excite and interest you, or do you feel like you've seen it before? I'm a great believer in following your gut instinct on this one - if it don't feel right, it probably ain't! I applied this rule rigorously when I applied for my course - the pictures in the prospectus of the college I ended up at were all very creative yet with a commercial grounding to them. They looked like the sort of thing I saw in the magazines I read all the time. There were also lots of them - the prospectus wasn't overly "wordy" or academic. By comparison, at least one of the other courses had a single page in the prospectus, and one slightly grotty black and white shot a couple of centimetres wide in the top corner. It didn't really sell me on the place!
  • If you're able to visit the course and college (and I'd highly recommend this) what's the vibe like? Again it's something a bit hard to quantify, but I'd be encouraged by a place where there seemed to be a freeflow of ideas between tutors and students, rather than a feeling of "them and us". Likewise I'd expect to see students working together on things, collaborating with ideas, and lots of their work on the walls. Photography is not a very academic discipline, and I wouldn't expect to find silent hallowed halls with people hunched over their desks, but instead a bit of rough and tumble, noise and activity as people come and go from shoots with equipment clattering down the hallways.
  • How recognised is the college? Do you see them in the BJP every few weeks? Do they seem to be taking an active role in the wider photographic world by entering competitions and suchlike?
  • As an extension of this, how good are the colleges links to industry, presuming you want to end up with a job at the end of your study? This can be a hard one to gauge, but look for things such as how many visiting lecturers they have (and what sort of people they are), as well as things like events they host, and their overall outlook from their prospectus. If they make a big deal out of work experience programs/business studies and outside help it's very likely that the course in question is not an "ivory tower" that shuts itself off from the rest of the world.
  • Is the course or college affiliated to either the AoP, BIPP, or is it a Nikon Academy? Each of these signifies that the course or college has met certain standards and has a particular philosophy that is professional and commercial in it's outlook. I can only speak with any authority about AoP affiliation, as I'm a member of the Education Working Group and am fairly intimate with what criteria a college needs to meet to attain affiliation. Affiliation or recognition such as this is usually a pretty good guide to how much the course or college are involved with the outside world. For a full list of these affiliated courses, check out the Skillset Website.
  • Does it have a fair copyright policy? This may seem like a minor detail, but quite a few colleges operate a policy whereby they own the copyright in any students work taking during their course. Needless to say that I'm not very keen on this, as the copyright should always remain with the creator of the work (unless they're fully employed and provided with salary, paid holiday, sick pay and other such benefits). It's almost unheard of for a college to prevent a student from using their own work in a way they choose to (although as copyright holders they have the legal power to), but it's very common for a college to simply use the students work without any hint of remuneration for any and all purposes the college choose to. Don't let this put you off a course altogether, simply make lots of noise about it once you start!
  • Have you looked very closely at the curriculum? The range of courses these days is frankly bewildering, and some may be completely unsuitable for you, due to either the course content or the expected end result. Bear in mind that many FE courses - HNC's, ND's and similar, are often fairly technical in their curriculum, whilst many HE courses - Degrees and suchlike, can have quite an academic bent. Everyone's needs will be different, and I intend to go into more detail about the differences between an ND, an HND and a degree or foundation degree in a later post. I've received a couple of emails over the last year from students who really seemed to hate the course they were on. They often made valid points, but on reading between the lines it was obvious to me that in fact they were on the wrong course for what they wanted. A bit more research in advance - coupled with colleges presenting themselves honestly of course - should prevent this from happening.
  • What are the facilities like? This actually matters far less than you'd think, although if they're fancy and new it's something that colleges like to shout about a great deal, and it's easy to understand why! In my experience you'll get far more from a good tutor whose door is always open, than a brand new studio and a 45MP digital back. That's not to say you shouldn't milk the facilities for everything they're worth once you're there though, just don't be too swayed by shiny things!
  • Above all else, what are the pubs like?
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Assignment Info 2009

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In keeping with the Nikon/Calumet Roadshow in 2008-2009 we want to do more than just talk at you. We'd also like to try and give you a taste of the commercial world via a timed assignment. There are a few differences to last year's challenge, but the essence remains the same. The idea is still to produce pictures to a commercial brief (which you'll only be given on the day) to a strict time limit, but this year we want to throw some business studies into the mix too. So, here's how it will work.

Right now, this minute, if you're likely to be doing the challenge, start thinking about the market you want to shoot for. This could be the magazine market, advertising, the social market, design agencies - anything that is considered commercial and is going to earn you some cash will be considered fair game. Now start researching this market. What are the average day rates? How much is allowable in expenses? What sort of use are the images going to be put to? Who commissions the work? Ask lots of these sort of questions, and more importantly, try and get some fairly accurate answers.

There are some suggestions of markets to start with here, here, here, and finally here. At this stage, even though you don't know what the exact subject matter is, you can still do some preliminary planning. Think about potential locations, models you may be able to coerce, props you may have to hand, equipment you'll need and so on. Then download and print out the invoice and think about what you'll be filling in the blanks with on the day.

On the day itself, I'll be giving all sorts of useful and relevant information on markets, licensing and invoicing in the talk, so pay attention. After I've finished my little talk, a group of students (usually picked by the lecturers, but pester them if you want to get involved) of anywhere between 5 and 20, will stay behind, and we'll tell you which 5 subjects you can choose from. Each of these will offer a very great range of interpretations, and can be shot for almost any market. Pick a subject, grab your camera and a copy of the invoice, and get started, as the clock is ticking.

Some Basics:

  1. We need between 4 and 10 images. Please don't hand us hundreds, as we've lots of people to get through. The format, presentation, and finish of these will be dependant on the market you have picked to work in. For example we might expect to see images shot for use as a double-page-spread for a magazine market, or high-key black and white images for a social market.
  2. You can work in groups if you feel more comfortable that way, but no more than 3 to a group please.
  3. You will be given the choice of subject matter at approximately 12 O'Clock. You will have to hand in the shots and your completed invoice at 3pm - no later. We have been known to sit waiting with the speaking clock on loudspeaker, just to drive home what time it is!
  4. Do not be tempted to guess the subject matter in advance, and go and shoot something before the event. The entire aim of this exercise is to make you work under pressure, not to find out what the best work you can possibly produce is if you're given enough time and resources.
  5. Given the time restraints, we need the work handed in digitally, and for convenience we insist on jpegs. Straight out of the camera is fine, but please rename them with your own name. Info on how to do this is here, near the bottom of the post.
  6. Please bear in mind that you will need to spend some time on the computer editing and renaming your images, as well as filling in your invoice. Do not aim to stop shooting at 2.55pm.
  7. After the hand in we'll need approximately 20 minutes to go over the images ourselves - you can go off and grab a well-earned cup of tea at this point. We'll let you back in at about 3.20pm.
  8. Then we'll assess both the images and your invoices with the group. If you'd rather we didn't go through your stuff in front of everyone just say so.
Some Useful Info:

Brief Guide to Markets -
1, 2, 3, and 4. I'd start here if I were you.
The Absolute Basics of Copyright and Licensing - Essential info, both for the assignment and your future career.
Brief Introductory Guide to Business Studies - on photosmudger. Also available as a PDF.
Brief Introduction to Production (that's organising stuff, usually in a hurry) - on photosmudger.
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