How to make the best of your time at College

Lecturing at Ravensbourne College
Lecturing at Ravensbourne

The title should be pretty self-explanatory, and on the whole in this piece I’ve tried to stick to pragmatic advice that’s geared towards getting the student prepared for the commercial world on finishing the course, and therefore following my advice might not bring you in the highest marks. To be honest with you, I couldn’t care less! I have never yet been asked what grade I got in my degree at college, though people do often ask if I studied photography, rather than being “self-made”, they only ever ask out of interest rather than as a way of judging me.

They’re not quite arranged in order of importance, though the first one is there for a reason!

  • Get involved in the industry – Take work experience wherever it’s offered, or organise your own. Once you’ve got some, do your best to impress and shine on the day, then stay in touch and try and secure more. Above all else this will give you a route into work when you leave college. It’s also worthwhile joining organisations like the AOP or BIPP, depending on which way you are thinking of working. Likewise, attending events like Vision, Focus and talks like this will keep your horizons extended. The key here is to get a feel for what’s outside in the commercial world, and give yourself a springboard to get started once you leave.
  • Shoot as much as humanly possible – Experiment, muck around and try everything that you can whilst there are no consequences to doing so. This will be your last chance to truly play around at very limited expense – the costs are going to rise once you leave college, as will the repercussions of getting it wrong. Also, now’s the time to try out different types of photography in the hope that you’ll find your calling and your niche.
  • Take “boring” photos – Nowadays anyone with £600 to spare can go out and buy a DSLR with a kit lens, and pretty much out of the box be able to take a decently exposed, sharply focused image that can happily be blown up to A4 or larger. If you’re going to try and make it in the commercial world you need to be able to knock these people into a cocked hat with the quality of your work. You must be a master of your craft, and able to handle a wide range of technical problems, as well as carry out a range of briefs and visualise the appropriate photographic response to them. Having a mastery of craft gives you multiple options to choose from, rather than limiting what you can produce, as well as enabling you to deal with technical problems when they arise. There’s a time and a place for very conceptual imagery, but there is a HUGE amount of paid work out there that simply requires good camera handling and lighting skills. This sort of work will pay your bills!
  • Use every college facility – Computers, software, cameras, studios, lighting, libraries etc – all these will cost you money out in the real world, both in buying/renting and learning to use them. It’s likely that the college has more resources than you, and through this you should be able to “punch above your weight” in respect of the work you produce – take advantage of this. For those of you thinking of following the route into assisting once you leave college, this is a really good time to familiarise yourself with different kit, as you’ve no way of knowing what gear certain snappers will use, and you’ll win brownie points if you don’t need training on it.
  • Use college networks – students on other courses (performing arts, sports science etc) may be very keen to collaborate and pose as subjects for shots. Use your peer group for critiques, organise semi formal/semi regular meetings – you’ll be surprised how rare this is once you leave college, and how valuable it can be. Just don’t let them get too alcohol fuelled, for obvious reasons. Pool resources amongst yourselves – but keep it fair and equitable – there will always be folk with more gear whom everyone taps for a favour.
  • Get involved in the college stuff – if there is an exhibition committee, a visiting lecturer committee, a student council and so on, then you want to be involved. Being involved means you’re one of the people making the decisions so you can steer things your way, plus you may be able to build up outside contacts for future use (I did!)
  • Milk the “student” label for all it’s worth – Obviously you’ll be taking advantage of any student discount anywhere you can, but you’ll find people are more likely to help out for free if you’re a student. To illustrate, if I were to try and shoot in a posh new bar, the owner would almost certainly want some sort of payment, either in cash or kind. If you approach them as a student (and I speak from experience here) you’ll likely get the place for free.
  • Professional production and briefs – get into the habit of treating the college briefs (or your own) as full commercial ones. Approach them as if they were a real job – sort out all your production stuff in advance, assess your results afterwards. Above all try and get into the habit of turning work round fairly quickly. The biggest gap between shooting at college and shooting in the commercial world is the time between being briefed and handing in the results. At college this can be anything from weeks to months, in the real world anything from hours to days. Get used to it!
  • Enter competitions – these get your work seen, encourage you to work to a brief, and if you win can even be financially rewarding
  • Start establishing the basics of your business early – 9 out of 10 photographers will be self-employed, and it’s worth building some foundations as early as you can. Some things you can do include getting yourself a sensible email address (no-one takes seriously in the real world – it might be funny now, but the joke wears thin after a while), and looking into basic costs (insurance, equipment prices, phone, broadband and so on). If at all possible try and write a full business plan – but that’s something that’s beyond the scope of a short piece like this, and your college should be able to help you in that respect. Read through my posts on “Basic Business” and then go out and do it.

There you go – follow all that advice and I guarantee you a job once you leave college.*
*Guarantee not valid, your mileage may vary, no refund without a receipt.

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