How to Choose a Course or College.

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 how to choose which course/college to study at.

  • Take a good look at as much of the current students 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.

    Lecturing at Ravensbourne College
    Lecturing at Ravensbourne college
  • 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 – Degress 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 shoudn’t milk the facilities for everything they’re worth once you’re there though, just don’t be too swayed by shiny things!
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