Should You Major In Photography?

July 29th, 2013 by 

It isn't worth it to major in photography, but this is a nice camera.Back in 2012, we were posed an innocent question: is it worth it to major in photography?

The data has changed, but our prescription is the same: it's not worth the cost of a four year degree. Forgive the old data (or adjust it forward for inflation), but look at the relative merits of the information below.

So, with old March 2012 data in hand, let's look at the Photography Profession - and its 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?

Let's start our work by summing 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 is do not borrow more than you might make upon graduation. I hear doctors moaning - rules are made to be broken, my friends! - but it's a good model to keep in mind. 

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 full-year 2012 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, for example, that 70% and 75% are the same amount). 

Photographer Earnings in 2012

Half of photographers of all ages made less than $30,000 in 2012. The median per capita income in the United States between 2007-2011 was listed by the Census Bureau as $27,915.

The photographer average income was $49,337.69.  That includes all photographers - from Annie Liebovitz, David LaChapelle, and Steven Meisel on down to the humble press photographers in your town (if it 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, and getting harder.

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

Additional Points About Photography and Four Year Degrees

Profession vs. Major: There is a Major Difference

One problem with approaching a discussion like this: arguments that just pulling the data is "getting in the way of dreams" or declaring that a "profession is unworthy". Nothing could be farther from the truth: many Majors are associated 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, that isn't true for photographers as a whole. Ansel Adams, to pick one famous photographer, didn't have a degree in Photography.

Here are the educational attainments for the 10%, 25%, 50%, 75% and 90% of photographers (ordered from lowest to highest):

Educaton acheivement quantile for photographers in America

Photography school wasn't on the mind of many photographers.

For reference:

  • 73 is High School Diploma or Equivalent
  • 81 is Some college but no degre
  • 91 is Associate's degree, occupational/vocational program
  • 111 is Bachelor's degree

(It's sort of a silly number, but the average photographer was a 94.572 - a bit more than an Associate's)

On Adding Degrees to Schools

A comparable situation came up 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 their Heavy Metal degree? 

That question goes to you as well - did you ask your wedding photographer or other event photographer where they got their photography degree?

No - most likely, you were referred to them, read reviews, or looked at their profile.

On Barriers to Entry

Sitting next to me as I write this article is a Canon SLR. 

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. 

Still, 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 also the world of Craigslist postings 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.

Look, "photographer" is often listed as a "side hustle" in those dreadful lists of side jobs put out by some sites. 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 an undergraduate hobbyist photographer. However, that person's cousin might just hire them for some engagement shots.

Comparing Photography to Other Subjects

Photography is very similar to sports. 

Why, you ask?  Simple - excellence in sports is a unique combination of natural talent and physical characteristics - like strength and height - and endless practice. 

Even if Ipracticed 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.

I now feel that a better comparison may be blogging. There are very few barriers to entry in blogging - it costs only a few hundred dollars a year for me to run a small 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. And it's even easier to get started with photography.

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 in 2012. That's a good cap, but not an amazing one.

Hours Worked for Photographers in 2012

The weighted average hours worked for photographers was 33.486 hours worked per week. Here are some working hour breakdowns by decile:

Photography school's value: Hours worked for photographers

  • 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 average 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.

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.

Sources on Photography Degree and Profession 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.

Don't Major in Photography, but Maybe Take Classes In It

There are certainly reasons to pursue Photography, far better than for being a scion of a rich family on the East Coast. 

However – recognize that even the median Photographer makes $30,000 a year. Any efforts you can make to reducing your debt burden will help you make that money work out in your career.

That applies to Photography - apprenticeships would be a wonderful foot in the door here. 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 photography electives. Check with your advisor.

Good luck!




PK started DQYDJ in 2009 to research and discuss finance and investing and help answer financial questions. He's expanded DQYDJ to build visualizations, calculators, and interactive tools.

PK is in his mid-30s and works and lives in the Bay Area with his wife, two kids, and dog.

Don't Quit Your Day Job...

DQYDJ may be compensated by our partners if you make purchases through links. See our disclosures page. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
Sign Up For Emails
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram