Photography degree from a Tech School : Inside Look

As of the end of this quarter, I will have been a student at Gwinnett Technical College for two years now.  For those of you who don’t know, I became unemployed in December 2008 and after looking at the options (and influenced by an extremely weak economy) now was a good a times as any to get a college degree.

As a hobbyist, and the occasional “professional” photographer, it didn’t take long to enroll into the only photography program in the Suwanee area that was reasonably priced.  The photography program at Gwinnett Tech is a two year, lock-step program. Meaning that you have to take class in the order and times they are given. Classes are only offered once a year,and if you fail one you have to wait another year to take it again. This also postpones the other classes you take as well as when you can graduate.. It’s pretty stressful, especially as you invest more and more into the system.

Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve learned whilst attending Gwinnett Tech:

Learning film is great, but maybe its time to go all digital? – One really cool thing about GTC is the fact that we start using film on day one.  It’s a great trip down nostalgia lane, and it’s really fun  (if you get over how chemically dependent it is) to process film.  The only issue is if you interview the 28 students who are currently in my quarter, only about 4 would want anything to do with it.

Digital photography is where it is now, and while there are some film photographers out there, about 99% of what any of us students will do professionally will be digital based.  It can be argued that we need to learn film because of the use of large format cameras for our commercial class, but even those classes will end up going fully digital soon enough.

Personally, I love the film aspect, but I think it should be an elective instead of taught off the bat. As tech school, GTC is supposed to teach what is most necessary and valid in the career you are choosing a degree in. Most studios/photographers working on a professional level are strictly digital.

It’s also worth mentioning that by only being allowed to use film during the first quarter of the program students may get deterred both by frustration with the film process and the cost thereof. Many students are siphoned out during the first quarter and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was due to the restrictions of film.

Totally abuse your “Student” status privilegedMy oh my, how much you can get away with as a “Student”.  If you ever want an easy way to either ask for permission (or even if you choose to ask forgiveness after the act)  just have a student badge on you.  Heck, if you are a professional just enroll in the program to get a badge that says “Commercial Photography Student” and you will totally get entryway into so many things you may be barred from otherwise.  But shhh don’t tell people you got that from here :), it can be our secret.

2 years is too little time to teach photography
– There is way too much technical information that has to be learned by an individual that requires both education of the subject and practice.  There is so much information that’s fed to the students that, if you don’t go in with any aptitude towards photography, or basic understanding, it can be disastrous as you go on.  This isn’t a problem with the program as much as a heads up to anyone ever interested in doing photography in a short program.  Learn a little about the technical on your own time, so you can focus more on the creative down the line.

Which comes to part three…

Education is what you make it – This is obvious, but watching over the last 2 years it still hasn’t hit a lot of people.  Education isn’t what the school teaches you, it’s what you seek out to learn yourself.  The school is a catalyst but it’s up to you to absorb as much knowledge you can and apply it.  Our director, and head teacher in the program, had an awesome request before we left. She simply just asked us to “Keep shooting”.  No direction, no objective, but just to shoot and drive ourselves to go do that.  That’s pretty much what this is about.

Artistic people are highly competitive – This is sadly true and even people with the best of intentions and personalities can become difficult to deal with as the competition rises. The Gwinnett Tech program is a strange enigma when it comes to this.  It first preaches the virtues of working together and that you can’t succeed without the help of your classmates.  Then, at the end, it places you in a Mano a Mano portfolio competition which declares an individual as the winner.  It comes to the point that petty things like using a similar model as another classmate can be seen as a slight against them.  On the other hand, some people will take the initiative to work as a team, and the work they will release will be outstanding, even if it’s not recognized at the end because it’s an individual competition.

“Professional Photographers” don’t last in the program – Every year roughly 60 people start the program.  There’s a good chance that a handful of them are “Professional” photographers,  or at least people who have some experience.  It may just be happenstance, but for the last several years it seems like professional photographers just don’t survive the program.  Many tend to drop out a few quarters into it.  I’m sure there’s a bunch of reasons and this isn’t some crazy conspiracy theory.  It just shows that the program is pretty tough and stressful, but on the flip side its really nice having some direction and challenges.

(Editor’s Opinion: After being in the program much longer than I should be I’ve noticed this trend as well. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the professionals who joined, and left, the program. From what I saw/heard from them and others it’s not because the program is difficult for them, actually it can be the opposite.

The entire first year is pretty much the basics. Which is great for those of us who start with little to no knowledge of what it takes to shoot beyond point and click. Those are the majority of the people who begin the program. However if those that already have a lot of experience, and have even been doing freelance work (making money at the craft), tend to get bored since most of it is information they have already learned and used in real life situations. The time is frustrating as well as spending the money to learn what they already know.

On top of professionals can be resented by the vast majority because of their experience. It’s just a fact. Not saying everyone does this, but a lot of those with less experience and who truly need/benefit from the program seem to get irritated that their work/knowledge is being compared against someone who already knows what they’re doing. It leads to many asking, “If they’re already a professional, why are they here?” )

You totally have one of the best business loan programs ever – Photography is stupidly expensive.  Even your most basic camera and gear to purely focus on commercial work, you need to spend at least $1500 to get a decent camera, with a lens, possibly a speedlight, and a computer.  Ideally you would spend about $6000~$8000 by the time the program’s over in paper/equipment/misc. items.  To get a private personal loan for $10000 for photo equipment would average about 8% with payments over 5~6 years for about $250~$300.  This is prohibitive for some people.  But for students there’s another option; student loans.  To get the same student loan for $10000, you pay about 3~5% over 10 years (or faster if you want) and end up paying $100-ish a month.  I don’t know about you guys, but if you’re serious about photography on a working level, this is probably one of the biggest no-brainer decisions to make.  Get the money, but be smart when buying your equipment (lots of lenses and items which return money quickly) and then work to pay off that loan by doing 50% gross payments to it.


These are just a few personal observations.  I’ll probably place a few more up later in this post.  Just wanted to also update the blog.



3 responses

  1. I’ve got a question,not a comment.

    This years I saw the presentations from SCAD, GEorgia Tech and Gwinnett Tech. In my inexperienced eye, there was a sig difference in the quality of the bodies of work. With the quality of the Tech Scool being the better of the the 3. I’ve seen some high school programs that were better. Do you think it is an age difference or a motivation difference between the programs, that drives the differences?

    December 28, 2010 at 7:25 am

    • Probably many factors, but I think at the end of it it comes to how much individual drive the students had and lastly who the “standout students” of that school are. We were fortunate to be represented by several very good people the last few years at GTC. They were skilled in using the camera, directing talent, and also skilled in post production. In a field where you take 10000 photos to show your best 10, you have to be good at post production. Which brings it to high school kids. I loved those days and remember it fondly as an artist. You were allowed to experiment and try artistic techniques and totally had the title of student to hide behind. Yes it made getting respect difficult sometimes, but on the reverse you got so much of a crutch because people say “Omg a high schooler did this”. By all means there will be that 3~5 high schoolers that are just damn good, but that’s the great part, 1~2 of them will enter a college and be that stand out student that really raises the bar for people at the school. In high school I remember having a hell of a lot of time to learn Photoshop and post process and get photos done because, well, what else was I gonna do?

      GTC had some of those students IMHO that does that, and currently have that. My upper quarter had Damian, Amanda, Gustavo, Brett, and Jayne (Who has a giant piece showing in China, cool!), and my current quarter has standout students like Jeremy, Starr, Allison, Chris S, and sometimes Erik (:)) that really raises the bar. As much as the other people are good, Erik is probably gonna run away with it if he applies himself because he is great at post production.

      Humility or humbleness probably keeps my name out of this, but what my Director said about “Trent, I have to grade and treat you differently” resonates in my head. I’m probably not going to be in the running to win any shows.

      December 28, 2010 at 11:52 am

  2. Great review and advice about the program! It has been a great stepping stone for me and it gave me the knowledge to ask “more complicated questions”. Thanks for the shout out!

    December 28, 2010 at 2:08 pm

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