Starting a photography degree is exciting and daunting, there will be new people to get to know, equipment to get your head around, ideas to mull over, lengthy reading lists, and all this whilst working out how to pay rent and buy two weeks food for under a tenner! Source has some collective experience of what a photography course entails and some lessons learned the hard way, so we thought we'd pass on some handy tidbits for those fledgling photographers just beginning their academic journey;
1. Make friends with the other students.
It might sound obvious, but your classmates are your creative peers, they will have a range of experiences, all different from yours and this is the time to share all that experience, knowledge and passion. Once you have left the supportive environment of university, it can be hard to find people to bounce ideas off, see exhibitions with, or even just to share equipment and facilities with. If you shut yourself off and work in isolation, you are less likely to grow as a practitioner (and no one will buy you a pint...). Don't however, restrict yourself to fellow photographers, depending on the institution you go to, there will be an array of other students studying interesting things with ideas that run parallel to your own.
2. Don't be afraid to try out new things.
Hopefully this will be applicable to every area of your new life as a student. As a photography student in particular you have the luxury of experimenting for a few years before you have to try and find a way of working in the non-academic world. You will have access to studios and cameras which will suddenly be more expensive to play with the minute you graduate, so try them out and ask your classmates to help you if a process is unfamiliar. At university you will have the luxury of time to experiment and the freedom to try approaches that won't work out.
3. Read about photography whenever you can.
Your reading list is a good start, though remember it is only a guide and will range across the varied interests of the people you are taught by as well as standard photography essentials from Berger to Sontag. Aside from these, explore your physical library in person and not just on the computer database. Images that don't strike you on-screen may jump out at you when you browse physically. Don't feel obliged to limit yourself to photography books either, photography doesn't exist in a vacuum, your practice needs to be relevant to be interesting. A decent daily or weekend broadsheet read is a good habit to start. Journals in your areas of interest outside of photography can spark off ideas and good fiction is a wonderful way to think roundly about a subject. Obviously photography journals like ourselves and others will give you a much more up to date critique of photography and will likely show you work you haven't encountered before. Blogs and websites too can generate discussion and debate, in fact we have already gathered up Ten Photography-Related Blogs You Should Read which is a good starting point for any research around the current issues in photography.
4. Count your pennies.
Photography is not cheap. Decent equipment isn't easy to buy on a part-time wage and will need updating every few years. Lenses and bodies will need to be added to and updated, even old manual cameras can set you back the equivalent of a month's rent! With all of your camera and computer equipment lying around in your halls or shared accommodation, see if you can extend your parents insurance to cover you while away from home. Depending on the facilities at your institution, buying, processing and scanning film can quickly make a dent in your semester budget. This won't change when you leave uni, so it is good idea to get into the habit of budgeting. In the big, bad freelance photography/artistic world, you will regularly be asked to account for your expenses, be it travel or sustenance, in order to quote for jobs and apply for funds. Whilst at university it is great to get the financial help that part-time work can offer, and most university towns have seasonal work catering to their transient populations. Student Beans is one of a few sites giving money saving tips, jobs and offers to students throughout the UK and Campus.ie gives a few guides to student life in Ireland.
5. Attend or Organise Cultural Events
Go to galleries, visit museums, attend photo festivals or start a film club. Exposure to all things cultural is great for your outlook, research and social life. It can also be a cheap way to have an evening out, (most exhibition openings are in the evening and most have a free glass of wine or two for attendees) with the bonus of being able to mingle with the people who might shape your future as well as the artists themselves. Most cities in Ireland and the UK are involved in a late night art project once a month, and if you are in any of the major cities, there will no doubt be something you can see for free every week. Join or organise a film club, a book club or anything else you feel would widen your horizons. Some free events can be catalysts for collaborations and inspiration for your own work. How will you organise your own end of uni show unless you have been to some exhibitions yourself? Also, don't forget to support your own university, visit recent graduates shows, or those in the classes above and below yours, if there are ‘open’ lectures, attend them. The Arts Council for where you are studying will have listings or links to events:
6. Get Experience.
Your time at college should be a wonderful educational experience, but it can't teach you everything you will need to know about the photography industry. Tutors' areas of expertise won't cover everything. Try volunteering in your summer holidays. Internships and volunteering opportunities are usually advertised on the same Arts Council sites above. These placements will only be possible if you can afford not to be paid once you leave uni, so for most, expect to do a mixture of donkey work or admin, alongside a few good learning experiences, and gaining inside knowledge on how parts of the industry work. It's not just photographers who need this kind of knowledge and expertise. Studios, agencies, photo-libraries, archives, film, television and radio, press and publications, advertising, galleries, museums, photo-labs, forensic labs, the armed forces and the police, non-profits and charities, architects and web agencies are all involved with photography in some way, as are many other areas of work. Try a few on for size and see what you find yourself to be most excited by and most comfortable in. It can be just as useful to find out what you aren't into as what you are, and the more work-trials you have, the greater knowledge you have to start building a suitable portfolio of work and experience. Places like the AOP, BAPLA and the NUJ have some good information on the kinds of places you might find yourself, but bear in mind a great many places will expect you to contact them directly. Sometimes you can earn yourself a little extra spending money by using your photography skills! People need many kinds of work or personal images and there is no reason why you can't make money from this whilst still studying. If you want to separate the work you do to earn money from your own work, simply have two websites with two different names. See below!
7. Have a web presence.
As mentioned above, two websites might be necessary. If this is the case, then one should be a clear, concise and simple portfolio website with obvious contact details and the other might need to include a download section for clients and more flexibility for uploading new material, with separate email addresses. If you want to do it yourself, you can make it as simple or as complicated as you like, depending on how much you already know or how much you are willing to learn. If you are willing to pay either a friend (in kind) or a professional in hard cash, again this can be as simple or as complicated as you want, but don't obscure the point of the site: the images themselves. Can the people you want to attract see a selection of your work with a succinct introduction? Then your website is doing its job.
8. Leave enough time for a project and shoot as much as you can.
It's easy to be overly optimistic about the time and money it takes to do anything, and photography projects are no exception. If you take into account your essays, part-time jobs and lecture and tutorial time, as well as holidays – which will be often spent at home where it is often impossible to do the work you promised yourself – there is rarely as much time as you think to make a piece of work. You can still challenge yourself but be realistic with your goals. Don't let a good idea be hampered by administrative restrictions, there are often imaginative ways around them, but equally don't plan a project in Australia if you have 3 months and a few hundred quid to complete it! When you are starting at uni, get used to lugging a camera everywhere, even if it's a little second hand manual that you aren't scared of spilling beer on – it doesn't always have to be your best kit – but the more you practice looking at the ground glass or through the viewfinder, the more you'll get used to making pictures. Everything we do in life requires practice, great singers train their voices so why should image-making be any different?
9. Keep a diary of some sort.
It doesn't have to be detailed and it doesn't need to be a litany of your repressed feelings (though if you want to, go ahead!), it doesn't even have to be on paper, but something small and portable to dump your thoughts and ideas in will become a great resource if maintained. A decent smart-phone or a small notebook is fine, just try not to lose them, back up the digital data from time to time and occasionally look back through your notes and commit any emerging or important ideas to a more permanent record. Sometimes a diary is merely research and sometimes it will be absolutely essential to understanding the progression of your own work. Ten years later you might even look back through it for inspiration...
Enjoy your picture making, enjoy your research, enjoy your peer group and their work and enjoy your lectures. You won't enjoy all your lectures and essays but take what you can out of them and don't be afraid to voice your concerns if you have any, or ask for help if you are finding the writing difficult. Do your best, don't be too hard on yourself and you'll enjoy the projects more. Sometimes you will need to let off steam and sometimes you will need to just chill out in your pyjamas, but work hard and you'll get more out of your photography degree.
Good luck and have fun!