Can You Learn Photography Without Going to School?

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Kent DuFault
Kent DuFault

One of the most common questions asked by my students is, “Do I need to go to school to be great at photography?”

That’s an interesting question.

I was heavily involved in photography, including professionally, ten years before I chose to attend a two-year technical school that resulted in a diploma in photography.

There was only one reason that I chose to do that. At that time, in the early 1980s, some degree was required for any professional-level job. I was already competent at everything taught by the school, but I needed the paperwork.

The effort paid off as it landed me my first photography job at a small newspaper.

Today, I wouldn’t have bothered with the school as it is a far less needed element in the industry than it once was.

This guide will cover the seven essential steps to self-education within the photography realm.

Here is what we will cover:

  • Camera Knowledge
  • Develop A Strategy
  • Emulating Professionals
  • Study/Practice
  • Self-Assignments
  • Join Groups
  • Participate In Workshops

Recommended Reading: Want to expand your shooting skills and master photography? Grab our set of 65 beautifully designed and printable Action Cards that will give you over 200 photography assignments to help you take your photography to the next level. Check it out here.

Camera Knowledge

Without learning intimately how your camera functions, you will never reach your full potential in photography.

Just as a golfer practices their swing over and over to achieve success and have fluidity with the activity, so must you with your camera.

Key Lesson: Great photography requires anticipation and timing. This is true of virtually all genres except for studio still-life photos.

It’s crazy how modern cameras have a gazillion functions, features, and parameters. Personally, I find too much choice paralyzing. It’s like your television remote. It can do many things, but you mostly use three: on and off, volume, and channel change.

You may feel differently, but at the beginning of your no-school journey, I suggest concentrating on these camera functions.

1. Shutter Speed

  • How to set it
  • Where to set it on your camera
  • How the function changes based on the exposure mode

2. Aperture (F/Stop)

  • How to set it
  • Where to set it
  • How the function changes based on the exposure mode

3. Exposure Modes

  • Concentrate on these three modes and ignore the rest in the beginning:
    • Aperture Priority
    • Shutter Priority
    • Manual (nothing is automatic)
  • How to lock exposure in the auto modes

Memorize where the dials and menus are located for these five camera functions. You want to be able to locate them and change them quickly. Photograph by Samer Daboul

4. Focus Modes and Focus Points

  • What do the different modes do?
  • How to set and move focus points
  • How to lock focus

5. Drive Modes

  • How does each drive mode work, and when would you choose one over another?

Key Lesson: Master these five camera functions before worrying about anything else.

Bonus: Photzy sells a fantastic product called the DSLR Crash Course. If you want some help with camera knowledge, that’s a great place to start.

Important: Even your smartphone camera, when used in conjunction with shooting apps, can put you in control of these five critical camera functions.

Develop a Strategy

The benefit of attending a school is that someone has predetermined the curriculum. That means that you don’t have to do that.

The downside is that the school and the teacher have their opinions on what you need to learn.

When I attended that two-year technical program, I was amazed at how much time was devoted to ‘stuff’ that had no real-world meaning for a photographer. That’s a problem with the educational system; they have to design something that accommodates everyone – something that hits in the middle of the target.

That format didn’t help me and probably wouldn’t help you.

This means you should develop a strategy for learning on your own.

Photograph by Kelly Sikkema; Text by Kent DuFault

Key Lesson: A learning plan (a strategy) is vital to gauge your progress.

When creating your strategy, remember that there will be ups and downs. Don’t get disappointed too quickly. Think of your errors as the ultimate learning experience. If you learn from them, you will fast-track your growth potential.

When creating your strategy, remember that there will be ups and downs. Don’t get disappointed too quickly.

Early in my career, a gentleman took a chance on me and gave me an assignment that I was utterly unprepared to take on. However, I took it on anyway because of my enthusiasm to do a professional project.

Well, I completely botched it. At the time, I still didn’t completely understand electronic flash, and that’s where my problems came in.

I had to stand in front of that client and admit that I had wholly botched two days of work, which put him in a terrible position with his client.

He immediately fired me from the job. I didn’t get paid for the two days I had worked, and he never hired me again. (I can’t say that I blame him.)

The important point from my telling you that story is that I learned a few things (the hard way), and I NEVER made those mistakes ever again.

In helping you set up your own learning strategy, I hope you find this guide helpful in outlining.

If you feel like you need some additional help, I would recommend the Photzy Action Cards which come with an included lesson plan. But the difference between this suggestion and going to school is that you can personalize both the topics and the timeline to your own taste and needs.

Key Lesson: Spend some time strategizing your learning plan. What areas of photography interest you most, and what challenges come with those areas? Where are you currently weak in your knowledge?

Recommended Reading: Want to expand your shooting skills and master photography? Grab our set of 65 beautifully designed and printable Action Cards that will give you over 200 photography assignments to help you take your photography to the next level. Check it out here.

Emulate Professionals

My emulated photo with inspiration from Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, and Brett Weston. Photograph by Kent DuFault

When I was doing early learning in photography, my heroes were the early masters of black and white photography, specifically the three giants of photography mentioned in the caption for the image above.

These photographers all had a style that included deep blacks and creamy highlights. They all did landscapes, and they all worked toward having exquisite tonal values and details in every range of the photograph.

I encourage you to Google these three photographers and view samples of their work.

I’m not saying that my image is anywhere as good as theirs, but I do think it’s a pretty darn good emulation.

Think of your errors as the ultimate learning experience. If you learn from them, you will fast-track your growth potential.

Assignment: Pick three photographers that you admire and would like to emulate. Study their photos and emulate one of your own. This is a fantastic learning tool. I personally have done this repeatedly throughout my entire 47-year photo career.

Key Lesson: When emulating, you can try and create an exact duplicate. This can be helpful for learning lighting and other technical-related photo activities. Or you can emulate by creating your vision of the imitated style. That’s what I did for the image above.

Study Practice

After developing a strategy and emulating styles that you like, you will better understand where you need to study and practice.

Key Lesson: As you gain insights into what you enjoy and where you need improvement, don’t be afraid to alter your strategy plan. That’s why I like to use sticky notes to create my learning plans, as I can easily add, delete, or rearrange my goals.

Just to show you that I practice what I preach, this was me a few years ago working on my Minimalism skills using the Photzy Action Cards. Photograph by Kent DuFault

This photographer set up a very easy-to-accomplish self-study project. All she needed was a chair, a wall, her camera, and a light source.

This simple self-assigned project taught her about lighting, posing, and black-and-white processing! Photographs by Elisa Photography

Interesting Side Note: When viewing these portraits, one might conclude that the contrast and lighting are too flat. But if you examine these shots closely, you can see that the photographer carefully placed the tonal range to match a style that she liked. What was she doing? She was emulating! Go back and look at the image on page 11 and compare it to the image on page 13. They are entirely different styles. We each emulated differently.

Key Lesson: Identify your needs and modify your strategy to meet those needs.


Self-assignments are similar to practice and study, with one huge difference.

When practicing and studying, you are learning with broad strokes. You should fine-tune the project to extremely tight parameters when doing self-assignments. Force yourself to push past your normal comfort zone.

This woman is setting up a still-life composition as a self-assignment project. She’s comfortable. She can take her time, and she can easily experiment. Photograph by George Milton

Key Lesson: Be as comfortable as you want when practicing and studying. When doing self-assignments, push yourself to new levels.

One of my self-assigned photo projects to document (in an editorial style) my barber and his barbershop. Photograph by Kent DuFault

Self-assignment projects don’t need to be complicated, but they should be focused on their message. This will help you in numerous ways, especially regarding photo composition and storytelling.

Take photos wherever you are, including the grocery store! Photograph by Felix Kolthoff

Pro Tip: Two crucial components of self-learning are motivation and action. We all have busy lives, and something that is a desire versus necessary for life can often be pushed into the background until it’s lost. One way to combat that is to use your smartphone camera and view everything you are doing as a potential assignment for a big magazine. I did this for years and actually still do, as it’s become a habit.

Assignment: Pick a person, place, or thing and do a self-assigned project on it. Create at least ten different shots on the same topic that could stand on their own or work together. Try to make each one unique but also work together as a group to tell a bigger story.


The two most common groups of photographers outside of professional organizations are camera clubs and photo walks.

I personally am not big on group functions, but some people love them. Of the two options listed, I prefer photo walks.

Photo walks are more often a gathering of strangers, whereas camera clubs can often be bogged down with politics.

When participating in a group function, you will often have access to willing models which might otherwise be challenging to locate. Photograph by Evgeny Bauder

Key Lesson: The benefits of groups are:

  • External feedback
  • Potential mentoring
  • Observation of other types of equipment
  • Observation of other composition choices
  • Interaction with like-minded individuals
  • Potential long-term friendships


Workshops have the same values as groups with one significant addition. There will be some type of curriculum as established by the instructor.

I’ve taken four workshops in my lifetime. I learned something at each one. But was I happy with my investment?

No. I was not happy, and here’s why.

When you take a workshop, you are beholden to someone else’s viewpoint on what you need to learn. You are also at the mercy of your instructor’s ability to teach.

Famous photographers taught all the workshops I attended, and almost anyone would recognize their names. They are all great photographers. They were also all very poor instructors for various reasons.

I could go further into the downside of what I experienced, but that doesn’t seem beneficial.

Key Lesson: If you decide to take a workshop, research the facility, the curriculum, and the instructor. Try to locate references who previously took the workshop and ask them how it went.

Most workshops are expensive. Protect your investment by being diligent upfront.


In our current environment, attending a school to learn photography – even for professional purposes – is no longer necessary. However, it does require dedication, or else your learning path will become stalled. To help, create a learning strategy that you write down with goals and achievement levels. Learn the camera first. Try some group functions if that suits you. Photograph every day if possible but also with an intent toward the end product. In other words, don’t randomly shoot. Shoot with a purpose.

Recommended Reading: Want to expand your shooting skills and master photography? Grab our set of 65 beautifully designed and printable Action Cards that will give you over 200 photography assignments to help you take your photography to the next level. Check it out here.

Self-Check Quiz:

  1. Is it still necessary to attend a school or university to reach a professional level of photography ability?
  2. What aspect of photography should you master first?
  3. Name the five camera functions that are most important for beginners.
  4. Can you legitimately practice learning photography with a smartphone camera?
  5. Why is having a learning strategy vital?
  6. Why is failure essential to your ultimate success?
  7. Is emulating other photographers stealing?
  8. True or False: Study and practice must be complicated to succeed.
  9. True or False: When doing self-assignments, pushing your boundaries and trying new things is vital.
  10. Name three benefits of learning with a group.

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