Photography ‘Qualifications’ … Are they Important?

Written by: Glyn Dewis

Published: April 7, 2011

Category: General

Ok so here’s the thing…

The other day I got chatting with a friend of mine and the subject of ‘Photography Qualifications’ and their importance came into the conversation. Now when I say qualifications what I’m talking about here is more specifically being a member of a Photography Organisation such as the R.P.S. (Royal Photographic Society) and gaining a Licentitateship, Fellowship and the like.

Speaking for myself I no longer belong to any such organisations however I did used to belong to the R.P.S. and hey who knows, in the future I may well renew that membership for a host of reasons, but it wouldn’t be to gain any kind of ‘qualification’.

From my own experience I have never, not once been asked by a client if I have any qualifications or come to think of it if I’m a member of any photography organisation; all they’ve wanted to see is a body of my work in a portfolio to show what I’m capable of and also to show that I’m consistent. I don’t know the answer to this yet but maybe this could be because of the area of photography I work in i.e a wedding photographer may well have a totally different experience of being asked.

At the risk of sounding controversial, do these ‘qualifications’ mean you’re a good photographer, and if so why? and for those folks who have gained these ‘qualifications’ was that more for your own feeling of personal achievement or with clients in mind?

Now please don’t misunderstand me here…what I’m not saying is that gaining a Licentiateship is worthless…far from it, but what I am asking here is do you think they’re important and if so why?

I guess this topic will join the ranks of Mac v PC and they’ll always be an argument for and against but I’d love to hear your take on this, so feel free to ‘shout out’ your thoughts in the comments section below.

Enjoy 🙂

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25 Comments

  1. Dave Clayton

    As a ‘learning’ photographer I only aspire to please myself with my results and don’t seek any kind of qualification. Watching the latest edition of The Grid they discussed the people who are ‘technical’ v ‘creatives’ which kind of begs a similar question. I am sure there are qualifications that say you know a particular camera inside out but how do you qualify photography aptitude.
    Whilst belonging to such bodies I am sure it is good to be in a ‘community’ and somehow have a ‘place to go’ for information etc but ultimately I would always go by someone’s portfolio, the respect they may have in the community and a few awards here and there doesn’t do any harm. At the end of the day how do you say one person’s work is better than another’s by way of a qualification?
    Take Tim Wallace for example, his work speaks for itself, his awards speak for the respect he has and the talent he’s worked hard at attaining, I wouldn’t even know if he had any ‘qualifications’ as such.

    An ACE knows how Photoshop works but doesn’t mean they are a great designer, I think qualifications would matter to me if I wanted to be taught how to use my camera, not who I would use to take my photos. Great question Glyn ! ;o)

    Reply
  2. Deborah Lee

    Very good question!

    My personal take on it is that with photography being a visual medium the proof of skill, authority and ability comes in your photographs .. As a photographer if you practice plenty and get your work out there you’ll do yourself more good than filling in application forms for courses and organisations.

    I’ve never been asked for paper credentials by potential clients .. only ever my portfolio 😉

    That said, I’m sure corporate organisations do hold store by professional memberships and the like.

    Reply
  3. Deano

    I’ve never been asked about qualifications and my clients like my work so in practice probably not that important. However its one of my personal goals to achieve an L this year. Why? It’s about personal development and confirmation of that development. I want to continually improve the standard of my work but how do I know I’m moving in the right direction unless my work is “evaluated”. Just because people buy my services/work doesn’t necessarily mean it’s as good as it could be. In a few years time the people buying images will be the same people who today think that the iPhone self portrait in the bedroom mirror is “Gawjus”. If would be easy to carry on turning out the same quality of work that these people will happily buy but I want to be the best I can and that means training and having my work critiqued and evaluated so that I know what I need to improve.

    Reply
  4. Neil Turner

    I come to this debate wearing many hats. I teach on a very highly targeted NCTJ Photojournalism course, I am the Vice Chairman of The British Press Photographers’ Association and I have an HND in Advertising and Editorial Photography. So you might think that I am about to disagree with Glyn but you’d only be part correct:

    I am a member of two professional bodies (The BPPA and NUJ) and both have freelance directories from which I have got work, although only barely enough to cover the cost of membership. For me the more important question is contributing to debates. Individual freelancers, even ones with highly regarded blogs, cannot do anywhere near as much to influence debates with government, cultural bodies and even the forces of law and order as professional bodies can. Most freelancers don’t belong to any bodies but all are the beneficiaries of the work that they do. If you want to shape the future of the profession, being a member of one or more of the photographer organisations that form the British Photographic Council is a “must”. We can do so much more to promote photography as a group than we can as disparate individuals.

    What about qualifications? Here is where I agree with Glyn. Only once in 25 years has anyone asked about my qualifications – and that was a bank manager who needed to put a tick in a box to give me a loan to buy some gear. These days letters after your name in our industry probably do more harm than good. They are not household acronyms and therefore the general public aren’t particularly impressed and industry insiders see them for what they are – unimpressive and meaningless without a strong portfolio to back them up. My only deviation from this is in the small world of newspapers where the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) qualifications can mean the difference between getting an interview or not and between being taken on with one pay scale without the bit of paper and a higher one with it. It is also shorthand for “this person knows all of the background stuff that goes with their folio”.

    Portfolios matter. People skills matter and the technical know-how to work as a professional matters. The rest is largely irrelevant. If the right course teaches you the right skills then that’s great but, in the end, it is your recent work that really counts.

    Reply
  5. Gareth Davies

    No – People do not commission photographers because they have a certain qualification, they do it based on the portfolio.

    Photography is Art – Art is subjective. I might take a technically correct image that falls short, but I may take a technically wrong image (there is a few of those) that actually give the “wow” factor.
    Having the experience of meeting a lot of photographers in the studio, I have seen a kid with a D70 and 1 light with no qualifications produce the the level of images I can only dream of.
    I have also seen a photographer with 60k worth ‘Blad kit and a post grad qualification produce something surprisingly poor.
    Regardless of kit, qualifications etc – stripped back, its natural talent – creativity, that makes a good photographer.
    Dave’s point about Tim, well made – no idea if he has 10 or no qualifications, but do I want images like that – Oh YEAH!!!

    Reply
  6. jewelzdezine

    Since I am a graphic designer in my “real” job, I will answer it like this as this question has come up before in the design world. People ask do you really need a graphic design degree to get a good job? Well, no, not really, but then again here is my scenario. Yes, I’ve always designed even before going to school, but I decided to go back to school (second career) and get my degree.
    I have worked in two great jobs as a designer, one which I am currently in. Do I need the degree to do the job…NO. Did I need the degree for them to even look at me to get the job? YES!
    It’s kind of a catch 22 situation I guess. I know we are talking photography, but I feel the same might apply to photography depending on what path you want to take. I have been shooting for quite sometime, but seriously, only the last two years. Since I don’t plan on taking my photography into a full time career, I am just diving into anything I can get my head around to learn. If I was going to take this to a career, I might consider going to school, depending on the path I would want to take.
    Great subject Glyn.

    Reply
  7. A. Shelton

    Absolutely not important. At the end of the day all a “membership” or “qualification” consists of is paper and ink. If there isn’t a solid body of work behind it then it’s worthless.

    It’s the same with any other profession. If i need a lawyer I don’t care if he graduated from the local community college or a prestigious law school. Show me a proven track record that says “I know what I’m doing.” and we can talk.

    Reply
  8. Michelle Lovegrove

    I personally don’t think a qualification proves you are a good photographer. Photography is subjective and the technicalities can be learnt outside of a formal forum.
    That being said I am not saying that a formal education isn’t useful and I am sure that they prepare you well for all eventualities and give you a head start in troubleshooting any problem you may be faced with.

    So I believe the value of a qualification is a confidence boost and validation to the photographer himself rather than the client. I am also not saying that is a bad thing…I would love to have a few letters after my name to make my shoulders sit a little straighter and my head a little higher. But I seriously doubt it would influence my photographic clients in the market I am pitching.

    It’s the same for me in my main field of design. Clients only care about the standard of work you produce and you have visual evidence of that in a portfolio.
    Only employers care about qualifications…and even that is gradually changing thankfully.

    I am yet to be asked by a client what my qualifications are and I do not list them on any business communications websites because I regard them as irrelevant compared to my twenty years in the industry.
    I do however post examples of my work and let that speak for itself!

    Reply
  9. Keith Hammond

    I have never been asked if i have any qualifications, it’s always look at albums or portfolio and i think that is because thats what clients will end up with.
    Do qualifications make you a better photographer, i don’t think so, the same as being a real techy and knowing every thing there is to know about “rule of thirds, inverse square law and hyper focal distance” won’t make you better.
    Know your equipment, get your head around composition, get to know the field of photography you want to work in and have an open mind and be prepared to experiment and over deliver to clients.
    I can see as Deano says a qualification can be a personal achievement, but who says the people judging / commenting on your work are right, i mean how many times have you looked at pictures on web forums and had a different opinion to the other comments, i know i have, any art form is subjective.

    Reply
  10. David Millington

    A very interesting debate, thanks Glyn for sparking it all off.

    I am a Professional Photographer that has Photographic Qualifications and can honestly say that I have never been asked if I had them. I am also a qualified member of the BIPP and don’t think that has particularly helped generate business. It has been helpful in other ways though.

    I have also been a part-time lecturer at Blackpool & the Fylde College since 2003 and the Ba (hons) Photography Course has never been so popular with over 80 first years starting in September!

    Photographic Education is important but not a necessity to be successful in this very competitive business!

    Reply
  11. Mark Robinson

    I’m going off on a tangent here, and would state that the business world in general is far to hung up on paper qualifications. When I recruit I need to know that someone can do the job in practice, not just on paper. Therefore I choose experience over theory anytime. Am I biased? Hell yes! I have reached the level of Managing Director after leaving school many moons ago with just 5 average grade O levels.

    Reply
  12. Richard Hales

    There are qualifications and qualifications. The RPS and others, like the SWPP, have a Licentiateship level to get paying members. In some cases they do not ask for evidence of a skill level to get the “qualification”. Most Societies recognise that this level is effectively a Learner level and no guarantee of ability and state that members should not use the letters after their names (eg Joe Bloggs LRPS). This is ignored by most people who have them.

    I aggree with Neil that the alphabet spaghetti of LSWWP, ARPS etc. is somewhat meaningless to the general public (many think the RPS is more important than the rest because of the Royal bit, this is far from the case) but other levels of qualification such as HND, BA, MA and the old City & Guilds qualifications are reasonably well understood.

    There are plenty of charlatans and hacks in the industry (especially in my speciality, weddings) and a clear and understood indication of a level of competence would be helpful to the general public.

    I do use letters after my name and I do get asked about them sometimes, but the best indication of my ability is my portfolio.

    Oh, and the qualifications do reduce the cost of my professional indemnity insurance.

    Reply
  13. Neil Turner

    I’m slightly disappointed that nobody else has apart from David has commented on the importance of being a member of a photographic body. As a profession we are all about our own work and our own businesses but there is a definite need for a collective voice and trade bodies do that better than anyone else. Professional bodies work hard to stop the bad stuff and promote the good stuff and letters after your name are not their principle function.

    I’d also take exception to Keith’s assertion that knowing all of the techie stuff doesn’t make you a better photographer. I disagree and I’d say that if you know something and choose to ignore it, that is a creative decision. If you don’t know it in the first place, you are not making decisions at all, you are just muddling through. Stuff like the rule of thirds is primary school art lesson stuff but a working knowledge of the inverse square law has made me a far better photographer.

    There is a ton of techie stuff that underlies our profession such as captioning, key-wording, the law, compression ratios, file formats, relevant health and safety and how to run a business that have to be learned. Surely we all agree that the cowboys who just “become photographers” without a proper set of background knowledge are the ones doing £100 weddings and £50 corporate headshots and screwing the profession at the same time.

    Reply
  14. Paul Hodgson

    I have a couple of takes…

    first…the word qualifications suggest education and for that I’m all in. OK spend your money buying lenses, new bodies, more stuff but that doesn’t mean you can make the most out of that combination. So yes, invest in yourself to grow your skills in addition to personal time to explore and experiment.

    second…regardless of what entry requirements are, this word spaghetti that was mentioned before, particularly around the wedding industry, seems a way of presenting a badge of honour in the hope that the badge brings kudos to the prospect, client. And yes, some clients will choose based upon those string of letters. The more savvy will base an opinion on the quality and consistency of your work.

    Do I have a beef with any of these organisations? Yes and no. Some seem content to dot eyes and cross t’s as a way of showing value when in fact they don’t. Others do a little better but many leave a bitter pill.

    So, in my final analysis I always want to be moving forward. Choosing left or right at that fork in the road, for better or worse. My money will be spent on honing my craft wherever I believe I get the best education and at the same time investing in other areas like marketing, social media stuff, investing energy to discover where my clients hang out.

    It’s not only/just about certificates, it’s about customer service, the ability to do the job every time, having a lean business model and sticking to it, it’s about the ability to change course if your stuff isn’t working.

    Am I a member of these orgs? No but don’t let that stop you if you think the return is worthwhile.

    Reply
  15. Glyn

    This is certainly a topic that generates a mix of feelings. Just to clarify where I stand on this…I don’t have any Licentiateships nor have I ever been to College etc to study photography. Now saying that, I would had photography been available at school definitely have taken the course/classes but I only got involved in Photography from at first being involved in Photoshop and editing other photog’s work. When it comes to taking photos I strongly believe, as do those I look up to for teachings ie Scott Kelby, Joe McNally, David E Jackson, Zack Arias, Tim Wallace, Bert Stephani etc… that the technical know how is vital. It’s vital to know your equipment and what it can do so that you can then put your effort into being creative. As Zack eludes to in his OneLight Workshop…’Your clients are paying you good money to know this stuff’ so that goes without saying. Education is vital and ongoing education at that and this can be from all manner of sources be it the folks I look to plus the NAPP and Kelby Training for example. Photography Organisations offer education in the form of seminars, workshops and so on but I guess what I’m getting at here is what Richard Hales mentioned about the ‘letters after the name’; who are they for?….the person as a photographer or the clients benefit? Would a client (photography client) be all that interested or is it as I can speak from my experience that clients just want to see great photography, creativity, confidence in what you do and vitally important that you can do it consistently? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with gaining the recognition from the Photography Organisations, nothing at all. I gained an ACE Certification with Adobe and am now an ACP for them too. The ACE didn’t gain me more work but it felt fantastic that an organisation I admire and who’s products I love had recognised me in such a way. Anyway, more food for thought I guess 🙂

    Reply
  16. Andy Goddard

    This is an interesting question, and there are lots of comments that I agree with.

    Qualifications are mainly about yourself and will not have much impact on the client. Especially with thousands of students leaving college and university with professional qualifications every year, it is no longer unusual to see people with a degree in photography. My photography degree was useful for understanding how images work, the history photography and a theoretical understanding, but in the commercial photography world it is not that helpful. Qualifications through the trade bodies like the SWPP and BIPP are something that you feel good achieving but not important from a clients point of view. The only real benefit that I can see to these are possibly a press story for some local PR. The mentor schemes and competitions that these trade bodies run are much more beneficial. Competition, I find, is one of the best ways to do some personal work and try to push your work forward.

    I strongly agree with what Neil said about photographic societies. Photographic societies and groups are very important in a rapidly changing and evolving industry and we need collective voice to make sure that the industry survives. Organisations like the AOP and British Journal of Photography who do a lot of good for the industry. An example of this could be the ‘I’m a Photographer, not a Terrorist’ campaign where street photographers were being threatened under the ‘Prevention And Suppression Of Terrorism – The Terrorism Act 2000 (Remedial) Order 2011’, which has only recently come back to be a problem again. (more info here http://photographernotaterrorist.org/). This as well as the ‘Orphan Works Bill” are proof that we need these organisations and they should be supported.

    I think that qualifications are important in developing yourself as a photographer but to the client, you are only as good as you portfolio.

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @Andy…Absolutely with you there 100%. The industry definitely needs a voice and the organisations do a wonderful job at that for sure. Re the ‘qualifications’…your last sentence says it all!

      Cheers, Glyn

      Reply
  17. Kim Kalian

    I agree with Andy “I think that qualifications are important in developing yourself as a photographer but to the client, you are only as good as you portfolio.”

    Couldn’t have been said better! I will add though…I don’t think I would have discovered the amount of contacts, know how, marketing techniques and everything thing else that I’ve learned, in such a short amount of time, had I not gotten my degree in photography.
    I’m very thankful and proud to have a degree in my profession and with the amount of random people purchasing a pricey DSLR, claiming to be photographers and putting out crap, I feel it makes the client feel as if they are getting what they’re paying for when “I TELL THEM” I have a degree in photography, after they see my portfolio. Yes, I tell them because I’m proud and I know my work shows not only my talent & art but also my knowledge.
    I sincerely do not mean to criticize or put down anyone who does not belong to an association, have qualifications or a degree. Lord knows there have been many great photographers / artist who knew nothing and became world known….god blessed them and will bless you! I honestly just feel that if you have “qualifications” it speeds up the process in “know how” dealing with the camera and the developing aspects of the images.

    Reply
  18. Dave

    My photography degree is turning out to be a HUGE waste of money. Portfolio says more than a piece of paper!

    Reply
  19. Neil Turner

    Dave… the piece of paper is probably of not much use but what about the three years you spent shooting pictures every single day, peer learning with as much criticism as you could handle, doing endless work experience and all of that use you made of the networking opportunities with other trainee creatives…. not to mention the extra three years of learning people skills and maturing into an adult who could be viewed by the world as a professional? Your are right that degree was a waste ;-)))

    Reply
  20. David Kelly

    Like others have said I think qualifications are there as another option to develop you as a photographer but I don’t see them readily percieved by customers (potential or otherwise) as being of value. I’m not besmirching qualifications in any way (I’d certainly like to undertake something like a LRPS panel) but it’s a personal development thing.

    A photographer’s portfolio will be sseen by the client as being the hard evidence of their capabilities (assuming it’s genuine and not stolen from another togs website!) and the seal of quality so to speak. Some companies, particular larger one’s may also want to understand your historic client list as another measure of how ‘qualified’ you are for their requirements. That list of previous clients on paper is worth more to any potential client that your qualification certificates.

    You seemed to have kicked off a good debate – maybe this is another hot topic for Matt & Scott to discuss on ‘The Grid’ 😉

    Reply
  21. DaveT

    An interesting debate Glyn

    Qualifications may or may nor be useful dependent on the what one wants or expects from them. Certainly, they may not be useful in gaining commissions of work from potential clients, portfolios may be more useful here, but as people like Neil Turner has pointed out they have a certain cache in opening doors for employment possibilities, and in some cases may be a pre requisite.

    I suppose, the worth of qualifications for photographers is a personal thing. It can be a way of gaining a wider understanding of the craft. It can be a way of setting personal goals. It can be a means of benchmarking. The process of gaining the qualification, can give huge personal satisfaction, it can lead to intended and unintended learning experiences and where the route to qualification involves meeting others, a way of establishing networks for the future. Some university courses are very industry aware and run exhibitions for the final year students so that their work is exposed to those already in the industry, potentially leading offers of assistant posts.

    Bodies like the BIPP and RPS can be useful networks for expanding ones contacts and they have workshops and group meetings too. Some even offer mentoring opportunities where experienced photographers work with less experienced photographers to improve their understanding of the particular genre they are interested in ( I have a friend who is doing this in relation to his wedding work)

    In summary qualifications may be the end point, but often its the journey to getting them that may be the more beneficial. And, as I said earlier, the only person who can measure the worth of the qualification is the person who has embarked on that route.

    Dave

    Reply
  22. Glyn

    This has been a fascinating conversation; thanks everyone 🙂 If I’m reading his right it would seem the overall opinion out there is that as opposed to being for directly attracting clients, Licentiateships and the like are very much done for personal achievement/self development and the affirmation that skill levels are progressing. These organisations are definitely a benefit to the industry and of that there is no doubt whatsoever but it is their work in promoting a good name and encouraging people to continue to learn and push their skill level where they are most valuable.
    Cheers

    Reply
  23. Dom

    Personally I’d agree with the vast majority that qualifications will play little or no part in gaining new clients, it’ll be your portfolio that does that as with any kind of art beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and no matter how well you’ve framed that certificate it probably won’t influence the punter one way or the other.

    I take slight exception to a statement above that says qualifications are not important and that its the same in any profession. Fine, but you can have the unqualified gas technician come and service your gas boiler, not me, I’d rather have one with qualifications, bells and all the whistles thank you very much.

    Qualifications have there place in each industry and what they are there for could be for any number of reasons, some for the knowledge required to do the job well, some for safety etc…. but what you have to decide upon is why they would be good for you in photography. The way I look at it is that if you come out the other end of a course, passing it or not, having learned something new then its all got to be worthwhile, as opposed to getting to the end and thinking, well I knew all that anyway but now I have a nice piece of paper telling me so.

    I all for the self taught route, practice makes perfect 😉

    Reply
  24. Stephen Waring

    I think the person on the street that will book you, as their photographer will put more value on recommendation than what qualifications you have.

    Reply

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