The photography community was rattled last month with the formal announcement of the abrupt closure of Brooks Institute of Photography on August 19th (ironically, World Photography Day). After over 70 years of leading instruction in both conventional and modern photography techniques, the doors shuttered closed permanently. Just days earlier, the Hallmark Institute of Photography in Massachusetts announced it was closing the school also, along with two other smaller photo schools.

The reasons for the closure have been reported in the media recently, but the closure of one of the most prominent photo schools in the world also begs the question, “Are Photo Schools Even Relevant Anymore?” In today’s digital world where free instruction can be found on YouTube in an avalanche of home-made tutorials, is a structured academic program to teach photography techniques and methods even needed?

In short, yes. Absolutely.

“But I don’t want to be a professional photographer. I’m just an amateur/hobbyist/enthusiast. Why does this matter to me?”

Here at HSW, we aren’t saying everyone needs a pro education to become a better photographer. We just firmly believe that you need to further your education to set yourself away from the pack of camera-centric photographers out there. That doesn’t have to be in a trade school, but rather through whatever type of education model you prefer that focuses on your areas of desired improvement.

The problem is … most amateur/hobbyist/enthusiasts have no idea exactly how far down the rabbit hole the photographic process goes.

So how does this matter to you? Let’s start with a little perspective to explain how it matters.


Using a simple six-pack of cans as the subject matter, students at Brooks Institute learned camera control in altering the plane of focus and the size/shape of the cans through a litany of assignments, all compiled in a ‘comp book’ (seen above). The assignments also introduced entirely new photographic phrases, with words like “yaw” and “scheimpflug.”

If one has never attended a photo school or isn’t aware of the intensive curriculum, it might come quite surprising how drastically different the academic model is at a photography trade school versus what one would find at university that offers a photo courses or a photo program within their liberal arts college.

All students started their first class at Brooks Institute of Photography and the school of photographic technique in an exercise to understand 4×5 view camera controls during a class outing to the Santa Barbara Mission (photo above). For decades, Santa Barbara locals were used to seeing a cluster of students every couple months, hauling out their large cameras and tripods. It was part of the local scenery.

But for the students, it was the reality of photography. A reality that wasn’t tied to small DSLR cameras but one that started around large cameras and professional equipment. The message was clear: you’re playing with the big boys now.

However, the important underlying message wasn’t immediately apparent: It didn’t matter what type of camera you use, the principles of photography are what matters. Be it digital or analog (film), big camera or small, the principles were the same.

For 18 months, students labored under technical assignments that increased their knowledge in lighting, camera controls, studio operations and portraiture. Only once they tested out of lower division with a shown proficiency in their technical knowledge could they proceed to their specialized upper division courses.


With the dawn of digital, a new wave of students arrived. Students that already understood their cameras to a degree. An understanding that the camera can take a perfect exposure. Nearly every time.

That’s because the latest camera are super intelligent. And they are only getting smarter with each incarnation. You simply click the button and get a perfect exposure. Or, rather, the exposure the camera’s computer says is the ‘perfect’ exposure. Based on ‘perfect’ conditions.

While digital may have helped in academics by providing instant assessment of the image, the introduction of smart digital only created a wider chasm between camera-centric and principles-dependent photographers.


A studio set-up at Brooks Institute showing the gray cube used for learning lighting controls and modifiers. Students use studio hot lights to set very specific gray values on each side of the cube.

The ease of the ‘perfect exposure’ through modern day digital cameras (including the mobile phone camera) has led to a mindset that the camera can pretty much do everything, and can’t do wrong. It has become ridiculously easy to take a quick photo with a mobile phone, do some precise edits and adjustments in real-time on the phone, and upload to your favorite sharing site. And, yes, the photo can be quite stunning!

That’s if you let the camera control everything. Yes, you control the exposure settings, from shutter speed to ISO, and you control the lens choices, but that’s it. Students of photography realize quickly that the control of the photographic scene has nothing to do with the camera, but everything to do with the scene itself.

What happens when the conditions aren’t perfect? When the light isn’t right? Or the vista point doesn’t lend itself to a nice composition? Most people either take a sub-par photo or just walk away. Why?

While the camera can make the perfect exposure, it can’t make perfect conditions. The camera doesn’t show you how to light a scene when the light isn’t perfect or when it can’t make the ‘perfect’ exposure. Then you are on your own.

So what do you do? Being dependent on the camera can lead to resignation of camera-centric images. That is where the comprehensive education steps in.

Let’s put it this way … the camera does not know how to:

  • Teach the photographer how to read the light falling on the subject. Something called ‘luminance’. Or understand the quality of that light relative to the subject matter. Something called ‘reflectance’.
  • The camera doesn’t show the photographer how to light a scene specific to the subject matter. Be it natural light (reading and waiting for the perfect light), artificial light (strobes or hot lights), or a combination of both that the photographer creates for the perfect lighting scenario.
  • The camera doesn’t give the photographer a flashing warning if the lighting ratio (amount of key light to fill) is off, because TTL with speedlights is not always the answer.
  • The camera won’t even tell you what lighting patterns to use based on the subject’s facial features.
  • It won’t tell you what type of lighting modifiers to use to best accentuate the subject or object.
  • It won’t teach you what each of the lighting modifiers do and how they change the quality of the light.
  • It won’t show the photographer alternate compositions. It can’t teach composition techniques and methods that go way beyond the cliché Rule of Thirds.

Photography has nothing to do with the subject but simply revolves around the light. After all, we are photographing not just a subject but rather how the light illuminates that subject. (Here at HSW, we always say “Shoot the light, not the subject.” That phrase and our accompanying instruction is based on our roots in trade school instruction.)

Lighting control (as seen in the studio example of a gray cube box above at right) is what is essential to photographic education. Because the camera is just a tool. One of many in the photographer’s arsenal. And being an expert in the camera’s controls and settings does not make one a photographer.

Once a photographer is trained in understanding light and controlling that light, the additional tools—be it black glass, high-speed shutters, ring flashes, brolly boxes, kinos, or non-visible spectrum—are paramount to furthering the photographic process. The camera is only the starting point.

A trade school education provides that depth of knowledge that empowers the photographer with the ability to walk into literally any situation and immediately know how to light and photograph the subject.

And with today’s heavy fixation on the latest cameras and megapixels, the process of photography is overlooked. Suave marketing by the camera manufacturers lead one to believe that the latest camera will make their pictures better. Or, as one one photo educator put it, “If you don’t know the photographic process, more megapixels just means more pixels of crap photography.”


Photography trade schools, like Brooks Institute, provided a depth of instruction that was comprehensive in all aspects of photography. Not just camera controls, post-production and lighting. It was empowering education.


The founder of Brooks Institute of Photography, and his son, circa early 1990s.

Empowering because photography has so many variables, methods and tools necessary to complete the job. A trade school education provides that depth of knowledge that empowers the photographer with the ability to walk into literally any situation and immediately know how to light and photograph the subject.

Professional photography is an exacting science. In commercial work, it’s the not the photographer’s vision but rather the client’s vision that is being created and captured. The photographer is hired because of his knowledge to make that vision turn into a reality. And nearly all professional commercial photographers are trained to some extent on the extensive photographic process. Or they wouldn’t be there in the first place.

What happens when the trade schools go away, and the extensive empowering photographic instruction is gone? Much like the slow disappearance of teaching cursive in elementary schools, who will be able to do it when it becomes near extinct?


“How does this matter to me? I’m must a hobbyist/amateur/enthusiast.” It’s simple. As photographers, we wish to share our photographic vision. What we see in a scene and then capturing that view and putting it into a little rectangle.

The camera isn’t smart. It’s just really, really good at averaging. It’s averages what it thinks is the best exposure. That’s all it does. And over the years, it’s gotten better and better at doing that. But in the end, the best averaged exposure leads to the best average photo.

Empower yourself to take control from the camera and defy the average. Know that the process goes way beyond average and to ensure your photographic vision stands out from everyone else, by empowering yourself with the knowledge of the photographic process.

Pick and choose what you want to learn. Discover what processes make you smarter and photographically stronger. Find resources that truly teach the process, not the hype. (HSW isn’t the only academic workshop outfit, but we think we are the best! Brooks Institute runs through our blood.)

The camera just does what it is told to do. It’s not that digital cameras are smart. It’s smart photographers knowing how to control the camera—and everything else in the photographic process—in the first place. Even if trade schools fall by the wayside, the teaching of the trade in digestible chunks will still be out there. Take advantage of that and move beyond being camera-centric.

Become a smart photographer! Become an empowered photographer!