Western Academy of Photography
A REVIEW OF THE WESTERN ACADEMY OF PHOTOGRAPHY IN VICTORIA, B.C.
I often get emails from people asking me about my experience attending the Western Academy of Photography. I thought I'd save some time and just simply post one of my responses to someone. I realize it's a bit long, but it is an expensive program and I figure it's good for people to have as many opinions as possible. Pardon typos or errors... I typed this quickly. :)
I'd be happy to tell you about Western. It's always a difficult thing to describe to people.. since I had such an incredible experience there (probably the very best year of my entire life) so I may be a little on the biased side. However, I'll be honest with you about the pros and cons.
To provide some background... in an earlier life, I did the traditional university thing and then worked over 10 years for big companies and the gov't. I had a mortgage, obligations, etc., and it was a huge risk to quit everything to go back to school full time.
Since I already had the typical school experience, I was pretty attracted to the fact that this particular school puts so much emphasis on running your own business. After all, it's pretty rare for any photographer in the history of photography to work for someone else. Instead, we all have to run our own businesses. You can have the best photography schooling in the world, and have the best facilities in the world... but you're never going to be successful without business skills. Even fine art photographers need to be able to market themselves to galleries, know how to price their work, etc. I also liked that the school seemed 100% practical, barely any theory and had such a great mix of different genres.
I was not disappointed. The faculty is so superior to anything I've ever encountered -- most teachers were far better than any other professor I had in the six years I attended university. I learned more in the first 14 weeks with our instructors Andrea and Mitch than I did trying photography on my own over a period of five years. They really slowed you down, forced you to focus on how you were taking the picture, putting voices and mantras in your brain that I still hear when I'm out in the field shooting (hear in my head, that is) LOL. I can't thank them enough for allowing my camera to become almost an extension of my body -- I can work it almost as naturally now as wiggling my toes. I'm not sure a traditional college photography program would have given me that kind of much needed technical training.
On to Western Academy of Photography's second semester -- which is focused on learning various genres -- there is a great mix of courses. You learn everything from wedding photography to fashion to advertising to outdoor and travel (and everythign in between). I've looked into it and a "fashion" or "wedding" or "nature" workshop taught by some expert photographer for a one week period costs $3,500 US. That's for a one week course in one particular field. Imagine that with the price of tuition (which seems steep until you compare alternatives) you get access to so many of the best photographers in their field. You get to ask them questions, find out how they run their business, how they approach photographing in their particular genre, etc. It's incredible. Some teachers were better than others, but even still... it was great to apply all the technical know-how towards even more practical applications. The exercises alone were worth the tuition since I've pretty much applied something from every course towards real-world assignemnts with real clients.
In addition to the actual business course, there is a huge emphasis on practicing busienss skills in the other courses. Every course asked that you include an invoice (a pretend invoice) when you handed in assignements. This forces you to think about the value of your work, whether you're doing an advertising assignment or handing in a picture that's intended for a magazine.
I'm not sure about your experiences out shooting... but some photographers are VERY protective of knowledge. I know I met a few who didn't want to give me the time of day. It was such a huge contrast to actually be surrounded by some pretty awesome professional photographers who don't mind telling you the secrets of how to be successful. The teachers at this school care about you becoming successful and it shows. You aren't coddled... it' very intensive... but everyone wants to make sure you are a success when you leave school and the entire program is designed around this goal.
I also loved the comradarie with other students. I learned so much just being around so many brilliant artists -- each with their own unique style and amazing ideas. I really felt like I was part of a supportive photographer community. It was so unlike my journalism school experience at Carleton where everyone was so competitive and full of assholishness.
Now... to the downside.
The school doesn't look like much. You walk in and there is an old couch and a run down table and chairs that look like they're from my grandma's kitchen circa 1983. I remember being startled when I went for my school interview because I wasn't really thinking about what I expected in terms of the "look" of a school but I didn't expect it to look *this* bad. For me, I decided this wasn't an important part of my decision making. I had heard great things about the school from other grads and I hoped that I'd get quality instruction out of my tuition. Who cares what the couch looks like if I'm going to learn so much.
The studio equipment isn't that bad. The lights are modern, the studios are large. Things do get broken sometimes because there are so many people using them. But it's great to have huge studio spaces that you can bring models (and friends) to practice your photography skills.
The darkroom equipment is a little run down, although it's only because the machines are old and darkroom technology seems to be becoming a thing of the past.
The other thing to note is that the school is in a crack neighborhood. I'm not exaggerating. It really is. You're there during some evenings and it can get a little scary. It's good that there are usually a few people around while you're doing assignemnts... but it is disconcerting.
Some people will tell you that you have to spend spend spend spend spend to do well at school. This is also nonsense. It's expensive, there's no question. You'll need to ensure you have a digital camera, a few lenses and a film camera. These are expensive whether you're going to school or not. Film is expensive. Printer paper is expensive. There's no getting around it. However, you can do it on a budget or you can do it by spending thousands of extra dollars. There was a huge variety in our class. Some people were using $100 film cameras with some old inexpensive Sigma and Tamron lenses all year and got by just fine. Others bought the latest state-of-the-art $8,000 digital bodies. If you were to look at the final portfolios you'd probably have a hard time figuring out who spent more and who spent less. There's a saying that "it's not the camera, it's the photographer." This is very true.
I know a lot of people think the tuition is steep. You can look at it a few ways but
a) The average "workshop" in photography (in one subject like "fashion" or "nature) is at least $3,500 US so imagine getting 10 months worth of about 20 workshops for $10,00.
b) The average traditional college or university is $4,500 or so in tuition. If you have to go for three years, that's three years you aren't working. That's also three years x $4,500 AND you're taking a bunch of nonsense prerequisites like English (I have nothing against English.. but who cares when you want to learn something practical).
c) You're investing in a future business so the tuition is just part of that.
d) While you'd expect a school to look pretty swanky if you're spending $10,000... I'm glad they spend the money on quality teachers because that's more important than the couch.
One last thing...many other students in my class had attended traditional art programs in college and said the WAP program was far superior. They didn't even get safety lessions about using chemicals in the darkroom in their colleges, let alone technical instruction about how their camera operates and how to take a proper exposure.
I hope some of this information helps in your decision making. I really can't recommend the school more highly. It was truly the best year of my life.