For many photographers, receiving a formal education in photography is the pivotal step that turns their artistic passion into an employable skill and disciplined craft.
When a photography student enters formal photographic training, they’ll quickly find the structured learning environment so many artists need to push their craft to the next level.
They’ll also find a social environment whereby they can build life-long relationships with those passionate about similar artistic pursuits.
And when students leave, they’ll have the kind of credentials that open so many doors for careers in photography. It is no wonder, then, that so many of the world’s top photographers have formal education at photography institutions.
From, Richard Avedon, who produced famous portraits of James Baldwin, Andy Warhol, Toni Morrison, and more, to Pink Floyd’s photographer and videographer Storm Thorgerson, to Francesca Woodman, one of the most respected photographers of all time—photography school was a key stepping stone for so many of photography’s best.
In fact, all three of the photographers listed above are alumni of the schools featured on this list.
This article will break down 10 of the best schools in the world for photographers wanting to take that pivotal step that so many photographers have taken before them—the step towards becoming a master in one’s craft.
In laying out this list, it will also provide helpful information as students decide which of these phenomenal schools might be the best fit for them.
Spéos International Photography School (Paris, FR)
Ranked by over 15 organizations as one of the top 5 photography schools in the world, the Spéos International Photography school has 18 studios in Paris and 3 in London.
It offers its students the chance to pursue 1-year, 2-year, 3-year, and 5-month degrees in a wide variety of photographic specialties.
Alumni regularly win prestigious photography awards, such as first place in the Grand Prix du Photoreportage Étudiant in 2021 and 2 Spéos graduates being featured in the 2021 “30 under 30 women photographers.”
This alumni success is no surprise, as Spéos alumni have a unique opportunity in the form of Spéos’s one-of-a-kind alumni care program, which seeks to give alumni lifelong access to Spéos galleries and professional coaching.
Spéos is also the curator of the site of the world’s first photograph at The Nicéphore Niépce House, to which Spéos students have unique access.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
The following photography school was named the “most influential art school” in the US by Columbia University’s national arts journalism program.
SAIC’s photography department, specifically, is no less influential, as SAIC photography professors have recently been featured on CNN.
Students have access to a photography facility that has everything a hopeful photographer could desire, including individual graduate studios with separate critique spaces and a 2,000 square feet photography workstation.
Furthermore, SAIC hosts both guest lectures from visiting artists and instructional workshops, where established, professional artists provide students with hands-on training in a variety of specialized art-production skills.
Finally, when it comes to photography specifically, U.S. News and World Report ranked SAIC as the #3 photography school in the country.
Ryerson University (Toronto, ON)
Ryerson University is widely considered to be Canada’s most prestigious post-secondary photography institution.
At the Ryerson School of Image Arts, students experience photography education that is focused on a hands-on learning approach, with renowned photographers serving as instructors.
Beyond Ryerson’s tradition of providing excellent education in traditional photographic methods, Ryerson also is home to a renowned “integrated digital” program, which all photography students can choose to enroll within during their third year.
This program focuses on digital media that is not quite photography but not quite film either: web design, motion graphics, multi-channel video, creative coding, mobile app development, and more.
Ryerson also houses the Ryerson Image Centre, which curates the renowned Black Star Collection, a collection of about 300,000 photos captured by the Black Star Publishing Company, which was founded by refugees from Germany in the 1930s.
Ringling College of Art & Design (Sarasota, FL)
The Department of Photography and Imaging is a subsection of the Ringling College of Art and Design, an internationally renowned art school that scores within the top 20, and more often than not within the top 5, when it comes to the quality of its affordances in a variety of artistic disciplines.
The Department of Photography is no different. Ringling brings in an impressive group of visiting artists to give guest lectures and workshops to its photography students, with recent artists including Platon, John Paul Caponigro, Emmet Gowin, and more.
Ringling is also home to a unique opportunity that is only available to students of 2 other institutions besides Ringling: the chance to study at the International Center of Photography, the world’s leading institution for photographic research.
Every year, Ringling students compete for the chance to spend an entire year studying in the ICP’s Creative Practices Program.
California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, CA)
Students at CalArts enter into a long tradition of cross-discipline collaboration, which began when former CalArts staff member Walt Disney decided to bring on the full range of CalArts animators, dancers, composers, and artists alike to collaborate on what would one day become the film Fantasia.
This approach persists to this day, where photography students are encouraged to work with various artists in diverse disciplines to produce original work at CalArts that they will have total copyright ownership over.
CalArts students and alumni have access to The CalArts Center for Life and Work, which works with various employers, internship providers, and networks to assure its students can translate their artistic passions into lifeline careers.
Paris College of Art (Paris, FR)
On the undergraduate level, Paris College of Art offers a BFA in photography, but once one enrolls in an MFA, they have the opportunity to decide between an MFA in fashion film & photography or photography and image-making, leading to a particularly robust photography department.
The Paris College of Art has partnerships with over 10 cultural institutions across the world, allowing students the opportunity to study alongside premier arts-research institutions.
One such institution is the Les Arts Décoratifs Library, which holds a collection of over 400,000 photos, several dating back to the dawn of photography, and is thus one of France’s largest photo libraries.
Alongside learning the technical and theoretical aspects of photography, the PCA also teaches students about how photography is discussed, used, archived, and disseminated, thus ensuring students leave the PCA not only understanding how to become a world-class photographer, but also understanding the current culture of photography.
California College of the Arts (San Francisco, CA)
CCA’s photography department offers students the chance to study beneath some of the world’s most renowned photographers.
These people include Tammy Rae Carland, New York Times photo editor Aspen Mays, and Christopher Johnson, who has photography collections on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
CCA’s reputation for excellence does not only encompass students’ time within the school, but also the value it provides alumni throughout their lives, as CCA was ranked as the #1 best arts school in the nation for return investments to students.
Alongside studying under renowned professors with the highest-end equipment available, students also can enroll in courses taught by that year’s visiting artist, who conducts a series of workshops throughout the year.
Recent visiting artists include Deana Lawson, Charlotte Cotton, and Esther Teichmann.
The New School Parsons School of Design (New York, NY)
Few schools have a reputation as celebrated as Parson’s School of Design.
Parsons’ photography students will have the chance to study under renowned faculty such as New York Times and Aperture contributor Arthur Ou and Katherine Wolkoff, whose clients include Samsung, Johnson & Johnson, Kate Spade, and others.
Parson’s is also the alma mater of famous photographer Richard Avedon.
Another area in which Parson’s uniquely stands out from similarly-ranked arts institutions is its degree of international students.
Roughly 40% of Parson’s students are international students, assuring that the student body at Parson’s will not only include the best photographers in New York or America, but the entire world.
Royal College of Art (London, UK)
The Royal College of Art offers an MA in photography, a pre-master’s in art and design, and a variety of photography-related DPhil programmes.
The Royal College of Art develops a climate that encourages skilled artists to bridge the gap between the conceptual aspects of art and the tangible benefits artistic work brings to the world.
The Alma Mater of Storm Thorgerson, the Royal College of Art holds photography classes in the £21m Dyson Building, which was designed to be a “factory” of imagitivity, where each aspect of the architecture serves to boost student creativity.
Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, RI)
If RISD teaches an artistic specialization—from design, to photography, to printmaking—it often scores in the top 5 schools in the world for arts education in that artistic category.
The Alma Mater of acclaimed black and white picture photographer Francesca Woodman, RISD has earned a reputation for excellence.
Whenever one looks for news stories regarding RISD photographers, one will quickly find, even in the past year, their names gracing The New York Times, Vogue Magazine, the list of Fulbright recipients, numerous arts awards, and more.
With renowned photographers Diane Arbus and Aaron Siskind as former faculty, and Deana Lawson and Todd Hido as photography alumni, students who receive degrees, either BFA or MFA, from RISD will leave the school with a deep understanding of the history, current culture, and craft of photography.