MatadorU Photography Course Review

MatadorU Photography Course Review
Posted by on December 7, 2015

MatadorU Photography
Course Review

(This MatadorU Photography Course review updated December 2015, originally published Dec 2011.)

There is, I think,  still value to the MatadorU program. However, you should know what you expect to gain from the program before you decide whether the cost is worth it to you and if it will help you accomplish the goals you’ve set. This MatadorU photography course review aims to do just that: give some thoughts on my experience with the program and discuss who else it may be a good fit for.

I made around $7000 last year (2014) through writing and photography contacts that I attribute to the MatU program, either through postings directly on their Access boards (which I’ll discuss below) or via contacts I made through the Matador University program. So, for me, the $350 course fee was definitely a worthwhile investment. This number doesn’t even include photography work I picked up through other channels, which I undoubtedly owe some competency credit for to the MatadorU photography course but which becomes a lot harder to assign value to.

Having signed up relatively early in the MatadorU development (in 2011), I’ve seen several iterations of the course over the past several years. While it was once a good resource to get direct authoritative feedback on your work as you grew as a photographer / writer (and later videographer), the ability to directly interact with the professors of MatU has gradually gotten smaller and smaller. From what I’ve seen, the course now offers three opportunities during the curriculum to get direct professional feedback on your personal work.

What this means, essentially, is that once per week for 12 weeks you’ll receive access to a lesson in your chosen field (photography being mine, but writing and videography also popular course options) to complete on your own schedule. Due to the rate the lessons are released you can’t finish the course early, however there are reports of students signing up for several courses concurrently. Then, once per month, you’ll be able to send your assignments to one of the MatadorU staff for critique from a professional in your field. However, perhaps to make up for this change, they’ve also instituted ‘Labs’ that run once every week or two where you can submit one photo/story/video and have other members of the community and several of the staff provide a few quick thoughts.

From an academic point of view, then, the course has lost a bit since I was originally involved. Where it has gained value, though, is in the community. Part of the MatadorU sign-up promise is that student keep access to the MatU community for life. In realistic terms, this usually means engaging with other students on story research or blogging woes or trading links/ social media shares.

It also, importantly, means admission to the Matador Access boards where staff post opportunities for travel media publishers to get out and actually make cash. So, not only do students get tips on preparing and sending pitches in the lessons, but they’re also provided the chance to put this into practice through editorial contacts that show up in Access. I easily picked up enough small assignments through here to cover the cost of the course, and that lifetime ability to get to the boards means that I occasionally continue to visit and find more opportunities there to this day. The downside: this has recently been opened up to those outside the MatadorU community as a separate paid option, which of course means more competition for the same finite number of opportunities. If you’re just looking for job leads, though, this could be a solid alternative to the full courses.

For those looking to make more serious money at photography or travel writing, one of the biggest challenges is often the need to show clips of published assignments. As you pitch editors at new publications, they want some sort of evidence that you can carry through on an assignment and are capable on both the creative and the practical sides of working on an assignment. The easiest way to know this, of course, is simply to see that you’ve done so before!

Published on BBC Travel

One of my proudest publications from 2014 was a photo essay on the BBC Travel website, and the original pitch email was a very brief description of the festival and how I planned to cover it followed by a link to clips of similar events I’d attended in the past few year and published on. This is one of the most important parts of MatU for those who are just starting out, I think, because Matador offers its students the chance to publish on their in-house channels as well as providing tips for other potential outlets to build up your portfolio.

The lessons themselves focus on a wide range of things, starting with the basic technical side of photography (i.e. how to work a camera – in manual and semi-auto modes instead of full auto especially) and moving on to thinking more deeply about framing and atmosphere as well as the business side of things like how to pitch editors and prepare invoices. I can definitely see progress in the quality of my photography when I look at before and after shots, and learning to be more comfortable with the camera I had was also part of what convinced me to move up to better gear.

The other side of this, of course, is that you could find much of the same information online elsewhere, often for free. The convenience factor of MatadorU is that is has all been gathered together for you and programmed to slow-drip into your system, with assignments for each lesson to make sure you’re retaining part of what you learn. If you’d prefer just a few quick photo tips for an occasional refresher, I’d suggest the YouTube channels of The Art of Photography and Brendan Van Son.

Galata Bridge Long-Exposure

Ala-Archa National Park. Just outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

So, final thought. Don’t go into MatadorU thinking it will give you the immediate skills to leave your normal life behind for a fabulous life of world travel. However, if you’re looking to both build skills and gain access to both a community of fellow travel media producers and a posting board that  will advertise opportunities to put your skills into action… well, go check it out.

Find this review helpful? Head over to my photography portfolio to see more of my work, or connect with me on social media at the links below to share some of yours!

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My MatU Photography Course Review, updated for the end of 2015, offers a few thoughts on the current value of the Matador University New Media school program as well as the newly pared off Marketplace program.

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25 Responses to MatadorU Photography Course Review

  1. Nate Brieva

    Hey, so, I am a senior graduating from a high school in just a couple of weeks and I have opted to take a gap year instead of go to college. I am just now stumbling upon this Matador U and am skeptical because of how great it seems to be. If I decide to enroll, can I advertise myself as a photographer going to New Zealand and willing to take pictures of desired locations for pay or trade of some sort? I realize this is a great opportunity for getting into the photography field and don’t mean to be a bother if there are better places to ask these questions. I would appreciate a point in the right direction.

    • Stephen

      Hi Nate. You can do so, and I’ve seen posts on their student message boards get some traction for things like that. They actually at one point even had an ongoing program where they would set up deals with destination marketing organizations to send a MatU student for a few weeks or months to document the place (I think it was called the ‘Road Warriors’ program) but I haven’t seen anything from that in quite a while. That being said, what will more likely help you if you do the course is that you’ll learn how to market yourself and your photography a little more professionally within the MatU course, and then turn around with that information and contact potential employers in New Zealand to try and strike up work agreements yourself. Depending on where your passport is from, New Zealand actually has a pretty open Work Holiday program so this could be a fairly reasonable plan for you.

      Hope that helps? Let me know, though, if you have any further questions regarding the MatU program and I’ll answer them as best I can.

  2. KK

    Hi Stephen,

    Read many reviews on the Matador U programs and am on the verge of joining. I am confused about travel writing and travel photography though. I am a hobbyist photographer so am naturally inclined to the photography course. Could you give me an idea of what the assignments are like, in the case of photography? in other words, what does a typical assignment sound like?

    thanks a ton in advance.

    • Stephen

      Hi KK,

      The course progresses as you go on, starting with the very basics (aperture, rule of 1/3rd, stuff like that) and moving towards things like photo editing, how to pitch your photography to publications, and how to work towards building a career of your photography. Generally the lessons involve a bit of reading from whatever the topic is, a look at the practical applications of the information, and then an assignment that asks you to put that info into practice for yourself. As I think I mentioned in this post, some of these assignments are reviewed by MatU staff but not all. However, often other students are willing to give feedback. If you’re really on the fence, think about signing up for their $10 ‘Test-Drive’ to check it out and see if it looks like something you want to stick with or not.

      Hope that helps!

      Stephen

      • KK

        Hi Stephen,

        Thanks a lot for the response. Could you also tell me the nature of the paid assignments that one could expect from the Matador Network? I am able to imagine how a typical travel writing work assignments would look like but am wondering how it would be for travel photography.

        Really liked your blog by the way. Great work. Keep travellin 🙂

        • Stephen

          Well, so consider first off that they’re not guaranteed. Matador seems to offer first priority for publishing on their channels to students, but they only pay like $25 per article/photo essay/whatever. Their ‘Access’ board pulls together publishing opportunities from around the world (one of which I mention in this blog post, a tour company I’ve worked with a lot over the past year) though a glance right now shows it more leaning towards blogging/writing and press trips rather than strictly the photo side.

  3. Madhulika

    Hi Stephen, I am a second year student at a design school in India, which doesnt offer too much exposure into photography as such. So I was thinking of opting out of that and into the MatadorU travel photography and writing course. Would you recommend I stay in college or do you think the course offers me the same opportunities a college would? In terms of the future.
    Would love your advice and suggestions
    Also, I was wanting to know if the courses require you to travel for assignments?

    P.S. Love your blog, Very inspirational.

    Thank you!

    • Stephen

      Hi Madhulika,

      To answer the simpler question: No, the course doesn’t require you to travel for assignments. I happened to start the course while I was traveling through Indonesia and so many of my initial assignments used that as a backdrop, but you could just as easily do them from your home town. In many ways, that might be more useful as it will also encourage you to see familiar surroundings from a new perspective – a useful skill for any aspiring journalist.

      I think the answer to the larger of your two questions, though, depends on a number of cultural and personal factors. I don’t know the case in India, but in the US a degree from an online course rarely carries the same weight as one from a more traditional school. If you’re hoping to work in mainstream society, often that simple piece of paper can make a huge difference.

      In terms of the information available, I certainly think the MatU photography program provides enough to take somebody to absolute newbie to fairly competent with a camera in a quick period of time. This is basically my own experience with the program. The key is, will you be disciplined enough to do the assignments and then practice those skills everyday until the next lesson? As I said I was traveling at the time and so it made sense that I was out working on my photography everyday anyways. For somebody at home, it can be easy to let other issues become distractions that prevent you from putting in as much time to photography as you should to get the most out of the course. If you don’t have that level of self-motivation, however, perhaps a more traditional class structure (and professors expecting assignments three times a week) will be a better tool for you?

      As I said, though, this is something only you can decide for yourself based on your own situation and drive.

      Hope that helps?

      Best,

      Stephen

      • Madhulika

        Thank you so much Stephen!
        Yes, the situation regarding the degree/ diploma weight-age is the same here.
        This is great help! I will be enrolling for the trial-program very soon!

        Keep Traveling 🙂

        • Stephen

          Best of luck, and if you do sign up send me a message through MatU and I’ll follow you to see some of your shots!

  4. Chrissy Taylor

    Hi Stephen,

    I am very interested in signing up for MatadorU’s Travel Writing and Travel Photography courses concurrently. I also just applied for a Working Holiday Visa for Australia a few days ago and I am currently waiting to hear back. My question is similar to Nate Brieva’s in the above posts. If I start my MatadorU courses in January 2015 and leave for Australia (assuming I am granted the visa) mid-February, would I be able to advertise myself as available for freelance assignments in Australia and surrounding areas? Have you heard any more about the “Road Warriors” program? I realize I will have to work harder and be self-disciplined to complete the two courses while also working in Australia to support myself until I get assignments (which I may have to work only part-time to allow enough time in the day for the courses), but is this something you believe is doable? I would appreciate any advice!

    • Stephen

      Hi Chrissy,

      Several thoughts here. The first is that it sounds like you’re underestimating the time that all these things are going to take. Work plus two courses plus freelance writing/photography is a lot to take on at once, so be real with yourself about (1) whether you’re able to do it and (2) whether you want to commit your working holiday so heavily to the working side and so little to the holiday!

      Keep in mind, as I said to Nate, that there are no guarantees through MatadorU’s courses. You have priority for being published on their in-house channels and their Access Board is open to you, so they do put you in a position with both the skills and the contacts to be able to make something of it. They don’t however, guarantee that you’re going to show up to Australia and get hired to start shooting for somebody based on the strength of your Matador course. On top of your other commitments, you’ll still have to hustle to connect with companies and market yourself as a writer/photographer.

      If anything, I would encourage you to start the courses NOW. The better prepared you are and the further you’ve gotten into their lessons by the time you get to Australia, the more confidently you’ll be able to market yourself as soon as you hit the ground and so the more time you’ll have to publish while you’re there. If you have the time and experience to do so now, it would be worth doing a bit of research from home to prepare some pitch ideas with editors at publications you’d like to target so that as soon as you’re on the ground you can send them off and see what happens.

      I hope that helps!

      Stephen

      • Chrissy

        Thanks for the words of advice Stephen! They have helped a lot in my decision. You’re right, I don’t want to get too far in over my head with too many commitments all at once. I’ve decided to begin my courses now and only work part-time in Australia so I can fully commit to my writing and photography and build a solid foundation for myself. Then I will go from there 🙂 I appreciate your help! Safe travels!

        • Stephen

          I think that if you’re committed to doing it, that sounds like the most reasonable plan. Safe travels to you as well!

          (And, if you haven’t yet signed up for the course, I’d be much obliged if you’d do it through the links on this page.)

  5. Steve

    Hello Stephen. I hope I’m not being too forward here. I am a long-time suburban and daily newspaper photographer (in mid-life, but not having a crisis) in and around Toronto, Ontario.
    I was writing and shooting previously, and had a number of travel/feature articles with photos published regionally and nationally in Canada. I decided to concentrate on my photography full time a number of years ago and left the writing on hold. I am now returning to travel writing. My desire is to turn travel photography and writing into a profitable full time gig in about one to two year’s time.
    I’d like to find an advanced course or coach or guide to specifically help me market myself effectively and create strong query letters. Do you feel your advanced travel writing program might be a fit for me, or is there someone you can suggest I contact to discuss my specific needs with further?

    Thank you
    Steve

    http://www.steve-somerville.artistwebsites.com

    • Stephen

      Hi Steve,

      I’ll qualify this by saying that I was on the photography side of the course and not the writing (the two operate exclusively in terms of lessons, though share the community forums and Access board). But, the photog course included info that did a good job of getting me started with writing pitches and I can only assume the writing course includes even more info on that.

      I’d suggest you check out the ‘Free Preview’ option and have a look around at the curriculum and that specific lesson, and maybe use that as a better barometer of whether it seems like it will be useful to you. Or, perhaps try to dig up blogs of students that are/were in the Advanced Writing course and see if they can offer any deeper insights?

      (Also, note that I’m not directly involved with MatadorU, I was just a student of their courses.)

      Hope that helps,

      Stephen

  6. chastity

    Can you say that attending this school has helped you find work or just helped educational wise?

    • Stephen

      For me it was a bit of both, an initial primer on how to grow as a photographer and then later lessons that pointed me along the first steps of growing photography as a business. As an ongoing proposition the work is the main value I still get from it – I rarely ever look back through the lessons but check the ‘Access’ board every few weeks to see what has been added.

  7. Louie

    Just adding my two-cent to young people. Look at MatadorU as a network rather than a skills program.As you build your career (wherever), you’ll realize that network is more valuable than being the best in your category (of course, you still need to have skills). Keep this in mind and you’ll realize the course itself is just an icing.

    • Stephen

      Thanks for your comments Louie, I would definitely agree with that. I think the skills/marketing aspect of the MatU course is what gets people in the door, but in the end it’ll be the network and Access boards that continue to be useful over the long run.

  8. Tia

    Hi Stephen. First of all, thank you for the info. There are SO many classes, articles, schools, websites, etc. dedicated to helping one become a “freelance-forever-profitable-travel photographer!” and we all know that half of them aren’t worth their space on the www. I have a BFA in fine art photography and that certainly doesn’t pay any money. So now I’m interested in honing my editorial photo-essay skills. I gave the free preview a whirl, but I wanted to hear from someone who can tell me if it would be appropriate for someone with a degree in all of the mechanics of photography but wants additional instruction with the skill of the editorial photo-essay? Any feedback on this will be great. and p.s. If I join the course, it will be via a link on your blog 😉

    • Stephen

      Hey Tia, first off I really like that ‘House of ADD’ photo on your webpage.

      If you already have the tech stuff in hand, which from seeing your portfolio it seems very much like you do, the major value for you would be in the information on how to present yourself to publishers. If you’ve already got experience researching and writing pitches, I would say something like a MediaBistro subscription might be a more intelligent choice. If you’re starting from scratch on how to reach out to potential outlets, though, Matador does a good job of walking you through the basics of this and then offering some leads through the Access boards to publishers who are actively looking for content (though, these on the Access are often pretty low-paid).

      As to the skill of the photo essay/storytelling, I think MatU does a fairly good job of this actually. When you played with the free preview, they didn’t give you access to the later lessons on this stuff?

  9. Tia

    Thank you for the complement Stephen! That really made me feel good 🙂

    I’m pretty much starting from scratch on putting together and submitting pitches. I only have had a few “real” assignments and I got those just because networking is one of my strong skills. And don’t get me wrong.. all of them have been lower paying so Access will be right along with what I’m doing now. ha ha

    I didn’t see the later lessons but I should take another peek at it. Would you suggest MediaBistro after getting the hang of the basics that MatU teaches?

    Thanks again Stephen for the down-low!

    • Stephen

      Haha.. it’s all gotta start somewhere. Yea, MediaBistro also has good into for higher-level journalists and importantly has a lot of contact details for pubs that pay a bit more. Matador is start to post more stuff like this too, though, so by the time you finish the courses perhaps that advantage will have been mooted.

  10. Tia

    Great info, thanks again Stephen! I will scrounge up the $$ to get rolling on one of those sites making sure, of course, to enroll in Matador through your blog link 😉

    Take care and safe travels!

    p.s. What was that saying “if you do what you love, the money will come..” I must be missing a crucial step 😉

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