It Is Time to Redefine the Professional Photographer

It Is Time to Redefine the Professional Photographer

Photography has changed beyond all recognition from the profession of the 2000s, so it is time that we re defined what it is to be a professional photographer.

Photography has changed, like it or not, it is a different profession to what it was in the early 00s, which was different to what it was in the 1960s and so on. Writing for Fstoppers affords me a really interesting perceptive into how other photographers who read the site and comment view the changes. I think it is safe to say that many don’t like the fact that a kid with a phone makes more money than most of us. I actually have a friend whose phone photos pay him almost 4 times my annual salary, but I certainly class him as a photographer, and a far more successful one than myself.

What Made A Professional Photographer?

For some, this means photography being your sole income. Paying your rent with a camera. For others it is having the majority of your income coming from photography. Personally, my breakdown is about 50% income from photography and 50% from six separate photography related streams (this being one of them). I personally don't think that this makes me any less deserving of the title "professional photographer" than someone who solely makes their income from photography. If I wanted to, I could change my lifestyle and live solely from photography, but I prefer to have some passive income streams and I also really enjoy teaching, so for me it makes sense.

I suppose the idea that we conjure up in our head when we think of professional photographer is of a person working in a studio 5 days a week shooting advertisement campaigns or portrait sittings. And this is certainly an avenue that is still available to all of us, but it isn't the only way. The internet has bought around lots of new possibilities from e-books, online tutorials, YouTube channels, through to writing for websites like Fstoppers. If someone had asked me what my career would be like when I started out, I would have stated the traditional career path, but the way I work now offers me a much more varied working week and a lot less financial stress. If one of my income streams goes south, I will be fine. But if I only did shooting when the Brexit vote in the UK happened and most of us didn't work for 6 months commercially, I would have been rather homeless.

Who Can Be Classed as a Professional Photographer?

I don’t believe (correct me if I am wrong) that we really have a relevant definition that everyone accepts right now. And I think this is dangerous as it alienates one another to fit our own small narratives on the profession. The days of investing thousands on equipment and calling yourself a photographer are long gone. I also think people work in very different ways. Most of my friends are self employed and almost all of them have passive income streams alongside their main work.

A lot of the online photography world is built around camera reviews and lighting tutorials. But out there in the big bad world, clients want creativity and most do not care what you use to get the job done. Sure there are certain criteria for some prints, but it you have the eye, you can get an assistant to set you up with the kit so that you can focus on doing our job. I certainly don't try to retouch my own photographs for ad campaigns as it is a separate art form. In the same vein, I don't believe that you have to set your own camera to create the image. The vision is the most important aspect of modern photography.

Where is the Profession Heading?

The good news is that the profession is headed in a very positive direction. Creativity is far more important than it ever has been in photography. Simply setting up a complex lighting scenario isn't enough to impress an art director these days, there needs to be style, substance and a message delivered in a way that no one has seen it before. This means that you don't need half a million dollars of Broncolor lights and medium format cameras, the entry to the profession is as accessible as a smart phone. With a tool that I think most of us own, we can make a living from photography, if we have the creative vision to produce work of merit. This certainly wasn't the case in the 1990s. And I think photography is better for it. Yes, anyone can be a photographer in 2019, but in order to make money, you don't need a bank loan or rich parents, you need a creative vision.

Who Do I Think a Professional Photographer is?

For me, a professional photographer is anyone who makes any form of money from taking photographs using any equipment. There are awful photographers with thousands of pounds of equipment who are professionals and their are also great photographers who make their money from taking phone photographs for instagram.

What do you think makes a professional photographer?

Log in or register to post comments

50 Comments

Ivan Lantsov's picture

photography pay is hour professions pay is by year

Ansel Spear's picture

Run that one by me again.

Jeff Walsh's picture

Uhh, did you just put random words you found in the article together?

Fernando Adrian Robles's picture

I think he isn't a native english speaker, like me

Johnny Rico's picture

The only people that seemingly clamor on about being a professional photographer IRL are the ones that are looking for validation from the phrase. If people want your vision/talent they will pay for it.

"clients want creativity and most do not care what you use to get the job done." within reason, have fun getting that smart phone connected to a tether station for a Creative Director to flag selects w/ you on set. You realize the absurdity of the statement I just made right?

Jeff Thatcher's picture

I'm pretty sure he meant generally and within reason, even as you stated. Obviously if the job requires being on set with a creative director, etc, the photographer won't use their phone. Even more obvious is a client wouldn't even hire a photographer for that kind of shoot if they know that's not the kind of photography they do.

I wouldn't take things so literal. that's just me.

Myron Edwards's picture

So Very True Johnny

chris schmauch's picture

Professional “X” implies “I do X for a living.”

If it’s not what you rely on to pay the bills, you’re a freelance photographer or part-time professional, if you will.

A professional photographer puts their reputation on the line with every shoot, and conversely has much more to lose than someone who shoots on the side.

But whatever you choose to call yourself, just try to do the craft well and treat everyone, clients and other photographers, with the respect they deserve.

Dan Howell's picture

umm... you can be an assignment based freelance photographer and be a full-time photographer.

Freelance means that you work for more than one client on an assignment or limited contract basis over the course of a year. Until quite recently, most editorial, catalog and commercial advertising photography was completed on an assignment basis. Staff or full-time photography position were quite rare outside of newspaper photojournalists and some magazines.

With the advent of e-commerce, there have been a (minor) explosion of full-time or staff positions with smaller companies who are doing their own direct sales. Even considering that, more editorial, catalog and advertising is done on an assignment basis by freelance photographers. I've been a professional photographer for 20+ years and the closest I've been to a staff position was a contributing photographer for a magazine group.

art meripol's picture

Thanks Dan. Spot on. I was for years full-time on a magazine staff and now freelance full-time. That line "If it’s not what you rely on to pay the bills, you’re a freelance photographer or ..." hit my ear wrong as well. Likely his words didn't match his thinking but yeah, most of us out here are freelance. Still working full-time. You said it very well.

Professional Photographer is like a professional Race Car Driver. Both have people who make millions of dollars doing each respective "profession". There are are also thousands of "weekend warriors" people who have invest large sums of money and do each in the evening and weekend.

If you need/want to call yourself a "professional" then go ahead and do it. It has no effect on me. Everyone seems to be getting so hung up on labels now a-days cal yourself whatever you want.

The weekend warrior race car driver is an amateur. They even have categories for amateurs specifically when they mix it up at the top level with pros.

Definition is not just about the money, a professional is someone clients rely on to provide a service to defined standards and ethics and is answerable to an independent body in maintaining those standards. Why do people think the term can just be used by anyone who chooses to when true professionals like doctors, solicitors etc. have to spend years achieving that status?

Edo Photo's picture

"defined standards and ethics and is answerable to an independent body in maintaining those standards. "

Not even close. There is no independent body. No one would want to abide by thier rules anyways. Legions of pro's that are so pathetic they are not training the next generation, cant discuss money because that's always taboo with friggin artists, and always scared you're going to take their clients so information is only shared when they are selling it to you.

Photo websites barely have anything to talk about so every other month, it's this same nonsense discussion. Why dont we talk about how lack of supporting each other has led to a successful divide and conquer strategy. Come to nyc where all the successful guys will only even converse withe the three people around them, and everyone else is left to the wolves.

Truth is, its a industry only a crazy person could love, and the artists are the problem.

Timothy Turner's picture

Some people call me a professional because they think I produce professional quality work.

Back before digital one actually had to KNOW photography to earn a living from it. Now, they just push a button, review their screen, make adjustments, and reshoot until they get it right.
Actual knowledge of f stops, ahutter speeds, ISO, lenses, ambient lighting, and artificial lighting arent necessary anymore.
Just put it in P mode.

Felix Wu's picture

That's called a camera operator. Photographer is more like an art director.

Felix Valeri's picture

What you are describing is called chimping, if you think about it, the only thing chimping replaces is a light meter. you still have to know composition and lighting if nothing else

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Apart from moving to this country with only $2000 in my pockets, I did everything wrong including the progressive purchase of Broncolor equipment which was really a strategy and has been working very well for me. My bad, sorry, yet I'm still around. Are you having a bad day?

A professional is someone who do it as a trade, and are capable of producing professional results.

'There are awful photographers with thousands of pounds of equipment' - this is hurtful and I resent you saying this about me haha

Timothy Gasper's picture

There's a sure-fire way to find out who can be classified as a professional photographer. My partner and I are looking into producing a series for just this purpose, but being that this is still a work-in-progress, I really can't explain it here. If anyone is interested in knowing of this.....well you know what to do. It will absolutely eliminate the wanna-be's.

Steven Gotz's picture

I retired from a different profession.

I could call myself a professional photographer if I so choose, I suppose. After all, I do charge money for shooting headshots and portraits. Actors have gotten work using my headshots.

I don't often call myself a pro though.

You see, I am more well known for my volunteer work. I shoot for a zoo to prevent them from having to use inferior photographs. And believe me, they would, But since they can rely on my getting them great shots, I get special access and additional privileges that nobody else gets.

I am not bragging when I say I get them great shots. That is what happens when you have the patience and the time to wait for hours and hours to get just the shot you were hoping for. A paid photographer would never have 12 hours over the course of three days just to wait around for some wolf puppies to come out of the den, grab shots at 10 per second in bursts every 10 seconds or so for about 90 seconds, and be fortunate enough to get the results that people just go crazy over.

I tell people that much of my success is based on the fact that luck favors the prepared. The phrase "F/8 and be there" comes to mind.

Do most of the people who come to the zoo with their fancy DSLR and decent glass get good shots? Many of them do, certainly not most. But how many get great shots? Not that many. It really helps to understand how your camera works, and what is required to get decent results. And it certainly helps to be there at the right time. Which could be tough for people who need to make an income.

If someone asks me if I am a pro in regards to my Zootography, I say no. I don't charge to shoot animals, just people.

Julian Ray's picture

Interesting article Scott.
I think that "Professional" as concept and word, at least in photography, has been so over used, mis used, abused, twisted, commercialized, and exploited that in many ways it is meaningless.
There are people who make a few coins a year in photography and there are others who have a whole empire around images. Both are making money at it but.....
To my way of thinking my ability to deliver expected quality, on time, on budget, deal with all types of clients (even the difficult ones) well, be consistent, make the project fun and safe for my team, remain relevant, keep learning and growing, and not loose focus of what is important to me are traits of professionalism.
But as to being a Pro......
I think that it is high time we let that poor tired word alone and move onto the things that actually are important.

C Fisher's picture

You need more than good photos, you need a good attitude as well. Being a professional is just as much about how you present yourself to others as the product you produce. Nobody wants to work with a jerk, even if they are the best photog in the world.

Venson Stein's picture

"Professional mean you get paid for it, it does not mean that you are good."

I believe that the gist of what you are trying to say is what I have been saying for years. Professional is not a skill level. It is all about monetization. There are "amateurs" who are far more skilled than some professionals and vice versa.

Will Murray's picture

The IRS (or whichever organisation collects tax in your jurisdiction) will tell you if you are "professional".

More broadly, "professional" only means 'runs a business'.

"A profession is an occupation for which a person has to undergo specialised training or internship, for getting a high degree of education and expertise in the concerned area. The main objective of the profession is to render services to those who need them.

The profession is governed by a professional body or statute. To be called as a professional, a person has to pursue higher studies and qualify the exam conducted by the governing body. Normally, a professional is said to be an expert in his field. Ethical codes are developed by the professional body which must be followed by the professionals, to ensure uniformity in their work."

https://keydifferences.com/difference-between-occupation-and-profession....

You won't find "photography" listed as a profession here:

https://professions-quebec.org/en/the-professional-orders/regulated-prof...

We can all agree that the terms "profession" or "professional" are used loosely.

Finally somebody posted difference between profession and occupation. Photographers are not professionals - it is an occupation just like a bricklayer. Even plumbers or electricians require a license. There are some photographers who are very skilled in their trade like NATGEO guys. There some that are good at selling their job like wedding photographers. There are some that join PPA for $28 a month and claim that they are members of Professional photographers of America. Photographers who make money doing photography are tradesmen. Some good, some bad - but not professionals.

More comments