Becoming a professional photographer is easy — all you have to do is charge money. With cheaper alternatives for gear and education, here is how the industry has been affected by the lower barrier of entry.
The Problem With the Label 'Professional'
We want the word “professional” to mean someone with the highest level of skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. The dictionary definition of the word “professional” is someone who charges money for something. Regardless of which source you look at, Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, or Oxford, you’ll find lots of definitions for the word. If you meet just one of the definitions, then you are a professional. Having a high level of skill is great, but not required. Unfortunately, simply charging money for your services is the bare minimum requirement to technically being able to call yourself a "professional photographer," even though the industry expects the term to be used differently.
Unlike other professions, such as doctors or lawyers, there are no educational requirements to call yourself a professional photographer. Some activities, such as beard or fingernail trimming for money, have both educational requirements and licensing requirements in some states. Professional photographer requires neither. The only requirement to being a professional photographer is deciding that you want to start charging, regardless of your skill level.
“Professional” is a fairly charged word. Although there is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist photographer, the opposite of “professional” is either “amateur” or “unprofessional,” both of which carry derogatory connotations. So, being categorized as “professional” or “not professional” carries a lot of emotional sway, whether intended or not.
In today’s market, saying you are a “professional photographer” carries as much meaning as saying you are a “published model” or an“ internationally published photographer” because you paid $8 to be published in a print-on-demand magazine that no one has ever heard of that you can buy digitally from any country that has internet. It would be nice if it meant something, but it doesn’t anymore.
Low starting costs are also making it easier to jump into photography. Cheap gear and cheap lenses are widely available. Cheap lighting equipment, light stands, and other equipment can be bought on Amazon. An abundance of free or cheap educational resources online are also widely available. And that is not to say that affordable gear and free learning resources are bad. But it is simply a fact that anyone can spend between $1,200 to $1,500 on initial gear purchases, watch some YouTube videos, and decide to charge for photography all in the same weekend and non-fraudulently describe themselves to the public as a professional photographer. Far too many people are prematurely jumping into the field of professional photography before they are ready to accept the responsibility of performing at an industry standard.
How This Hurts the Community
Having an abundance un unskilled "professionals" puts the burden on the public to weed out who is a real pro and who will just take your money. For example, take the case of young wedding photographer/videographer, Lexie Cruz, aka Lexie Linda:
In her 14-minute apology video, she explains how she used wedding photos that weren’t hers to market her business and took deposits from people and never showed up to take pictures. There’s even a Facebook group of people all over the country who claim to have been scammed by her.
I’m not doing anything on purpose. I’m not being malicious. I’m not trying to sneak people. I’m not scamming people. I’m a real freaking person. I’m just trying to do this business and I’m new at this, so I’m sorry if it’s not 100 percent, like, but, this is something that I love and that’s why I’ve been wanting to do it…
I understand there are a lot of things that I could have done differently. There are a lot of things that I wish I could change, but it’s in the past now. It happened and all I can do is move forward and be better. Um. Nobody’s perfect obviously and I’m only 22 like I’m far from perfect so, I’m still learning this business and still trying to figure out what to do and I’m looking into doing a mentorship with another photographer that’s skilled and understands the business and so I can better myself and figure out how I can do better at this business.
That was the video she gave to the local news station in response to the report on her business practices that came out a month ago. Her goal of moving on from the past and doing better is not working out so great. Last week, with two weeks’ notice, she canceled a wedding that she was hired for in May and told the bride that she thought it was September 2022, not September 2021.
I recently wrote how I’m not concerned about low-end photographers stealing my high-end clients, but that same influx of low-end photographers is making things like a $2,000 price tag that includes her flying to meet you anywhere in the country, an 8-hour wedding shoot with unlimited edits, and a free engagement shoot a camouflaged red flag among so many new “professionals” trying to learn on the job and charging accordingly.
In another example, a mother-to-be who was eight months pregnant booked a photo studio and hired a photographer. The client paid for two hours of studio time, seamless paper add-on, and rented studio strobes add-on. She got her outfits together and went to the studio for a maternity shoot in the last few weeks of her pregnancy.
When she met the photographer at the studio, the photographer asked the studio owner if he would stay in the shooting area the whole time and show the photographer how to do the lighting. When he said that he typically doesn’t do that, the photographer waited for the studio owner to go back into his office and told the clients that the studio is not suitable for shooting on seamless paper with strobes because the overhead lights are not bright enough. The client and the photographer left 10 minutes into the session and the client forfeited her entire rental fee.
It turns out that the photographer had only done her first shoot five weeks prior and this was her first maternity shoot. In the very infancy of her “professional” career, she received payment, obligated the client to pay additional studio costs, and decided to accept the responsibility of documenting something important that was time-sensitive and could not be redone, and she was completely unqualified to do it.
On top of that, there is the whole GWC epidemic. GWC stands for "Guy With Camera," and it refers to unskilled photographers who just want to shoot naked and semi-naked ladies to amass a collection of photos with little or no artistic value and often sexually harass models along the way, another topic I touched on earlier. So, if a young model wants to get into modeling and wants just digitals or some editorial shots for a portfolio, she might not know how to vet photographers and assume that someone charging money is going to be skilled and act professionally. She might not know what price ranges are normal, and if she doesn't have a big budget, she might choose one of these non-skilled, unprofessional "professionals" and end up sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by one of the GWCs.
There are safety hazards that rookie professionals don't understand, like the dangers of shooting on train tracks. I saw in a Facebook group someone post a maternity shot where the pregnant woman was standing with her eyes closed and her head back. I thought it was a nice shot, but someone commented that pregnant women are prone to dizziness when they close their eyes and tilt their heads back, so that specific pose could cause injury. Turns out, that is a real thing. There might be poses or locations that look pretty, but experienced professionals would know to avoid them.
It is exciting to live the dream of being a professional artist. That eagerness coupled with the lower barrier to enter the field of professional photography has resulted in far too many unskilled "professionals" rushing into the market. It looks easy on TikTok, so people think anyone can do it. They find out the hard way that professional photography requires a lot of technical skill and talent.
The Silver Lining
Although there is a low bar for entry into the profession, the growth opportunities in the profession that are being created are amazing. Unlike any other time in history, amateurs and professionals alike are able to learn all of the technical skills from the top working professional photographers across the world. There are very few technical secrets of photography that cannot be found on YouTube or in online tutorials that are used by photographers to charge thousands of dollars per session. The ability to share ideas, techniques, and portfolios is incredible right now.
If I want to analyze and review 1,000 headshots taken by Peter Hurley, I can do it right now from my desk. If I want to learn everything about how he works with clients, I can do that here. I can learn all about his lighting for headshots here. I can learn his advanced headshot techniques here. I can watch a free explanation with lighting examples of the inverse square law here. I can watch a free one-hour seminar he gave on headshot photography here. When global pandemics are not happening, you can take a two or three-day seminar from him all over the world. I can go to Lindsay Adler's YouTube channel and watch 13 years' worth of content in over 100 videos about studio lighting and portraits for free here. There are entire Instagram accounts dedicated to behind-the-scenes content to show lighting setups and camera settings information. There are countless YouTube channels and other online resources (of various worth) with information about almost any topic in photography. There are Facebook groups with members of different industries to share ideas. If you are using Capture One, you can join the official Facebook group and interact with employees of the company to answer questions that aren't covered in any of the many free tutorials available on their YouTube channel here.
Likewise, the prosumer and advanced hobbyist market are adding much-needed capital to manufacturers. Cameras such as the Sony a7 III, the Canon EOS R, and the Nikon Z 6II are excellent affordable cameras that can be used by professionals at a cost that makes them attractive to people who don't yet charge for their work. The bottom line is that with declining camera sales, the manufacturers need the prosumer camera sales to continue to develop new technologies for the professionals.
Are You Ready to Go Pro?
How do you know if you are ready to start taking the responsibility of charging money for your photographs? See how you answer these questions first:
- Are you comfortable with the entire workflow? Do you know how to light and pose people? Do you know how to set goals for your shoot and all of the steps needed to achieve those goals? Have you already done the type of shoot you re looking to charge money for multiple times? Do you know where the shoot could go wrong and are you prepared with a backup plan?
- Are you going to be using your paying clients to practice your skills? You can gain experience by doing trade shoots with models looking to build their portfolios. You should be confident enough with your skills and have enough practice that you are not experimenting and using your clients to learn skills on the job. That's not to say that you shouldn't be gaining experience and getting better with each paid shoot, but you should have your core techniques down before you charge people. I do personal creative shoots a few times a month between client shoots. Personal shoots are where I try out new things, experiment, create portfolio images that I can share in my feed or on my website, and create for the sake of creating.
- Do you have experience communicating with clients and managing expectations? Do you have contracts?
- Do you have the equipment necessary? You can't shoot a wedding with a crop sensor camera and just a kit lens and a speed light. Do you know the white balance of the lights in the reception hall and how the pictures will be affected if you use a speed light in a room with tungsten-balanced lights? Do you know where you will be and cannot be during the ceremony and what kind of lenses you will need to capture it? Are you doing a fashion shoot on a plain white backdrop where you need even color on the backdrop? Do you have the lights for that?
- Would you hire you? If you had a wedding or an event or a product you were trying to sell, would you hire you to shoot it? Would you trust your own photography business to shoot something very important?
If you are not ready to start taking on the responsibilities of being a professional photographer but you are passionate about it, continue to hone your craft. You can be a second shooter at a wedding. You can be an photographer's assistant in a studio. You can do trade shoots with models. Make sure you know what you are doing first, and then, take advantage of the great learning and growth opportunities mentioned above.