The Biggest Difference Between Professional Photographers and Hobbyists

The Biggest Difference Between Professional Photographers and Hobbyists

There a lots of differences between professionals and hobbyists at anything, but there's one thing that crops up time and again, and it appears to be particularly true of those in creative professions.

There are undoubtedly a plethora of differences between amateurs and professionals in photography or any other field for that matter. If you ask people which ones are the key disparities between the two, you'll get as many answers as there are cameras. You'd be hard pushed to find anyone who would claim it comes down to gear. You'd be equally hard pushed to find a professional who believes it comes down to talent; there are spectacularly talented hobbyists and highly underwhelming professionals. The real difference is something that every professional I've ever met in any creative career has and that hobbyists do not: a specific mindset.

The mindset has been expressed in lots of different ways, but I believe the clearest way is by two quotes. The first is Stephen King: "Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work." The second is Henri Matisse: "Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working." The bulk of the information you need is from King's words of wisdom, and his equally wise actions. It is said that King writes 10 pages per day, every day. When he's working on a project, he'll write around 180,000 words in 3 months. He doesn't sit around and wait until he's in the mood to write or feeling inspired. He gets up and goes to work. It sounds simple, but it's very easy to not notice you're doing this.

Both shots in the article are from a 3 day long shoot at a festival where waiting for inspiration was not an option.

At this stage it's important to say there's nothing wrong with grabbing your camera only when you feel inspired to take some photographs; if I recall correctly back when I was just taking pictures for fun, there were few sweeter feelings! This sort of philosophy towards your craft only becomes a problem in any of the following three ways: you want to transition from amateur to professional, you want to want to be the best photographer you can be, or you're frustrated that you are stagnating. If any of those three apply to you and you still only practice your craft when you feel like it, you're more likely than not doomed to remain in that state.

So, practically speaking, how can a hobbyist looking to improve, shoot when they don't feel like it? After all, professionals are given projects and jobs to complete by certain deadlines, so it's hard for them to shoot only when they feel like. Amateurs however, are doing it for fun and tend not to have projects with deadlines. Well, the answer is as simple as you can imagine: set or find projects. There are, for all intents and purposes, unlimited themes, challenges, and ideas for setting yourself a project. Then just add a deadline and you're set. Alternatively, start entering online photography competitions. We have one here at Fstoppers, but there are plenty dotted about all over the place. Forcing yourself to practice your craft outside of periods of inspiration or desire will raise your lowest standard of work as well as your average.

But this problem doesn't just affect amateurs. It can affect professionals in periods of jadedness or even at times of success. How it affects us in times of jadedness is again rather obvious. You get stuck in a routine and you allow enough time to shoot for jobs when you feel like it and still easily make deadline. The one I didn't expect is the latter: during times of success. When you're doing well, it's hard to keep pushing yourself to work on your craft everyday. When you're struggling, you'll be full of motivation to improve, but when you're getting the sort of clients you want and your work does well, that motivation can disappear.

Whether you're an amateur or professional, it's always worth checking that you're "turning up to work". Waiting for inspiration to strike is a luxury only amateurs can indulge.

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Andy Barnham's picture

I’d suggest the biggest difference is acceptance of exposure vs payment.

Vincent Alongi's picture

I'm not a pro, though now I aim to go for payments and turn down TFP. But I'm not going to shy away from seeking out talented people to work with for my own projects. Why? I enjoy the art of photography. It's not going to be about exposure anymore, but building skills and honing this craft. Perhaps it still falls under 'keep working'. After all, I did start off for the enjoyment. But yes, I don't go for exposure any longer. I'll let my growing portfolio speak for itself as time goes on.

Michael Kormos's picture

Ha! Well said, Andy.

Júlio Papel's picture

Hi all, not all projects or jobs depend on exposure or payments. Hobbyist or pro will end up setting up a contract, verbal or written, with others or himself to receive money/exposure directly or indirectly. The mindset is, in my opinion, the most correct point of view. And some of us inside or outside this mindset process of change is at times hobbyists or pro, dependant of these agreements.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Let's not overthink this one.
Wikipedia - A professional is a member of a profession or any person who earns their living from a specified professional activity.
Any other attributes describing professionals are just made up. There are professional photographers who are inspired and those who are not. Some of them produce great results while others a questionable one or mediocre. Some use digital cameras and other film ones. Some of them are tall and slim and others are short and fat. One thing they all have in common is that someone pays them for taking photos and that's how they put bread on their table. That's all.

yeseniaa gonzalez's picture

Well said, Krzysztof!

Robert Tran's picture

I really like and agree with your pro vs. hobbyist differentiation from an academic and practical standpoint.

It seems to me though that Robert intended to provide commentary about the apathy / lack of innovation that can perpetuate in any career and any discipline. The problem I have with his points is that he makes so many logical assumptions and jumps to arrive at a conclusion to a debate, that is not fun to have because there are just so many variables.

We live in a day and age where many successful folks were once hobbyists who turned pro. For them, there were psychological, time, family etc. hurdles to overcome. For those who, "made it," there are separate parameters and definitions of success.

In the end, the spirit of his article was positive. Never stop learning and looking for inspiration. My feeling is that the headline was purposefully click-baity to encourage readership and debate. This is the case with many articles, videos, and websites though, so just more of a what-is rather than a negative.

I have generally enjoyed Robert's articles and can respect his take on this, despite not agreeing.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

I totally understand what you say and I want to make it clear that I did not mean to disagree on the general content of Robert's article but rather about the title (you said it - click bait) and how it was suggesting inspiration is some cornerstone of professional photographers toolbox.

I would even play devil's advocate and say there are plenty professional photographers (those that make living from photography) who are not inspired at all. They may be solid craftsmen with enough experience and tools to provide customers with satisfactory results but they are not inspired to go beyond that; to challenge themselves, get out of their comfort zone and work towards proverbial extra credit. I'm sure there are photographers like those and we may not hear about them but they make just enough money to make living by shooting weddings or corporate portraits. Those individuals are not necessarily excited about their job, they do not consider themselves artists or creative types. They just know how to go thru all the right motions but this does not change the fact photography is their source of income.

Having said that I'm sure there are also plenty inspired professional photographers out there. I also believe those individuals are making better - financially and otherwise - comparing to their uninspired counterparts. They reinvent their style, they have more to offer to their customers, they are excited about their job which mentally puts them in a better position. So yes, it pays off to be an inspired professional however it is not a necessity and thus not a single defining attribute.

Matt Barr's picture

Good call.

Christopher Smoot's picture

"The real difference is something that every professional I've ever met in any creative career has and that hobbyists do not: a specific mindset.

The mindset has been expressed in lots of different ways, but I believe the clearest way is by two quotes. The first is Stephen King: "Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work." The second is Henri Matisse: "Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.""

Gotta disagree here. For many professionals, the art is a grind - not an inspired event. For many hobbyists, it is their release from the daily grind, and are in fact, far more inspired than their professional counterparts. It shows up consistently in artistic areas, particularly photography. Fact is, while the professional is typically bowing to pressures that are ultimately paying the bills, the hobbyist is completely free of such pressures and can, quite literally, do whatever they want.

I've seen this recently in the dance world - a couple competing in and dominating one of the absolute top divisions retired a couple years ago. They didn't quit performing routines, though. They created new show pieces that were no longer bound by the rules of the division. They were free from the shackles of the professional division and were able to explore the dance in very new and creative directions. On a similar note, I've seen the drive to become a professional kill the passion many had when hobbyists.

What is true is that those who are good, great even, are always working on their craft, whether hobbyist or professional.

Ed Sanford's picture

You are absolutely correct. 30 years ago, I knew a guy who was an electrical engineer by profession. He had a thriving wedding photography business as a side light. He did beautiful work and he was booked solidly during the wedding season from April to September. I was trying to learn photography at the time. He said to me that he did not love photography. He was in it strictly for the money because he was using it to stock a financial war chest to help finance his daughters college education. He used a script and took exactly the same pictures at every wedding and his assistant knew his lighting setups by memory. His camera was taped on f11, and he bragged that he never had a bad exposure. He had a lab that knew his work and his prints were impeccable. He said to me “unlike you, I can’t wait for the day when I don’t have to touch a camera”. Yes he was a pro who did good work. However, he handled photography in the same way that he engineered a data network.

John Martin's picture

All weddings are the same. The only things that change are the people and locations. The images captured are all the same based on the locations unique areas.
Posed and candids.

Deleted Account's picture

One does a shoot and pays tax on it, the other doesn’t.

Deleted Account's picture

My reply was based on the possibility than the authorities are reading, but yes. ;)

Ivan Lantsov's picture

professional uses knowledge tradesmen make goods
photographers make goods are tradesmen

imagecolorado's picture

Your insurance agent can explain the difference. It is all about money. The only people I've ever heard talking about what is required to call yourself a professional were amateurs.

Matt Barr's picture

Yeah, and if you are a non-professional don't ask an insurance agent about limits on your gear or you're in for an interrogation. Mine told me that if I ever earn a penny, say first prize at the county fair, from photography im in the professional category and none of my gear is covered under home owners.

Indy Thomas's picture

I think you make a very real point.

Also, the IRS will tell you if you you are a pro.

Christian Super's picture

I thought the difference was dual card slots. 😁

honderd woorden's picture

>> The real difference is something that every professional I've ever met in any creative career has and that hobbyists do not: a specific mindset.<<

Once someone uses the words “every”, “ever” and “any” in one sentence you know it’s either a hyperbole or total BS.
Let’s assume the first.
Some hobbyist might have been born with a silver spoon in their mouth but most have to work for a living which means they are professionals in something other than photography. Some might even have a creative profession. If they do, they should have that “specific mindset” so we are left with a contradiction in this case.

Non-creative professionals are given projects and jobs to complete by certain deadlines as well as creative professionals. A bricklayer has to lay at least a thousand bricks a day, even if he doesn’t feel like it. So, this “specific mindset” is not unique to people with creative careers.
People might be more productive if they have deadlines, but being more productive is more about quantity than about quality. Maybe a self-inflicted deadline didn't give you enough time to think this through.

Andy Day's picture

Why the aggressive tone?

honderd woorden's picture

I don’t think it’s that aggressive…. It’s not meant to be at least.
Some irritation might shine through though and that’s because I don’t like it if people belong to a certain group (professional creators in this case) and judge people outside that group (amateur creators) in terms of all of them lack a specific mindset.
I know there is more nuance in the article and it’s not as black and white as stated in the first place (hence my remark about it being a hyperbole) but some real research combined with some logic might show there Is little truth in it at all.

The article is based only on anecdotal evidence. It’s every professional he’s ever met and there are some quotes from Stephen King and Henri Matisse (one might call that name dropping). It’s then extrapolated to the rest of the world. I could say only amateur writers who lack a certain mindset use this kind of “evidence” for opinionating articles, but that won’t be true either.

Some people push themselves as hard as they can to get the best results, some (most) don’t. It has nothing to do with making money (one of the view real differences between professionals and amateurs). It has to do with passion, stamina, eagerness, etc. You can find those characteristics in professionals as well as amateurs. It will show in the results (the quality of their wok).

Andy Day's picture

I understand your opinions and you're perfectly entitled to disagree with the author, but your manner seems a little inappropriate to me. If you were a member of a photographic society and someone came to give a talk, or if you were attending a presentation at a conference, would you stand up during the closing Q&A and say that it's either "hyperbole or BS" and then end your thoughts by saying "Maybe a self-inflicted deadline didn't give you enough time to think this through"? I know I certainly wouldn't, because it would come across as unnecessarily rude and weirdly confrontational.

honderd woorden's picture

A comments section is not the same as a Q&A session. Here I can give my opinion about an article, not only ask questions.
If someone gave a presentation and asked the public about their opinion on what she/he presented I’d say something similar. The difference would be you’d be able to see my body language and hear the tone of my voice. You can use the exact same words but the way you present them can make a lot of difference.
When I write something there is form content and context, they belong together and are deliberate. What I think is direct language might be rude or aggressive to some. It’s an international forum so cultural difference are a given as well as things getting lost in translation because English is not the native language of everybody here.
I make a statement, try to explain what I mean and try to support it with rational arguments.

My words were confrontational, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. If someone states a (somewhat) controversial opinion in an article and there is a comments section one might want (and expect) reactions.
I explained why I disagree with what was written and I think I made some valid points.

The author used a rhetorical device, a hyperbole, an exaggeration and that’s a technique often used. I have no problem with that, just replied to it with my own hyperbole. You didn’t get the irony and that’s fine. I know irony is an even harder rhetorical device to recognize, especially if the people reading it don’t know anything about you.
The “self-inflicted deadline” is also meant ironically because the author just wrote 29 articles in 28 days on F-stoppers.
It’s about pushing yourself.
Pushing yourself on quantity is not the same as pushing yourself on quality. There is a relation between the two. You need experience to get really good at something (something like the 10,000-hour rule) but if you push yourself too hard on quantity the quality might suffer.

You might not be aware of this context but the author probably will be and my comments were directed to him in the first place.
That doesn’t mean you can’t react to the things I say, but judging form without knowing context and disregarding the content might not be the wisest (or politest) thing to do.
Knowing the context might not change your opinion on the form I chose and that’s fine too. It’s always good to know how things come across to others.

Chris Silvis's picture

That was an elaboration worth noting. 💪

Andy Day's picture

I don't have any problem with your points, and I also appreciate that different contexts require different approaches. However, it always strikes me as odd that some people think it appropriate to ditch their regular levels of decency when writing in comments sections because the internet affords a level of depersonalisation and anonymity.

honderd woorden's picture

Your response might be considered ‘argumentum ad hominem’.
Let’s just agree to disagree on what desirable manners and decency should be.

Andy Day's picture

If you're suggesting that I'm saying that you're rude and that it comes across a bit weird, you are correct. 😂

honderd woorden's picture

So, you can’t even agree to disagree on this...
Two millennia ago somebody said something like: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
Maybe something to think about the next time you feel the need to judge other people.

Andy Day's picture

I read your comment and judged it to be rude. If that's not to your liking, don't post or change what you post. As you eloquently explained, here I can give my opinion.

A suggestion: If you want a genuinely constructive conversation and want to encourage the author to respond to your points, be less snarky.

honderd woorden's picture

Please show me how a judgmental conclusion disguised as a question like “Why the aggressive tone?” (the entire content of your first reaction) is even close to something like offering a valid and well-reasoned opinion in a friendly manner involving both the positive and negative about the things I wrote?

If you want to lecture others on manners and constructive conversations you should practice what you preach to get at least some credibility.

Andy Day's picture

If I have no credibility then you'll be relieved to know that I'm wrong about you being weirdly rude.

Ann Quimby's picture

wow, "Andy Day" while you're educating people on how you think they should post, take out some time to look up over-reaction. It seems YOU are the only one finding these posts by honderd objectionable and rude. I find YOUR posts much ruder. Particularly since you have your little FS icon attached to your image. That kind of implies that you're not on the same footing as the regular posters. Perhaps when you are posting as yourself and not as the article writer, you shouldn't have the FS icon attached. It says you are a staff writer. Apparently you think you're also staff censor?

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Normal direct Dutch response. Without all this British stuff, you know ;)

honderd woorden's picture


Bill Wells's picture

The article was about the difference between professional and hobbyists photographers. I don't see how someone's "day" job comes into the discussion. I would think someone could be very passionate about their main job but not so much about photography.

Working during the day as a surgeon and holding another humans heart in your hands, requires a tremendous amount of stamina, passion, education and training. However, at the end of the day this has nothing to do with one's passion or approach for photography.

honderd woorden's picture

I quoted from the article: “The real difference is something that every professional I've ever met in *any creative career* has and that hobbyists do not: a specific mindset”.
“Any creative career” is not just about photography.
I might be a professional writer and a hobbyist photographer. Now do I have the mindset of a professional or don’t I?
What’s a creative career anyway? Does a school photographer have a creative career? A scientist might need more creativity to be successful than the average photographer.
And how do you become a professional creator? Don’t you need the same mindset to become one in the first place?
I think you need a certain mindset to become successful, regardless of the profession you chose.
It’s not like people switch off mindsets. If people are competitive in their jobs, they probably will be competitive in their hobbies as well.

Bill Wells's picture

I admire the defense of your position. I think people should defend their position, right or wrong. That debate is how we learn and grow.

However, the the comparison he was making is the mindset as it pertains to photography, specifically hobbyists.

Do you think it is possible that someone could have that "specific mindset" in another creative career and not carry that over to photography?

Your position is, when someone has that "specific mindset" in one area it then automatically transfers to any and every other endeavor. That just does not seem correct to me. Exp. John is passionate and dedicated about his writing career - John also enjoys photography.

Notice how John is not passionate nor dedicated about photography?

John's writing career may flourish while his photography will be average at best. A mindset, passion, education and training, may or may not transfer to a different profession.

honderd woorden's picture

>>That debate is how we learn and grow<<

I agree.

>> Your position is, when someone has that "specific mindset" in one area it then automatically transfers to any and every other endeavor.<<

That would be another absolute position.
These things are never black or white so it’s not the position I want to defend.
I just disagree with the position taken in the article.
That position is:
Every professional in any creative career has a specific mindset
No hobbyist has that same mindset.

It can be proven wrong if there is one professional without that mindset, or one hobbyist with that specific mindset. It shouldn’t be that hard to find someone you know that is either an amateur photographer with a “professional” mindset or a professional photographer without such a mindset.

A mindset is not a substitute for talent, it’s just something you need to get the most out of the talent you have. It has little to do with one’s profession. I know professional photographers that push themselves to get the most out of their career. I also know some who don’t. They make enough money to pay the mortgage and have a decent life. A safe environment without real challenges and a low stress level is what they like. I don’t think there is a difference between creative professions and noncreative professions where mindset is concerned.

You are right, I know people who just enjoy photography as a hobby without any ambition. I also know amateur photographers who push themselves to get everything they can out of their hobby. They use the money they make on their day job for education, workshops, traveling to locations, you name it. They live and breathe photography.

Or to put it in one sentence: There are amateur photographers with a professional mindset and there are professional photographers without a professional mindset.

Bill Wells's picture

Do you have a website, portfolio, social media? How do you display your best work?

EXkurogane Blog's picture

A professional is just someone who makes money or a living from photography. "Professional" does not indicate the skill levels of a photographer.

Deleted Account's picture

A professional photographer is paid to do it
A hobbyist photographer pays to do it

David Doughty's picture

I'm DEFINITELY a hobbyist! ;)

Gion-Andri Derungs's picture

Well said!

Cathy F's picture

As an amateur, I can do it my way, not so much if I were a professional.

B M's picture

I've always considered myself an amateur and made a very nice livelihood from it for the past 50 years. It's taken me around the world working on assignments that, if the truth be told, some I would have paid to go on. And all because I was told many years ago, do what you love and it will never seem like work It was shortly after that that I discovered that the word 'amateur' is from the Latin amare meaning to love or in French 'amour'. So for all those hobbyist out there who love making photographs and have pondered whether to do it as a profession then I suggest you follow the advise of that old Japanese philosopher Nike and 'just do it'. To those who get paid for taking photographs but don't love it, go find another job (a job is an exchange of time for money).

Bob Simrak's picture

Sometimes we need to push work out the door. They're not Rembrandts. DaVinci had trouble completing projects - it's good he had patrons.

What is a "specific mindset" beyond a general term. Professional vs Amateur are defined by "income". If you're not generating profits the IRS will call your profession a hobby.

A couple of concepts lost here. Money, art & impact.

Impact comes from people who want to accomplish something, communicate something, move people.

The medium is a tool to reach a goal.

Sometimes what we write provokes chatter. Goal accomplished.

Regarding art. If I'm pleased. It's my art.

Duane Klipping's picture

Professionals are trapped inside the prison they have built around themselves. The prison is the need to work to pay the bills. In that note some of their work may suffer due to deadlines and their creativity may also suffer because of it.

My photography allows me to be free of that prison as I do it only for me and not the money being the main driver. I would never give that freedom up to be "professional".

As a professional are you free?

John Sammonds's picture

A professional photographer is someone that tells you they are "professional" a hobbyist just gets on with it.

Ron Welch's picture

I like this!

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