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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64 Comments

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.

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.

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.

"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.

Rob Mitchell's picture

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

Not if you use a good accountant.

Rob Mitchell'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.

I think you make a very real point.

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

I thought the difference was dual card slots. 😁

>> 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?

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.

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.
https://fstoppers.com/business/are-you-truly-all-344500
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.

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. 😂

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.

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