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

Previous comments

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.

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?

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

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.

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.

>>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?

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

Laughing Cow'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! ;)

William Howell's picture

Yes, this is the best answer, so far.

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).

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!

I think consistency is a HUGE difference between a pro and an amateur.

A professional can produce GREAT images all the time under many different lighting conditions. But some time hobbyists also can produce great images then pro.

These sorts of articles speak to the growing sense of unease and uncertainty in the professional photography community. It feels like there's this increasing need to differentiate....to show how pros are still special in an age where nearly every single person has a powerful image-making device in their pocket.

Paul G's picture

Over the years some people have suggested I should consider becoming a professional photographer. Ignoring the question of whether I am a good enough photographer to be a pro(which I doubt, many others including pros don't), I always reply why would I want to do that. At the moment I shoot what I want when I want to. Professionals often have to shoot what others want when they want to, not something I am normally prepared to do. The only time I take on commissions is from a couple of small local charities I support to help, donating my time rather than them needing to raise money to pay for another person to take the photos. That being said I do sell a few photos, but they are usually because someone has seen one and asked to buy a copy rather than a commission. For me, the difference between is down to; that I can choose when to do it, whilst a professional often has to do it when others choose. I admire professionals who can find the inspiration to shoot a range of work, much of which they probably do not find totally enthralling.

There are many levels of both amateur and professional photographers. To be a pro means to be paid for the work you produce. But in no way does being paid mean that the work produced is ever any good. A lot of professional photography is consumed and discarded. Think about every circular, and most illustrated images for news or editorial. It is all part of an endless stream of pixelated rectangles that are taken for granted, and do not contribute whatsoever to what it means to be a photographer. Sure if you’re a studio pro doing circulars, you have to learn better lighting, but let’s face it: After shooting cans of beans or the heads of lettuce for a number of years, you might as well consign those shots to an assistant, and go see the kids. The more important aspect of being a studio circular photographer is billing your clients.

Conversely, you have amateur photographers who do not make their income from full-time photography, but have engaged the practice of being a photographer more seriously, as seen In their dedication to making unique images or studies of subjects that may actually contribute to a particular genre.

Through the study of a subject, the importance of a body of work often reveals itself over time.

Lastly, being a full time Pro often diminishes the artfulness, or the original inspiration of why one makes photos in the first place. For many, that inspiration is lost forever.

Why is it that these photo media sites spend so much time talking about the pro vs. amateur issue? You see it all the time. Personally I don't know ANY enthusiasts who are sitting in their room waiting for inspiration to strike. If they have the time, they go out and shoot even if there's no money involved. And many enthusiasts do paying jobs that come along.
So what value is there in pigeon holing someone one way or another? Does knowing what label to stick on someone's forehead help me get better images? Not a chance.
The important thing is doing good work. And yes, that means shooting a lot. It means knowing how to get the most out of your tools and getting the best images out of the shoot. All these qualities are open to pro or enthusiast.
But this harping on whether someone is a pro or not ends up being more of a put down than anything that moves the photography community forward. The media and companies push that whole we-know-more-than-you approach for their own reasons and it leaves a bad taste and it's divisive.

20+ years ago as I was considering a career in photography I met a local pro who gave me the best advice I could have received…

"The difference between an amateur and a professional photographer is simple. Every time an amateur goes out they have the potential of coming back with a great shot. The pro MUST come back with a great shot!"

Tim Gallo's picture

i dont care about amateur vs pro. the line is too thin, i care about average vs unique or exceptional ....
when i teached in a movie school, i used to say that difference between average pro and exceptional one - is amaount of private time spend working on their craft. becoming average professional in something is easy...
and its not far from being good amateur. but becoming exceptional pro is hard.

Laurent Bourrelly's picture

Having to go to work doesn't mean you strive to improve.
Most pro photographers hit a plateau and stay very much in the comfort zone.

Working for working is not the solution.
Working on improving your skills is the solution.

To work on improving, no need to be a pro.
Actually, it might be an advantage to be able to work on your photography, without the pressure of making money.

I've talked to several full-time professional wildlife photographers who have told me that the biggest difference is that the hobbyist gets to spend most of their time shooting, while the pro has limited shooting time, because they need to spend the majority of their time and effort marketing themselves, preparing submissions, cold-calling potential image buyers, etc, etc, etc. So the biggest difference is that the hobbyist is primarily concerned with getting enjoyment out of photography, and spends a lot of time shooting, whereas the professional is primarily concerned with getting an income out of photography, and spends a lot of time doing business type stuff instead of shooting.

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