Calling Yourself a Professional Photographer Is Overrated

Calling Yourself a Professional Photographer Is Overrated

Today, anyone may call themselves a professional photographer and practice photography. There is no degree that validates the use of the term "pro." So, why do we feel the need to specify that? What does it show about the way we see our work and our competition? Let’s put things in perspective.

I have been working in the photography field for the last 12 years (gosh, I’m getting old!), and I remember the first times I presented myself by saying, “I am a photographer,” it did not require an adjective. Today, I need to start practicing in front of my mirror to say: “I am a professional photographer”. If I don’t, people might not take me seriously. The concept of a professional photographer is a funny one. Let's clear some things up:

The definition of the noun form of "profession," according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is: ”any type of work that needs special training or a particular skill, often one that is respected because it involves a high level of education”

If you look at the history of the word, you might be interested to find out that for a long time, that term applied only to three categories of activity: theology, medicine, and law. Each requires long study and an oath to commemorate official entry into the particular profession. Moreover, these professionals would earn their living by “professing”: sharing their knowledge in exchange for compensation.

Let's see how that applies to photography today:

  • Do you really need to train intensively and for a long period of time to be considered as a professional photographer? With the entrance of user-friendly cameras, photography is not that hard (compared to the chemical knowledge needed when making a daguerreotype or the aviation knowledge to fly a MiG-25). If you don’t want to learn about strobes, you can make a living shooting in natural light. I have worked in the Parisian fashion industry for the past ten years and I know more than one photographer who by training is a hair and makeup artist, a stylist, or an art director that just knows the right people (amazing assistants and retouchers) to make their work look technically top-notch. The fact that they most probably do not know how a light meter works does not stop them from getting those high-end clients.
  • Do you really need a university degree to earn a living as a photographer? Nope. When was the last time you went to a meeting and your potential client asked you for your certification? They look at you work, what you produce, who you have shot, and who you have shot for and they asses if working with you is going to be fun and reassuring. A piece of paper from Oxford or Cambridge is not going to make that big of an impact on whether you are going to land that gig, unless your client is a snob.
  • Does a photographer get paid for his or her guidance and information or for actual files — something tangible? You know the answer to that. Their experience is valued, but they are still paid for the files they deliver.

The definition of the adjective form of "professional" is: "relating to a job that needs special training or education."​

We are back to square one. In a nutshell, by definition, there is no such thing as a professional photographer. And that hurts. I know. I’m still cringing.

If we push aside the dictionaries, it is common practice today to differentiate the pros from the amateurs by assigning a differentiation between them: a certain percentage of income from photography makes you one or the other. It’s still sticky for me; yes, the extremes are easy to recognize. You have the photographer that is so successful that his name means something to the general public (Ansel Adams or Terry Richardson, depending on your taste), and you have the photographer that shoots his kids. Although, I would not consider Elena Shumilova to be an amateur. Then, there is the sea of grey in-between them what is the percentage of income that one should be earning from photography to be able to earn the respected title of a professional photographer? 50%? More? Are we talking about a consistent percentage through a year, two years or more?

Should exposure, expositions, and publication in national or international magazines make a difference? Here again, I know a wonderful photographer that can shoot on Sinars as well as Hasselblads, that can take apart any light source and put it back together, and that time and time again produces consistent artistic work that should be printed as a coffee table book, and yet, very few people know about his existence. The marketing and selling is a process he does not want to deal with. He just wants to create. I think of him as a Van Gogh type; he is probably going to become famous when he is dead! Will he earn the title of a pro photographer then? By virtue of his skills and his portfolio, isn’t he one now?

I don’t have an alternate term for “professional photographer." (Yeah, I know — all that banter and no grand finale!) I use the term, I admit, but I don’t think it matters to me that much. It might be an easy sticker to slap on your shoulder when you are trying to make your way through the crowd of fellow photographers out there, but I try to avoid labels. This is a freelance occupation; some days, you are on top of the world, while others, you are not. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Nobody is going to give you a medal because you or others consider yourself a professional. So, what is the fuss about?

Photography not being a profession might not be the end of the world. There are no rules. At least not any that are written in stone. If you see it as a business, integrate the fact that business models change all the time (not that long ago, the idea of getting a job through Facebook would have been hilarious at best). People are buying a product and you need to make the value of what you are selling as high as your financial needs. Differentiate yourself from the crowd and educate your client on your worth. Don’t focus on the “amateur photographers” that are creeping up on your market space; focus on making your stuff unique. If you see it as an art, I’m guessing you don’t give a crap anyways. If you see it as a hobby, shoot away, and make some glorious memories for your friends and family. As long as your adrenaline gets a rush when you are cramming your eyeball into the viewfinder, you are a photographer. That’s the important part.

But then, hey, what do I really know? This is my third article for Fstoppers; so, I am far from being a professional writer.

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Jim Hofman's picture

I think the ultimate filter for being a "professional photographer" is: Do you earn a living from pushing a shutter release button? If the answer is yes then you are a professional.

agreed, it has always been the definition of a pro, if you get paid to do it, then you are.

cameramanDop Shanghai Hong Kong's picture

if you get paid to do it... and it's your only earning.

Too often, PRO are using this money related definition as they are paid on one shooting, but it's not their main income, so, it's easier for them to accept or even fail a job, no risk taken.

Whatever the quality of your gear or final delivery to your client, if this is your are able to pay the schools for your kid, your car and your retirement plan out of your work, you are a PRO...

I disagree. Sure, it would be nice if we could apply labels based on a narrow set of criteria, such as if you are earning a living from it then you are a professional, but it really isn’t that simple There are many careers where people do work of a professional nature but it’s not their main source of income. For example, the team of volunteer doctors in my region that are on call to provide early intervention emergency medical assistance ahead of the mainstream emergency services. They don’t get paid for this and provide their own fully equipped emergency medical vehicles (which cost €60,000 to kit out and is ultimately funded by donations from the community they serve). These doctors have full time day jobs that they make a living from but just because they provide the volunteer service on a volunteer basis doesn’t mean that they care less about it or that the work is any less professional than that which they do to earn a living.

And that’s just one example!

Good to know that all that copy work made me a pro.

Brian Reed's picture

Thank You Anna for writing this article. I often tell folks, "I will NEVER, EVER use the word 'Professional' as it does not pertain to me. I am a Photographer. I allow my work to speak for me, not my words."

Some, over the years, have tried to diss/degrade me for saying that. They claim I am not a "Real" professional photographer because I say that. Okay. That is your OPINION and you are welcome to that. Personally, I don't feel I need to go around proclaiming to be a "Professional" photographer. I am just a ... Photographer. Please take a look at my work and decide for yourself if YOU believe me to be good enough to work with you.

What's wrong with that? Like you point out Anna ... why does there have to be a "classification" as such? Why do we have to try to "define" what makes a photographer a "professional" photographer? Is my work good enough to hire me? Yes? Good. I just make some money. No. Okay. Thank you for your time.

If I approach a Fortune 500 company or a magazine or whatever that I want to shoot for, do you think the word "Professional" is really going to help you get through the front door? Nope. The potential client is going to want to see your work, not your title. Titles don't mean JACK CRAP anymore. It's your work that is going to land you the job.

Just like Anna pointed out ... if your work is unique enough to catch their eye, chances are you will land the job. If you are a "Run of the Mill" type of photographer, you're going to struggle to land the job(s). Tell me ... how is the word "Professional" going to change your work from "Run of the Mill" to "Unique"? In my opinion, it's not.

Now ... let the "bashing" begin.

Oh ... and by the way ... yes, I do make money with my photography work. Not as much as I would love to, but you know ... I make enough to pay the bills. So ... Hi. I'm Brian. I am a "Professional" photographer, according to some folks. BLAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Where's that bar of soap to help wash this bad taste out of my mouth? (*LOL*)

Lauchlan Toal's picture

I would agree that the term "professional" is not a distinction that matters when bidding on jobs. I think the primary purpose of using it is to make it clear to people you meet that being a photographer is your career. Photography is one of those activities that can be a hobby or a job, but is more often than not a hobby - like fishing or golf. Hence if you say you're a photographer people may assume that it's something you like to do rather than something you do professionally, and then it leads to awkward explanations later on that could've been avoided by saying that you were a professional from the start. Therefore I would argue that you should say that you're a professional to most people you meet, but it's not necessary when introducing yourself to clients. It just saves you some hassle.

In addition to what Lauchlan said.... specifying that you are a professional photographer allows you to justifiably charge professional rates. I don't think non full timers (semi pros, amateurs/hobbyists, beginners) should charge professional rates.

I think the quality of the product and the service one provides should influence what someone charges, not whether they are full time or part time.

Deleted Account's picture

I LOVE your final comments! Thanks for this article Anna. It's very insightful.

You're completely correct that "professional" was not a term that many of us who were making a living in photography actually used to describe ourselves until the recent past. We usually identified ourselves by the type of work we did like commercial, advertising, weddings, or portraits etc. In other words, most of us would say something like "I'm a portrait photographer" instead of saying "I'm a professional portrait photographer." There have always been so many fake photographers that a lot of real photographers actually learned to stop referring to themselves as photographers at all. I know of shooters that would claim just to work in advertising or to be self-employed. When I first switched from film to digital in 1999, I had so many new tasks that had nothing to do with photography (retouching, editing, minor graphic design work, shooting video etc) that I eventually started calling myself a "content producer" because being a photographer was just too specific and limiting.

My experience is that the term professional was always one that hobbyists liked to throw around, so it was one way that I could tell fake photographers from real photographers. If somebody claimed to be a professional, then I just took that to mean the person was a wanna-be and read too many amateur hobbyists magazines. But things have changed with digital. Today, the term professional is not just for hobbyists anymore. It has become widely used in the industry. Personally, I still refuse to use it when describing myself because it sounds redundant. Lawyers don't call themselves "professional lawyers." They just call themselves lawyers. Maybe a photographer is just a photographer if he's a photographer at all.

At first thought, a good definition of a professional is anybody that makes money with a camera. But the problem is that a lot of really bad photographers have actually been able to make lots of money with a camera. This creates a kind of contradictory situation because the term professional is usually equated with great skill, but we all know that making money doesn't necessarily require great skill with a camera.

In the end, I think that the age old difference between artists and hacks is all that really exists. If people want to be professionals then that usually just means that they want to make money and live a certain lifestyle. In that case, they can be complete hacks and don't have to be artists at all. But if somebody wants to be an artist with a camera then it doesn't make any difference if he's a hobbyist or a professional. And it's quite possible that hobbyists will actually prove to be the greatest photographic artists in the not too distant future since professionals are too stuck in the practical world of making money and paying bills to really have the freedom to experiment that is often necessary to be an artist.

Just some thoughts

Anna Dabrowska's picture

I like your thoughts! :)

Michael Jewels's picture

A very well-written article. I knew that medicine and law were considered professions, but I never thought about Theology in that respect.

Justin Haugen's picture

I find it easiest to say I that I own a photography business. No need to explain further.

This is a good one too! The best actually.

Jack Alexander's picture

Interesting topic, enjoyed reading this

Rob Mynard's picture

I believe that the Australian government are planning to regulate the usage of "professional" photographer soon by requiring that the photographer be a member of the AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photographers) and this membership requires meeting a few criteria such as photography being your main source of income for (i believe) at least two years, a peer portfolio review and regular training to prove professional growth.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Thanks for sharing, didn't know that.

Mark James's picture

For me, all that matters in this industry is the portfolio and the price. My dad was a professional painter, but you wouldn't of wanted him to paint your portrait. Just saying...

Rob Mynard's picture

Agreed, but if I did hire your dad to paint my house, his membership in a governing body would go some ways to assuring me that he's not a dodgy dude with a string of angry customers left in his wake :-)

Alex Cooke's picture

Great perspective, Anna.

Good article. I must point out a type-o though - asses should be assess. I look forward to your next piece!

From all you say I read: It is more craft than it is profession. There is only so much knowledge that actually makes a difference for a picture and you can very well argue that you can gather all you need to know about lighting, physics of light, mechanics of posing, basic rules of composition etc. in a weekend or two. That will probably make you a knowledgable photographer, not necessarily a good one. The are certainly other professions where theoretical knowledge is much more important: To be a lawyer, you simply have to know the massive volumes of law - practice will help you to learn when and how it is appliable, but there is simple no way around knowing it it in the first place.

Compare this to the physics of light: knowing about this physics will sometimes help you to construct a scene or explain afterwards why that shot failed (light falling off to quickly etc) - but over time and with practice, this will be replaced by a gut feeling - that f stop is too low: you could explain why, but in the end you probably will just a feel for it. And knowing the theory will probably help avoid blunt mistakes (choosing f8 over f2), but will not make the picture great (choosing f8 and underexposing half a stop, don't ask me why, just looks better...) - this only comes from shooting.

So my argument here is more: It is more a craft than it is a knowledge based profession: Even if you study the theoretics of it longer, you're progress will stall at some point and you can only get ahead with shooting more - which doesn't show up in a diploma, only in the work you produce.

That being said: There is certainly more value in studying theory beyond the techniques of photography - something that most of the time doesn't appear in a photographers curriculum - studying the history of photography, studying the iconography of pictures, the social context of images (gender studies and wedding photography anyone??!), studying the way great painters construct a picture and the list goes and on: When you are ignorant of the social and artistic context of your photography, you are doomed to replicate the clichées of your peers in advertising and editorial photography - part of the profession is to know the context and the boundaries that regulates how you look at the world and reproduce it - and this is something most photography education that is focused on the technical aspects leaves out.

Mike Freestone's picture

The same argument can be made for professional athletes, but there is obviously a big different between a pro hockey player and a beer league hockey player.

Money is ultimately what makes the distinction. If you're getting paid, you're a professional, regardless of skill. You could be a bad photographer, but have great business sense and make great money; you're a professional photographer. You could be the most talented photographer in the world, and not make a dime from it (whether by choice or not); you're NOT a professional photographer.

I like the article because the message I get is; just go shoot. Forget the technicalities of a title and go do what you love to do.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Yes, photography is an art, a skill and can be a business, most of all it's a pleasure! If we loose sight of that we loose our creativity as well.

I live in a gray area of making money as a photographer and holding a full time job. Am I a professional photographer? It depends on who you ask. I shot an international marketing campaign, which most people work for years to be able to say. But I don't even make 50% of my income from photography in part because even as a consultant on a quarterly basis I'd make more than the average photographer (which I realize sounds arrogant but the reality is my industry is more lucrative). I find this more an issue with other photographers than with the general public to be honest. Someone once told me I don't need to be taking jobs away from struggling photographers trying to earn their living and I think that's why there is some anger and snobbery.

Justin Haugen's picture

Photographers who are angry at you are just misplacing their resentment at your talent. I would never feel this way toward someone whose work earned them a campaign like that.

Josh Rottman's picture

I've never been uncomfortable with the term professional photographer, although it's not what I use to describe myself. 100% of my income comes from work I create with my cameras. My girlfriend, dog and I all live comfortably together under the same roof because of what I've learned to do with my cameras over the last few years. That's why I'm a professional. People depend on me, and I can take care of their needs and my own with my camera.

The distinction I've been super uncomfortable with is the word "artist." I would never choose this word to describe what I do. I look up to artists, the photographers who can say so much more with each photo than I feel I can. They're the ones I study and try to emulate. Someone called me an artist recently and I balked at them almost without realizing I did it out loud. I don't think I'm an artist. Never have. My photography has gotten a lot better in the last year, and I've gotten closer to a cohesive style that represents what's in my head, but I don't feel like an artist.

So at what point does a photographer become an artist? What makes an artist in this space different from a professional? And does that transcendent quality of an artist's work necessarily make them a professional?

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Ha!, I'm actually in the process of setting up an interview with an art photographer for Fstoppers and I will be discussing the subject with her.

Deleted Account's picture

Thanks for taking the label of an artist so seriously. I wish more people would do that and avoid using the term so casually.

One of the problems with the professional/hobbyist distinction is that those are terms borrowed from the "division of labor." They come loaded with connotations of class distinction and social rank that are based on economic factors. I prefer the distinction between artist/hack because those terms keep us focused on the work itself rather than the market where it trades.

Artist is also a term that comes with lots of baggage. I'm going by memory and could certainly be wrong, but Collingwood identified three ways that the word is often used:

1- historical
2 - courtesy
3 - real

Historically, there was never any distinction between an artist and a craftsman. But this has changed since the Renaissance and is no longer valid. Unfortunately, the use of the word artist and an equivalent of craftsman is still very common.

Artist is also used as a courtesy term. For example, when a doting mother describes her son as an artist. Or when we read online profiles of people that have artist listed in their personal description. We often find ourselves going along with these descriptions out of courtesy in order to avoid hurting the feelings of the person that the term is applied to.

Finally, there's the real meaning of the word artist and there's no way to easily explain that term in a comment on a blog. Fortunately, most false uses of the term can be attributed to the first two uses that I already described. Avoiding those false uses should help most people to narrow down when it is definitely being used incorrectly so that they don't fall many of the traps laid by badly reasoned arguments against the existence of art.

Andre Goulet's picture

I think this is the beauty of photography. When I shoot live events, I'm a documentarian. When I shoot headshots, I'm a craftsman and when I shoot for my composites, I'm an artist.

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