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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Previous comments

I would differentiate 'professions' from 'professionals,' despite the similarity in word bases. As an accountant, in school you're always told about our 'profession,' yet no one would call themselves a professional accountant (or doctor, or lawyer). I don't think anyone calls sports a 'profession,' but athletes are professional (or not).

I'm not sure who was itching to call photography a profession, but surely there are professionals (or not). And there are amateurs better than those pros (or not).

If you're getting paid, you're a professional. Separate distinction than the quality of your work.

Tim Foster's picture

A professional photographer is one who derives the bulk of their income from photography. That doesn't mean that they're better than a amateur. The term amateur shouldn't imply technical or artistic inferiority, if anything they're a more "pure" practitioner of their art.

Tim Foster's picture

I'm not sure what you mean by a "Picasso type". Picasso was very famous and very wealthy when he died, and had been for some time.

Anna Dabrowska's picture

Ups! thanks for catching that...just corrected it.

Steve Bryan's picture

I've made my living with a camera for more than two decades and today everyone who owns or occasionally uses a camera thinks that they are a photographer.

There is a difference between being a camera owner and being a photographer.

There is also a difference in being able to do photography and being a photographer.

So when someone tells me they own a camera, so they must be a photographer.

I ask ........

I own a hammer, does that make me a carpenter?

I own a racing helmet, does that make me a race car driver?

When someone tells me they can take good pictures, so they must be a photographer.

I ask .........

I can change a light switch, does that make me an electrician?

I can put out a small fire, does that make me a fire fighter?

When someone says their neighbor paid them a few bucks to take a family portrait, so they must be a pro.

I ask .....

My neighbor paid me to install his toilet, so am I now a professional plumber?

My neighbor paid me to change his spark plugs, so am I now a professional mechanic?

Here a very simple way to find out ....

When you show up at work on Monday, ask your boss what your job is. If they do not say photographer, you have your answer.

David Adamson's picture

The qualifying term "I am a photographer" let alone "professional" has become more ambiguous with the advent first auto and auto focus film cameras and then more so with digital. I was a photographer for over thirty years and have seen the decline of what people call photography and what describes one as a photographer..

Pros shoot primarily for other people for money. Non-pros shoot primarily for themselves. I am a non-pro. If somebody asks me to shoot their catalog for money, I may or may not accept it depending on how convenient or interesting it is for me to shoot for them. If no hot models are involved, I will say no. If I have a hot date on the day you wanted to shoot, then again no.
But if a hot model asks me to shoot her for free, I will say yes. Quality of work is a different matter.
Now let's apply the logic. I also kickbox at our local gym. Am I a professional kickboxer? If I fight for money, then yes I am, regardless of whether how many wins or losses I have.

Do you need a university degree? Nope, but it might help to know the difference between asses and assess. ;)

Dave Giordano's picture

That was always a touchy subject for me. After 11 years, I finally started to make all of my income from photography alone. I worked very hard at it and often, teach other people photography related things. I hit that point where I debated a while if I should label myself as a "professional" I have all professional gear and, my income is solely from photography. It's an uncomfortable subject and I do currently label myself as a "Professional Photographer" that, I often think about removing the word "professional" from my IG account profile/twitter profile. It's always felt too cocky for me to list myself as such. but at the same time. I do feel I am a professional in this field. As most of the people posting here are. When my friends and clients introduce me to people they usually say. "This is Dave, he is a professional photographer" I think it makes for the start of a conversation with a lot of people when I am introduced as such. I'm very curious how other people feel about this as well.

Deleted Account's picture

It's great that your friends introduce you as a photographer...

My opinion is that it's always better when other people call us photographers rather then when we call ourselves photographers. Other people can sell us better than we can sell ourselves. Unfortunately, it usually comes across as pretentious when people in art related fields self identify and that's one of the reason's that things like "artist statements" are often frowned upon.

Dave Giordano's picture

You're completely right! Other people can sell us much better. When I'm introducing myself, I never introduce myself as a photographer. Unless, someone asks what I do for a living. And, I'll just say I'm a photographer. Not a professional photographer. I just leave my cockyness to my social media profiles haha.

I don't spend a bunch of time worrying about what people call themselves, nor do I spend a bunch of time concerned about what people call me. I use whatever term is convenient within the context of a given moment and I expect no more or less from others. Sometimes those terms are nice, sometimes they aren't, but either way, it's fruitless to care.

Now get your camera out and go shoot something. :-)

Matt Green's picture

Why do we make such a big deal out of labels? I'm a photographer. I'm a professional photographer. I've been doing this as my job for 23 years. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I reply, "I'm a photographer." I often get the follow-up. "So, that's your real job???" Yes, people do this for a living.

There's a desire for people to call themselves "professional photographers". It's not what we need to focus on. "Being professional" is much more important. I know part-time photographers who are very "professional". How about we just get out there, make killer images, and if it's your desire, make it your profession, or your job, or whatever you choose to call it.

like the photos, didn't get to read it though, was too long. sorry I'm lazy. :)

Anna Dabrowska's picture

but not lazy enough to post a intriguing! have a great day!

Kim Smith's picture

Perhaps the highest accolade is being a "working photographer". If you're good at what you do, you're hired.

Yves-Alexandre d'Ouradou's picture

Well, and it's the same for "pro models" or other creative professions.
And without talking about amount of what each pro photographer might earn, but the answer should be: is photographer your job? or is it something you do next to your real job? It's not because you are pay once a month for a shooting that you are a professional in my opinion. If you have to introduce yourself to somebody in one word, would you say you are accountant (or any other job) or a photographer? I think the answer to this question is the answer to know if you are professional or not.

For example, if you are in a city with very small amount of photographer, you might make a very good living as a photographer, and work everyday, it makes you a photographer. But maybe the lack of competition makes you a lazy photographer at the same time, the lack of talent doesnt really affect your business, and you are still a pro.

There is a lot of very talented photographer, and professional doesnt mean that you are good, some enthusiasts have a much better photography level than some professionals. Pro is simply a status, it's not representative of the level.

CORNEL STAN's picture

Lots of bad photographer living from pushing a shutter release for money ! They a "professional" before ore never being a photographer ! They are paying mercenary ! working for money not for passion ! They are thinking there are above a regular people ! Photography means talent and most often they do not have it ! The dictionary is right ! They are same like cab drivers ! Those there are professional too !