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How to Know When You're a Pro Photographer

How to Know When You're a Pro Photographer

Anyone with a camera can call themselves a photographer, sure. But how many of you can really say you're a professional? Follow along and find out.

There are many ways to measure success. What matters to one person doesn't cross the mind of another. These are things such as technical knowledge, integrity, moral code, artistic composition, and much more. But how do you know if you're a professional photographer or not? What makes a professional and how can you identify if you or anyone else around you is pro? Well, there's no steadfast way of deciding, but there are definitely some things to look out for. To see how many of the below steps you fit into to find out whether you're pro or newbie.

1. Holding the Camera

Professionals shoot constantly, and anything that makes carrying the camera easier and less fatiguing is going to be taken up. The first way you can tell if someone's amateur or aiming for pro status is the way they hold the camera. Do they place their fingers on top of the lens and thumb underneath, adjusting the focus or zoom ring as they go? Well, they're probably a newbie.

Man holding camera

In most cases, professional photographers support the camera lens from underneath rather than on top.

The easiest way to hold a camera is with the left hand underneath the lens, palms facing up. That's because you can rest the elbow into the body and support the weight through the whole body rather than just with the arm and shoulder. That means a more stable shooting position and steadier, sharper shots.

2. Squinting Your Eyes

Eye squinting woman

Squinting one eye while shooting is an amateur move, but it's something even a lot of pro photographers do. Why? It's a leftover bad habit from their initial training.

Who closes one eye while shooting? Put your hands up now if that's you. Come on, be honest. Want to know something? You shouldn't be doing that! It's far better to shoot with both eyes open because you not only get a good view of the rest of the scene you can't see through the lens (and are therefore able to react faster to a developing shot), but you'll also have unbalanced or fuzzy vision if shooting with one eye closed. It may be an old habit that's hard to break, but it's worth it. See someone shooting with both eyes open? They've got it right.

3. That Camera Strap

Hey, check out that guy in the park with his shiny new camera-brand neck strap. Looks like it's come straight out of the box (it probably has), and it's advertising the camera manufacturer to everyone else around. Why is this person almost certainly not a pro? Well, there are two reasons. One is that it looks totally uncool and professionals should develop their own sense of fashion sense when shooting. And the other less pretentious reason is that those straps are quite short and sharp.

There's often not a lot of padding on them, and the material cuts into your skin, making it quite uncomfortable to wear. The fact that they're short also means you end up hooking it over your neck with the camera and lens weighing down in front of your chest, straining your neck. It's much more comfortable to put a longer, padded strap on the side, slung over one arm. Professionals know this, and that's why it's one of the first upgrades they make to their kit when shooting with something new.

4. Firing Pop-up Flash

The pop-up flash is only used sparingly by the pro because it looks flat and unflattering. Most professional-level camera bodies don't have pop-up flash anyway. Instead, the professional opts for an on-camera speedlight flash that can articulate and change position and angle. With more room for adjustment in terms of intensity and spread of light, the professional knows they can make a shot look better than with the amateurish pop-up flash. That said, pop-up flash is better than nothing and can even be used to trigger other lights in dire situations.

5. Off-Camera Flash

off-camera lighting gear

Aside from being too busy to even clean their own dining tables for flat lay shots, professionals use off-camera flash regularly to light subjects reliably.

Can you use it? Do you know how to set it up? No? Then you're probably not a professional. Pros don't have time to wait for the right light because they're on assignment or have to capture a shot in a given timeframe. The only way to get consistently high-quality lighting is to take your flash off-camera and perhaps add light modifiers like softboxes and umbrellas. Of course, this doesn't apply to all genres of photography, so if you're in the landscape or astro world, give yourself a break on this one.

6. Natural Light

Saying "I'm a natural light photographer" is often another way of saying "I'm not a professional." Not that there's any difference in the quality of photographs (often there isn't) or that natural light isn't brilliant (it is), but professionals that shoot all the time need consistent lighting and often find themselves shooting in dark locations or in studios where there are no windows.

Even on location if you're working for a brand selling a product, you're not going to rely on natural light alone (unless simply using reflectors/diffusers) because you need to illuminate the product, so professionals often turn to artificial lighting to ensure consistent quality in their photos because they know that they can't rely on the light or the weather.

7. File Formats

This one's simple. Shoot JPEG? Are you a sports or motorsports photographer and need to upload to the media desk while you shoot? Then you could still be classed as a pro. As for everyone else, you're probably not. Raw gives such flexibility to the way we edit photos and we have such vast amounts of digital storage now that there really isn't a good enough reason not to shoot raw anymore.

8. Editing Your Photos

Over edited images with pink filter

Over-editing or adding strange, heavy filters is a sure sign of an amateur photographer as they haven't yet gone through the process of discovering that less is more.

Beginners often add too much contrast, weird heavy filter presets, or overly saturated images. Look at the HDR (high dynamic range) fad that hit the scene back in the 2000s, and you'll see exactly what I mean. Professionals are just beginners that have been through all those stupid editing phases and have come out the other side with cleaner, more refined processing styles. 

9. One Color to Rule Them All

Selective single color edits (like in the film Sin City) are a favorite of beginners, and you'll hardly spot a pro using them. Why? Because it's overdone and a bit of a gimmick. It's totally fine if you like it, but most pros grow weary of the look. If you see a black and white image with one red piece of clothing, it's probably not a professional's work. But of course, someone will definitely prove me wrong in the comments.

10. Culling Photos

Beginners include several versions of the same shot in their portfolio or social media advertising. This is in contrast to most pros who will choose one that works from a sequence and only publish that single shot. Putting your absolute best foot forward is key to creating the illusion of high-quality work because not showing the other 90 shots where your exposure was wrong or you accidentally cropped out a key element to the scene will make others think you're amazing.

11. How Happy Are You With the Photos?

Man shrugging

Further down the line towards professional status, you'll find yourself choosing fewer and fewer images to share, and you certainly won't be sharing multiple versions of the same thing unless for expressly specific purposes.

As photographers get further along in their journey, most find that they like fewer and fewer of their images. In fact, if you're building a portfolio you may only get one or two really great shots per year, as opposed to the beginner who might get 100. Why is this? It's due to a learning curve and your standards increasing. It's a natural progression for almost every art form. If I look back at photos I was taking 10 years ago, that I was publishing 10 years ago, I usually cringe. It's a sign you're moving forward and heading towards professionalism.

12. How Much Money Do You Make?

Technically, the whole quiz is overshadowed by the fact that professional just means that you make the majority of your financial income from that one thing. If you're earning most of your money from photography then it doesn't matter if you do or don't do all of the above steps, you're a professional photographer. But then again, there are always those pros who retire or leave the game for a while.

Conclusion

So, how did you do? Total your score in your head and take it again in a few months to see if things have progressed. Just bear in mind, I'm being rather tongue in cheek with this one. Don't worry if you score more in the beginner category than professional. Lots of professionals I know are pretty tired of their work schedule, so perhaps staying an amateur or hobbyist is the best way to enjoy the art form?

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39 Comments

Alexander Petrenko's picture

13. If you use Lightroom you can’t be considered a pro. Only Capture One makes you professional.

Paul Trantow's picture

Ha! Yeah, and definitely how you hold the camera. Those two things.

Cool Cat's picture

Last but not least... real photographers smell bad because they don't have time to take showers.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I add 1 hour of shower (optional) in all my estimates. Returning clients usually approve this option.

Gary WWU85's picture

Does the 1 hour cover both time AND materials?

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Sure not. There are separate water and soap charges. If they want my hair clean and tidy - there is an option for that, as it is absolutely different set of skills, tools and services.

Dan Crowther's picture

#2 only applies only if you happen to be "right-eye dominant". Otherwise, go ahead and shut one eye; the camera body is going to block any benefit of having both eyes open anyway.

Hunter Chan's picture

I am never going to close one eye cause I weren't able too......hahaha

Johan Doornenbal's picture

I'm left-eye dominant, and typically shoot with both eyes open as well. When shooting horizontally I can see a bit over the camera with my right eye, when vertically the battery grip gets in the way.

derek j's picture

The both eyes open thing tripped me up. Just grabbed my camera to try it, and im gonna be a rookie for a while.

Scott Kiekbusch's picture

"How to Know When You're a Pro Photographer..." You get paid for your photographs

Lee Ramsden's picture

4.a using the flash on a landscape image, or through a closed window.
It doesn't matter how hard you try, you can not light the world! :)

Alexander Petrenko's picture

You don’t know about Godox AD1200 probably...

Rhonald Rose's picture

Godox is not professional enough.. ;-)

Alexander Petrenko's picture

They have pro series. This should be for pros I guess.

Tony Roslund's picture

Everyone knows the true sign of a pro is someone who has an aperture in their logo.

Jan Holler's picture

How about prepare your work: visit the location before, think about compositions and light, select and check your gear, get to know the client, get to know the goal... I think this list is missing the very essential things. And many of the listed points do not really matter, I am afraid to say so.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

You are probably amateur. Pros are never afraid.

Jan Holler's picture

Hahaha, yes I am, but I take it very seriously. ;-)

AJ L's picture

Sometimes I can’t tell whether these articles are supposed to be comedy.

A pro photographer is somebody who makes most of their income from photography. Full stop.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

is funny - yes? jason pull leg on this

Robert Lype's picture

Hmm over the past 40 years I've been doing this all wrong I am not a winner in a contest nor Have I ever entered one nor do I have a degree . I have paid my dues the hard way as a Photojournalist from the ground up being mentored by folks who have the same love for telling the story. My rear end is so sore from photo editors telling me I didnt provide them enough images or to many in turn I have developed a style of my own which goes against the grain of those who think a class room can replace natural ability and the desire to succeed . Providing consistent results by learning how to push the limit has provided me a good living to the point at 59yo my retirement is coming up close at 62 and plan on traveling on a photographic trips.
Its all about the journey and giving back if you see a beginner making mistakes introduce your self and give them some friendly advice it goes along way we all had to start some where.

Tom Nelson's picture

I always said you're a professional photographer if you can maintain eye contact while you say "that will cost you a thousand dollars."

Alexander Petrenko's picture

What about key word « howwouldyouliketopaycashorcard »?

David Pavlich's picture

Pretty much an opinion piece....one person's opinion on what makes a pro. Some points are valid, some aren't. Bottom line...if you're a pro, you shoot what your client or your buying customers (print sales) require. If your client says he/she wants a heavily tone mapped version of something, then you take 7 exposures at different shutter speeds, wash it through LR and (pick your HDR software), and you present your client with a gawdy, over the top HDR shot and accept their payment with a smile. Funny thing...I have a couple of these clients that paid me to shoot and process products that are tone mapped to the nth degree. :-)

Hunter Chan's picture

Hahaha that was hilarious! I would never want to waste my time working for those who doesn't have a clue for appreciating visual art :D
P.S. The only times I shoot in AUTO mode is when my *idiotic* relatives call me for a photoshoot at a gathering, giving me no time to prepare, let alone to do location scouting......

Ed C's picture

Is this supposed to be funny?

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