Not a Professional Photographer? You May Be Better for It

Not a Professional Photographer? You May Be Better for It

If you're not a professional photographer, you're not alone. While I sometimes wish I had it in me to be a professional photographer, in the end, I do not. Alas, I believe I’m better for it.  

Perhaps I ignorantly believe that the life of a professional photographer is jetting around, meeting interesting people, going to interesting places, and making beautiful photographs. Perhaps my vision of a professional photographer is based on the feeling I get when I see photography from spectacularly cold and remote locations that evoke only the greatest sense of wonder in me. With that said, while I know those photographers exist, I’ve never met one. Instead, the professional photographers I know make a living as wedding and/or portrait photographers. They are still meeting interesting people and (I would hope) doing something they love and are good at. 

This brings me to why I do not ever intend to be a professional photographer. I have the personal belief that we all owe it to the world to do what we are properly good at, indeed, that we are even most likely to succeed if we pursue that which we are truly most gifted at. For me, this is being a statistician. As such, photography serves as a passion without serving as an income. It is perhaps because of this that I have been able to focus exactly what styles and genres of photography I find most interesting and stimulating without concern for it affecting my pay. Arguably, the greatest benefit to not being on the professional side of things is the ability to constantly learn from those who have achieved such mastery of their trade at the expense of mistakes. I am no stranger to photographic missteps, and I do believe they’ve made me better for it. I am also aware that without the insight of better photographers, I would have made a lot more and would surely make more in my future.

All this is to say I admire professional photographers more than I can express with words. Without them, I wouldn’t be half of the photographer I am today. I use my camera and the skills I have acquired to document my life and commemorate the experiences and sights I want to never forget. If you are a professional photographer, I appreciate the work you do and hope that you use your abilities to inspire people and teach them. If you’re someone, like me, whose photographic pursuits are purely for sole enjoyment, that is great. Fstoppers and the material on it are for everyone, irrespective of where you are on the continuum of hobbyist to professional. 

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60 Comments

Wonderful article. I almost want to say "me too".

James Madison's picture

By all means, say it. The loudest voices here on Fstoppers are from the professionals but I suspect the majority of readers are like us.

Charles Burgess's picture

"...majority of readers are like us." From my perspective I find that there is essentially no difference any of us. One gets paid, another doesn't - there are masters of photography who are amateurs, and some are pro's.

The downside of being a professional photog is the business tasks that must be done to be successful, a burden that amateurs do not have. For pro's, the most difficult part is keeping the business tasks on track.

Jeff Walsh's picture

I genuinely want professional photographer to create content that puts on full display the work, time, effort, and sacrifices to be such.

I'm like you, I see these incredible images, of fantastic places, that draw out a sense of wonder and awe. In my mind, I've fantasized what they do, even romanticized it. I picture them in wonderful locations, traveling and interacting with people from all over the world. But that's because we are only ever given that side of the story.

I want to see the work. I want to see the, I have a meeting with this company that I emailed, then talked with over the phone, and pitched 20 different ideas to over the last 3 years. I want the, my year isn't as booked with work as I want it to be so I'm going to be doing xyz...then showing us the xyz.

I'm tired of the whimsical lifestyle stories people are feeding. I want to see the reality. I want to see the real life of a professional travel/landscape/fine art photographer. One, so I can learn from them, but also so people can see the reality of the job.

Michael Holst's picture

I honestly think the photographers out there making their jobs look like something out of a fantasy life aren't really about taking pictures as they are about getting you to think that way. The pros that I admire most are hard to follow because they don't have time to "show off". They're grinding every single day like the rest of us. When I see their BTS content I feel happy that I don't have to do that kind of work day in and day out.

I guess what I'm saying is that most the "photographers" selling you on the idea that they have it so good, aren't really that happy, or they aren't working on real gigs often enough. They want to be influencers.

James Madison's picture

I get that vibe from the smaller Youtube channels of photographers I admire. I've not personally seen enough BTS of brilliant landscape photographers as I'd like. I hardly find the time to keep up with the photographers I know and like the work of to take in anything else.

Michael Holst's picture

I guess I failed to leave landscape photographers out since selling prints IMO is much different than being commissioned/hired to shoot a campaign. But a pro is a pro. I assume being able to make a living on print sales takes a lot of time.

James Madison's picture

My sister was good friends with a lifestyle photographer who, after they built up 100k on IG, became pretty unbearable to be around - they became so obsessed with projecting a lifestyle they wanted to live that they didn't appreciate the life and the friends they had. I do not include people like this when I think of people who produce amazing work.

I think of people whose only outwardly facing work is meant to inspire awe, not envy. To your point, I suspect they have to hike out to remote places and set up camp for as long as it takes to get THE photo. I suspect it's very difficult work.

Michael Holst's picture

As soon as a photographer starts to turn the lens around so they're in the frame I tune out. I find it as a transparent announcement that they want to convince you on something that their work alone can't. Even if it's based on innocent intent it can ruin the magic. Similar to a magician showing you how they did their trick. The wonder is suddenly gone.

James Madison's picture

Agreed. I love feeling inspired by amazing photographers and would love to see their work. If I could keep it just to that and learn about their real life experiences to achieve such photographs, I would happy.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

I'm glad you want to see that but, for me, part of my success was dedicating myself to the art of the still photo. So, I don't shoot video. I don't bring a GoPro. I don't make IG stories and I don't hire a video guy to follow me around. I am 100% dedicated to the art of the single, still image. I am not a content creator. I am not a producer. I am a photographer.

Tom Reichner's picture

Jeff Walsh said:

"I want to see the reality. I want to see the real life of a professional travel/landscape/fine art photographer. One, so I can learn from them, but also so people can see the reality of the job."

Okay, Jeff ....... I will attempt to give you what you have said you wanted to see; the work and sacrifices that lie behind the images.

I am a semi-professional wildlife photographer. By that I mean that some years I earn more income from licensing my wildlife photos than I do through all other means, and that in other years I earn more from other jobs than I do from selling my wildlife photos.

The reality of the job ........ hmmmmmmm.

Well, in most years I get to travel all around the U.S., in search of wildlife to photograph. I live in Washington state, but road-trip all over the lower 48.

Last year, for example, found me in New Jersey in the dead of winter, photographing sea ducks on the ocean, in brutal wind and cold. Also in the winter I spent a great deal of time in Pennsylvania photographing songbirds at feeder set-ups. And I spent a week or so in Maryland photographing Canvasbacks, Mallards, Wigeon, and Lesser Scaup. Then on to Florida in search of a variety of birdlife ... then to Oklahoma to scout a location for Collared Lizards. Then Yellowstone for some Elk and Bison photography while there was still a lot of snow on the ground and while the Elk still had their magnificent antlers.

Then back home to Washington for a couple months of spring bird photography, focusing on courting and nesting behavior.

Then zipping back to Colorado for Whitetail Deer, New Jersey for a Heron and Ibis rookery, Florida again, this time for Black Skimmers and Least Terns, Oklahoma again to photograph the Collared Lizard location that I had scouted a few months prior, Colorado again for more Whitetail Deer, then the Beartooth Mountain range in Wyoming and Montana to photograph alpine wildlife.

Then back home for fire season (I do wildland fire fighting in the summer to make ends meet).

Then after fire season, a week in Colorado, for Whitetail Deer shedding velvet ( a failure), and detouring the long way home, routing through Arizona and Utah in search of Desert Bighorn Sheep (slight success).

Back home to Washington for a break and some Pika photography, then off on my big annual Deer trip, where I spend a month in Colorado and Montana photographing Whitetail and Mule Deer. Deer photos provide more income for me than any other species, so I always spend at least 4 full weeks photographing them during their November mating season (a.k.a. "rut").

I can see how this would all sound very adventurous, and in fact it is! But the work and the sacrifices ...... oh my gosh - those sacrifices!

I am dirt poor, so when I travel I usually have to sleep in my tent or in my car. I actually spent over 30 nights sleeping in my car this year - and it is a tiny little Toyota Corolla, loaded to the max with all manner of outdoor gear. So there is only room for me to lean the driver's seat back into the most reclined position, lean back, and try to sleep. Many nights I have trouble sleeping because it is so uncomfortable, but I cannot afford any other options, so I have to go through the next day fighting that horrible "I barely slept last night" feeling.

I would love a bigger car with a bit more room, and I really NEED a vehicle with 4 wheel drive, because having a tiny one wheel drive car keeps me from going down so many roads that lead to great wildlife oppportunities. But again, my relative poverty means that I must have a car that gets at least 36 miles per gallon. And only tiny little one or two wheel drive cars get that kind of mileage. If I had a better car, more suited to my excursions, then I wouldn't be able to travel so much, because I wouldn't have enough money for gasoline.

Also, because I spend so much time traveling and because selling wildlife photos doesn't pay much at all, I don't have money for many of the things that most people in first world countries consider to be necessities. My clothes are worn and thread bare. My shoes literally have big holes in them where the soles have separated from the uppers. I cannot afford to fix or maintain my home, so the paint on the outside is all cracked and peeling off ...... it is an eyesore. And the electrical outlets in my home are downright dangerous! I mean, most of them don't work, and those that do shoot sparks out when I plug things into them.

My home is filthy and cluttered - a disgrace, really. But all of my effort and strength goes into road-tripping and photographing wildlife, and there is no strength or motivation left to do anything around the house. If I have a little bi of energy and motivation to do something, then I jump in the car and drive off to try to find wild animals. No matter how badly something needs to be done at home, I will continue to spend my time and my energy going off to find animals instead of doing the "regular responsibilities" of home ownership.

And there's certainly no money to fix or maintain anything here, either. Every dollar that I would spend on the home is a dollar that I wouldn't have to travel with, and my priorities are 100% about the travel and the wildlife ..... so the home remains broken down and unrepaired.

So while the travel and photography part of my life may sound exciting and adventurous, it definitely comes at a price. The other things in my life are in a state of ruin because I put the adventure ahead of everything else. It is really the only thing I care about. If it paid well, then I could have the best of all worlds - a "regular life" that was in good order, as well as hundreds of days spent traveling every year. But wildlife photography doesn't pay well, so for me to travel so much means that I have to give up so many other things. It's all about priorities, I guess.

You said that you wanted to see the work and the sacrifices that lie behind a professional photographer's imagery. I hope that I showed you what you wanted to see.

James Madison's picture

Man, that's intense. I don't what else to say about that.

On a different note - I like the image of the shed deer antler in snow. I hope you finding your way sharing more of your work and experiences.

Thank you for the candid comment.

Broken Canon Art & Photography's picture

I'm perfectly happy being referred to as an "Amateur"

James Madison's picture

Not sure there's a uniform definition of "Amateur" but I am perfectly happy not being a professional.

Broken Canon Art & Photography's picture

We all have challenges to over come, limitations or hindrances.

David Medeiros's picture

This article implies the only photographers worth paying attention to or learning from are full-time professionals. Equating mastery of the craft with charging for your work. Hobbyist to professional is not a continuum of skills mastery, there are many many enthusiasts out there doing "pro" level work.

James Madison's picture

Fair point. I can see how you could interpret it that way but it was not intended to come off that way.

I suppose I've always thought of the continuum of skill/talent/experience to go from hobbyist to professional without regard to profession or whether someone collects money for their photographic work. Indeed, some of the most talented photographers I've ever met have day jobs in something else and hone their photography skills on the side. However, for the two people I have in my mind that fit this description, both are considering making photography their full time job.

You raise a great point. I'll have to think on how I define and delineate between hobbyist and professional.

David Medeiros's picture

It's not a criticism of you really, just a reminder to the readers. I think this is a common semantics problem with photography in that Professional has come to mean Master in terms of skills. But really all it means is that you charge for your work. There are MANY crap pros out there and MANY amazing amateurs (hobbyists, enthusiasts...?). There have been some other threads or videos that cover this same issue of what to call ourselves. And I think most of us who are already up to out knees in photography know what is meant by saying Pro most of the time. For those newer to the craft though it can sound like they are being told to ignore advice and inspiration from non-working photographers, and I think that's a shame.

James Madison's picture

This is still a fair point. Etymology was never a strong suit of mine. I most certainly don't have a concise understanding or description for "professional" or "hobbyists" or "enthusiasts" and recognize the shortcoming of what I was attempting to articulate as such.

It was not my intention to regard all advice from a photographer who isn't a "pro" as ignorable or that advice from a "pro" should be taken as gospel. Rather, I was attempting to say that it is my hope that those who have acquired a lot of knowledge and expertise in photography either through trial and error or education share their knowledge to help them learn to be better.

Tom Reichner's picture

David,

The author never said or implied that professionals produce better images that amateurs. I am not sure why you think that he implied such a thing. I have read and re-read his article, and see no such statement, nor any statement that could be reasonably interpreted to mean such a thing.

James Madison's picture

I am glad that you did not read it that way. However, I can see how someone could. In particular, the last sentence ending with "the continuum of hobbyist to professional." As stated in the above comment I left David, it was never my intention to say or imply that hobbyists cannot be properly talented or that all professionals are. In light of David's comment though I could see where it could be read that way.

No harm, no foul. It's giving me a lot to think about in how I personally define and describe the spectrum of talent, skill, and expertise.

Jeff Walsh's picture

I got nothing of the sort from the article. If you read that implication, it seems you did the insertion of that implication.

James Madison's picture

Please see my response to Tom. Not looking to make a redundant comment but I didn't want you to think I was ignoring your response*

Tom Reichner's picture

Well said, Jeff! I have noticed that sometimes, people go by what they think someone meant, instead of what the person actually said. That is something that we need to be careful to never do.

Judge someone by their actual words, and never by what we think they may have meant by those words!

Let's face it. For most of them, it is just plain hard work. Taking pictures, getting the editing done and satisfying clients.
I don't think there is anything more romantic about it than most jobs.

James Madison's picture

Perhaps not. I don't know. However, I enjoy daydreaming of a career of hiking and enjoying the beauty of the world.

Tom Reichner's picture

Well, if you want a career of hiking out in nature and capturing images of beautiful scenes and subject, then just go for it!

But of course doing so may mean that you have to give up things like having a wife or children, having health insurance, having a decent home, decent car, savings account, retirement plan, etc.

But if you want the life of travel and adventure more than you want any of those other things, then "just do it"!

If any of those other things are important to you, and you are not willing to give them all up, then I think that daydreaming of it may be better for you than actually doing it.

James Madison's picture

Ha! I think I'll probably stay put. Particularly after your raw description of the life of a photographer on the road! I get to travel a fair amount and while I would certainly enjoy doing it more, in the grand scheme of things there's always a give and take and my situation now isn't going to be given up.

I appreciate the support though!

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