Thoughts on ‘Amateur’ and ‘Professional’ Photography

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We all know by now how Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer unleashed the collective fury of photographers and the creative community during her presentation of the new Flickr with a few poorly chosen words. She has since clarified her statement, but the real issue is that the distinction between photographer and professional photographer is fuzzy at best in the minds of most people, particularly those that know little about the world of photography.

An “amateur” photographer is someone that takes photos for fun and passion. They enjoy the art of photography, and appreciate the ability to preserve memories and moments. Despite being “amateur”, they can (and do) take some of the most beautiful and breathtaking images you’ll ever see.

A professional photographer is consistently compensated for their photographic work. They have practiced and trained themselves to become at least competent at photography and to do it for others.

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The other hallmark of a professional photographer is that they are a business entity, from one person operations all the way to large studio outfits with many full time employees and assignments.

Professional photographers use proposals, contracts, and have insurance. They know how to perform at a consistent level every time through practice, perseverance, and effort.

The label of “professional” has less do with skill and talent and more to do with business operations. There are great professional photographers who are not great photographers, but they have mastered the other areas of their business that are an integral part of being successful.

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They work hard at the accounting, the marketing, the networking, the client relationships, and the professional outreach. And those parts are often much more important than the latest Photoshop technique, fancy gear, or firmware update.

A professional delivers on a promise to get the shot. Oftentimes passion led them to choose to become a professional photographer, but they now have many added pressures that are not optional anymore.

The analogy would be someone who loves to cook versus someone who makes a living cooking. Both can be called “chefs”, but one is a professional by definition while the other person is someone who is passionate about food and cuisine but does not depend on it for their livelihood.

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What does this mean for you, the professional or aspiring professional photographer?

Well, for one, don’t let the words of a tech company CEO get you upset. And actions speak louder than words when it comes to attracting positive attention. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Well done is better than well said.”

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1. Act professional

Don’t be a hipster with a sweet Micro Four Thirds camera and call yourself a professional photographer. Be the hipster with a great camera that also knows how to run their business. Show your potential clients that you can return calls and emails, be on time, invoice properly, know what you’re doing on set (or know how to fake it).

People are hiring you for more than just your photographic expertise, they are leaning on you for other services as well, particularly if they haven’t retained professional services before.

Can you help them find great models, locations, make-up/hair/food/prop stylists, get permits, etc.? You’re being hired to solve a problem and provide solutions – make your clients’ lives as stress free as possible and you’ll be worth more than you charge every time.

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2. Share your expertise

Why do so many successful professional photographers blog, use social media, create tutorials, and look to mentor others? One, because it’s always good to pay it forward. But it also demonstrates expertise and authority and it educates potential clients.

When you write a beautiful blog posts with gorgeous images and screen grabs it shows a prospective client who is vetting you that you know what you’re doing. And it offers a “behind the scenes” look at the process beyond the click of the shutter and validates your costs and fees.

Too many people think professional photography is easy because all they ever see is the shoot. They are not aware of the hours spent downloading, cataloging, editing, and uploading.

If people knew how much effort and work goes into your craft, they would better understand and be more willing to pay your fees because they would see the value in what you do.

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3. Get testimonials and recommendations from clients

Have them write or say on video how wonderful and professional you are. Potential clients want to see satisfied clients. You can tell everyone in the world what an amazing professional photographer you are until you are blue in the face. But having someone say it for you will carry a lot more weight.

4. Don’t get caught up in the online hype

A professional photographer is pursuing financial success, not just fame or exposure. Does having a really popular Instagram account really further your business goals? For most aspiring professional photographers, basic classes in accounting, marketing, and business at a community college would be worth far more than any lens, set of actions, or photographic workshops.

W-9s, contracts, and business insurance may not be sexy, but if you want to make a living as a professional photographer they are absolutely crucial to your long term success.

About the author: Alex Ignacio is a professional photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit his business site here and his photography site here.

  • Skyler

    What kind of photography are you talking about when you say “remain in the game”? There are a lot more photographers now but that seems to be a natural response to the growing industry who use photographs. There are many more publications now than 20 years ago, hell 5 years ago. And many more platforms as well. New emerging markets in the world that need advertisements. I don’t think photography is like a bubble that will burst if there are to many. Maybe in the wedding photography or graduation portrait market we can see a trend of clients not using photography businesses. I don’t think any other areas, though.

  • Ken

    If the definition of “professional photographer” stresses you out, you are probably not one.

  • Jonathan Tercero

    Absolutely TRUE!!!

  • Alex Ignacio

    There is a perceived intensity of competition since there are so many photographers and professional photographers these days. And while there are many more publications than ever before, innovations such as microstock photography have put a lot of downward pressure on photographic fees.

    While this isn’t the death knell for professional photographers, it means that you have to work a lot harder to become successful and stay that way. The entry of very young, very talented photographers that are extremely hungry, energetic, and have fewer relative expenses to older or more experienced photographers makes it more challenging these days too.

    Furthermore, the advent of the internet has helped photographers achieve greater exposure than ever before, but it has also eroded the concepts of copyright and intellectual property. So a new challenge is many photographers having to actively deal with image theft or choose not to and watch their catalog potentially lose value.

    Right now is a fascinating time for the world of photography. There is so much more amazing stuff being shared these days which would seem to heighten the value of professional photography. However, the ease of entry into photography because of the digital revolution has also increased the number of photographers by magnitudes, and that seems to be the countervailing force at the moment.

    If you can rise to the top you will be handsomely rewarded, but the summit is sure a lot higher than it used to be.

  • Alex Ignacio

    Part of the situation is that non-professional photographers call themselves “X” photographer as well. There are many passionate food photographers that are not doing it for a living, they just like investing more time, energy, and resources into their hobby than everyone that Instagrams every meal. So do they have to say “I’m a non-professional food photographer”? Or does the pro have to say “I’m a professional food photographer”? And is the difference about ego or clarity?

  • Roman Schlaepfer

    I totally agree on this. Great opinion Bob, I couldn’t even think it better.

  • Roman Schlaepfer

    I guess it’s not only the professionals, but also the mere people who have a difficulty understanding this or at least think beyond the border.
    I mean if I get an assignment for a wedding and some people talk about how much less I charge and how my pictures still would be better than other professional ones, I just have to shake my head. They don’t think about what happens if I’m sick or what sort of guarantee they have when I work for them compared to pros. I think this needs much more clarification.
    In the end this is the same as when you give your car to a friend who likes to play with engines and tries to fix your engine as good as possible compared to give your car to a proper autoshop.

  • Roman Schlaepfer

    True, but there are people who do it for the cause and work for (almost) nothing. And I think depending on how they do it and how often they do it, you could call it professional.

  • Roman Schlaepfer

    And the other challenge is the term ‘amateur/hobbyist’ itself. Although you shouldn’t actually care about those, there are people who are quite disrespectful when you tell them photography is your hobby.

  • Skyler

    I would say neither because as soon as the “non-professional food photographer” gets approached by a client to do a shoot they’ll forget to mention their just a hobbyist and just say they are a food photographer. Besides the fact the clients automatically by default assume photography is the photographer’s profession and therefore they are a pro. I just don’t see the scenario where this distinction between pro and hobbyist needs to be made? When quoting for a shoot I’ve never been asked by a creative director “hey are you a pro?”

  • Skyler

    Sure the “death” of stock because of the not so surprising success of micro stock and the big 3 trying to match their prices as well as image theft has stuck it hard to a lot of photographers, myself included. But I don’t believe that stock was ever meant to be a main source of income. The summit to the top (marketing/business) is still far more expensive than the price of a camera, and is a game most people never grasp. So until they do, those that have learned the tricks of the trade, put in the investment, and showed consistency will stay pretty comfortable atop their pedestal.

  • dude

    yup! whether pro, pinhole, or a kids hello kitty! talent knows no limits, as many well known photographers every so often prove (using insta or cheap camera to produce amazing results!)

  • Skyler

    Totally spot on Bob! Thats the no BS truth. I been trying to say that all along. Just trying to work a fulfilling job, the best I can.

  • Alex Ignacio

    There are certainly those that make assumptions based on portfolio, gear, or what not, but it’s a potentially dangerous situation in certain scenarios.
    There are photographers skating by without the proper liability or errors and omissions insurance, and nobody asks them about it, but you could be in legal and financial trouble if something were to happen. And it’s far easier and smarter to protect one’s reputation than to rebuild it.

  • LDMartin1959

    Marissa Mayer did not “clarify” her words. She essentially claimed that she didn’t say what everyone heard her say and if you think you did, you just misinterpreted what she said.

  • Rob McLaughlin

    Excellent post Alex.

    I am out almost every day with my camera and, as I’m sure is the case with many of the commenters, I often get chatting to people about photography.

    I have noticed that some people get exercised about the distinction between “amateur” and “pro”- to my mind this is often little more than a type of snobbery.

    I am at pains to state quite categorically that I am very much an amateur, a hobbyist who at the moment has time to indulge in what is for me a passion. One of (if not the main) reasons for this is that I want people to know from the start that I am not the person they want to be asking to shoot their wedding, birthday party or whatever.

    I do not have any desire to be a “pro” photographer as that is, as you say, much more involved than simply pointing a camera at a person/object/building etc and hitting the shutter release. I shoot what I want to shoot (mainly at the moment wildlife, and the natural world in general) when I want to shoot – I am not working to a deadline and do not have the added pressures associated with working to someone elses brief and, if I end up with nothing at the end of a day’s shooting, the only person who will be disappointed is me (although coincidentally I have recently been asked if I would take on the task of supplying the images for a photojournal for a property developer; at the moment I have not made up my mind one way or the other.)

    Having said all that, I echo Sarah BK’s final point – if someone likes one of my images enough to want to buy a print, that would be great; I do not mind admitting that I’m flattered whenever someone likes my “work”, even if it’s no more that a “like” on Twitter.

  • tom

    26 years as a pro, Bob is 100% on track!

    The biz is going through some rapid changes…I’m seeing it more and more too. But honestly, I’ve outlived more “art” photographers than I can count. I admire their work and vision, but most tire once the luster wears off, or they have to actually make consistent income, so they are off to the next artistic venture (sculpting, painting), back in school getting a masters in fine art, or living in Mom’s basement…
    This biz requires a thick skin, an open mind, willingness to change and consistently adapt.
    It was a cut throat business before digital and is now even more so!

  • Zane Richards

    The camera makes little difference, if any it’s only on the technical side(a 12 mp 3/4 sensor DSLR will capture a better and more accurate image than a cell phone camera). In either case the camera is only a tool in the hands of someone who either knows how it works or doesn’t. Image quality doesn’t equal a good photograph. Knowledge and experience do. Having said that, there are both professionals, semi-professionals(if there even is such a category I would put myself into this one), and amateurs alike who have such knowledge and experience to capture truly good(and great)images. Just because you buy a DSLR, doesn’t mean you’ll take good photos.

  • Zane Richards

    Good article, I’ll have to bookmark this one. I’ve been doing a lot of looking for writing on the current state of photography in an age of over-saturation of images(not quite as easy as I imagined it would be). Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Christopher Hugh Hiscocks

    “Does having a really popular Instagram account really further your business goals?” many of the articled published here in PP center around youngsters who have been discovered via Instagram, Flickr etc. It’s important.