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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.