What IS a Professional Photographer?

The phrase heard every day in the world of photography is “I am a professional photographer.” This statement must be viewed in the context that 8 out of 10 people with a DSLR refer to themselves as professional photographers. Of course, this statistical claim is a MUS (Made-Up-Stat). OK, the math is fuzzy, but in reality, the claim is not that outlandish.

The serious question is “What makes a photographer a professional?” The great headshot photographer Peter Hurley obviously is one, and even though a friend recently paid me for a portrait last month, I am definitely not one. So what are the criteria that allow photographers to label themselves as professionals?

Perhaps a more important question is “What is so great about being a professional photographer?” I do not want to be too critical, but much of the work that a true professional photographer produces is rather mundane, while much of the photography of “amateurs” is phenomenal. Finally, the question remains: who should and who should not be considered a professional?

In any scientific research, the source must be above reproach. My source is the acclaimed newspaper, the Washington Post. The highly respected news organization presently is sponsoring a photo contest, which in itself is interesting. The rules for entry state that “only amateurs are eligible” to enter. As I read this, the thesis question immediately entered my mind. The Washington Post did not let me down. They defined a professional photographer as “anyone who earns more than 50 percent of his or her annual income from photography.” As a math teacher, I must admit I loved this definition. It is both clear and measurable. This simply means that if one earns $50,000 a year, $25,000+ must be derived from their photographic output.

This definition makes the pool of professional photographers rather shallow, which it probably should be. After thinking about this, I probably do not personally know anybody qualified to be called a professional photographer. This is not a criticism as many of my colleagues are outstanding photographers.

Professional vs. Amateur: My Personal Definition

To me, this is a fun mathematical/logical question. Words have meaning, and we live in a world where almost everybody with a camera self-identifies as a professional. It is important to note that we are not talking about the novice or beginning photographer. We are talking about men and women who take their photography seriously. The following is a simple, but vital quote I recently came across by JP Danko:

Many so-called ‘amateur’ photographers create some pretty damn amazing photographs (take a look at most of the work on 500px) – and many so-called ‘professional’ photographers deliver some pretty awful photographs to their clients (see US Olympic Team Portraits). So, I don’t think that there is really a definable quality difference.

This is critical! The distinction has nothing to do with quality of a photographer’s work!

Back to my definition… OK. 50% income may be too simple a definition, yet it does show up in almost all research. After extended Googling, these are my personal requirements for a photographer to be considered a professional.

Website: A professional photographers must have a website with organized portfolios displaying the types of photography in which they specialize. If you are a portrait photographer, the prospective clients should be able to view 20+ unique examples of your quality work. If you do weddings, the new couple should be able to see 20+ examples of different weddings. This way the client can see a “body of work” and examine it for consistency and quality. A photographer only showing five portraits on Facebook to a prospective client is definitely not a pro. Facebook is a valuable tool, but only in that it serves to navigate your clients to your website. The maximum number of portfolios on one site should be four, according to Scott Kelby.

Insurance: A professional photographer must have business liability insurance. You should be dealing with contracts, not handshakes, so insurance is essential.

Accomplishments: A professional photographer should have “some” of the following:

  1. Have their work published in a magazine, newspaper, etc.
  2. Organized and directed a photographic outing with a group photographic novices.
  3. Have put on a photographic show of their work.
  4. Have received acclaim in a nationwide photo contest.
  5. Presented at a photographic workshop.

Money: The 50% is a threshold, yet it is flexible, depending on the number of the five criteria above the photographer possesses. A “beginning” professional probably should make enough to feed the hobby. Is the photographer making enough to pay for the camera and lenses? This would be the minimum. The ultimate question is, “Can I live off of my photography?”

With any profession, it is always best to omit the adjectives. By definition, I am a mathematics teacher. I would never refer to myself as an inspirational math teacher. The adjectives are for my students to assign, and believe me, there are days when they would call me anything but inspiring.

As for our photography, let the viewer describe the work. If they love it, great! If they do not, we can use that criticism to self-examine our photography. Their viewpoint may indeed be valid and taking it into consideration could allow us as photographers to grow and expand as artists.

The major point here is to not worry about self-imposed labels. Do not be hesitant in allowing the public to describe your work. Photographers such as Peter Hurley, Joe McNally, and Scott Kelby never refer to themselves as professional photographers. They simply say “I am a photographer.” If humbly calling themselves photographers is good enough for Peter, Joe, and Scott, it should be adequate for us all.

We all love what we do. The difference is that we either sell it or give it away. No one in the real world cares which. Sometimes with self-imposed labels, we are in danger of coming off as pretentious. All people care about is the quality of our work, and our job is to constantly strive to improve that quality. Let the world describe you…

About the author: Charles Levie is a photographer who has been teaching mathematics in Asia for over a decade. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Levie’s work on his website and Facebook. This article was also published here.