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What is a Professional Photographer in the Digital Photography Age?

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What is a Professional Photographer in the Digital Photography Age?

What is a Professional Photographer in the Digital Photography Age?

In the age of digital photography, when anyone can go to the nearest discount store and buy an SLR camera and Photoshop or Elements, the lines between professional, amateur and hobbyist photographer are blurring. Years ago, when I was a kid, the definition of a professional photographer was much more obvious. You had the professionals making a living doing photography and the serious amateurs who loved the art of photography.

In the new digital age, where photography and photo editing is at everyone’s fingertips, and darkrooms are almost a thing of the past, everyone can be a photographer (or at least they may think so).  “Professional photographers” are on every corner now, dozens in every town, thousands in every city. As I wrote my article on “Pricing Photography” a few weeks ago, one theme that came up was “if someone is not charging enough, maybe they are a hobbyist.” But can that be?  Can you accept money and just “shoot for fun?”  The two do not necessarily go together, at least not in the United States where the government wants its piece of the action.

So this brings us back to the question, “what is a professional photographer?”

How can we define this term?  By my definition, I am NOT a professional photographer.  I am a hobbyist!  I love taking pictures and I enjoy the art of photography.  BUT I do not make my living shooting photographs for others.  I make my living helping both pro and hobbyist photographers enhance their photos.

To me, a professional photographer is:

  • Someone who makes a living taking pictures, or at minimum a portion of their income.
  • Someone who has established a legitimate photography business or who is employed by one.
  • Someone who pays taxes on their income derived from photography.

Now some gray areas:

  • Quality of work: If a photographer’s work is excellent, it does NOT mean they are a pro.  And likewise, if the work is poor, they may be one. I know many people earning a living in photography who shoot horrible photographs and have no editing or retouching skills. And I know some amazing amateurs and hobbyists who have incredible portfolios, but choose not to do photography for a living.
  • Business Skills: Some photographers are great business people.  Others are not. Understanding the business and marketing often will separate the unsuccessful from the successful.  And I can tell you with certainty, that sometimes the “best photography” does not come from the most successful professional photographers.
  • Pricing: Higher or lower prices do not determine if someone is a professional.  Unfortunately, if someone is a legitimate business, and decides to undercut others, that is their choice.  If someone is extremely high priced, it does not necessarily mean they are the best in the area either.  Sometimes price will mimic skill set and abilities, but often times, it will not.

Remember, just because you love photography or are talented, does NOT mean you need to be a pro. And when you hear someone is a professional, keep in mind that it does not define how good they are at photography or business. It just shows they “set up shop.”

Now it is your turn. Are you a professional photographer?  If so, why do you consider yourself one? If you are not, what title would you give yourself, how would you define your role and why do you feel that way? Feel free to agree or disagree with my opinions. I want to hear yours!

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54 Comments

  1. August 12, 2010 at 3:17 pm —

    I think I’d call myself an aspiring professional photographer. I LOVE photography of all sorts, working with people, and I know that doing what you love can make for the best sort of work. That being said I do take “good” photographs, but I’m always seeing things I wish I could do differently or know how to do. That and I don’t have a few of the tools I think I need to really be a professional.
    And paying taxes just means you’ve managed to make enough that the government cares about it. Right now I make less than I spend on tools and learning!

  2. August 12, 2010 at 3:06 pm —

    I am a photographer….some call me a pro others may think I’m not. I have a studio, business, business cards, networking, memberships to local chambers and Woman in Business. I shoot on location and in my home studio. I provide services for those who request. I charge and not a hefty amount, because I’m trying to undercut other photographers?? NOPE! Because I want my clients to be able to afford “Memories to last a Lifetime” I LOVE what I do and it’s the first career (not job anymore) that I truly love. I donate my time to OpLove ReUnited for Military deployments, births and Homecomings. I pay my dues, taxes and family time. I come from a SMALL town…..yes we have atleast a hand ful of photographers and I’m hearing of them on a regular basis. I try to keep an open/friendly relationship with them. Some of them feel intimidated because we specialize in the same type of photography. I don’t feel that way. Two photographers could meet with the same client and they will know who they want to go with. It is their choice, since it is their pictures. I look at it that way so I don’t get frustrated with other photographers. I did have a client at the end of our session of her children tell me she would like to get into photography. I didnt’ realize at that moment the real reason she wanted a session was to see how I shoot, and what I do. Next thing you know she has a website identical to mine even with the same music, $20 cheaper on my costs and the same packages provided ALL WITH HER POINT AND SHOOT CAMERA. Now, THAT I’m not ok with. If you want to be a photographer, my advice is be up front and honest with another photographer…don’t copy them….ask if you can follow. I’ve had two others request to 2nd shoot a wedding, the way you go about it makes a world of difference. Sorry, got to venting on here. Just frustrating a little. I LOVE working with other photographers I just have to go to the next county to get someone wanting to share with me 🙂

  3. August 12, 2010 at 2:57 pm —

    I am an artist. No one knows what that means either, but it’s what I feel I am in my heart. Photography is the medium that is pulling at me the most, and I think my point-of-view is an artistic one (whatever that means.)

    Currently I do not have a photography business, but I am slowly working my way towards one. I would like to contribute to my family’s income, and I need to feed the need for upgraded equipment and classes.

    I will not let myself get bogged down with the “professional” label. I plan on treating clients professionally, and someday soon running a small business professionally and producing the best, most artistic, work I can. If it makes my clients happy and earns me more business then that’s all I need :c )

  4. August 12, 2010 at 2:41 pm —

    There is a lot of gray area and I think this will continue to be a hotbed of discussion and debate. I really like Ken Rockwell’s post on why photography is not a profession: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/pro-not.htm

  5. August 12, 2010 at 2:26 pm —

    What matters more, the IRS definition of a professional, or the client’s?

    In my opinion, sound judgment is the difference between professionals and amateurs. By definition, amateurs are driven by passion. Professionals are passionate too, but it’s tempered by business and creative judgment developed over years of experience, client feedback, and one too many mistakes. Demonstrated exceptional talent in a particular niche may be substituted for some of that time and experience.

    Sound judgment increases efficiency and ensures that the client receives what they asked for plus a bit more, but nothing less. It’s not always evident in your portfolio, but it is revealed in the initial conversation. It informs things like kit selection, whether to hire one or two assistants, and post-production planning.

    You want clients to feel they are choosing a professional. Technically and aesthetically, your online portfolio may make their short list. Evidence of your ability to consistently make decisions that benefit the client gets you the job.

  6. August 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm —

    The beauty of the free market system is that consumers ultimately decide who is a professional (long-term) and who is not. Speaking as an accountant who is just learning photography, if I can’t deliver my accounting work at the time, quality, and accuracy demanded by my employer then I won’t be a professional for long. I’ve seen this debate repeated a couple of times since taking an interest in photography, but ultimately the debate will be decided by consumers.

  7. pam
    August 12, 2010 at 1:15 pm —

    I appreciate that you point out that a “professional” can be high priced, earn a living and be lousy, while the non professional can be fabulous and earn a litttle money here and there. In photograph communities the conversation heats up and it is a bit wearying. People get angry if the gal down the street didn’t put nearly as much dough into her equipment as they and now they advertise open for business. Price variances drive people batty. People need to accept the landscape of today’s photography world and carve their path without so much whining. (I totally fall into whining sometimes with my own local issues)

    I call myself a serious hobbiest that gets paid to shoot for people sometimes. I don’t know if I will go the govt defined business route yet based on the quantity of paid-to-shoots I am doing. But when I am the offical camera in a situation, those depending on me consider me to be a “professional” and I should completely live up to what that means.

    Just a thought to consider…we use the word “pro” differently from the word “professional”. Though it is derived from the word professional, we use it to mean *very* good at something. I think that is my more serious goal, to be a pro. A “professional” I am not sure yet. I want my work to be seriously good, and I have plans to give a lot of my work away. Don’t worry, a lot of the recipients can’t even afford walmart photos.

  8. Jill
    August 12, 2010 at 12:18 pm —

    I am a professional (for a few years now) and darn proud of the work it took to get here!! Loved photography since childhood, spent the thousands of dollars and years of my life in photography school, graduated at the top of my class and work hard to continue my education now. I look for great lighting, and work to keep my images technically correct as well as creative and appealing to others. I understand retouching and editing in Photoshop, and I’m pretty darn good at it!! I get paid for my work, pay taxes, and have some cute business cards!! Haha! What gets me the most is the same as some of the other posts here. The moms with a nice camera and cute kids get work by undercutting prices. People think they are creative because they click one action in PS on EVERY image and call it a day. If their “clients” could only see the difference side-by-side they’d see how a wide-angle lens used in every shot is not flattering anyone!! *heavy sigh* Sorry… This just hits SO close to home lately!! Thanks for the opportunity to vent!!

  9. Cally
    August 12, 2010 at 10:40 am —

    Sorry mistype on comment 9, I meant quit not quite!

  10. August 12, 2010 at 10:31 am —

    This is such a honest truth for photographers now and although I consider myself a professional, I have tons of friends who are attempting to make the leap.

    I have a few reasons I consider myself a professional. I conduct myself in a business manner- and opperate as a businees. I have a accounting practices in place that record everything. I have pay taxes multiple times a year. I keep milege books in each car. I have a business plan and a chart for growth. I have S.O.Ps for goodness sakes. I think in this world of blurry gray lines, if you are conducting yourself as a business, that dictates weather or not you are a professional photographer or not.

  11. August 12, 2010 at 10:31 am —

    I agree 100% and I am PROUD to be “just” a hobbyist. I love it and its an outlet for when I cant stand my day job. Would I like to be a pro? H*** YES! Someday but as my husband is just now building his career I don’t have the luxury to quite and depend on photography 100%. But again SOMEDAY!

    Therefore slow and steady is what I am after. I am still learning every day to be better, and slowly investing in my equipment. No Nikon D3 for me anytime soon :(. But I love what I do and yes I have a website so I can make some spare cash with photography, for several reasons, 1… to build my portfolio now before I want to go pro. and 2… so I can keep putting money away to support this hobby without my husband really seeing the effect on his wallet! 🙂

    Even the IRS does allow for a hobbyist to claim income and any expenses (up to the income) associated with the hobby. That makes it more fuzzy because you can do business under your own name and really never need to file paperwork. I have talked with my CPA about it several times and for now since it is truly a hobby for me I am still filing my taxes as above.

  12. August 12, 2010 at 10:24 am —

    I think the defining line is paying taxes for it and having a legitimate business name. But I agree… the line is blurring.

    NEK Photography Blog

  13. Michelle Johnson
    August 12, 2010 at 10:12 am —

    I am a hobbyist with dreams of going pro in the not-too-distant future.

    I’d just like to point out that in most areas you can operate as a “hobby business” where essentially, you charge to cover some of your expenses, but you don’t actually make a profit. You still have to pay taxes on any income and you can’t deduct expenses, but in most cases, you don’t need a business license, etc.

  14. August 12, 2010 at 10:10 am —

    I agree wholeheartedly with Deb’s comment. There is a lot of gray, but if you want to be a pro and consider yourself such, business should be established, and taxes paid. As far as talent goes, that’s clearly subjective. I didn’t start my business until I felt that I had technical knowledge of what I was doing, as well as an artistic eye, and a feel for what my style should be. I’m still in my Portfolio Building stage, so my prices are low, but eventually they will be higher. I don’t make all or most of our famiy’s income from the business, but I make all of MY income from it. 🙂

  15. August 12, 2010 at 9:59 am —

    I’m a hobbyist. And, with the (mostly free) education found in books, magazines, and great websites like this one, I’ve improved my skills over time to the point where people are making assumptions, and just asking, “how much do you charge?” To which, I reply, “I don’t charge. I’m not a professional.” My people, who love me, are starting to tell me I should become a professional. But I don’t want to. That would take all the fun out of my work. Having said that, how can a hobbyist like me avoid “believing her own press,” so to speak? Are there websites where we can have our work critiqued? More importantly, for free?

  16. Jessica
    August 12, 2010 at 9:59 am —

    “Professional” denotes that one is being paid for a service. It also implies that one knows what he or she is doing, and I’ve noticed that many a “professional” photographer these days doesn’t seem to know jack about composition, elements of art, principles of design, rule of thirds, etc. Personally I do not consider myself a professional photographer; I do consider myself an artist, though. Even though I’ve studied art all my life and took my first of many photography classes in 8th grade (about 25 years ago!), I do not sell my photographs and I do not presume to know everything about photography.

  17. August 12, 2010 at 9:29 am —

    GREAT ARTICLE that addresses many things I have been wondering about. While I am not a professional photographer, I am moving in that direction. While my photography is linked to my clothing business, I do anticipate making a portion of my income from photography in the near future.
    I think I would give myself the title of “advanced amateur”? I guess in my mind I consider a “professional photographer” someone that makes MOST or ALL of their income from photography. I don’t consider someone who occasionally takes money from friends for photos a true PRO. I also think of pro photographers as GOOD at what they do. While that is not always the case, I want it to be. 🙂 I think eventually I will be “semi-pro”.

  18. August 12, 2010 at 9:23 am —

    Even though I am not currently ‘earning’ my living as a professional photographer. It is my long term goal. I opened my business nearly 3 years ago, and am still struggling to find profit. This is mainly because my standards are very high, and I’m still putting everything I earn back into my software, equipment, marketing, etc. The other factor is every Mom with a digital thinks she is now a pro because her kids are cute. They also believe that it’s $200 I didn’t have yesterday so I don’t care I’ll take that and give away all my images on disk.
    It’s a problem. I think our main goal should be to educate new photographers as to the wonderful photography education available, teach them to care about training their eye to SEE the real difference in what they are putting out and what professional produces.
    The other aspect is educating your client as to why you charge what you do, and why your worth every penny. That’s my 2cents on this topic.

  19. August 12, 2010 at 9:21 am —

    Oy. I so much suffer on the business end. I am KILLING myself in that department.

    Great article!

  20. August 12, 2010 at 9:17 am —

    I think there is so much gray but I think if you are accepting ANY money for taking photos then you are in business and should be conducting yourself in a legal and professional manner. If you are paid for services then you should be claiming, taxing and have insurance to protect yourself, your gear and your clients.

    If you are not running a legal business then you should not accept money.

    Now the criteria for a professional is knowledge, image quality and treatment of your clients. That is so subjective.

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What is a Professional Photographer in the Digital Photography Age?