When can I call myself a professional photographer? What makes a photographer a professional? I have been asked these two questions a lot recently and I have learned that my answer tends to surprise people. So I think it’s time to sit down and have a little talk about what it means to be a professional photographer. Stay tuned until the end and I’ll explain what it should mean to you – if you want to become a successful professional photographer.
Let’s be honest… most of you would define a professional photographer as someone who makes a living as a photographer. Unfortunately, when I asked Google that same question, Google seems to agree, saying that “A professional photographer is a photographer who earns 100% of his income from photography.” But they quote one of the most narrow-minded hypesters on the internet.. .and well it’s on the internet, so it must be true…right?
It is a fair assumption that in order to make money as a photographer you need to be working at a professional level. But let’s break this down.
Instead of relying on Google and a widely un-respected gear reviewer for a definition of professional, let’s turn to the dictionary. First of all, if we look up the word photographer, the first thing that Mirriam Webster tells is that a photographer is one who practices photography. In other words, pretty much everyone is a photographer in today’s world. Webster does go on to mention that photographers are also people who make a business or profession of taking photographs — but they don’t make any mention of the difference between full-time or part time or how much of the income is generated from photography.
More importantly, let’s look up the word professional. Webster’s says: relating to, or characteristic of a profession. It goes on to tell us that a professional is characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession – and, more importantly – a person who exhibits a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.
And then, yes – Webster’s goes on to mention the idea of making money.
One more thing that we should discuss before I give you MY definition of a professional photographer… Let’s first talk about the elephant in the room; the photographer’s capabilities and the quality of their work.
Not all photographers are created alike. Some have years of hard-earned experience. Some have very little. Some understand the science behind photography and apply it effectively; others think that depth of field is simply shooting wide open to get a blurry background. Some make it a point to practice and shoot everyday while others pick up their cameras only when they are being paid to shoot. Some continually read and watch videos and study their craft to expand their abilities and yet others keep their heads down and do their own thing, with little awareness or regard for what others are doing.
Some of those behaviors are counter-intuitive if you believe that photographers should have some kind of a degree or certification.
Photography is not the same as brain surgery. It doesn’t and shouldn’t require going to school. It doesn’t — and shouldn’t — require certification. In my opinion people and organizations that promote that concept are simply looking out for their own financial gain, or wanting others to invest the same amount of money and effort as they did, NONE of which insures a better photographer or more professionalism. To be clear: I am in no way saying that schooling is bad. But let’s be honest; for photography, NO school can make you a photographer. Assuming you are in the best program available, all they can really do is give you opportunities to learn and gain experience. What you do with that is up to you. There are MANY successful photographers who are self-taught and who have been entrepreneurial in creating their own learning experiences.
At the end of the day, our clients don’t care if we have a degree or certificate hanging on the wall. They care about the quality of our work and what we will do for them.
My definition of a professional photographer
Professional has nothing to do with making money. The fact that you make money does not make you a professional photographer
Just because someone has a website that says they are a professional photographer, just because they have a business card that says they are professional, just because they have tons of the latest, coolest, most expensive gear, and just because they make their living with that website and business card and gear… that doesn’t mean they’re a professional.
I have met hundreds of photographers in my career who met all of these qualifications and they didn’t last very long. For some it was because their work simply wasn’t that good. For others it was because they simply sucked at running a business. Most who failed, failed because they didn’t understand this:
Professional is an attitude. Professional is a behavior. Professional is a standard.
Being a professional is all about the way in which you approach your work. It is the amount of effort that you put into educating yourself and knowing your gear like an athlete knows theirs. It is the amount of self-motivated learning that you do – not just in the beginning of your career, but throughout your entire career. It’s the amount of practice that you do to sure up and improve your techniques. It is the amount of research that you put in before you take the shot. It is the the quality standards that you maintain before, during, and after the shoot. It’s the follow-up that you do with your clients. It is the relationships that you build.
And, most importantly – being a professional is how you treat your subjects and clients. If you are a professional, people matter.
That’s what professional is.
So instead of asking someone else when and if you can call yourself a professional – go take a long look in the mirror and answer the question yourself.
But until you are ready to do that… go and pick up that camera and shoot something!
Do you want to learn the best way to improve your skills so that you can turn pro? Watch this video: The BEST way to Dramatically Improve your Photography Skills – Photography Techniques.
Because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot. So keep learning, keep thinking and keep shooting – Adios!