Do You Look Like a Professional Photographer?

“Funny…You don’t LOOK like a professional photographer.”

“Really? What does a professional photographer look like?”

“Well, for starters, you only have that one camera!”

“Will I be needing more?”

Thus began the conversation– and the engagement session. I’d met the bride and her mother (really awesome people, by the way) when they hired me, but this was my first encounter with The Groom. At first I figured he was just trying to break the ice. I’m still not sure if that assessment was right or wrong, but in either case it was quite possibly the longest two hours of my career as a photographer. Yes– a professional photographer, damn it.

photographer evolution

I assured Romeo that I really was a professional and that the bag on my back did in fact have a few more essential items. He still wasn’t buying it. I offered to walk him over to the car where plenty of backup gear was waiting to impress him. No dice. I tried dazzling him with my carbon fiber tripod, rather than beating him with it, but the questions persisted. Non-stop. One after another. It was exhausting, insulting, and I’d yet to shoot a single frame. Maybe I should have brought an assistant. I could see Juliet getting uncomfortable with the interrogation, so I gave her my best, most reassuring “it’s-okay-don’t-worry-I-won’t-let-this-spoil-your-engagement-photos” smile. Although tempted, I decided to spare her the “what-the-hell-do-you-see-in-this-guy?” sneer. Benefit of the doubt, right? He came around eventually, although I still had to explain once or twice why I wasn’t checking the LCD after every shot.

So, the session was an epic pain in the ass, but I got the images that I’d promised Juliet, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. Romeo, however, had gotten me thinking.

What DOES a professional photographer look like?

Obviously, the correct answer is, “That’s a stupid question!”

Is it? I know it should be. I know that the work– the final product– is what should matter, not how much gear we have slung over our shoulders when we arrive on location. So, what separates us from non-professionals, or from each other for that matter? In today’s competitive marketplace do I really need to become something I’m not, or change the way I work, just because a client may have certain preconceived notions about how we do our jobs?

I don’t want to turn this into a rehash of the age-old debate on the definition of “professional.” As with everything else, definitions change over time. Do I stop being a professional when I take a great shot with my phone? What if I turn around and sell that great shot I got with my phone? Do I need a pro-size body? If I don’t shoot with a pro-size body, do I have to add a vertical grip? If I don’t add a vertical grip will I still look like a professional?

See where I’m going with this?

I’m a photographer who is fully capable of diagramming and executing extremely complicated shoots. But sometimes, showing up with a camera, one lens, a speedlight, and a reflector is all I need. Am I supposed to bring every bit of gear I own in the biggest rolling case I can find just to make sure Romeo is reassured with my level of professionalism? Shouldn’t Romeo have a little more confidence in Juliet and trust that she’s hired a professional?

throw-away-camera

In a perfect world, clients like Romeo would trust that I know what I’m doing and that I will use whatever is necessary to complete the contracted job. That means not giving me grief when I show up with a pinhole camera, some twine, and a roll of aluminum foil if that’s what I need to do the job. In fairness to Romeo, however, I have to realize that part of being a professional means that I sometimes have to give him what he wants, regardless of how unnecessary it might be to the end result. This goes far beyond engagement shoots. I don’t care if you’re shooting food, sports, headshots, whatever. You have to remember that in some ways the client hired the photographer, not the work. That may be an incredibly subtle distinction, but you have to be aware of it and deal with it accordingly, regardless of how ridiculous it may sound. I think we sometimes get a little too hung up on being artists, and not hung up enough on making smart business decisions.

It’s a bit of a dilemma for me, because I believe in keeping things simple. It helps me think through the challenges that will inevitably present themselves, but it also helps maintain a straight line between my vision and the final shot. While I want it to be the photo that matters, and not how I take it, I have to balance that desire with my client’s expectations. Their kid is shooting for the school paper with a DSLR and getting great results. If I need to pull out a few extra bells and whistles to make them more comfortable with the idea of “professional photography,” so be it.

The moral of the story– Romeo called the other day, asking about headshots for everyone in his office. Giving Romeo a little more of what he needed ended up bringing me more of what I needed. It seems like a pretty good trade-off, especially if all I had to do was look a little more like a professional photographer.

Whatever that means.

Author’s Note: The “evolution” composite at the top of this article has been shared so many times across the internet that I was unable to establish the original source for proper credit. If it is your work, or if you know who created it, please let me know so I can remedy that. –J.

About The Author

Jeff Guyer is an Atlanta, GA photographer specializing in commercial and portrait photography, as well as weddings, sports, and street photography. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter, or check out his work at Guyer Photography.

  • Gustavo Andres Betancourt Oroz

    being a professional at anything has nothing to do with equipment, its about make a living out the practice of the trade..

  • schnellman

    I have run into a similar situation. I am a videographer. Many years ago I would show up with a quite large professional camera and big light setup. Now I use a couple of GH2′s and some flat panel LCD lights. At first people asked what happened if I had worked with them previously. If not, they questioned my ability at some level. For a while I thought about putting my GH2 in a large box and painting it bleck!

  • Rick

    If you had responded to the initial comment with….

    “That’s the whole idea. I try to blend in. It gives me better access to people… their emotions… their feelings, etc. People become far less conscious of the camera and open up more. It’s a look… or rather a non-look I’ve been honing for years.”

    ….it would have stunted his entire argument.

    • MaxHedrm

      I doubt it.

  • TB

    This is reason number one I don’t do wedding photography. I have zero patience for the kind of assholery displayed by “Romeo” and after about 5 minutes of that kind of nonsense I would have let him know. That being said, this was a great piece and valuable advice, no matter your niche. Thank you, Jeff.

  • jimhuffman

    Well written. Thank you for addressing this preconception. I would expect my photographer to know his way around his camera. My wife wants me to find someone, other than me, to take our family photos, but every time I look, I find feauxtographers. They inevitably wonder at HOW I take MY photos without an ounce of ability to figure it out for themselves. One recently asked what the A mode does…Apparently I don’t travel in the right circles.

    • Marc W.

      I’m glad my wife was the one tasked with looking for our wedding photographer. I probably would have gone nuts looking their websites. She found one fantastic one that was starting out and knew his stuff. He was, and still is, fantastic and is always learning.

    • alainpilon

      fauxtographer, not feauxtographer. ;-)

  • npolani

    You were very gracious and professional to Romeo in spite of his demands that you somehow prove yourself to be professional.

    • Bob

      Expectations. What Romeo imagined the photoshoot would look like, differed from would it really was. Maybe he imagined a scaffold full of lights and a lens like a bazooka. If all you brought was a 105mm and a reflector, it might come as a surprise. Eventually, the good results speak quite loudly.
      Although, let’s be honest, it would certainly grind on my last bits of grace to both explain every bit of gear I have and why I don’t have every other photographic product known to mankind.

  • John Thomas

    Hi Jeff, great article. I am a professional engineer and get the same idiotic questioning. (My second job is photography) You could well imagine “what the hell is a professional engineer supposed to look like?” Yes, we generally don’t carry anything that would even come close to identifying us as engineers. I guess this happens in many professions. Well written.

  • Bill Binns

    Hmmm, let’s see. How does one look like a professional photographer? I think the khaki vest with many pockets is a must (big plus if it is branded with a recognizable camera brand). Maybe a big bushy Ansel Adams beard. Maybe a baseball cap that you can quickly twist to the backwards position with a flourish while shouting posing instructions to the bride. You could also go with the European fashion photog look. Skinny black jeans with black turtleneck, black beret and some sort of scarf.

    Remember, it’s not just about the clothes. Looking like a pro also involves lots of squatting and running about. You should also be taking a few shots with one camera body and then quickly handing it off to an assistant and changing to another body. Also, no professional photography session is complete without a boombox blasting out some high energy dance music.