Pros Vs. Joes – The Difference Between Amateur and Professional Photographers

There has been a lot of talk recently about what the difference is between amateur and professional photographers.

Comments by industry big shots, such as Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer who proclaim that there “is no such thing really as professional photographers” (well maybe not pro cat/flower/sunset photographers posting to Flickr anyway).

Or, when venerable institutions such as the Chicago Sun Times decide to lay off their entire photography staff – you do start to wonder – what exactly is the difference between amateur and professional photographers?

Professional Wedding Photographer

Pro or Joe?  This is a photo from the first gig I was ever paid for.  I actually delivered this to a client – and at the time, I thought I was pretty hot sh*t!

The Difference Between Amateur and Professional Photographers

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.

A lot of “amateur” photographers also charge money for their services – so the ability to earn income from their work is also common between amateur and professional photographers.

You could argue that the hallmark of a true professional photographer is the ability to deliver a great photograph anytime, anywhere.  But again, there are a ton of pro’s who can’t…and a ton of amateurs who can.

However, I think when you change the ability to create amazing photographs, and the ability to earn income and the ability to deliver under pressure to necessity – they you start to get to the core of what is the value of a professional photographer.

Professional Fitness Photographer Toronto

Pro or Joe?  This is a photo from a paid shoot for a commercial client which is now generating income in my Stocksy portfolio.

What is the VALUE of A Professional Photographer?

I think this is a much more interesting question than debating the differences between pros and amateurs.

The answer is pretty simple really. 

The value of a professional photographer is their necessity to run a profitable business.

Let me be frank: if you can’t run a profitable business, then you are an amateur photographer, out there taking pictures for fun.

That’s not to say that you have to be a full time working pro.  Or, that you have to generate a full time income. 

No. 

You can be a part time professional, shooting weddings on the weekends.  Or a mom taking baby photos in their spare time.  Or surf bum shooting stock.

It doesn’t matter – as long as you treat your photography as a business – then you are a professional photographer – because in order to run a profitable business you need to produce great work, you need to earn a decent income for your time and you need to deliver.

Professional Lawyer Portrait

Pro or Joe?  This is a photo from a paid shoot with a paid licence for a commercial client.  Except, this is from the first commercial gig I ever did.  It’s also the first time I ever used an off camera flash and an umbrella.  Can you tell?  (That’s a rhetorical question.)

How Can Professional Photographers Differentiate Themselves from Amateurs?

Again, simple – by acting like a successful business – always.

I get job requests all the time from companies who don’t normally hire professional photographers.  Law firms, real estate agents, branch offices of big corporations etc.

I am not talking about industry professionals who are used to working with photographers and things like licensing – people like art directors or advertising agency associates. 

I am mostly talking about potential clients like business executives who have never worked with a creative professional before.

They think that they are just looking for someone to come by and snap a portrait, or take some pictures of their products for a hundred bucks. 

When I give them a professional quote, including licensing rates, I usually never hear from them again – and that is fine with me – because I am not going to waste my time with someone who does not value my work or my profession for a hundred bucks.

Professional Industrial Photographer Toronto

Pro or Joe?  This photo is from a paid gig I did for a local
crane company early in my career.  They hired me to “come by
and take some good pictures of our service pickup truck”.  How do you make a
pickup truck look good?  You read through Strobist’s Lighting 101, rent a
set of studio strobes (even if you’ve never used a studio strobe
before) and throw in a few SB800 flashes for good measure.

Strategies To Differentiate Yourself as a Professional Photographer

Over the years, I have come up with a few strategies (besides common sense) that I think help to differentiate my professional photography studio versus the hordes of amateur photographers that naive potential clients think they want to hire.

1. Always Be Professional

That means: reply to inquiries in a timely manner, use proper grammar and spelling, send professional quotations, use professional letterhead etc….

I can’t tell you how often I receive email inquiries from students looking for a job that were written on an iPhone with no capitals, spelling mistakes and txt shortcuts. 

They go straight into the trash bin, because they are not professional.

The same goes for how you correspond with potential clients.

2.  Always Provide Samples of Your Work That Are Similar to What A Potential Client is Asking For

Whenever I reply to a potential new client, I always attach a few low resolution samples of my work that are similar to the job they are looking for.

(Don’t you dare attach high resoluton files to an email – my mom does that and unless you want to look like an old lady who knows nothing about photography – send small photos by email!)

It seems obvious, but if a potential client is looking for architectural photos of a spiffy new property, don’t send them wedding photo examples.

If a mom is asking about baby photos, don’t show them pictures of bikini models.

If you can generate genuine interest in your skill by a few well placed, relivant photos, price goes out the window and you’re in.

3.  Gently Remind Potential Clients that You Are A Professional Photography Studio And You Have Insurance!

This is a new technique – but I have found it to be highly effective because it is a wedge – a true difference between amateur and professional photographers that potential clients cannot ignore.

Professional photography studios carry business general liability insurance. 

Amateurs do not.

Whenever I quote a job, I always emphasize that we carry suitable business general liability insurance and I gently remind them to ask for proof of insurance from any photography vendor that they consider hiring to work on site.

Most clients just assume that whoever they hire will be qualified – they never think about the serious consequences of bringing someone to their place of business who might not actually be truly qualified…or insured.

Just a subtle little reminder is enough to cause a potential client to second guess that guy who’s “good enough” and will do the job for $100.

Professional Corporate Photographer Toronto

Pro or Joe?  This is a natural light photo of my wife, taken purely for fun at a banquet.  But, it was taken with a “professional” camera and lens (although it was taken in manual mode “M”, and not “P” for professional).

What Do You Think Is The Difference Between Amateur and Professional Photographers?

Are you an amateur struggling to define yourself as a pro?  Are you a pro who is tired of amateurs stealing your pie?  How do you differentiate yourself as a professional photography studio?

Leave a comment below!

About the Author

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada.  JP
can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water,
or use a camel as a light stand.

To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube.

JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

  • Jon McKenzie

    Great post! This one caught my eye because I have written about the subject before. I agree that a huge factor in differentiation between pro v. joe is insurance. If a photographer isn’t carry insurance and has a backup plan for equipment and personnel failure then you shouldn’t hire them to shoot your event. Maybe that photographer would be OK for pics of a baby or a cat, but not an event like a wedding. I stopped doing wedding photography on the side because I realized I was killing an industry that I love and admire by under bidding folks that are making their full-time living from capturing once in a lifetime events. Thanks for the good thoughts in this post!

  • Frank

    Thanks for posting this! It was a good read. One thing though: I don’t quite understand the importance of mentioning that you are insured. I mean, I get the importance of having liability insurance for your own sake, but I don’t quite understand how it would swoon customers. “The good news is that, If you sue me, I can cover it!”

    • Jackie Burhans

      Maybe it is more “The good news is, if I slip and fall, or I break something in the venue, MY insurance will cover it, not yours.” Some venues, I hear, won’t let you photograph there unless you have insurance. I have certainly hired house cleaners who said they were insured only to find out later that they weren’t. Luckily nothing happened. However, when I asked the people to whom they sold their business to show me their insurance and bonding documentation, they stopped calling me to try to get me to retain them. Hmmm.

  • kevinflorian

    I think on a business scale, you are correct in sifting the two. But when you consider the artistic side of photography — because it is an artform — I think the scale changes immensely.

    The value of an image is always subjective. It is in the eye of the beholder. However, there are social collective levels of value — what is deemed “good” or “great” by the masses.

    In photography, it’s your ability to frame [a scene], to pose [people], to shape [light], to catch [an expression], to freeze [action], to encapsulate a valuable moment in life — that determines your place on the scale of greatness.

    In this sense, there are no Pros and Amateurs (like in the business sense) — only the Able and Less Able (and the simply unable). What one can do with a paintbrush should not be solely valued on their ability to sell you on it, but should be valued for the beauty of what’s produced. Unfortunately, “unable” photography is more like a fast-growing weed these days and the flowers of the “Amateur” Able have a harder time standing out.

    • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

      Good point Kevin

  • Uncle Bob

    I always thought if you don’t earn from photography you should not call yourself a photographer,PRO means making photos in your 40′s? because all of them call themselves a PRO in their 40′s while making all kinds of crappy images.

    • http://www.shinyphoto.co.uk/ Tim

      “if you don’t earn from photography you should not call yourself a photographer”

      I think you should be quiet, in order to reduce the chances of sounding an offensive fool.

    • Beau

      Love Uncle Bob!

  • Lorraine Gehring

    If proper spelling and grammar are important to you, why don’t you proof your page? “Is” is a verb. You capitalize it. And “relivant” isn’t a word. And don’t forget the capitalized “A” in the next point!

    From a professional writer

    • Kevin

      I don’t know how things go in the world of professional writing, but I’m pretty sure it’s not in good form to begin a sentence with a conjunction, namely one as blunt as “and”, and especially not using it again in the next sentence.
      I don’t know what it is about this particular site that brings out the nitpicking, but I don’t think we need a post in every article giving us a rundown of all of the spelling and grammar mistakes. Chances are you get the gist of what people are saying.

      • http://www.shinyphoto.co.uk/ Tim

        Starting a sentence with `And’ is perfectly good form if it conveys a coherent intent, such as an emphatic resumption of a point.

        That said, `From a professional writer’ is not a complete sentence nor a standard form of salutation.

        • Chase

          Holy crap, you guys are persnickety douche bags.

          • ext237

            And I would have to agree with Chase.

  • los mignones

    I come from a film/video background and one thing i noticed is that pro’s that went through the “standrat training” tend to have a more streamlined production and especially postproduction workflow. The handling of the original material (master), archiving and backup are skills that are being learned while going through the intern, assistant learning process.

    • SpaghettiMitKnoedel

      Sure but and I hire only photographers that have this kind of background – but there are enough Pro’s that lack both training and skill.

      It’s like in the rest of the world – e.g. there are good chefs and bad chefs – still both make their living of it.

  • SpaghettiMitKnoedel

    I think the profitable business side is actually a side effect and not a definition. There are plenty of professionals out there who are bad businessman (Blackberry anyone?).

    Pro or Joe is a business definition – and there could be also part-time pro’s in my definition.

  • Rick

    The difference between pros and amateurs is no more clear than it is with wedding photography and the mid to low range wedding photographer. The photos taken by the pro, while nicely done are generally found in a fancy binder which is currently in the original box, tucked underneath the sofa or in the back of the closet. The photos taken by the [somewhat skilled] amateurs are on display in the numerous 5×7 frames scattered throughout the house (not to mention many more located in the houses of family and friends).

    Ultimately, while the [low to mid range] pros may be taking technically perfect photos (lighting, composition, etc), they are generally creating little more than historical documentation with the posed photos in the binder/box set. The [somewhat skilled] amateurs however are capturing the emotions of the event. And it is those emotions that will want to be revisited again and again.

    • Michael Chastain

      You are conflating two absolutely unrelated things. There are plenty of pros who are better at capturing “the emotions of the event” than amateurs ever will be, and plenty of amateurs who just take poor and ridiculously staged photos.

      A good professional wedding photographer doesn’t just take elaborately staged photos.

      • Rick

        You’ll note in my carefully worded comment that I never said anything about “good” photographers. Those who are good at capturing the emotions of the event tend to rise out of the “low to mid range” fairly quickly.

        And as far as poor and ridiculously staged photographs by unskilled amateurs, these tend to gravitate toward the internet. They are rarely found framed in the couple’s home.

        • Michael Chastain

          “You’ll note in my carefully worded comment that I never said anything about “good” photographers. ”

          No, you just pigeonholed “pro” photographers in a way that has no basis in reality, and did the same with amateurs.

          The quality of a photo is a completely separate issue from whether it captures the emotion of an event. You can have a technically poor photo that captures no emotion, a technically poor photo that captures emotion, a professional photo that captures no emotion, or a professional photo that captures emotion.

          Your post at least implies that a pro photographer can never capture the emotion of an event and that’s just not true. It’s not true at all.

          • Rick

            My post doesn’t “imply” that a low to mid range wedding photographer cannot capture emotion, it flat out states it. Any photographer who can capture emotion quickly rises above that group.

          • Michael Chastain

            You can claim that your posts are “carefully worded” but you have utterly failed to make a cohesive point. You seem to have created some weird distortion field where by your definition the only people that can capture emotion are amateurs and “good” but not “pro” photographers.

            Or maybe that’s not what you’re trying to argue, but obviously nobody here can make any sense of your comments.

    • Alex Minkin

      load of crock. you’re trying to pigeonhole pro wedding photographers into ‘stiff and formal, lacking emotion but perfect execution from a technical standpoint’ while loosing amateurs into ‘crazy and creative! oh man, so much fun! my camera is tilted and my clients LOVE turning their heads 45 degrees to see a photo!”.

      your comment is also neither carefully worded or somehow exempt from being wrong by virtue of leaving out ‘good’ photographers.

      • Rick

        Again, you are reading things into my comment that were neither stated or implied. All my comment does is reiterate what is stated in the article above, calling yourself a professional does not inherently make you a good photographer and being an amateur does not inherently make you a bad one.

        But if you feel I have unfairly pigeonholed a low to mid range wedding photographer, please post a website and let the world be the judge.

        • Michael Chastain

          We’re not reading things into your comments that weren’t stated or implied. I think you need to read your original comment again. If you write poorly it’s not other people’s fault for not understanding your intentions. We can only see the words you put on the page.

  • http://www.metconphotos.com/ Christopher Nolan

    great read! The only question I have for you is do you Crossfit, or was that just a shoot for client?

    • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

      That was a commercial shoot – but it looks pretty awesome!

  • http://tahoeshooter.com Jon Peckham

    I totally agree with this. Also understanding human behavior including yourself is also key. It is very hard to be successful on the outside if you are not successful on the inside.

  • http://www.shinyphoto.co.uk/ Tim

    A well-timed article, this. I’ve been thinking about the differentiation between pro and amateur a lot recently. I can totally see how the $100/friend/family situations arise (having been the designated family-member photographer recently) and how that leads to Marissa’s comment; she might not be right, but it does hint that to make a profession out of photography, one has to be pretty assertive about what one brings to the table. Therein lies a conundrum: how to assert one’s distinctive qualities without coming across as pushy and bullish.

    I particularly like the idea of insurance as a factor; that’s quite a strong differentiator.

    Another angle is whether you’re free to shoot what you like. I find that quite important: if I’m not enjoying myself then I’m trying too hard. I happen to take/make photos that frequently happen to be of landscape or nature; I’d far rather identify as a happy human than a landscape photographer, however.

  • Laurent

    As I see it, the main difference betwen a pro and an amateur is that the pro makes money from his photographs. It’s not anymore a matter of skills. We all have been seing such poor photographs made by so called “pros”, and so many awesome ones made by “amateurs” (even in weddings or other topics)… There are good and bad photographers in both pros and amateurs. The sad part is that people pay the pros without having any guaranty about the result… :-( And even if they refuse to pay because the result is too disapointing, they won’t have any “real” wedding photos to look at, and the prejudice is really heavy… :-(

  • Matt Payne

    Interesting read, and there are a lot of good thoughts in here, but I think it is too broad of a paintbrush to stroke with. First of all, there’s a lot of us “semi-pro” folks that still have a day job but get paid quite well to do the occasional portrait shoot or small wedding. Full-blown liability insurance is just not practical for people like me. In fact, a ton of folks I know here don’t carry it because they can’t get enough business to sustain the full burden of doing business right. I’m not saying that is a good thing I just think you might be missing part of the equation here.

  • dan

    im an amateur photographer myself. for our wedding, we paid more than the average price for a guy that had awards coming out of his ears. i was extremely disappointed with the result of the images. when we met him, he showed us all these fancy, clearly staged, very photoshopped and probably using models, shots that we expected to get the same quality on our day. we just didnt, so many just looked over exposed, i know photoshop v well as i use it for a living and im pretty sure he just threw the same preset over everything . not happy

  • ext237

    We can argue among ourselves for years. We want to make it all about soccer moms with Digital-rebles cameras vs seasoned old guys.

    At the end of the day, this is our fault. We’ve done a piss-poor job of educating our clients. They want the best value for the money, and we are so busy sucker-punching each other, potential clients walk away not knowing who to trust.

    Pride and protectionism have led us to expect “fair” treatment while not keeping up with changing trends or evolving our professional services. And we get teary eyed when the market isn’t going our way and someone slips in under-priced.

    It takes more than showing clients a portfolio of pretty pics.

    Handing them a list of former clients phone numbers, a list of other photographers that will take over if I catch the flu, explaining my contingency plans if things go wrong, explaining my file retention and protection procedures so they can recover their pictures if their house burns down in 10 years, showing them the BACK of the image paper so they can see the quality their photos will be printed on … and showing them that when things are toughest, I will be their partner, not some “vendor”.

    And then telling the client to ask their other perspective photogs for the same info.

    When a client is educated, they can look a Joe in the face and says “hand me the names and phone numbers of the photogs that will take over if your car breaks down” and “show me some prints so I can see the kind of paper you use”.

    Then it becomes about the cost and quality of service. If the client chooses a lower priced service, then at least they can do so as an informed consumer, not “sold” on a “package”.

  • Ryan

    Photography is just part of the business I work in, most of it is in print production and graphic design. That said – I’ve been embracing “Professional only means you figured out how to get paid, it says nothing about skill level”. I started doing photography and trying to step it up to a much higher level because I could not get acceptable work out of any of the pros in town at any price.
    There are a lot of print shops in town that do terrible work. There are a lot of photographers in town that do horrific work. But, they are are all professionals by the above definition. They aren’t experts or masters at their craft. To me that’s what really matters.
    I would much prefer to be thought of as a master photographer, designer, printer, than a professional one. Yes it’s great I can make a living off of my skills but I want it to be because I’m good at it and bring something special or exceptional to the table. Anyone can start a business and be a “professional” (maybe not forever, but they still get to be a “professional”), not everyone rises to expert or master.
    If a “pro” is having trouble competing with the “joes” then something is wrong with what the pro is doing as the market will not support their quality of work at their price. Something is wrong with the presentation, the work, or the price. Probably a combination of the three.

  • ikke

    You lost me along the way. None the less. I think only the quality of the pictures determine how good you are. The money you make with them only tells how much of a businessman you are and that’s not something to be proud of.

  • Doc Pixel

    IMHO it comes down to talent: ya got… ya bought it.. ya worked hard to acquire it… or ya don’t have it.

    Is it really deserving of the “Pro” moniker just because you may have 1000′s worth of equipment, belong to an association (maybe), stationary… and even more so if you have insurance?

    As far as I’m concerned, if a majority of the people you run across, pitch to, and show your book say, “Wow! I wish I could have photos like that”… by all means, consider yourself a pro if you can repeat that success your advertising! Because that is what people purchase a pro for. The likelihood that you’ll be able to deliver a “look” the customer is after, because, ya know… you’re trained and you’re advertising that training and knowledge i.e. repetition and quality-on-demand.

    However, if you get caught up in a discussion like this and use the “Joe’s” out there as an excuse why you can’t “catch a break” or compete? Whether you have the right photo paper or all-inclusive insurance doesn’t matter, you’re not “yet” a pro.

    “Pros” just “do it”… allowing “Joe’s” to also have fun with a hobby that they also love. Also, hacks and charlatans have been around in every single artistic endeavor and discipline for centuries siphoning off potential customers.

    All I can say is, don’t let any of them keep you from focusing (pun intended) on what makes YOU a Pro.

    BTW: I personally know quite a few darn good and talented “Joe’s”. I call them “Crowd-Sourced-Inspiration-To-Get-Off-My-Butt-And-Shoot”!

  • Docjj1

    Hi. The caption for the picture of your wife says that you shot in “M” manual mode, not “P” professional mode. “P” stands for program mode using predefined tables for shutter speed and f-stop.

    • guest2

      He was being sarcastic

      • ext237

        or was he?

  • Angus McFangus

    I’ve been trying to define (for myself) what makes a professional for years…and while there are many who can be called professionals, this is what makes a *true* professional for me:

    They produces great images.
    Not just good, *great*. Clients eyes light up. They say (and mean) ‘Wow, these look great’. They shoot with an eye and sense of composition that is light, simple, and inspired.

    They produce great images consistently.
    In almost any weather, any reasonable amount of time, with almost any equipment and subject.

    They charge properly.
    A true professional knows they’re a cut above the rest and will charge to cover their cost of doing business, and then some for their talent.

  • ext237

    If stunning images make one a professional, I know a lot of professionals with office jobs that go shooting for fun on the weekend.

    And that means there’s a embarrasimg nimber of non-pro’s making a stunning amount of money.

  • Carl Wells

    I think a few of the comments have missed that the author was taking the mickey of himself in that tilted photo aswell as the P mode for professional. I actually really enjoyed the article, sums it up well even the insurance part (I don’t use it myself but I have backup apon backup and don’t have light stands and flashes around the place.)

  • pubilius

    When you want a photographer, you want the person who can best deliver the required images. As the article states, there are plenty of highly skilled amateurs who can deliver. Who cares whether they have the label “professional” or not? I’d also want the photographer who if mistakes are made, they are willing to return promptly and get the shoots if possible or make other arrangements. I do not want the best businessman who has booked his schedule for the next six months. While running a successful business probably means at least a moderate level of standard, that level is quite easily achieved by many amateurs.

  • grevyturty

    Funny, all of these pictures look like shit.

  • MESK

    I also take into consideration of post production. If you are not a “Master” of your craft, you can not shoot in manual mode, etc and you rely on post production, then to me, that is no professional, even if you make money in a business. I know several people that make a living because they are cheaper, on the outskirts of cities, and are good at lightroom. To many people now-a-days are relying on post production instead of knowing their craft, having creativity, and knowing how to use MANUEL mode. I think all of these things needs to be taken into consideration.

  • Heather

    I’m not a photographer by any means but to me the difference between an amatuer and a professional would be..
    Amatuer – Someone LEARNING the art of photography
    Professional – Someone who KNOWS the art of photography (including lighting, techniques, motion, composition, etc.) That’s just my opinion. I am an author and a freelance writer. Even though I was making money in the beginning of my career I considered myself an amatuer until I knew the entire field and structure. That’s just my opinion though

  • Tiara Rad

    Would you mind awfully if I took your article and shared it on my Camera Club page?

  • http://blog.seanholderphotography.com/ Sean Holder

    Interesting I just came across this post, check out the link on my Website on an article I just wrote. http://www.seanholderphotography.com/truth-in-disclosure-declaration-professional-photographer/