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