What does it really mean to be a professional photographer?

Apr 3, 2017

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

What does it really mean to be a professional photographer?

Apr 3, 2017

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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What does it mean to be a professional photographer, and what makes you a professional photographer? Is it about earning money and making a living from photography? Or perhaps there is more to it? In his latest video, Joe Edelman tries to give an answer to these questions and define what makes a professional photographer. And according to him, it’s definitely not just about the earnings.

YouTube video

Most of us define professional photographer as a person who makes a living out of photography. If you ask Google, you’ll get the same answer. The dictionary describes photographer as “one who practices photography, especially: one who makes a business of taking photographs.” So, based on the first part of the definition, everyone is a photographer nowadays. But what defines a professional?

Again, if we look it up in the dictionary, this is what we get:

Interestingly enough, the focus isn’t on making money. It’s on the characteristics, technical and ethical standards of a profession, and you’ll agree that it involves much more than making money. This brings us back to the question – what makes one a professional photographer?

Self-taught or formally educated?

Is it a degree that distinguishes a professional from an amateur? From my experience, it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. I know people who graduated in photography and do completely other things. On the other hand, some of the best photographers I know don’t have formal education in the field. Of course, none of this means that photography school is wrong. But it’s just not something that should determine whether you’ll do photography or not, and how good you’ll be at it.

Some people learn every day, practice, develop new skills, understand and apply the theory of photography. They are more professional than those who are self-absorbed, who only pick up the camera when they’re paid and who think they know it all. Whether they make money or not, the first group acts towards photography in a much more professional way.

What makes a professional?

So, when you learn enough to start earning from photography, does this mean you’ve made the step from an amateur to a professional? According to Joe (and I agree), this isn’t the case. Making money is not what makes you a professional.

A website, business card, and expensive gear are not what makes a professional. No matter how much you invest into these, there is much more to cover if you want to succeed.

First of all, there’s quality of work. If it’s not good enough (and you’re not willing to improve and learn more), you don’t stand a chance. Then, there are business skills. Running a business is an art of its own, and my hat goes off to anyone who knows how to do it right. If you want to succeed as a professional photographer, this is the skill you need to own. Last, but definitely not least, are interpersonal skills. If you suck at communicating with people, you are also not very likely to succeed. We’ve seen an example of trashing a client on Facebook, that’s just not what a professional would do, ever. There are some more aspects of being a professional photographer. Based on the video, I’m sharing Joe’s definition:

Professional is an attitude. Professional is a behavior. Professional is a standard. Being a professional is the way in which you approach your work, 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 is the amount of practice that you do to shore up and improve your techniques. It is the amount of research that you out in before you take the shot. It is the quality standards that you maintain before, during and after the shoot. It is the follow-up that you do with your clients. It is definitely the relationships that you build. And most importantly, being a professional is how you treat your subjects and clients. If you’re a professional, people mater. That’s what a professional is.

In every field, being a professional goes far beyond making money from something. So why would photography be an exception? There are certainly many criteria you need to fulfill to call yourself a professional, and Joe has covered most of them in his definition. Personally, I couldn’t think of anything to add, and I definitely wouldn’t remove anything from his definition. What about you? What do you think makes a professional photographer?

[What does it mean to be a professional photographer? Photography Tip | Joe Edelman]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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34 responses to “What does it really mean to be a professional photographer?”

  1. Ben Hosking Avatar
    Ben Hosking

    What does it mean? It means it stops being a fun hobby/passion… :(

    1. Brandon Leow Avatar
      Brandon Leow

      Especially when you need to deal with tough clients..

    2. Kevin Blackburn Avatar
      Kevin Blackburn

      I see what you are saying but I disagree after 20+ years working as a full time photog it is still just as much fun if not more than day one. sure there are tough times and tough clients but they only ruin you love,fun, and passion if you allow them to. Sorry Glass half full guy can’t help myself

      1. Dunja0712 Avatar
        Dunja0712

        @Ben: That’s why I never went pro. I love photography, but dealing with people and running a business are things I suck at. :)
        But like Kevin, it’s great if you have the necessary skills, desire and passion to do something for a living, and still enjoy it for after such a long time.
        @Kevin: it’s always wonderful to hear someone has fun doing their job! :)

        1. Kevin Blackburn Avatar
          Kevin Blackburn

          Thanks I can promise it hasn’t been the easiest but I don’t play well in a normal / Traditional work environment so thank God this has worked out :-)

  2. Kevin Blackburn Avatar
    Kevin Blackburn

    Professional is a simple matter of conduct not income or education!

  3. JustChristoph Avatar
    JustChristoph

    Joe Edelman generally talks a lot of sense, but I disagree with his transliteration from Webster’s of what a ‘professional photographer’ is. So for what its worth, here is an alternative point of view:

    A professional anybody is a person who’s profession is the ascribed task. It does not mean that they are any good at the task. Nor does it mean that they understand business. However, to survive as a professional anybody, it is desirable that you acquire the skills for success.

    What Joe is talking about here is a GOOD professional photographer. One that commands respect and justifies their pay-day.

    Sadly, the corollary of ‘professional’ is ‘amateur’. This has come to mean ‘less competent’, but that was not always the case. In the past, the term amateur was a complement. It meant highly skilled though unpaid, such as Olympic competitors. The confusion about the term ‘professional photographer’ is brought about because there is no categoric term to describe photographers who, like me, have become skilled at what they do, but do not seek to make an income from it.

    1. Dunja0712 Avatar
      Dunja0712

      What Joe is talking about here is a GOOD professional photographer. -> exactly. In a way, he makes “professional” and “good” sort of equal. I also see it that way, if you are professional at something, it means that you do it good.

      Sadly, the antonym of ‘professional’ is ‘amateur’ -> it’s the same in my native language. Maybe it’s even slightly worse, because here the word “photographer” on its own implies a professional who makes money from it. Sometimes I feel awkward when my boyfriend introduces me to someone and mentions that I am “a photographer.” I always have to explain that I don’t live from photography. And, like you, I don’t think of myself as an amateur either. So this “in between” category, when you’re skilled, but don’t seek income, is probably the hardest one to define.

      1. JustChristoph Avatar
        JustChristoph

        Frankly, Dunja0712, if your skill as a photographer is equal to your skill in a second language, I am humbled by you.

        1. Dunja0712 Avatar
          Dunja0712

          With all the silly language mistakes I still make from time to time, I believe I’m still better in English than in photography. :) Thank you so much!

      2. futhark Avatar
        futhark

        I think people often misunderstands the “amateur” word too. It just means that you love what you do, but most of the people I know thinks an “amateur” is just a beginner but it isn’t related to your level, it just defines why you do it.

        1. Dunja0712 Avatar
          Dunja0712

          Yes, true! That’s the other end of this semantic issue. :) And another thing that poses a problem when you try and place yourself into a specific category as a photographer. I’ve heard of an expression “Enthusiastic amateur,” I suppose it refers to a person who owns and grows skills in photography, but doesn’t make it their main source of income.

  4. Jimmy Harris Avatar
    Jimmy Harris

    You’re a professional if you call yourself a professional, or if other people do. You’re not if you or other people say you’re not. There’s not a black and white dividing line. It’s all relative. Just think about how many different types of photographers there are. Would you put Robert Doisneau, Alec Soth, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, or Annie Leibovitz in the same category? Are they all professional photographers, or are they professional journalists, artists, and advertisers? Does it even matter what you call them, or does it only matter what they do?

    In the end, “professional” is just a name. And the meaning of that name only matters to the mouths it falls out of and the ears it finds its way into. And the meaning that name caries is a varied as the wind it rides on.

    1. JonathanS Avatar
      JonathanS

      See the above post. If someone wanted to be sure they were hiring a “professional” are they just going to take someone’s word for it? Or will they find some comfort in knowing that an organization has certified them?

      1. Joe Edelman Avatar
        Joe Edelman

        In forty plus years as a photographer – I have NEVER had a client ask if I am certified or educated. Period. Neither of those two things insure that a person is professional – at all. Sorry.

        1. JonathanS Avatar
          JonathanS

          Wow, I seem to have struck a nerve with you. Sorry. As I said before I haven’t actually watched the video and am conversing with others. To be candidly honest, I don’t consider berating people who have contrary views to yours on the internet to be very professional. Maybe it’s just your style – brash photographers with blogs seems to be a thing.

          1. Joe Edelman Avatar
            Joe Edelman

            lol Jonathan – “berating”. I’m sorry – having a different opinion than yours is “berating”? By your own admission you haven’t even watched the video – yet you have loads of opinions that you felt were worth posting on the subject. All I have done is shared with you information that you would have learned had you actually watched the video. If all of that is “berating” – then I am guilty as charged.

          2. JonathanS Avatar
            JonathanS

            Your video is hardly the definitive authority on the subject, and it is entirely possible, even preferable, to get the information from a more reputable source. And yes, jumping into the middle of a thread and demanding you are correct based on anecdotal evidence is berating, not discussing. I was asking questions of another poster, which is how polite discussions/debates actually work.

  5. Trevor Rowell Avatar
    Trevor Rowell

    As a 100% paid up bona fide amateur I often look at threads like this and wonder if the constant questioning of professional status (certainly in the UK where I live) has more to do with the fact that there is no Internationally or even Nationally recognised body that attributes the title ‘professional’ to the photographer. Instead they are left in this woolly zone between artist and technician while trying to measure their ‘professionalism’ against other professions such as Lawyer, Doctor or Teacher.
    There are very few professions where you can move from Country to Country to work without having a formal qualification or recognised registration. You could not come to the UK as a Doctor and practice but you could setup shop as a photographer the day you arrived, have a slick website designed by someone else using stock photos and not be breaking any laws.
    Now in reality photography is different and I think Joe’s video pretty much defined professional as I would understand it to be when applied to a photographer. There are absolutely crap photographers earning money from photography who would do society a favour if they sold their cameras and bought a fishing rod and then there are amateurs who are better than a lot of professionals.
    I won’t reiterate what was in the video but professionalism is not tied to age, experience or qualification when it comes to photography. Having letters after your name means nothing unless you can delver a quality product to clients in a consistent and timely manner and one that meets the brief and their expectations. Being a ‘successful’ professional photographer involves marketing, accounting, networking, forward planning and other non-photography related skills and activities which an amateur does not have to do.
    The proof if needed that photographic ability or inability does not mean success is when you have a distinctly average photographer making a fortune out of selling a photographic gadget that is sold for more than 40 times its manufacturing cost and mainly marketed by demonstration video’s on YouTube which again are average at best. He is making lots of money out of photography – is he ‘professional’ in photographic terms? I would say not, he is professional at marketing and self promotion only.

    1. JonathanS Avatar
      JonathanS

      “here is no Internationally or even Nationally recognised body” – In the US there is the PPA – Professional Photographers of America. To be a member, they certify you through image review and written test. From their web-site: “The certification of specialized skill-sets affirms a knowledge and experience base for practitioners in a particular field, their employers, and the public at large. Certification represents a declaration of a particular individual’s professional competence. In some professions certification is a requirement for employment or practice.”

      1. Trevor Rowell Avatar
        Trevor Rowell

        There are several organisations here which represent photographers, all have entry standards and reviews. The main issue is that none of them have Government recognition and most of the public are not aware of them. In fact the best known, The Royal Photographic Society is more about photography as an art than as a commercial concern. I think I am right in saying I could travel from the UK to the USA and as long as I had the appropriate work Visa I could set myself up immediately and practice as a Professional photographer without the need to join the PPA. I know anyone from the USA could come to the UK and practice as a pro without joining any UK organisation.

        My point is that other professionals have legally enforceable standards of qualification and registration. So I could not come to the USA and practice as a Doctor without the correct Registration, certainly if you tried that in the UK you would go to jail. In effect the PPA is nothing more than a self regulating camera club be it with high standards and the best intentions. It has no legal basis and cannot impose sanctions or standards Nationally. It is certainly better to have the PPA than not.

      2. Joe Edelman Avatar
        Joe Edelman

        Jonathan… to clarify – I am a member of PPA. I am NOT certified and have never taken a review or test with them. PPA is not a governing body. PPA is a well intended organization that encourages its members to be certified – a large percentage of its members are NOT certified. Being certified does NOT mean that a person is a capable professional. It just means they have passed a test.

        1. JonathanS Avatar
          JonathanS

          I think the issue here is that the question is not formulated well. The idea of “being a professional” is being conflated with “acting professionally.” while the PPA is certainly not a regulated certifier, other professions are and their members are considered professional simply by taking a test. A lawyer passes the bar and is considered a professional. A doctor passes his exams and is considered professional. They may not “act professionally” but the two are not mutually exclusive. Testing is a perfectly valid vehicle for considering someone a professional.

          1. Joe Edelman Avatar
            Joe Edelman

            Jonathan – we shall have to agree to disagree. Nowhere on a lawyers certificate or degree or business card does it say the word “professional” In fact I would be very scared if a doctor felt the need to advertise that they are a professional doctor. Testing that is required for both of those professions is due to the depth of knowledge needed to perform them well in addition to the consequences of not performing them well. Neither is the case for a photographer. I took a test to be able to drive a car – but that doesn’t make me a professional at driving a car. The reality is that different professions use the word professional differently. My video is directed at the photography community. Respectfully – “I think” – you are thinking too much and I will wish you the best and thank you for your opinion.

          2. JonathanS Avatar
            JonathanS

            I was actually answering the poster who mentioned that there was no recognised body that attributed the title professional to a photographer. I mentioned there is, and he clarified his comment to include government recognition, which is obviously true. I haven’t watched your video, actually, and I think you jumped into the middle of a comment thread. Common enough mistake.

          3. JustChristoph Avatar
            JustChristoph

            @JonathanS – You are aware that the poster that you say has ‘ jumped into the middle of a comment thread’ is also the author of this post and the contained video, right?

            And since you brought it up, you have taken time to formulate an opinion and expect to be listened to with respect, but you have not taken time to listen to the opinion posited in the video. That’s just plain self-indulgent bad manners.

          4. JonathanS Avatar
            JonathanS

            Ok dad.

  6. Joel Wood Avatar
    Joel Wood

    No chimping. ;)

    1. Dunja0712 Avatar
      Dunja0712

      Hehe I’d agree in most situations (like action, sports, concerts…)
      But for landscape photos, for example, I think it’s okay. :)

  7. Steve Avatar
    Steve

    I agree with what he says. Pretty spot on.

  8. Ralph Hightower Avatar
    Ralph Hightower

    Regarding the Merriam-Webster definition of a photographer: One who practices …
    I have a “Steven Wright” type question: Why is it that many medical doctors and lawyers call their businesses, practices. Is it because they keep practicing until they get it right?

  9. Gary Geddes Avatar
    Gary Geddes

    I agree it is mainly the attitude or behavior. I don’t disagree that there are other factors. The example I am about to give is not a photographer but the concept can be applied to one. Two plumbers come to your house to do the same job and both fix the issue satisfactorily. BUT one shows up on time, is courteous, does not make a mess or leave a mess, goes the extra mile vs the other one is totally opposite. Would you not tell others how professional that one plumber is over the other? They both fix the issue so what is the difference? Attitude, or Professional behavior. Before I was doing portraits, I have used a Mall photography company and have had two different experiences. Photos were both generally equal, but one was not professional. But the company labeled both as professional. Sure, skill set was there, but as the customer, I would have to disagree about one.

  10. FotokurseBerlin.de Avatar
    FotokurseBerlin.de

    I like the definition. Who else can say that you are a professional than you. If you do not believe in yourself nobody does.

  11. michael kevin Avatar
    michael kevin

    I have labeled myself as an “advanced amateur” f0r many years. There are two reasons’ I do not make my primary living from photography and am more capable and understanding than any of the “amateur” photographers that I meet along the way.