Amateur or Professional, Part II

Amateur or Professional, Part II


In a recent post on the topic of Amateur or Professional Photography I asked an open ended question that would solicit responses.  While I was not surprised by the polarization, I was disappointed by how personal the comments became.

I will state categorically that any professional who is not willing to share information must be quite insecure in their own abilities. Like any business certain facets have to remain confidential in order to remain competitive in a free market enterprise.  Beyond that, I believe we do owe it to our industry to be honest with each other – no one, regardless of standing, is bigger than the industry itself – and that includes amateurs being honest with professionals.

Are you ready to open shop?

Many readers missed my point entirely in the opening post, that being if you are going to delve into the medium as a means of income then one should play by the rules.  The one rule that professional photographers cannot compete against is the various taxes that they must pay as a result of their vocation and business.  Each country and city has their own tax laws, and in Canada essentially all income has to be declared as taxable income. Should the professional photographer’s neighbour who photographs weddings on Saturday’s only for $300, not declare their income several things happen by default:  1. They are automatically at a 30% (the average income tax in Canada) price advantage due to tax evasion, 2. They have potentially broken tax statutes and that affects the economy of the community; and 3. They have devalued the industry as a whole. These are examples of ethics to which I was referring in the original post.

Believe me, your time, your equipment and your experience has value and as each increases so too should the value of your service. That is a basic business premise and has nothing to do with photographers feeling threatened. Should you really be interested in learning the profession, and haven’t had the opportunity to attend school, source a local photographer whose work you respect and ask if you can assist or apprentice with them for free for six months (I don’t agree with this approach personally, but if you are going to shoot jobs for free you would be doing the industry and your eventual clients a far greater service by learning from a well respected and established business person).

Beyond that, it is very much a wild west as far as photography as an industry is concerned.  There are no trade union protections to benefit the photographer, and likewise there are no minimum standards of delivery to protect the client.  Whether there should be is a whole other debate and one best not discussed on the DPS forum.  It is very much a climate of client and providers beware.

Moving forward, let’s take the wedding photographer completely out of the picture and think in the bigger realm.

Let’s also set the record straight: NO, it is not necessary to go to university or college to become a photographer.  NO, it is not necessary to apprentice with an established firm to become a photographer. NO, it is not necessary to become a student of business administration to become a photographer.  However, should you be fortunate enough to have been able to pursue photography as a profession by travelling these paths you will inherently have a huge advantage over the amateur who aspires to turn a love of craft into a successful business venture.

In short, you can be the best photographer in the world but if you do not know how to manage and market your business the chances of success are greatly diminished. The aspiring pro should have no illusions – photography is a tough business and the more you can learn about the industry and appropriate business practises, the better the opportunity of success. The client will decide whether your skill with a camera is commensurate with your fee structure.

Regardless of how you have entered the profession it is possible to earn a successful living with a camera while satisfying an internal desire to be a photographer by following a few well laid out principles.  The first golden rule that must be cemented in your business plan is to, well, have a business plan.  The second golden rule is to learn to pay yourself first; you are, after all, starting a business to earn an income.

If you can’t accept the fact that you need a business plan, you will unquestionably be wandering around aimlessly and without direction. The business plan today must reflect the current market, and, as we all know the photo industry is rapidly adjusting itself without checks and balances. Therefore your business plan will have to be fluid; no longer can we work on a five year plan.  Some would suggest a three year plan is risky and the proprietor should be giving serious consideration to a two year plan.

You are entering a service based industry and for the most part your skill level, locale and client base will dictate what you can charge as a fee. There are several web-based outlets that offer great advice, and are well worth reviewing.  As a poster earlier shared, Mark Wallace (Adorama TV) has a great video on You Tube:

In this video Mark offer a huge bucket full of sage advice; however I would caution that you not plug his “days of work” numbers in your daily costs calculations as it is quite unlikely you will work 250 days on start up.  To clarify, you will probably work more than 250 days, but what are your billable days?  Another resource that makes life easier for calculating the daily cost of business is a calculator from NPPA found here: .

From both of these resources there were several topics not itemized in the calculations.  You may decide to work from your home, and there may be tax advantages to doing that. However, there are also going to be increased costs on the home budget that require consideration. Are you even legally permitted to operate a home-based business in your community?  The calculators and Mark’s video –I could stand to be corrected—have not identified capital reserve requirements. You have expensive equipment that will most likely have to be replaced every three years due to technology advances. Should you be channeling funds into a capital reserve to lessen the blow when that day arrives? Are there tax advantages to renting your equipment?

Navigating the labyrinth of roads involved in any business will be a nightmare when starting out. You will be well served by educating yourself on solid business practices.

Spend some money on a lawyer and accountant.  Regardless if you are working as a professional or semi-professional, or even an amateur, you will be exposing yourself and equipment to liability risks that probably will not be covered by any type of home insurance policy you currently have. Your lawyer will also advise whether you are best served by incorporating or working as a sole proprietor.  Don’t forget about learning Intellectual Property laws, and learn who owns the results of your toil and under what circumstances.  It is imperative you have iron-clad contracts so both you and your client completely understands the others position before you even accept the commission.

Good accountants are worth their weight in gold; the better ones will give you sage advice and don’t particularly care about hurting your feelings.  If you really want a good gauge on how good your business plan has been prepared, go visit a local bank and ask for a business start-up loan.  These folks will not lend money if they see any risk in your plan and their judgement should, and can, speak volumes.

If you want to turn that avocation to a vocation, start working on a business plan first.  Make no mistake, it will be tough to succeed with long hard hours of non-paying administrative and business training that will siphon your cash flow quicker than a drop of water evaporating on hot asphalt in the desert sun.

If you are skilled and savvy enough there is always room for good photographers, and there probably always will be. At least I hope so – we all deserve to pursue our dreams providing we respect our neighbours in an honest and ethical way.

Postscript: By now I hope the readers following my posts will have recognized I am targeting two audiences. The first being the amateur who is just starting their journey, and the second being the advanced amateur who believes they are ready to advance into the profession. I would ask that you fire your criticisms toward me and not each other. Thank you in advance for following the posts. –Dale Wilson

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Dale Wilson is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner Garry Black.'

Some Older Comments

  • Adi Chiru December 22, 2012 06:48 am

    I am so tired of so many "professional" photographers complaining about how hard it is to make it in this business. I used to believe that but during this last year I realized that actual problem is not the industry, not the clients, not the "so affordable" equipment, not the fact that everyone with a DSLR think he/she is a photographer and not because some idiots devalued the industry with extremely low prices and so on.

    The real problem is at the individual level. It is the person that believes he/she can't make it into this business. You will never make it if you believe you will never make it.
    You may not make it even if you believe you will, but when you gave up, there are no more chances for you!

    It is simple, clear, common sense but so many seems to forget about it. your personal approach can change everything!

    I have a close friend that just gave up working on a full time office job which brought him 85K per year to do photography. In only 3 years he managed to reach an income level of more than 200k. He is expanding now and already thinking of incorporating small companies for post-production stuff like editing services and so on. It can be done and those who did it are not the exception to a rule of failures.
    He became a good business man but his passion to photography pull him to success not the passion (which does not exist) for business.

  • JacksonG December 22, 2012 04:49 am

    Great thread Dale but it's all about independent pros. What about turning pro and working for a publication? What are some of the pitfalls for working for someone else?

  • Chris December 22, 2012 02:21 am

    This is a crazy discussion. By definition, being a professional simply means that you get paid for your work. That's all. It does not imply anything about your skill level. There are thousands of "professionals" out there turning out what is garbage to my eyes and there are an equal number of "amateurs" making stunning images. The know it all attitude that many pros have is disappointing because it casts a bad light on everyone. Let's face it, ultimately we are all just pushing a button.

  • Dale Wilson December 22, 2012 12:13 am

    From the author: Once again I will ask that responders keep their remarks relevant to the thread. There is nothing gained by the photo community et al by making flippant and disparaging remarks directed toward the opposite side of the coin.

    Although I cannot respond to all posters I believe Camille raises a good point. I can’t speak for the pro community around the globe (and that is one of the most difficult challenges I face as a writer – this is a global audience, each with their own set of circumstances) but I don’t believe any full time working professional would belittle you for giving prints to close friends and family. Goodness, I suspect we all do it.

    To amplify, in a future post I will be writing about branding. One of my topics will be about shooting for free (pro bono) for local charity campaigns and how that makes good business sense.

    In the next entry under this topic I will also be changing the title to “Turning Pro.” The current title, with the benefit of hindsight, is adversarial and confrontational and that was not, and is not, the intent. My purpose behind these entries is to try and assist that individual who aspires to turn pro and hopefully offer some direction to the many components of managing a business they will have to consider.

  • Joseph December 21, 2012 11:12 pm

    Camille, if it makes anyone uncomfortable and upset then it's their own worry.

  • Camille Duckworth December 21, 2012 06:33 pm

    After reading these two articles I'm now thoroughly confused as to what is expected of me as an amateur photographer that may not go professional for years if not ever. My full time job is a mom. I don't care to make money, but I love to see my close friends and family (who would otherwise not pay a professional) have beautiful portraits in their homes. Apparently though I'm crossing a line that is making professionals uncomfortable and upset? Willing to comply, but still not sure how.

  • Kia Groat December 21, 2012 01:03 pm

    These business related posts are helpful, I'm not in under my depth, but it's handy to know whether or not we're going in the right direction. Setting pricing is possibly the hardest thing I've had to do in business, I doubt my skills all the time and want to set my prices low "just in case I deliver bad images". More often than not, the client is extremely happy and I've learnt I should charge more "just in case I deliver amazing images". I'm lucky that I have a husband in web development who has put us on the google map and we're getting random clients come in without paying through the teeth for advertising and that's after only a few months of having started Neo Photo Studio. Now I just need to make sure I stay in touch with the accountant, cross my t's and dot the i's and keep practicing photography and writing blog posts and facebook marketing in the down times!

    My business advice - even though Libbys first comment said marketing is not sitting on facebook all day, you cannot underestimate facebook as a powerful market and site traffic building tool! It's half of the reason our site is doing so well so far! But she is right - getting out and networking has been invaluable to me as well, going to an AIPP week long course was on par in value with all of my photography training and 3 years of experience prior to their 1 week event due to talking to 40 other photographers, the lectures and the hands on experience you get at these things! Expensive though because you walk away wanting to buy so much equipment! Hellooooo $2k epson printer haha!

  • Jeannie December 21, 2012 12:58 pm

    I think some responders are still taking your comments personally. Them again, to some degree, the Internet serves as a virtual barrier tha allows some individuals to voice their opinions quite freely without regard to the author's intentions.

    I found both of your articles intelligently and professionally written. As a hobbyist, I enjoyed reading both of them and found them very insightful and educational. I look forward to additional published material.

  • bill buros December 20, 2012 12:57 am

    I for one really appreciate these discussions and insights. I've got a friend who displays and sells photography at local galleries and is encouraging me to follow in that realm.. but as I learn more about the switch that is flipped when you start getting money for your pictures and art, all sorts of things begin to queue up. Insurance flips from personal article coverage to business coverage, tax and business registration kicks in, I hadn't even considered the liability pieces, the marketing, business and accounting sides of being a business become critically important.. etc etc. The insurance company was quite straight-forward about when things became a business.. "when you start getting money for your work". I add all of this up and now recognize there's a very interesting break-even discussion on starting to sell/market/do photography for others.

    I fully recognize just how good (and focused) photographers are who do this for their full-time business. The more I learn, the more I appreciate the value they bring to the table. For now, I'll continue striving to be a more serious amateur and hobbyist. The discussions around being a business, a professional, or simply someone who loves seeing great images captured on a print are interesting to read. Lots of strong opinions - but buried in the those responses are some good insights.

  • Joseph December 19, 2012 11:52 pm

    Uh. It's hard to hear this debate. Again. I don't have time for people who aren't interested in helping others up. Wherever i have had success in life (with education and learning) and whenever I have been happy, money has followed. Every. Single. Time. And every time I have gotten to a place where I felt, and others felt, that I was doing well, it was my obligation to make sure that those around me got a hand up from me when I could. I was taught in business that your job as a manager or a director is to make certain that everyone working under you was given a chance and assistance to get where you are.

    My photography background? Yeah. It's 15 years of sales and marketing and calling qualified strangers on the phone and asking for their business. And marketing plans and action plans and networking and learning about how to sell without talking about yourself. And the education I had before that career was as a Hairdresser and a makeup artist. All kinds of people told me I couldn't. I didn't listen. I listened to the few that said I could. A 'Pro' photographer teased me about my "beauty school" background recently. And then we got into a discussion about shading and light. About the color wheel and skin texture and temperature. We got into a portrait discussion about painting highlights on a face. Yeah. I'm pretty sure he still thinks I'm crazy. I'm pretty sure that he doesn't understand the human face.

    So tell me I can't. Tell me I am less because I'm still learning. Well, I might be still learning. Probably the day I know it all will be the day I'm not interested anymore. And I have a looong way to go, but my phone is ringing and I'm busy. And the 'Professionals' are asking me for advice on how to sell. And if they aren't asses about it, I'm going to teach them all that I know. Maybe they'll teach me something in return.

  • Regan December 19, 2012 01:57 pm

    In all businesses that I've seen, you've got your brand, you've got your path. Someone that trust cousin Jeb and his Rebel to capture their special memories is not going to the established pro; they are not your customer, and they do not have the money to pay you, what you deserve. Now being that I am the uncle with the camera, I have referred to the professionals that I feel are technically qualified and suitable, the business of my loved ones. Those are the pros that communicate clearly, and aren't defensive. Those pros have a level of confidence and they know their brand. My business experience isn't in photography, but in a business where many offer the same service, but they don't do it our way, which is why our clients came or chose to stay with us. The others are much cheaper, but not as effective.

  • Scottc December 19, 2012 10:11 am

    I've been watching these posts (from a safe distance!). Your point seems simple, if you want to photograph for a living then prepare yourself for the business side of the equation.

    Photography is a small business, in business - not industrial, terms. Small business owners work their butts off for a relatively few simple moments of joy at doing what they do, they are the most motivated and entreprenurial people.

    Great article.

    Small Rant, I really wish DPS would get this website together. Posting here is nearly impossibe, more of a keyboard exercise than anything else (BAD small business practice!).

  • Paul LaChance December 19, 2012 07:49 am

    Bill: As an accountant of 35+ years experience I can assure you that the short answer to your question is "No" and it's going to get worse in the very near future. If you plan to engage in photography as a business at any level it's imperative that you consult with a qualified tax professional before you take your first shot. This can prevent genuinely unpleasant surprises along about April 15.

  • Brian December 19, 2012 07:32 am

    I too am more of a hobbiest and have shot a wide variety of photos for over 20 years. I agree to the article that people with a camera doesn't equal great pictures or professionalism. There are a lot of people who put posts on "classified" ads and they totally undercut myself and other professionals. I had one individual, who was referred to me, ask how much I'd charge for a wedding. I told her and she said " I can find a photographer who charges $200 on Craig's List". I told her " of luck, sorry I can't help". It is hard now in the digital world to get into the business. I guess that is why I haven't tried to chase my dream. The younger generation doesn't value photography as some of us and think that their I Phone pictures will suffice. I was shooting a wedding where a younger girl was doing just that and she said to me smartly " hey photographer...I'm a photographer too..." I just smiled at her and thought how sad! I spend a lot of time researching, reading, and practicing taking pictures and the younger generation (and some from my generation) think a point and click or smart phone does a good enough job. Not too many people appreciate what photographers do anymore. For those of you who are the professionals, I admire your commitment to your craft. Keep on shooting!!!

    To Bill: I too have sold pictures to friends or clients and when it was time to do taxes I went into a local tax prepairer and he suggested that I put in the field "hobbiest" and claim as extra income. I haven't heard anything extra from the IRS in regards to this. So I guess that worked. Hope that helps...

  • Brad December 19, 2012 04:18 am

    Am I a professional? No. Do I consider myself a professional? No. Do I refer to myself as a professional? No.

    Now...other people refer to me as a professional due to my record. I'm primarily an automotive photographer, therefore I spend most of my time shooting cars, trucks, bikes, etc. As of this day, I have 5 magazine covers and 7 features in some of the biggest names in the automotive publishing area; Truckin', 8 Lug, Stylin' Concepts, 5.0 Mustang, JC Whitney, Gauge Magazine, and Bully Ink Magazine. Each feature I shoot for any magazine results in a paycheck. So based on that, some would consider me a pro. Ehhh I'm just too modest to agree.

    I shoot as a hobby since I have a full time job as a Network Admin from 8-5. I am absolutely, 100% self-taught. I never attended a class, never had a mentor or anything remotely close. I learned by reading and shooting shooting shooting shooting shooting. Oh, and shooting a little more.

    I know a lot of people in the "business" that are so full of themselves it's sickening. Forget the fact that they really don't know what they're doing, but they think because they have a DSLR and have a Facebook page, they're a pro and should be treated as such. They post horrid photos and say something to the effect of "look at how great I am". Then you have the old timers that own studios and are threatened by people such as myself who has learned the trade, but have a different style than yearbook style photos that people are drawn to.

    I say do what you like to do and if someone is willing to pay you for your talent and time, then go for it!! Forget what everyone else says you have to do to be a "pro".

  • David Wahlman December 19, 2012 04:07 am

    Thanks for the article Dale! It's giving great tips and ideas to consider.

  • Rich December 19, 2012 02:06 am

    While calculating the cost of doing business is a good way to figure out if going into business is worthwhile, as you pointed out the skill of the photographer and the local market is going to have far more impact on what you can charge.

    It might cost you $500 per engagement to break even, but you might lose more money doing that then charging $300 per engagement and taking a loss while building up your reputation/etc. That $500 is only worth something if you actually get the job.

    I think photography is like the airline industry - many people get into it because they love doing it, and that tends to depress wages. Most need to accept the enjoyment of the job as part of their compensation.

  • EnergizedAV December 19, 2012 01:38 am

    Business is business, photography is photography.
    If one works hard at photography they may get good at it.
    If one works hard at business they may get good at it.
    The big difference in business is that you don't always have the control over it as with your camera.
    You must be able to ride through anything that comes your way and still may not make it.
    Nice work Dale, Thank you.

  • Dale Wilson December 19, 2012 12:46 am

    Bill - Unfortunately I can't help you out as I am Canadian.

    Unfortunately governments generally make any part time income such as hassle to report they eventually drive this sector to an underground economy, and that is not right as that negatively affects the business trying to stay afloat.

    Note to governments everywhere: You have people trying to be honest and forthright, make it easy for them.

    As stated in the post I would suggest you consult an accountant. Alternatively, hopefully some American readers may have your answer(s).

    I do applaud you for "doing it right" and want to thank you for your high ethical standing.

  • Mike Walton December 19, 2012 12:37 am

    Thanks for the advice Dale. I am always amazed and yes, even shocked, with the negative comments some "professionals" air towards "noobs". Everyone starts at a zero experience level and must work their way up. I see it as a sign of respect that someone wants to ask your advice on a subject. I work with youth and love to pass on the "mysteries" of a shot. BTW, I am a noob, but I am taking classes with the goal of turning pro in a couple of years. Your posts offer good advice, thanks again.

  • Bill Vriesema December 19, 2012 12:36 am

    I've not read the threads, so maybe my comment is irrelevant. I just wanted to pass along my first experience at trying to report additional income from the sales of some photo prints. I guess this fits the first paragraph of the post above by Dale.

    I am an amateur (or advanced hobbiest, whatever). I rarely sell, except to maybe a fried or acquaintance who asked for a print. Last year I had a person interested in purchasing a set of gallery wraps that totaled $2000. On my 2011 taxes I simply added $2000 to my total income as Misc Income and figured I paid appropriately. A couple months later the IRS mailed me asking me to fill out a Self Employment form for that income. So, I did. A couple months later they sent me mail asking that I fill out Form 8919 for Uncollected Social Security and Medicare Tax on Wages for that income. So again, I filled that out with an extra check to the IRS.

    I know I could use the SE form to claim photography expenses as well--but realistically, I am hobbiest and usually have no need to follow all this paperwork since I rarely sell. This was a one time deal. So, figuring all the time and hassle I spent with these forms and such I probably lost any profit I first expected to gain.

    My question is this. Is there a simple, uncomplicated and appropriate way to report income such as this for someone whose full time job is not photography? Feel free to point me to a past post if this has already been covered.

  • Darren Lightfoot December 18, 2012 11:39 pm

    Dale - once again some good advice from someone who has been there....done that and has the battle scars to prove it. Certainly the skills to take the photo is just one tool the photographer needs in his/her tool box....they certainly need to know how to run a business if they hope to succeed. Just like a good carpenter can learn to hide their mistakes a business entity with sound business practices can also hide....or maybe a better work is survive their mistakes.

    It is a shame that some will jump on here and trash you post because they are obviously unhappy with their work/job. I for one enjoy your post and say keep them coming.

  • Jai Catalano December 18, 2012 10:42 pm

    I think your valuable information falls on deaf ears. There are tons (not an understatement) of people who do free sessions in NYC. There are millions of photographers who charge... get this... ($29 a headshot session) I just finished a corporate headshot session and the company hired a photographer that was so bad they were scared to hire someone again being that they were fooled by their level of professionalism.

    So although I enjoyed reading your post and think it is valuable I wish there were some way it would find it's way to the right people.

  • Libby December 18, 2012 02:19 pm

    Dale you said "you will have to love business more than photography if you are going to succeed."

    For me it's the 75/25 rule. I spend 75% of the time handholding, working with ADs, And since I do graphics work and have for years, it's maybe redesigning or freshening their business card or letterheads, or sourcing lexan tradeshow graphics or a catalog printer. And then there is fixing photos that their web designer mucked up, trying to gently convince him that no, the client does not want fairy dust and beveled text on the image. And then there's doing stuff you don't want to do, like compositing images for a dirty election campaign, which is how I spent a lot of this past October. And when you get through all the bad stuff and finally get to hold a camera again, you're second shooting a wedding and the bride is 300 lbs in a two size too small dress.

    And then after all of that, you get the noob who wants to learn beauty retouch in 3 minutes. Sorry but I've been doing it for close to 15 years. Then I get bitched at for not "sharing" because it simply can't be taught in a half hour. End of rant.

  • Dale Wilson December 18, 2012 12:38 pm

    Libby, you are absolutely correct and I agree with you.

    Notice I suggest the first rule is to have a business plan; I did not, nor will I ever suggest how to write a business plan. Surely the individual aspiring to turn pro will discover what the business plan is and seek counsel from experts in how to prepare and follow through. As a wise person once said, I will give you the hook but you must learn to catch your own fish.

    Your final statement is very valid "you are going to have to love business." I would add, you will have to love business more than photography if you are going to succeed. Throughout the course of these entries I am hoping to bring awareness, not answers. If the reader is not prepared to seek the answers by way of self-discovery then they will never succeed in the business.

    Sharing information is completely different than telling one how to do it.

  • Libby December 18, 2012 11:22 am

    "I will state categorically that any professional who is not willing to share information must be quite insecure in their own abilities."

    That's an asinine statement. When I write about business philosophies, no gives a rat's behind. It's the same old revolving door with the same old questions over and over - What are the Magic Settings? How did you get to shoot that concert? How do I get a Press Pass that will let me in everywhere? What clients do you shoot for? Give some of us a break who are tired of going round and round with this crap. If you want to get into the photo game, you are going to have to love business, and then get up off of your behinds and actually network, and that doesn't mean sitting on facebook all day.