If you’re a serious photographer, you probably occasionally feel that twang of regret – or even a tinge of envy – when you meet someone, discover you both love photography, and then find out that your new friend is actually a professional photographer. Should you really be jealous that they’re a pro and you’re not? If you are turning a little green thinking about this, let’s define what being a professional really means. Then let’s think about the things you can do to find fulfillment as an amateur photographer including learning new techniques, specializing, finding a community, giving back and devoting yourself to personal projects.
Defining the term professional photographer
To start, let’s clarify the main difference between amateur and professional photographers. A common definition is this; As a professional photographer, your primary source of income comes from your photography business. You may want to argue with me on this point of what truly makes a professional photographer a professional but before you do, read on.
Being an amateur photographer doesn’t mean you’re not serious. It also doesn’t mean you’re not excellent. It’s important to clarify that the significant difference in being an amateur versus a professional is a distinction about how you earn your primary income. If you are a professional photographer, by definition you must earn a living from your photography work. If you are an amateur, chances are good that you have another source of income. It’s not necessary for you to sell your photography to pay the rent.
Finding fulfillment as an amateur photographer
Hopefully defining professional photography this way rather than as a reflection of whether or not your work is any good has given you a better perspective on being “just an amateur.” If you’re still feeling a little floppy about the whole thing, and think that being a professional photographer would be loads better than being an amateur, start acting like a pro. Focus on the things that pros do that make the rest of us respect them so much. Remember, though, your goal as an amateur isn’t to generate income, it’s to find fulfillment in your photography. Here are a few ideas.
Learn new techniques
If your good friend shoots macro flowers, like mine does, and you want to shoot with her, it makes sense to learn macro photography techniques, doesn’t it? Even if you mainly photograph horses (ahem), it makes sense to learn how to shoot and post-process macro flowers and to create a portfolio of your best images.
Whenever an opportunity comes along to learn a new technique, whether it is macro photography, portrait lighting or a deep dive into Photoshop, take the time to learn it. The pro photographers that stay relevant constantly learn new things too.
Be open to new ideas and technologies
I was at an Art Wolfe seminar two years ago and another attendee asked him about his transition from film to digital. Mr. Wolfe told us a story about being given a few DSLRs to test at the beginning of the digital revolution. He brought them on a trip and while he was heading to his destination, grabbed one, made a few shots, uploaded them and was sold by the immediacy of the digital process.
You might not want to transition from Aperture to Lightroom. Mirrorless cameras may leave you scratching your head. HDR might offend your sensibilities. If any of those thoughts perfectly describe you, pick one new thing and open yourself to learning it this year. After all, it can’t hurt to be more like Art Wolfe.
While I’m generally not a fan of HDR, I promised myself I would be open to learning the technique when I was shooting in Iceland. I don’t use HDR much in my work today, but I’m pleased with this image and am happy to have learned the process.
The professional photographers I know all know each other. Every June at the Out of Chicago Summer Conference, floods of well-known professional photographers descend upon the South Loop and they already know each other. By the end of the weekend, the ones that didn’t know each other are new BFFs. The best part of this professional camaraderie is that it infects the rest of the Out of Chicago attendees too. Students, staff, volunteers and presenters all come together in a cyclone of photography.
After the conference, opportunities abound to be a second shooter, or a BTS (behind-the-scenes) shooter, or to participate in free photo walks. All of those opportunities don’t magically appear after the conference. They were always there. The thing is, if you don’t have a community, you don’t know about them. Be like the professionals and get yourself involved in the community. You won’t be looking for your next paid gig but by networking with pros and other serious photographers but you will find that spark that motivates you to keep picking up your camera.
The Chicago Theatre sign is a classic Out of Chicago conference image. We were headed to the river on a photo walk, it was raining and I couldn’t resist the pools of light reflecting in the puddles. I didn’t want to lose my group so instead of setting up my tripod, I knelt on the sidewalk to get low, cranked my ISO, and framed my shot to include this man and his umbrella.
Very few professional photographers today work in all genres. Most specialize. They are known specifically for weddings, portraits, fashion, wildlife, landscapes, architecture, etc. Some specialize even more.
There’s a UK wedding photographer by the name of Kevin Mullins (he’s worth googling) who does black and white documentary style wedding photography. Brides don’t hire Kevin to have the standard 12-bridesmaids-in-a-row portrait made. They hire him because he captures things other wedding photographers don’t see. As an amateur, you can specialize too and become an expert in your field within your local community.
When I introduce myself to new members at my camera club, people often reply and say, “Oh, I know you. You photograph horses, right?” Right! These two wild horse images were made at the Onaqui HMA in Utah.
Professional photographers give back. Yes, it’s part of networking, but it’s also an opportunity to create meaningful images. You can photograph abandoned animals at a rescue shelter, teach disadvantaged youth about photography, or donate your time photographing non-profit events for charitable foundations.
I made these images for a local equine rescue to highlight the good work they are doing for aged, neglected, and abandoned horses. This malnourished horse with the sway back is almost 30 years old. He discovered a new friend at the rescue and found comfort in staying close to the pinto.
The professional photographer who was shooting a wedding all weekend while you were off smelling (photographing) the roses probably has a personal photography project that she works on in her off-hours. Personal projects help professional photographers stay in touch with why they became photographers in the first place. By sinking themselves into deeply personal, meaningful photography projects, professional artists remind themselves that they are artists.
They may not plan to show these personal images and are creating them purely for themselves, much like Vivian Maier did. On the other hand, they might be creating a street photography coffee table book with goals to self-publish and distribute it. A personal project will work much the same way for you as an amateur, helping you define yourself as an artist and giving you a meaningful creative opportunity.
When I travel, I not-so-secretly pursue my personal project for photographing street cats. I do hope to make it a book someday too. These three street cats all live in Essaouira, Morocco.
Redefining the term “amateur”
Use these ideas to find fulfillment when you shoot. Remember, because your primary income is not tied to your photography, you have more choices ahead of you than a professional photographer might. You never have to compromise and shoot a job “just to pay the rent.” You aren’t dialing (or photographing) for dollars.
You are making images – wait for it – for YOU!
If a paid opportunity comes along, you can consider it based on how much enjoyment you’ll get out of the project, and maybe even whether or not the job will enable you to buy that new lens you’ve been eyeing. You don’t have to worry about paying your rent with your photography and that is one of the benefits of being “just an amateur.”
Over to you
So are you an amateur or pro photographer? How do you define those? Do you have an opinion on whether it’s better to be an amateur or a pro? Share your thoughts on the subject in the comments below and let’s discuss.