How to Find Fulfillment as an Amateur Photographer

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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

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer 2up

Squirrel: ISO 800, 1/800th, f/4, 98mm, handheld. While my backyard squirrel project isn’t intended as a resource to pay my bills, sometimes an image shouts “commercial opportunity.” I imagined this as a funny, yoga-themed birthday card and left plenty of space for text.
Goat: ISO 500, 1/60th, f/4, 105mm, handheld. Selling stock images is one way that professional photographers earn a living. When I was photographing this goat, his expression reminded me of a funny birthday card. So I purposely left plenty of negative space around him for text.

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

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer THREE

ISO 640, 1/250th, f/5.6, 100mm prime, handheld. Macro image of tulip with raindrops.

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.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer FOUR

ISO 640, 1/500th, f/5.6, 100mm prime, handheld. Macro image of tulip with curled leaf.

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.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer FIVE

ISO 800, three bracket HDR exposure, 11mm, tripod.

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.

Community

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.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer SEVEN

ISO 3200, 1/125th, f/8, 24mm, handheld.

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.

Specialize

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.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer SIX

ISO 250, 1/1250th, f/8, 280mm, handheld.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer TEN

ISO 800, 1/1600th, f/4, 200mm, handheld.

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.

Give back

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.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer EIGHT

ISO 640, 1/2000th, f/4, 70mm, handheld.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer NINE

ISO 640, 1/180th, f/4, 200mm, handheld.

Personal Projects

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.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer ELEVEN

ISO 800, 1/1500th, f/4, 67mm, handheld.

Finding fulfilment amateur photographer projects

Left: ISO 400, 1/750th, f/4, 75mm, handheld.
Right: ISO 400, 1/4000th, f/4, 105mm, handheld.

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.

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Lara Joy Brynildssen is an avid equine, wildlife, nature and travel photographer. She is crazy about her two cats, loves her new Canon 5D Mark IV, and never refuses a sip of limoncello. Follow her at www.LaraJoy.us.

  • CathyAnn

    Good article! I agree with everything you said, Lara! IMO, whether or not one is a pro makes no difference. I’ve seen shots taken by amateurs that knock my socks off, they’re so good, but I understand how intimidating it can be to be around a pro.

  • SteveR

    Great article! One of the biggest disadvantages of being a “pro” is you spend more time being a business person and less time being a photographer. I know some great photographers who are terrible business people, and it is hard to make a living if you don’t understand overhead and profit.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Thank you! Yes, sometimes amateurs make very fine images. Being a pro seems to be a goal for many but we really can do “the real thing” while being amateurs.

  • I think the most difficult thing for a photographer is when you have the full formation and potentially the skills to make it to pro, but your personal style is really not suited to become pro. I went to photo school, learned a ton of things, discovered that I really hate portrait while I was at it, but that I could spend hours in front of a flower without any problem. Thing is, macro photos of flowers and bugs is really not what’s going to make money come in. I’ve kind of just accepted my fate of never fully going pro.
    This said, excellent article! Your photos are great, I love the one of the horses with the mountain in the background.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Thank you! And yes, exactly, the business side is a huge part of being a pro. Running any business takes skill and savvy. Becoming a photographer doesn’t mean you don’t have to do all those onerous things like forecasting, budgeting and taxes. Ugh, right?

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Thank you Amaryllis! I love that picture too. I call it a “sleeper” since I didn’t really remark about it when I shot it and now I love it more and more. I have to tell you, I sorta hate portrait work too. I have a very good friend who wants me to do portraits of horse owners with their horses and while that is very lucrative, I don’t feel inspired to do that sort of work. And I think that’s OK! We need to have a creative outlet to make things and do things that we love. I actually run a non-photography-related business full time for my primary income. That income allows me to spend time doing my photography. As a matter of fact, many people don’t even realize that photography isn’t my full time gig. It’s important to me and I I treat it that way. I’m betting that your macro flower photography is pretty special to you too so make it your “life’s work,” call yourself a photographer and maybe eventually your passion will help you produce some income, even if it’s just the sort that pays for a new lens every year, and not the sort that pays the rent.

  • I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one! I do enjoy macro photography a lot, it’s just hard sometimes when I see my friends all having contracts and actually making money with their work while I’m just there (like you said) smelling (photographing) the roses 😛

    And I guess I’m also lucky in my “not being pro” problem, as my primary job is in a photo store, which means that I do get good deals with gear, bags and accessories.

    How did you discover that you like photographing horses? Was it hard for you at first?

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Oh goodness, yes! You have the perfect job. Discovering my passion for horses wasn’t hard at all. It was very gradual. I was putting together a solo exhibition for a coffee house, trying to decide what images to show. I had instantly thought “Italy” since I’ve traveled there often but it seemed too generic. As I was going through my Lightroom Collections (post on that coming soon), I realized that some of my favorite work was of horses. I also realized that when I was photographing the horses I was insanely happy and that resonated with me as I looked through those collections. That coffee house exhibition was all horses and I sold work, too! From that point on, I worked hard to create opportunities to photograph horses. I’ve planned events, taught seminars, spoken at camera clubs and traveled all over the world. I’ve met great new friends that I still travel with now. I don’t market myself specifically to do this but people have started to reach out to me to buy my work and to have me do sessions with their horses. It’s all been very organic and I know it’s because I’m passionate about my equine photography. I think whether you shoot flowers or cityscapes or animals that passion is the key. If you have that, and if you’re dedicated – and it sounds like you are – you will get what you need from your photography. Good luck!

  • juliealba

    It’s been one yr since I resigned from my old work and that decision changed everything for me… I started to work online, for a company I found over internet, several hrs every day, and I profit now much more than i did on my office job… Pay-check i got for last month was for 9000 dollars… The best thing about this gig is that i have more free time to spend with my family… http://chilp.it/728813e

  • It’s great that you managed to get your name out there enough for people to reach out to you! I hope this can happen to me too someday, in the meantime I’ll work hard 🙂 And thanks for the advice!

  • yvettetucker

    After 5 yrs I decided to resign from my old work and it changed my life… I started doing a job from comfort of my house, over a site I found over internet, for several hrs every day, and I earn much more than i did on my previous job… Last pay-check i got was for 9k… Awesome thing about this gig is the more time i got for my loved ones… http://chilp.it/728813e

  • Of course I think I would like going pro but for now I can stay a bit generic and experiment with different. areas. I really enjoy landscapes and old rural towns but I work in the middle of downtown Atlanta so i often explore cityscapes and street photography. No niche required.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Hopefully you’ll have some great opportunities to explore landscapes and rural towns during the holidays but if not, the opportunity to shoot in downtown Atlanta on your lunch break everyday doesn’t sound like a bad way to split your day between work and photography!

  • Willow

    I’ve always felt resentment at using the word ‘amateur’ to describe myself and my photography when asked by someone what kind of photographer I am. I work hard at my craft; spending time, energy, love and money perfecting it. Putting a dollar amount on my art does not make it ‘more’, or ‘better’. My work

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Very inspiring thoughts. Thank you.

  • Cyberdansken

    I’m an amateur, and proud of it. Amateur comes from “love of”, and I truly love photographing. I love that I can wait a year to get the picture I visualized, waiting for just the right light. I love that I can shoot what I love and not what puts bread on the table or pay the rent.
    But I see a danger that real pros are being killed by amateurs, since they either give away their photos for free or sell them way too cheap.

  • Wayne Leary

    An excellent blog -thanks just to confuse things more I call myself a hobbyist photographer..

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