What Defines an Amateur versus a Professional Photographer?


If you’ve been taking photos for a while, this question will undoubtedly cross your mind at some point: “Am I a professional photographer or an amateur?” The idea of what separates an amateur from a professional sparks many debates, and there are many ways of looking at it.

Bob Prosser

By Bob Prosser

What the Dictionary says

Perhaps the most straightforward way of separating amateurs from professionals is looking in the dictionary. By definition, an amateur is “a person who engages in a pursuit or activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit.” On the other hand, the definition of a professional is a little less straightforward. Sources define a professional as simply as “one who earns a living for their occupation,” or as vague as “a person who is expert at his or her work.” Clearly, it’s this vagueness of what a professional is that is at the root of many debates. Still, by using dictionary definitions, we are left with the notion that if you are not pursuing photography for profit, then you are considered an amateur, and the reverse is true for professionals.

Tax Credits

By Tax Credits

What the Government says

Regardless of how you personally classify yourself as a photographer, it’s more important to understand if the government sees you as a professional or an amateur. Depending on where you live and conduct your photo shoots, there may be certain rules and regulations you need to abide by if you are a professional photographer. For example, American citizens who make money through photography are subject to paying federal and state income taxes on either an annual or quarterly basis, depending on the amount of income earned. There are also state and federal business licenses that must be obtained, and depending on the type of photography you do, you may even need to collect sales tax from your clients.

However, one bright side to being a professional photographer in the government’s eyes is the ability to write-off certain photography expenses to lower your overall tax obligations. These licenses, fees, and taxes will vary according to where you live, but it’s important to do your research and make sure you are operating within the laws to avoid future penalties. I recommend consulting with a local tax professional to make sure you are squared away. Bottom line: most governments say that if you are collecting a paycheck for your photography work, then you are considered a professional, and with this designation comes responsibilities.

EpSos .de

By epSos .de

As a Professional, Think of Yourself as a Business

Dictionary and government definitions aside, another way to distinguish yourself as a professional is to confidently present yourself as a business, not just a photographer. Think of any small businesses you patronize regularly, and all of the aspects that make them a respectable commercial entity. Everything from customer service and marketing, to accounting and operations are vital pieces that should be part of your own photography business.

One aspect that is particularly important for separating yourself as a professional photographer is the way you handle new client inquiries. Have a comprehensive process in place, such as a form or worksheet, that helps your client thoroughly and efficiently present the scope of work they have in mind. Also have your own rate sheets, contracts and invoices set up and ready to be filled out.

Photography inquiry form

Example work flow:

  1. Incorporate inquiry forms on your website’s contact page that allows clients to submit photo project details ahead of time to help prequalify them. Also, have a predetermined rate sheet that you can easily refer to if you need to come up with a price on the spot. Remember that confidence is key, especially when asserting your rates.
  2. Have a quote and contract for every job. Based on project scope, send the client a proposed photography evaluation form and a contract that outlines the services you can offer and includes details such as usage rights, delivery options, and proposed timelines. Get the contract signed by the client to confirm agreement.
  3. After the job is complete, send client an invoice using your accounting software or an invoice template you keep on hand. Also be prepared to send over any tax-related documents such as w-9 if the client requests it.

By making the initial inquiry process easy for your client, you are not only gaining their trust in you, but also making your own work flow easier.

So what do you think? How do you define the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur?

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Suzi Pratt is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. She is also a prolific blogger who teaches others how to run a successful photography business.

  • “There are WAY too many GWCs out there who while technically are considered as professional, talking to any of their clients would certainly prove to all that they are anything BUT professional.”

    …..and they are the ones making as all look bad as a community.

  • When do you answer with “I am a photographer?”
    a) when someone asks you what you do for a living?
    b) when someone asks you what your hobby is?

    “Titles” matter: If I ask someone “what they do for a living”, they usually answer with: “I am in sales, I am an accountant, I am a ballet dancer, I am an engineer, I am an IT professional, I am a network engineer” and so forth…Owning a computer doesn’t make someone a programmer, just like owning a pair of pointe shoes doesn’t make someone a ballet dancer.

    No, owning a camera does not make someone a “photographer”, anymore than owning a lawn mower doesn’t make someone a landscaping company.

    If I meet someone today at a networking event, I will answer with “I am a professional photographer”, and follow up upon their answer with “specialized in architectural photography”. This is a polite introduction as far as I am concerned. When I go to DisneyWorld I am an amateur photographer because I photograph all sorts of things I don’t paid for.

    Macro photography is my hobby; architectural photography is my day job. Titles matter actually, because you want people to perceive you for what you really are, and not as someone who has no clear focus of what they do, and who they are. i am not in some witness protection program to call myself things I am not. I am not going to introduce myself to someone with: “I am a chef” because I have a 5 burner gas stove and a professional mixer in my kitchen!

  • freeopinions

    That this IS my day job, and frankly I demand respect for that.

    Frankly, when one has to “demand” respect, it is usually because they haven’t earned it…

  • So what you’re saying is that those who call “photography” their day job should be mocked instead? I suggest you watch this class then: http://kelbyone.com/members/franksalas/

  • Frosty

    “You’re a professional photographer when photography is your main source of income. Nothing more, nothing less.”

    You said it.

  • If being a professional photographer means that it is my business, then I don’t ever want to be called one.

    For me photography is my release from the stress of life… I feel if I ever think of it as a way to make money, everything will change.

    I’m addicted to the feeling of seeing our world through new eyes as I learn to see shadows and light, shapes and angles, and shades of colors… It’s an amazing feeling.

    Saludos desde Chile

    Follow me at jaxchile.tumblr.com
    My experiences through photography in the true deep south… South America!

  • Jen

    I’m completely with you. I guess I’m an “experienced amateur” but just as with baking, I know if I turned photography into a business, it would lose the fun and relaxation for me.

  • Jen

    I agree with you 100%. I love photography and it’s one of my passions, and if I had to do it for money, it would ruin the experience. Thank you for sharing your link with us.

  • landshark123

    I like the expression ‘enthusiastic amateur’.

  • Jerry Mathers

    I think the terms “amatuer” and “professional” are misleading.While I agree with the article in defining as to whether one gets paid as the definition of a professional, it seems that we use those terms to assign a skill level.

    The use of the word “photographer” seems to get closer to what we are trying to define, but still doesn’t really do the trick. For example, someone that is successful on Instagram (and isn’t famous) may indeed be using some (or all) the principles of photography. However, if the medium they use is primarily the phone and the principles they follow are mostly composition and use of natural light, I’m not sure I would agree that calling that person a photographer would be accurate. They may have mastered some of the tools, but not all. It appears that what we are lacking is a classification system that:

    1) Allows us to identify the skills and abilities we currently possess and where we are at in developing those skills.

    2) Measure our ability to apply those skills in producing our images.

    3) Shows our ability to consistently reproduce the conditions that are present in the images we create.

    To borrow from the trades, a better system would be something like apprentice photographer, journeyman photographer, photographer, and master photographer. This would indicate the level of skill a person has obtained and their ability to execute it. If you specialize (like a trim carpenter), then a category of that specialization could be assigned to indicate your skills in that category. Using my previously cited example, the Instangram person may be a social media photographer or master social media photographer.

    And while we already do have the categories. What we are lacking are good terms that indicate knowledge, skills, and experience. I don’t believe that terms “amatuer” and “professional” cover this. And that is why I think it feels so distasteful for so many really good photographers to be called “amatuer”.

  • Patricia Anne Greening

    OK. So I’m an enthusiastic amateur! I’ve been happily snapping away since I was 13 (that’s 70 years). I take photographs for my own enjoyment, I have no wish to make money from them; and after all this time, I’m still learning.

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