What makes a photographer a 'professional'?

What makes a photographer a ‘professional’?


I get emails regularly from people asking the same question. What makes you a ‘professional’ photographer and how can I be one? Although the definition of being a professional anything is pretty straightforward, for the one searching for where they fit into the photography world, it can actually feel a pretty abstract concept. As I can see from those many emails, there are many photographers wondering where they fit in.

So to make this clear: you’re a professional at something when it’s your profession. And a profession in the loosest sense of the word is “a vocation or business”. Although in the photographic world, the word profession may have a more strict definition and that’s open for debate. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as, say, being a doctor or a therapist or even a farmer. Because photography is unique in that it is a hobby or passion which can turn into a very nice business. For some, it’s part-time, for others full-time. When do you cross that line from hobbyist to professional?

A few things that DON’T make you a professional:

  • A big ass camera
  • A bigger ego
  • All the editing programs in the world

So what do I tell those people who email me? When people love what you do and recognise you as a ‘photographer’, when you make any amount of money or business out of photography, then you are a ‘professional’.

What would you tell someone asking you the question: “what make a photographer a ‘professional’?”

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Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Brooke Adams February 18, 2013 05:18 pm

    This is really straight forward as my photography teacher old me a professional photographer someone who has sold there images for money.

  • Deroy January 13, 2013 10:44 am

    What about the people that take courses (and pass) in college/Uni?
    I think you can only truly be a photographer when you are a professional and that needs both credentials and experience on their cv/portfolio. Its not about money for i think that relies on who you know.
    Otherwise everyone with a camera of any sort is a photographer which dosnt make it fair on those who've been taught and trained to snap the best picture possible given any situation, and not rely on luck. :)

  • Alecsimages December 22, 2012 08:55 am

    Hi all I have always been interested in photography and always told others arround me that because I use a camera that does not sell as or advertised as a pro camera then my images should be somehow not as good as others that have so called pro equipment, I use a digital FUJIFilM HS20EXR bridge camera and although many have slated this camera as bog standard and nothing exiting even poor then I beg to differ, my time in art college photo school served me well, know your equipment, get the eye, composure and stance, make mistakes lots of them and learn, your photography will improve and aspire to a high standard. Had to be said, please comment.

  • Dino August 23, 2012 09:20 pm

    We are all professional in every aspect as long as we apply professionalism in everything we do....that's the fact!....there's a lot of photographer out there call themselves one....but look how they behave.
    There is no such thing as hobbyist or semi-pro as long as you do your craft professionaly...Now...the underlying question would be......what is professionalism?

  • Russ April 3, 2012 02:59 pm

    I even have a hard admitting I'm a Photographer, even though my gear follows me everywhere. I'm naked without it and yet still can't admit to even being a photographer.

    Look at someone like Peter Lik who was self taught and simply took amazing photographs, then made a beautiful book of the fifty states of the US. Was he a pro overnight because he made a nice book, OR was he a pro all along?

  • Chris March 29, 2012 08:55 am

    That would depend on how you define the word "professional". In the strictest sense a professional photographer is someone whose profession is photography, i.e. gets paid to take photos.

    If I have a full time job as a lorry driver but I shoot weddings on the weekend in exchange for money, then i am a professional photographer on the weekend and a professional driver during the week.

    However, if you are referring to a high standard of photographic competency, than the word "professional" becomes extremely vague and subjective.

    some photographers may look at the website of the world's highest paid photographer and say "he's no professional photographer" just because they don't particularly like his work or his style of photography isn't compatible with their own.

  • cloud September 29, 2011 06:22 pm

    To me, a professional photographer (obviously good at photography) shall have the ability to see things others can only dream of, but can't do it...
    It's not about saturating or add-in some vintage looks etc and make it so complicated that people got no choice but to say "WoW... Nice colors"...
    And yes... People loves the colors, not the photo...
    The photo only shows beauty, but mute...

    It's about a photo that can convey a story when you look at it... A picture that can stir up your emotions...
    It doesn't really matter if it's photoshopped or HDRed...
    A photo that can magically bring you there, and the story told by it, is amazingly stunning just by looking at it...

    That is how I define the capability of a professional photographer...

  • Gerard Murphy September 20, 2011 11:58 pm

    I believe that being a professional photographer is about the conversion rate of great pictures to snapshots. Anyone with a camera (or even a phone) could take a great photo every 1000 shots but a professional takes a good shot once out of every 5. I wrote about this on my blog:


  • Danie August 29, 2011 10:13 pm

    Everyone is waffling on about percentages of income, time spent and so on, when it should be really obvious that a vertical battery grip is what makes you a professional photographer, I thought everyone knew that.

    Seriously though, I think the first comment sums it up perfectly. A professional photographer knows he/she is a professional photographer. 'Professional' isn't a seal of approval or a prize like an Oscar or something. You can be a professional photographer and still suck at what you do, just like any other profession.

  • Lee April 6, 2011 07:10 pm

    Being classed as a professional photographer is about committment and dedication. To be a professional you need to be 100% committed to your photography and that means doing it full time. If someone calls you to speak with you about a Wedding, if you cant take the call because your at work, or cant meet up with them the next day because you would need to take a day off work, then your not a professional. 100% committment through the quiet times and the busy times - thats being a professional.

  • Sam Rambo October 27, 2010 06:32 pm

    It's not about money, I have seen plenty of bad photographers get paid, and it's not about if this is your main income, because some of the best in the business do photography as a second job, to me it's about a level of professionalism, and a standard of quality.

  • Ian McMillan October 27, 2010 06:13 pm

    Some one who can stand by there work with confidence. know how to use your camera of automatic and can produce work constantly at the highest standard from taking to image to handing over the final package. There are so many factors that make a professional photographer truly professional. But an education and certification by a good collage, university or institution is important. But I do agree with the above statement by Goldie Green

  • Goldie Green September 21, 2010 01:16 am

    For anyone asking this very question I recommend reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. He basically says that once you decide to BE a professional you will be. But whether you succeed or fail you still get up and go to work the next day and put your all into everything you do for you business. That in itself makes you a professional. Of course he says it better than I and it goes much deeper than this, but read it, you won't regret it.

  • Reginald W. Brown September 18, 2010 12:50 am

    When asked whether I am a professional photographer, I tell people I am a serious amateur who enjoys taking good pictures with good equipment with patience and a growing technical knowledge of digital still photography, .

  • Bhavesh_from_Maryland September 3, 2010 02:53 am

    According to me -

    Qualities of a pro

    1) Sincere
    2) Punctual
    3) Patience
    4) Good equipment - camera, lenses, filters, flashes etc
    5) Technical knowledge to make a best shot in a given situation (envrionment, lighting, people) and given equipment
    6) Honesty to do more (take more pics) if necessary...
    7) As you said, no ego, but yes to confidence and clarity in communication... and ability to be a kid with kids and direct the crowds (say in a marriage hall) clearly if you have to..

  • Bhavesh_from_Maryland September 3, 2010 02:53 am

    According to me -

    Qualities of a pro

    1) Sincere
    2) Punctual
    3) Patience
    4) Good equipment - camera, lenses, filters, flashes etc
    5) Technical knowledge to make a best shot in a given situation (envrionment, lighting, people) and given equipment
    6) Honesty to do more (take more pics) if necessary...
    7) As you said, no ego, but yes to confidence and clarity in communication... and ability to be a kid with kids and direct the crowds (say in a marriage hall) clearly if you have to..

  • Kim Dever Thibodeaux August 19, 2010 01:17 pm

    My two cents: To me, a professional photographer is someone who earns a good deal of their income from photography. I think you can be an expert even if you aren't a professional...and you can be a professional without being an expert. And in either case, you will find people who act "professional"...and many who don't!

  • Susan August 18, 2010 05:09 pm

    To give the person who pays or the client photographs he is happy with. One might be well known as a professional fashion photographer and keep the travel shots for ones personal album.

  • Bob August 15, 2010 10:58 pm

    To me a professional photographer is one who makes a living taking pictures but a good photographer is one who can create art with his camera. In many cases one person can be both but for me the second one is more important and what I would like to eventually become.

  • sutendra August 5, 2010 09:48 pm

    only the inbuilt PASSION and CREATIVITY can make one professional.

  • Tom August 2, 2010 05:15 pm

    In this case I believe the word "professional" applies to your approach as a photographer as well as whether you are regularly paid for your work or not.

    The simplistic view of approach is characterized by this: An amateur takes a few decent photos and shows them all while a professional takes many, many decent photos and only shows (and sells) the very best.

    As far as being paid...Though you may not earn enough (yet) to cover all your business expenses AND your living expenses, the fact that your are REGULARLY earning income from your photos, combined with your approach, determines a "professional" status.

  • Shelley J August 1, 2010 09:18 pm

    Your answer to the question was great and to the point! I was a professional photographer but am low key now. I don't call my self a photographer anymore because to be one besides these 3 points you need to do it as a business..make money (:

  • Shripad August 1, 2010 09:47 am

    I liked your answer to the question. I feel that a person, when he does a business with his photos, he is professional. Till then he is an ameture

  • shutterdancer August 1, 2010 05:04 am

    No offense William...but the question was what makes a photographer a "Professional"...not what makes a photographer an artist.I think that all of us who take photography seriously like to think that we have artistic ability, but the majority of us don't make a full time living from it.

    I have a friend who is a "Professional" wedding photographer and he and I have debated the "Art" factor of photography many times. he believes that photography is not an art. He says that he can come behind anyone and produce the very same photograph that they do,making it not unique and therefore not art.

    I always counter...but what about that once in a lifetime shot that no one can recreate...and he always counters with "That's luck, not art"

    You have a very nice gallery BTW!

  • William Burnett July 31, 2010 12:59 pm

    I think the answer many people are really asking is not what makes a pro but what makes an artist? I long ago decided not to call myself a pro. I say I am an artist. An artist creates for the sake of the art and their desire. They may or may not be paid for it. A pro is paid for their work even if it never reaches the level of art. I am lucky enough that people have wanted to buy my work. You might look at it and not like it or you might love it but for me the artist it does not matter.

    I think what people really get upset over are people who buy a camera and get a business card printed yet fail to create anything close to art. Well I say good for them. If they can find someone willing to pay them for crap more power to them. I want people with money to buy my work. I do not want to be the wal-mart of photography and neither should any artist.

  • shutterdancer July 31, 2010 10:50 am

    Lots of good takes here on what makes a photographer a professional....My opinion is that if a photographer makes the majority of his/her living from photography then he /she is a professional photographer,and while quality of work is subjective,I doubt that poor quality work on a consistent basis would allow a photographer to make a full time living from it.

    On a light hearted note ,a friend likes to tell this story...He was out shooting macro a while back,..his tripod legs spread to the max,..his center column rotated horizontal,lying flat on his belly,intently staring through his viewfinder ,composing a shot of tiny wildflowers,when from behind him came the question.."Wow, are you a photographer?"....he glanced over his shoulder to see a wide eyed young couple seemingly fascinated with his setup...."no he replied, I'm a musician, but for the life of me, I can't seem to get this thing in tune" ;>)

  • Michael July 31, 2010 06:30 am

    I really have to say that I agree with this all the way. I had a lady say to me one time that she was a professional and then she admitted to me that she didnt even know how to work her camera and was reading up on it. I replied to her back by saying sorry but you still will not be a professional because you read a manual. It baffeled me on how many people do not know how to use a camera correctley and how to work it. I do own my own business in photography and I decided to take this photo tour. Other so called photographers were asking me what I was shooting at. Sorry but you are on your own I told him. Dont mean to be rude, BUT, I shoot a certain way and I was all dialed in. I am not going to tell you what to shoot at, so you can have the same photo I have. That is at your own discretion on how you want to take that photo. That to me is not a professional.

  • Laura Laws July 31, 2010 03:46 am

    Jeff Plum....In that case I became a professional about a month ago!!

  • Elia July 31, 2010 01:08 am

    Consistency. Consistently good that is.

  • Vanja July 30, 2010 09:06 pm

    I think that a professional in any field must be a person that is educated in the field and regularly does the job i the field. Therefore, a hobbyist cannot be a professional in any case,even though he or she may make money out of the hobby. There are schools ,colleges that teach photography,and I think that only one with a major in art could be a pro photographer. My 2c.

  • Dark_Chaos July 30, 2010 06:43 pm

    A professional would be some one who gets paid to take photo's. Part time of full time.

  • Paul July 30, 2010 06:41 pm

    You are professional if you make the majority of your income from photography.

    This is not related to the competency of the photographer.

  • Herve July 30, 2010 06:40 pm

    A professional is:
    - earning money from his activity;
    - making the pictures he / she gets asked to do.

    The second part is very important in my opinion, since it definetly is the counterpart of the first point! As a pro, if your client asks you to shoot portraits on location in black and white, although you're more of a studio, color specialist, you will provide him / her with outstanding black and white, on location portraits; as a pro, you are expected to deliver high quality pictures, or, more precisely, pictures that will exactly match their purpose.

    If you make money without delivering what you are paid for, then you're.. a thief!!
    If you deliver stuff you're asked for but would not do for you're sole pleasure, then you're.. a fool (unless you get some other kind of compensation)!

  • Albert Ward July 30, 2010 06:00 pm

    I am a rookie when it comes to photography but I have inherited my love for it from my grand dad who spent hours behind his camera then ending up in his laboratory to develop his pictures he took. To me there was a kind of nostalgic feeling to it - seeing how a picture taken by a camera slowly came into being on a piece of paper - that totally thrilled me. I wanted to continue this nostalgic feeling, not only because I love photography, but because a very prominent man in my life made a huge impression on me and showed me you can be professional if you love what you are doing.
    So I bought my first DSLR (Canon 350D) secondhand and thought it would be good if I could join a photography club. Needles to say that I was totally disappointed. When I arrived there the first meeting almost every one was bragging about his newest piece of equipment. A fellow asked me what camera I've got and I told him and his reaction made me feel like I was the worst kind of photographer there is. I didn't even go back and my camera ended up in my cupboard.
    It was only later that the first impression my granddad made on me, was revived again and I remember his words: You're a professional if you love what you are doing.
    So I thought, screw the damn stuck up guys with all their so called grand equipment and screw photoshop as I just cannot afford it! I am going to do the best with what I've got and I am going to do it because I love it and for no other reason.
    Today my camera goes everywhere I go, I am an "opportunistic" photographer - always looking for that opportunity of a lifetime and if I may say so myself, I have taken shots with my humble 350D that will be able to compare with the best and most expensive equipment out there!

    Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder!!


  • julie July 30, 2010 04:29 pm

    I consider myself a "semi-pro", only because I am my own worst critic. But, along with producing quality images, I am very professional with my clients. I spend a little time each day as much as I can (I have kids and a regular job) researching new ways to improve my skills, new ideas, marketing, equipment, etc etc. I specialize in event photography and I am very reliable so my clients can enjoy their day without worrying about me. I have 2 cameras so I have a backup, spare batteries, memory cards, etc and I even bring a spare pair of contact lenses because you never know....As of right now I spend every hard earned dollar I make from my photography jobs on new lenses, equipment, etc. So what I am saying is that I take photography very seriously and I love it very much. 95% of business I get comes from word of mouth, so that says alot to me. So, yes, I can very much say I am a professional. :)

  • Tim July 30, 2010 02:04 pm

    I perfer the IRS's deginition. If you deduct it on schedule A expenses up to the income limit as a hobby then you are not a professional. If however you file Schedule C and attempt to make ann income in 3 out of 5 years and can incur aloss then you are a professional. USA defenitions by the way per tax code.

  • Anna Lyn July 30, 2010 11:19 am

    I strongly agree with Jeff and Didith and Eugene

  • PL July 30, 2010 11:14 am

    I've been doing photography for 3 weeks.
    I'm not too worried about being classed as a professional...... I just want to get to the level where I can consistently produce great photos which people will admire and wouldn't hesitate to pay money for.

  • Loren E Lasher July 30, 2010 11:10 am

    Thanks Zach, for enumerating the career critical points that all the details arise from.
    The customers will always be the final judge, and they vote with money.
    Be prepared like a good scout. Sometimes the greatest shots are NOT composed, but just happen.
    " A Funsaver in the hand is better than a Bronica in the trunk."

  • Javis Sneed July 30, 2010 08:23 am

    I'm surprised at how many people attached money and percentages of income etc to their definition of a professional photographer.

    Im much more inclined to go with those that mention the client's(or persons viewing your images) satisfaction - and something not too many others mentioned - a WORKING knowledge of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus etc., the elements of photography that a good image hinge upon.

    A random company emailed me from looking at my portfolio and offered me $500 for an image I took in DC last summer, and it wasnt the fact that I was getting paid that spoke of the quality of my shot, but the fact that an individual saw it and liked it enough to do something more than right click and save it to their computer to get it.

  • Leo Mangubat July 30, 2010 06:58 am

    I think we are dealing with the skills of a photographer here. If a professional photographer is one who uses photography as his/her profession and a hobbyist as one who does photography as his/her passion, then there is no way we can qualify their skills. We are simply asking if he/she makes a living out of photography or he/she is doing photography for fun. I have seen a lot of hobbyist who are far more better than professional photographer. I also have seen a lot of professional photographers who really make money out of taking photographs but a lot worst then a hobbyist. I am not saying that hobbyist are far more better than professionals. What I am saying is that we cannot qualify the skills of a photographer using this basis.

  • kitty July 30, 2010 06:43 am

    I was told a photographer with a business license to sell her product is a professional.

  • George Stenberg July 30, 2010 05:04 am

    You are a professional when you pay taxes on your earnings.

  • Jon July 30, 2010 04:26 am

    I once was told (by a professional) an amateur shows all his photos, a professional only the good ones.

  • chi July 30, 2010 03:20 am

    you're a pro when it's what you do for a living. You live and eat off the money you make from it.

  • Elwyn July 30, 2010 03:17 am

    I heard long ago, the difference between a profetssonal and an amiture photographer is: A professional photographer does not show his/her bad pictures.

  • S July 29, 2010 08:43 pm

    you're a professional when people praise your works and admire you a lot. and no self praising. and also when people engage you in some photo shoots and pay you :)

  • Erin July 29, 2010 02:35 am

    I ran into this issue recently when I submitted some of my work to an amateur photography contest. The photographs I submitted were taken as a hobby, on my own time using my own equiptment. But it was brought to my attention that I may be considered ineligible due to the fact that I work for a photo company that takes tourist's pictures in front of a greenscreen and then composits a background related to the tourist spot behind them.
    I do not consider this job a professional photographer possition because I do nothing more than make sure people stand in the middle of the screen and then push a button. While yes I do typically end up being the person to trouble shoot the camera when the photos arn't coming out right, most people in my position don't know what a light meter is. How can this count as a professional photographer?

  • Eugene Breaux July 28, 2010 02:37 am


    To consistently produce a technically excellent and creative image, regardless of the subject or shooting conditions and to produce the highest quality photographic solution while maintaining the best productivity and profitability for our clients.

    This is the Mission Statement of a true professional photographer

    If you can consistently meet this statement you are than a professional photographer.

  • Corinna July 28, 2010 02:31 am

    I don't want to jump into the debate about who's a pro and who isn't. I just wanted to tell you that you made me stop and laugh out loud in the middle of my work day as I was reading this article and got to #1 "big ass camera". Totally cracked me up! :)

  • Eugene Breaux July 28, 2010 02:06 am

    To consistently produce a technically excellent and creative image, regardless of the subject or shooting conditions and to produce the highest quality photographic solution while maintaining the best productivity and profitability for our clients.

    This is the Mission Statement of a true professional photographer.

    If you can consistently meet this statement you are a professional photographer


    [eimg url='http://www.light-study-pro.com/photos/996003/#16623760' title='#16623760']

  • Didit Mehta July 26, 2010 02:06 am

    You already have the best yet simple answer. If I can say it in other words: you are professional photographer when people love and admire your photos and willing to pay for them that can give you a descent life...

  • Phil Stone July 25, 2010 05:06 pm

    The difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional will crash "through" a wall. The amateur will crash into it.

  • Maclovia July 25, 2010 04:38 pm

    I grew up a band geek, that may seem totally irrelevant to the question but it's kind of the key to my answer. Most of the band teachers whom I've had said that the only difference between an amateur and a professional musician was that one got paid, skill level had nothing to do with it. For me at least, it goes the same with photographers, you are professional if you get paid (UNFORTUNATELY) it has nothing to do with skill level. I'm sure there are plenty of photographers who get paid for pictures I'd never consider good under any circumstances; however, since they do get paid, I'd consider them a professional (and then die a little on the inside).

    I'd also agree with @rob that it doesn't have to mean that you earn a majority of your income from it. I also completely agree with the difference between "professional photography" and "professional quality" that's when the person's talent comes into play.

  • Anne July 25, 2010 09:12 am

    So, how do you get experience as a crime lab photographer?

  • Steph White July 25, 2010 07:55 am

    I guess when photography is main source of income, then you're a pro.

  • Karen Stuebing July 25, 2010 02:10 am

    I have to agree it's whether or not you make your living from photography.

    That is not to say that professional photographers take the best photos. I've seen horrible photos from them published.

    One of the photographer from out local paper carries about $6000 worth of Nikon gear and yet, he consistently takes so so photos. The other photographer takes awesome shots all the time. He's free lance.

    And I've seen better photos from hobbyists than some professionals.

    But the bottom line is if you don't make money from it, you're not a pro. Doesn't mean you're not an excellent photographer though.

  • Andrew July 24, 2010 04:36 pm

    So many people think its about the money but for me a professional is someone who's been shooting for 20 years and still think they have a lot to learn. Its about being humble enough to understand that there is always someone better and taking it as a challenge to better yourself. A professional has little concern over how they are perceived by others but focuses instead on what it is they want to say in a photo and within their work.

  • rob July 24, 2010 05:28 am

    Being a professional photographer has nothing to do with being a good photographer, having expensive equipment, or fancy post processing software. It simply means that you earn money from photography. Perhaps to the dismay of many people, it doesn't even mean that you earn the majority of your income from photography. Any person with a camera that has earned money from photography has the right to call themselves professional. Unfortunately, many people (both photographers and non-photographers) think that being a professional photographer indicates that the work will be better than the non-professional photographer, but this simply isn't the case. The only way you can judge the quality of work of a photographer is looking through their body of work.

    A different (and I'm not sure better) question would be what makes the quality of work of a photographer 'professional'. This is probably the stumbling point people run into when talking about a professional photographer. Many times we equivocate and use the term 'professional photographer' and 'professional quality' to mean the same things, when they clearly do not.

  • Zeca Moraes July 24, 2010 05:04 am

    Well, one is a professional when he/she earns a living with his/her camera, whatever be it. Simple like that.

  • Manuel July 24, 2010 04:23 am

    No need for a long answer.

    Getting paid.

  • Paul M July 24, 2010 04:17 am

    If you can pay your rent by taking photographs, you're a pro! :D

  • Jerome Paladino July 24, 2010 04:02 am

    When I am getting paid I am a pro.
    When I am not, I am a hobbyist.
    It's that simple.
    You are not one OR the other and being a pro is not somehow superior to being a hobbyist.
    I am a part time professional Photographer. Photography is still my passion and my favorite past-time. When I am not getting paid I consider myself a hobbyist. The only thing that makes you a professional is getting paid. Just ask the IRS.
    A "successful" professional photographer gets paid repeatedly and maybe even makes his living from it.

  • Lisa July 24, 2010 03:40 am

    You are a professional when you get paid for doing what you do. I've seen "pros" whose pictures are horrendous and "amateurs" who have fantastic pics.

  • Leslie Wilson July 24, 2010 03:03 am

    Professional is not always the question. I would suggest that they read "VisionMongers" by David duChemin. He speaks so much to the Vocational photographer: the person whose photographs express their voice, whether they make their living at it or not.

  • Zach July 24, 2010 02:51 am

    A lot of good answers here. This is my take:

    You are a professional when you can take the exact same photo again and not rely on luck.
    You are a professional when you can solve all issues on a photoshoot without the client even knowing.
    You are a professional when you can deliver exactly what your client asks for, or better, on time.
    You are a professional when others recognize you as a professional.
    You are a professional when you are ready to be.

  • Kevin Ricks July 24, 2010 01:51 am

    I think professional is someone who's income is predominantly derived from photography. That's all.

    With all the wealth of photography types out there, (Art, lansdcape, wildlife, product, wedding, location, portrait, experimental ...need i go on..?) it's not even the same as being good - or formally trained.

    I think if you do want to be a professional anything you need to dedicate yourself to your profession, often working hard to to find out how to get paid for it!

    This isn't a moan - i think it's a wonderful thing that people can love and decide to pursue something on either a hobbyist or a professional basis. I'm sure there are plenty of people here who understand their camera, consistently take great pictures, look at creative ways of using their cameras and lighting and aren't professional. Just as there are a few people in life who seem to 'wing it' at whatever they do and come up smelling of roses!

  • Craig Mullenbach July 24, 2010 01:06 am

    Well said. I consider a pro-photographer to be one who derives almost all of their income from photography. Here is what Nikon requires to join their professional services group:

    "How to Become a NPS Member

    Nikon Professional Services is available only to bona-fide, FULL-TIME professional photographers. There are absolutely no costs involved in joining NPS, only important benefits designed to help you.
    To qualify:

    * NPS Sponsor (existing member to verify that you are a full-time photographer)
    * Current Tear Sheets (published within the last 12 months)
    * Ownership of a minimum of 2 Nikon Professional Bodies and 3 Nikkor or DX Nikkor lenses"

  • John July 24, 2010 01:04 am

    I think very very few people are truly "professional". For me, a professional photographer makes 100% of their income with their photos.

  • Tom July 24, 2010 01:01 am

    I agree with most of these comments the sad thing about photography is so many people automatically assume they are professionals because they have tools & equipment, have a nice business card and got paid money for taking pictures. That does not make you a professional because even a monkey can take pictures and make money. The real professionals have gone to school, made sacrifices and dedicated years of their life. They pursued the profession of learning the trade whatever it takes including working as an assistant under professionals absorbing everything about the business. They even become even more qualified if they have worked reasonable time as an apprentice under several professionals. Professionals know the business inside & out and what it takes to produce great results. They sell themselves by their actions and works not based on how much they charge. They absorb everything like a sponge being creative & flexible with the ability to adjust to almost any conditions using any camera and producing great masterpieces. Professionalism is producing professional results every time not excuses and having the vision and ability of create almost any masterpiece no matter the circumstances. This may sound old school but I don't think anyone with less than 5 years of technical training in any field should even consider themselves as a professional including photography. Ever hear the term practicing physicians?

  • Jason Collin Photography July 24, 2010 12:46 am

    Just to add my vote, a professional photographer title makes no comment on the skill or talent of the photographer. A professional photographer is simply a person who makes at least half her/his total income from photography work.

  • Tony Page July 24, 2010 12:23 am

    Jeff's comment may appear simply a clever witticism to some, but it actually gets to the heart of the matter. Apart from the tax and business implications, the only reason anyone would have to describe themselves as a "professional photographer" is when they need to distinguish themselves from non-professionals for marketing reasons, or when they need to describe someone who earns their living by taking photographs.

    "Having a professional attitude" can nowadays be applied to virtually anyone who carries out their job function in an efficient, competent, "businesslike" manner, with an emphasis on providing good service to their client together with a strong implication of fair and honest dealing.

    In the past, and perhaps even now, the main use of professional photographers to manufacturers was to provide a marketing hook for their sales to the general public; the actual value of professional sales was very much a secondary benefit.

    When asked what I do for a living, I always say I take snaps and scribble a bit. To be honest, that's probably because I hate people tying simple labels around my neck. But who goes around saying they're a "professional doctor", or a "professional accountant", or a "professional lawyer"? I tend to think that the only people who feel the need to claim they are "professionals" are the ones who have doubts about their status and perhaps ability, as Jeff comments above.

    Tony Page

  • Karen Linsley, CPP July 24, 2010 12:05 am

    A professional photographer is someone who can consistently produce images that their clients love, no matter what the lighting conditions are, no matter what the weather is, no matter what is happening.

  • Billy Dugger July 23, 2010 11:55 pm

    It's seems the discussion here centers more around a person who works at photography either part-time or full-time -- neither of which make's one a professional photographer.

    I like to distinguish between photographers and camera owners. Lots of bored housewives buy cameras and go out and start shooting children and weddings without any idea of what they are doing and end up destroying the these markets for photographers trying to eek out a living in portrait and wedding studios.

    I call myself a photographer. Professional Photographer has a connotation of a businessman who participates in the profession of photography. This implies the adherence to business standards and practices equal to other business endeavors. You have a business license. You have a business location. You maintain hours of operation. You have professional training or certifications, belong to professional associations recognized in the field and you stand behind your product. You have a tax ID and collect sales taxes, pay ad valorum taxes on your business equipment, etc.

    Now that qualifies you as a businessman. Let's see how well you make photographs and your customers will be the ultimate arbiter of that.

  • Florian Knorn July 23, 2010 11:54 pm

    I can only chime in --- I once heard someone say that (provided you know your stuff) you're a professional photographer when you stop talking about gear...

  • Bill Turley July 23, 2010 10:51 pm

    To answer the question what I consider make a person a professional photographer I would say that a person should make a substancial percentage of their income from photography. In this day of stock images almost any decent photographer can sell an image or two. IMHO That does not make them a professional. I have been a professional Photographer several times during my working life. I worked as a Medical Photographer in a Clinical situation, (Pro), shot occaisional weddings (A), worked for a wedding photo agency (Pro) had several photos printed in newspapers, books and mags (A) worked for Lifetouch as a portrait Photographer (Pro), publish photographs connected to a blog (A).

  • James July 23, 2010 09:43 pm

    What about when people ask you when you're out shooting, "are you a photographer?" I always find the smart-ass answer very tempting, but as a hobbyist, I respond no.

  • Malc July 23, 2010 09:34 pm


    To be honest I couldn't think of a name whilst I was writing my reply in reference to a pro photograph and Rockwell was the first once that popped into my head. I have no opinion really of his work either good or bad I just new he was in the field (I did think of Scott Bourne but in all honesty I think he is a tit on a personal level so chose not to use his name).

    However, my view still applies.

    I have read the other comments and it is all very much based towards commercial professional photography and, in the main, I think most comments are valid but those same comments apply to my kind of professional photography (well, all except the nice bundle of cash commercial photogs get!). My photography has to be of good quality, I often have very, very challenging and undeirabe conditions in which to work and I get NO second chances. So, I definatley class myself as a professional in this regard.

    Though, outside of work, and although I apply the same techniques as I do at work, I do not class myself as a pro as I do it for fun.


  • kate July 23, 2010 09:31 pm

    I'm gonna go with the generally accepted definition of "professional" and say when it becomes a profession. That is, if you're doing it for a regular job either full time or part time, you're a professional photographer. Doesn't mean you have to be any good at it but if you can find a steady stream of people to pay you for it, you're a professional.

    Somewhere along the way the original idea of profession got separated from a professional though. Something about publicly proclaiming yada yada...

  • GradyPhilpott July 23, 2010 08:37 pm

    From Abraham Flexner (1915):

    Let me now review briefly the six criteria which we have mentioned; professions involve essentially intellectual operations with large individual responsibility; they derive their raw material from science and learning; this material they work up to a practical and definite end; they possess an educationally communicable technique; they tend to self-organization; they are becoming increasingly altruistic in motivation. . . .

    But, after all, what matters most is professional spirit. All activities may be prosecuted in the genuine professional spirit. In so far as accepted professions are prosecuted at a mercenary or selfish level, [they] are ethically no better than trades. In so far as trades are honestly carried on, they tend to rise toward the professional level.

    In the long run, the first, main and indispensable criterion of a profession will be the possession of a professional spirit....


    There is no reason that photography cannot fit into these criteria.

  • karen July 23, 2010 07:55 pm

    @Will McA I totally agree with your point of view... Just like money can't buy class! :) The term professional should be used here to qualify a profession not an attitude, because I can show a professional attitude in everything I do, when accompanying my son's class on an excursion for example, I am totally a teacher's assistant.
    Work, sell, money gained? You're a pro.

  • johnp July 23, 2010 03:23 pm

    Out of interest this is how the Australian Taxation Office will determine if you are professional or not - if they reckon you need to include income on your tax return (I dont work for them by the way!)

    How do I tell whether I am in business?
    There is no simple answer to whether you are in business or not, it depends upon the facts in each case. However, you can use the following questions to help you determine whether your activity is actually a business:

    Does your activity have a significant commercial purpose or character?
    Do you have more than just an intention to engage in business?
    Do you have a purpose of profit as well as a prospect of profit?
    Is there repetition and regularity to your activity?
    Is your activity carried on in a similar manner to other businesses in your industry?
    Is your activity planned, organised and carried on in a business-like manner?
    Does your activity have characteristics of size, scale and permanency?
    Would it be true to say your activity is really better described as a business, rather than a hobby, recreation or sporting activity?
    Each time you answered ‘yes’ to the questions above, it increases the probability that you are in business though no one indicator is decisive, they must be considered in combination and as a whole.

  • Daniel Suzuki July 23, 2010 03:12 pm

    Being a professional in any job means delivering good, consistent results.

  • Rachel@IdahoCheneys July 23, 2010 01:49 pm

    In my opinion, you're a professional when you quit doing it for free or for favors. My husband is a great handyman, he loves working on homes, and he would love to help out friends and family but it's his profession so he doesn't do it for free anymore. He wouldn't be able to support us if he did!

  • Bob K July 23, 2010 01:25 pm

    Our tennis clinic instructor told our group (soem long time ago) the 'you can hit a ball as well as I can. The difference is that my percentage is in the upper 90's, and yours is below 10. The principle applies, so in my opinion:

    You are a professional photographer if your can reliably produce photos at a rate and quality that allows you to derive a significant portion of your income from that source.

  • Deborah July 23, 2010 11:55 am

    In my opinion, you are a "Professional" when ...
    a. you know and understand the technical aspects and how to see light and compose a quality image.
    b. you conduct yourself in a Professional manner and produce quality, professional, work/product.
    c. you market and present yourself and your work/product in a professional manner.
    d.you practice your craft regularly (preferably daily) with your eye on continuously improving your work.
    e. you are paid $$$ for your quality, professional, work/product.
    f. snapshots do not apply

  • Sherri Svisdahl July 23, 2010 11:28 am

    I think a person can consider themselves a professional photographer, when they do it for money and take consistant great photos without having to edit them completely. I think there are way too many people that over use these editing programs, yet cant take a good photo with out them.

  • Jesse July 23, 2010 11:22 am

    I think what makes you a professional, is when your livelihood is dependant on your work. That is, if you can't attract new clients, you don't eat. One of my old flat mates did a degree in fine arts and then a two year apprenticeship under one of the top advertising photographers in London. His photos are good, and he occasionally gets a few published, but his income is selling tshirts. He referred to photography as his hobby. I'm sure if he were to open a studio or work with someone else, he would start referring to it as his profession.

    My boss just bought a pleasure yacht and is now referring to himself as a sailor in company emails. Same sort of thing.

  • Nick July 23, 2010 11:19 am

    I know people who bought a big ass expensive money pit camera and tons of expensive pro gear and hardly use it or just don't know how to use it just want to show off, thats not even a hobbyist, thats just an asshole.

    In my eyes I see a professional photographer getting paid for their skills, I recently went to a wedding and took lots of photos and some people said you go professional, even the already professional photographers said I have the skills to be a professional photographer.

    I call my self a semi-professional photographer because I am a hobbyist and I do small side jobs, one time someone was going hire to be to photos for their son for senior portraits, never got back to me, someone wanted to hire me to take photos of their dog and was going to pay me a good amount, never happened.

    I may be "alright" at photographer but I don't make a decent wage, if any wage at all at photography right now, it's strictly just for fun. Though like I said above if I got hired to do a side job and I would do it, but i'm not professional, i'm more less semi-professional. If I did professional photography all the time and got paid and the pay was so good that I could life off from, that would be the day I call my self a professional photographer.

    If my comments makes any sense, haha.

  • scott July 23, 2010 11:04 am

    Jeff has the right answer.


  • Lea July 23, 2010 10:45 am

    I always thought the term "professional" referred more to the behavior of the photographer. As in, "She has a very professional demeanor." I know of a few individuals with a small photography business - that seem to be thriving - and they act anything but. Their vocabulary and grammar would make you question whether they graduated high school, or maybe even attended it! Now, they might take excellent photos but I wouldn't want to hire someone who acts more immature than my four year old. Just a thought.

  • Mei Teng July 23, 2010 10:41 am

    Someone once told me that the only difference between a professional and an amateur is that the former earns an income.

  • Mei Teng July 23, 2010 10:36 am

    Someone earning money through his photos is considered a professional?

  • Anthony Hereld July 23, 2010 10:02 am

    When people start calling YOU to take photographs, instead of the other way around. :)

  • Mark July 23, 2010 09:45 am

    I think you've already hit the nail on the head!

  • Frank July 23, 2010 09:37 am

    I program computers as a profession and take photographs for joy. I am proud to be an amateur photographer.

  • Dave Hodgkinson July 23, 2010 09:24 am

    Those folks who said "getting the shot" are the winners here. Charging doesn't come in to it.

  • Nobody July 23, 2010 09:24 am

    @ Malc: Ken Rockwell is not a photographer. Most of his work is crap. He's an engineer, gives mostly bad advice, worries most about directing traffic to his web site, pushes a certain camera brand, insults anyone who shoots RAW, and I could go on and on and on.

    He's no pro photographer.

    His recent parade photocraps, where he was testing a Canon 5d mkII, were things like the front half of a parade car, cutting off parts of the riders, and then part of the back of the car, both images at an odd angle, almost all of the line overexposed, and he basically blamed the camera. He mentioned his unfamiliarity with the 5D mkII, but really didn't have a great deal to say about it.

    Back on topic:

    It's a huge gray area for me, whether I'd care of a photograph I take is used without my permission. On one hand, a hard drive crashed and ate all my photographs which I intended to eventually look into selling at local art shows. So all I've got left is what's on Flickr, 800px on the longest side. Still good for business cards, I guess.

    On the other hand, I do a lot of public domain work. I attend protests, and photograph my fellow protesters. I make literature and fliers. I sometimes mix videos. Much of what I have posted online has been used elsewhere. Unfortunately, none has been found in local media outlets, but still people on other continents have used images and video clips that I have taken, and I quite frankly and proud of it. Granted, I'll reiterate the work that has been reused has always been released to the public domain.

  • Paul July 23, 2010 09:03 am

    I'm with Tyler - my mortgage is paid by "the day job" - but my photography customers get a professional level of service and a professional level of product.

    When asked "are you a professional photographer?" I say "yes, would you like a card?"

  • Tyler July 23, 2010 08:40 am

    I don't (yet) make my soul living in photography but people always refer to me as a professional photographer.

    Though people also assume when they see me and my gear that I am 'professional' too. Random people will come up to me and ask; 'Are you a professional photographer?'

    I always reply; 'Yes, yes I am.'


  • Abbas July 23, 2010 08:35 am

    You become a pro photographer when people recognize your skills and pay you in-return for your service and product. You could be part-time or full-time, but as long as you earn your living with it then you're a pro.

  • Erin Wilson July 23, 2010 08:22 am

    I'm with Renaldo on this one. A professional get the shot/completes the assignment. Every time. No excuses. Delivering consistently.

  • Tyler F July 23, 2010 08:07 am

    I wouldn't class a pro as someone who starts earning money from photography, because there are some really bad photographers out there who can market well, or maybe not many photographers in that area. My main profession is web design and creation, and I will also take photos for those websites using my equipment I use for hobby purposes, but I wouldn't class myself as a professional.

  • Lon July 23, 2010 08:01 am

    My definition of a professional is when a person charges money in return for their service. Note that I said SERVICE and not product - under my definition a non professional can still make money selling their photos, but typically wouldn't produce work that the general public or acquaintances pay them in advance for. When you are consigned or hired to produce something you are in the realm of the professional.

  • Jeff Plum July 23, 2010 07:25 am

    You're a professional when you take your photos to a lab to be processed and they refuse on the grounds that they were taken by a professional. :D

  • RichMar July 23, 2010 07:23 am

    Someone who gets paid for taking photographs. Unfortunately, quality of product or service is not a requirement to be a professional in any field.

  • Renaldo July 23, 2010 07:09 am

    A friend of mine defines a professional photographer as someone who can go into any situation and return with consistently good images.

  • Scottyea July 23, 2010 07:07 am

    When your main and overriding focus is providing quality service to your client.

  • Mat July 23, 2010 06:55 am

    I'm an oculoplastic surgeon who takes lots of intraoperative photos and also does a lot of hobby photography, including portraits and strobist style stuff. I have made money taking photos of families and have sold other photos here and there. I was recently hired to do a wedding for a woman I met through work, which I agreed to do because I thought it would be fun and challenging. She knows full well I'm no professional and didn't want to pay for a professional, but she did pay something. I feel a professional is someone who can ask for and get a fair market price and produce high quality work. Just making money doing something doesn't make you a pro, as I am good evidence.

  • oliver July 23, 2010 06:51 am

    I would describe myself as a professional fashion photographer, i assisted for years, i studied, i worked on films to learn to light. These days i can run into a job and know what to do.
    Its a hard profession as destructive it can be glorious, Today having made such an investment. It will always be my profession,
    sometimes however its is much my prison as it is my pleasure

    What advice would i give,?buy some comfortable shoes, its a long journey.

    You can veiw my work and my blog here.
    oli prout <a href=http://www.fashionphotographyblog.co.uk oliver prout photography=London fashion photographer

  • Matthew Dutile July 23, 2010 06:50 am

    When you make the majority of your money off of photography (at a business and living sustainable level), you are a professional. However, that doesn't mean that before you reach this level you should act anything other than professionally.

  • kerry July 23, 2010 06:45 am

    A close friend decided to go professional with her photography a few months back. She incorporated, built a website and hung out her shingle. She's been hired mostly for portraits, and the work is very much part-time. I hired her as a pro to be my wedding photographer recently and got a little flack from people insisting we should be able to get the photos for free, since she's not a real "professional." As far as I'm concerned, she takes professional quality photos and actively works for fees, she's a pro. She flew 1000 miles on her own dime to be at the wedding and spent most of her time working, not partying like the other guests. It's only fair to pay her for her work and her time.

  • Tanya Rudman July 23, 2010 06:42 am

    I love Jeff's reply hehehe I think it comes down to if you are doing it as your profession. You needn't have studied it but you should have experience as a professional. For some lucky people they can become pro in a year others takes longer. But yes living it everyday and it supports you ... then I think you are a pro

  • Katie Ring July 23, 2010 06:39 am

    I recently blogged about this same question!

    This is becoming an increasingly difficult question to answer as professional level cameras are making their way into the consumer market. Professional training and vision are surely important to being a professional. The biggest difference to me can be seen in the lighting. An amateur photographer can get lucky and take a good shot with “found” light. What makes a photographer a professional is to be able to deliver spot-on photos that suit the clients needs. At a wedding almost everyone has a camera… but few know how to choose between available light and flash (or mix the two) to get a great shot. A non-pro wouldn’t think to backlight the shot and underexpose (at least according to the in-camera meter) to get an amazing silhouette of the couple. Or to bring the rings and bouquet and position them in perfect window light to shoot … in the soft light right next to the bright harsh beam coming in the window. With commercial photography the demands are even greater. I need to know how to get just enough focus to highlight the product and blur the background. I need to be able to adjust each of my lighting sources and know when and how to add a pop of hard sparkling light vs when to add a soft glow. I can’t just make a pretty photo; I need to know how to fine-tune it to meet with the vision of my art director. I need to be a problem solver to fit a shot that lends itself to a horizontal photograph into a vertical advertisement. Artists too need to be able to know their craft so as to portray their message. A beautiful photograph on it's own isn't art, there should be deliberate intentions behind the work! Only if one knows the medium (in this case photography) extremely well can use one use it as a vehicle for their message.

    A professional photographer needs to know all the little tricks of the industry…like helping the bride pre-scuff her shoes so she doesn’t slip and fall - or that gravy master and water looks just like coffee. I think the hardest part of all, is that professional photographers need to remember to value all of these skills and not under bid the job to compete with the amateurs! I’m not saying I’ve never taken a cheap job or given away my work…I’ve done it too. However, the industry is in an odd place with so many photographers trying to make it as pros! I think the best that professionals can do is to educate clients on the value of working with a pro photographers, charge what they’re worth, and to continue to make quality photographs.

  • Malc July 23, 2010 06:33 am

    If a large portion of the duties you undertake in your job, the thing you do each day to bring in the wages that pay your mortgage/food bills/new camera toys, involves taking photographs in order for those same photographs (or a portion of them) to be used in print format then I reckon you're pretty much classed as a professional photographer.

    It might not be the "professional" tag you desire but you will still be a pro.

    For example, I am a crime scene examiner and the vast majority of the time I am taking photographs (car crashes/crime scenes/injury/other forensic) where approx. 65% of the images I photograph will be selected for printing for court cases (the rest of the time it's fingerprints/forensic processes that I'm doing). It's certainly not Ken Rockwell professional but it is still professional photography.

    Never know though, one day my hobbyist stuff may crack a ceiling and I'll be the professional kind of photographer I would LIKE to be.


  • Abigail July 23, 2010 06:24 am

    Jeff, I like your answer the best :-)

    From my personal experience, I was working at it for four years; struggling to make it. Then unexpectedly, the feeling of being pro overcame me like a coming of age. It was so surreal to see all the hard work paying off.

  • Will McA July 23, 2010 06:22 am

    I think there are people who are definitely professional photographers, when they are making steady money from it. Then there is a bit of a grey area covering people who make a little bit of irregular money and people who are actively pursuing a photographic business. Then there are people who are definitely amateur photographers, who take photos purely for the joy of the hobby.

    I don't think it has anything to do with style or attitude, to try and use the term in this way causes people to make all manner of subjective judgements. There are serious photographers who are still amateur, and there are casual photographers who are nevertheless also professionals.

  • Eric July 23, 2010 06:22 am

    My definition is when someone supports themselves fully by photography. Now, if they honestly suck, then maybe they're more of a professional at marketing themselves, but they're still marketing their photography. =P

  • Abigail July 23, 2010 06:18 am

    Technically speaking, you're a professional anything when 50% of your income come from your filed of choice. Until then, you're either a hobbyist or semi professional.

  • Terry July 23, 2010 06:14 am

    The simple definition I learned for any profession is 'You're professional if someone pays you to do it' .. That's not covering expenses, but actually paying you a fair market price to do it

  • Rob July 23, 2010 06:13 am

    I love seeing people advertise their "professional photography services" and act as unprofessional as a 12 year old and think they're a pro because they know how to use Photoshop even though they have no idea what it means to compose a picture...

  • Mark Kenny July 23, 2010 06:12 am


  • Myka July 23, 2010 06:10 am

    We discussed this in class a few years ago and came up with some good points.
    A professional in any field
    *spends more than 4 hours a day at that particular profession (I think that's the number we came up with; it's definitely not an absolute number)
    *continually furthers his/her education
    *is client-focused (will not blow people off)
    *is knowledgeable and resourceful

  • Michelle July 23, 2010 06:08 am

    Well put! I agree when others see your work and talent as valuable and something they are willing to pay you for then you are a professional.

  • Rikki Dy-Liacco July 23, 2010 06:03 am

    Great post! I totally agree with everything mentioned above. Having a nice camera doesn't mean you can take great photos. What sets the professional apart from the rest of the pack is his or her eye for composition and subject matter.

  • Jeff July 23, 2010 06:00 am

    You're a professional photographer when you no longer have to ask yourself whether you're a professional photographer or not.