What Makes You A Professional Photographer?


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There are quite a few hot photography debates floating around the internet. Whether it’s HDR, watermarks, Nikon vs. Canon, Mac vs. PC, straight out of the camera vs. post processing; there’s certainly no shortage. One of the newer ones I’ve seen pop up recently is this big fuss over what makes a photographer a professional. This is a debate that I feel truly does have a black and white answer and shouldn’t be a debate at all. So let me explain and then let’s see if you agree…

When In Doubt, Use A Dictionary

First things first, let’s get the definition of professional and amateur and settle this debate real quick, then I’ll expound on it a bit.



1 [ attrib. ] of, relating to, or connected with a profession: young professional people | the professional schools of Yale and Harvard.

2 (of a person) engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime: a professional boxer.



1 a person who engages in a pursuit, esp. a sport, on an unpaid basis.

2 engaging or engaged in without payment; nonprofessional: an amateur archaeologist | amateur athletics.

Ok, thanks for reading!

Hehe, just kidding. But that really does settle this whole debate right? A professional photographer is someone who’s paid occupation is photography. An amateur is someone who engages in photography without payment just for the love it. So what’s wrong with that?

Nobody Wants To Be An Amateur

Well, almost nobody. I’ve found that most amateurs who have never been professionals want to be professionals. But many professionals miss being amateurs and the purity that came with it. When you get money and clients involved, the purity of creating art seems to get tainted to some extent, especially when you’re creating images to suit your clients needs instead of clients hiring you for your creativity and giving you freedom over the images. See the difference there? Being a professional has nothing to do with quality of work. There are amateurs that are better photographers than I am. There are amateurs that are better photographers than you are.

There are professional photographers out there who:

  • Have been making a living for 30 years with their grip-n-grin, hand under your chin, head slightly tilted, perma-smile, muslin backdrop in a studio type images.
  • Shoot weddings and charge $800 for 6 hours in JPG mode and burn the images straight out of camera to a disk, yet they make good money because they are so cheap and shoot so many weddings.
  • Run travel photography workshops around the world with a litany of sponsors and followers. Yet their images are plagued with halos and over saturation. Good marketing can take anyone a long way.

On the flip side, there are amateurs who:

  • Take far better images than most professionals, but just do photography for the love of it.
  • Have full time jobs and make enough money from their photography to buy new gear regularly.
  • Have full time jobs yet are more connected and intertwined in the photography community than a lot of professionals.
  • Make great money through photography but still work somewhere else to have steady income, health care, pensions, etc.
  • Take and create award winning photographs worthy of any gallery.
  • Make more money part time than some professionals make full time.

So why is being an amazing and unbelievably talented photographer not enough? Why do we also want to be considered a professional when our work shines above (what we feel is) the rest? I think it’s just the general disconnect around the two words and the secondary meanings that they have formed over recent years. I mean, think about this:

A teenager who goes out and races his car at a drag strip every single weekend, who lives and breathes racing, who works on his car every day after school, isn’t considered a professional. It’s his hobby, even though it takes up a very large portion of his every day life. Yet a NASCAR driver who hasn’t won a race in three years is still considered a professional race car driver. Why? Because that’s what he does for a living and he earns a paycheck for it!

My wife loves to cook. She’s a foodie to the core. She can take just about any recipe she sees on the Food Network and recreate it and make it her own. It’s amazing. But she isn’t a professional chef is she? Yet the guy that works at the burger joint up the street and runs the kitchen is considered a (professional) chef because that’s his living and his main source of income.

So why is photography any different? I really don’t understand…


Well, in this case, the conclusion is really up to you. Do you agree? Disagree? Voice your opinion in the comments below and let me know what you think. Or hit me up on twitter (@jamesdbrandon) and let me know there.  Be sure to use the hashtag #DPSdebate


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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

  • Pretty sure there is no definition other than the dictionary definition. This is in my view the point of the article. Professional and amatuer are well defined. People for personal advantage or for whatever reasons try to assign other meanings to words that are clear cut.

    It doesn’t really matter to you what being a professional photographer means. Its about what the word actually means and there is no indication of quality, attitude, etc. In the more historical dictionary definitions, I suspect there was some suggestion of formalised training but that has disappeared from the modern definitions so that leaves us with a professional being someone who does it as their primary vocation. There is no semi-pro. That is a term made up by American sports commentators.

  • Amy

    Interesting article! I guess by a technicality, a pro is defined as someone who is monetarily compensated for their work, but I feel there is much more involved to being a TRUE professional. I believe there should be a certain level of competence/knowledge, consistent quality, an artistic eye, a genuine interest/passion, & good client relations/customer service. But I guess my debate would be comparing being a professional with exuding professionalism…one doesn’t necessarily include the other, but I think it SHOULD.

  • For 40 years plus I took wedding pictures a professional photographer, was, at one time hired by an established studio to shoot weddings, and have been a stringer for the wire services. I alos have belonged to the New Hampshire Professional Photograohers, (which required a portfolio review, New England PPA, The PPA, The WPPI, Triangle PPA and North Central PA Professional Photographers. And for those 40 plus years I taught in the public schools and was an administor in the public schools. I retired and have a 1600 Sq, foot studio (with all the equipement needed to work) in my home. I am a professional Photographer and a professional Photographer. My best year as a photographer had me making more as a photographer then I was making as a teacher. I now have a pension and health insurance becasue of my retirement as an educator and still do pictures for money as well as sub as a teacher. I don’t fit eather of your ideas of what is a professional becasue I’ a professional in both fields. To me the difference between a pro and anyone else is your attitude. A pro puts his rep on line when he accepts and assignment. A want to be pro says “I try my best” That’s the difference.
    Mike Frazier.

  • nicole
  • Jordan

    So if you carefully look at the definition(copied below) of an amateur! Then anyone who gets paid anything for there photography does not fit into the dictionaries definition. An amateur is on a “unpaid basis” or “without payment”. Where does the paid part time photographer like me sit? If you want to use the dictionary to its true meaning then you missed a very large percentage of us out, whats our title? Semi pro! Or part time professional!

    1 a person who engages in a pursuit, esp. a sport, on an unpaid basis.

    2 engaging or engaged in without payment; nonprofessional

  • Faith

    By definition I. Am a professional photographer. At present I could not support myself on what I earn, but I do bring in enough to buy more equipment and pay my taxes. When I attend functions for my children and take candidates if them and their team members, the members can download them free from a website or for a nominal fee, purchase a print. Am I a professional taking photos or just a parent?

  • satinswan

    I guess part of it – most of it – in any profession will always boil down to the thought processes, “I get paid for/make a living at this, I must be great,” and “I don’t get paid for/make a living at this, I must not be great,” whether or not either is true. Then somewhere, the “I” turns into “you” and war begins. Even if we ditched “pro” and “amateur” for “paid” and “unpaid”, the thought processes would remain.

    Maybe if we could come up with non-derogatory terms that actually reflected ability and results without the paid/unpaid part of it, relations would ease and peace would ensue because everybody can learn and get better at something, but we don’t all want to do what it takes to get paid for it (for instance, I don’t want to deal with customers trying to get meals for free and managers making cooks feel like dirt, so I stopped pursuing cooking for pay).

  • Bre

    I don’t think you’re a professional just because you convinced people you’re worth money. So I don’t completely agree with a professional being classified as someone who makes money. I’ve seen a fair amount of people get a camera, whether they bought it or someone gave it to them, whatever it may be, and decide that since they enjoy photography, they ought to make a facebook page with a “so and so photography” name and start charging. At what point can people self proclaim themselves as professionals? I know what it’s like to start out, so does every other professional. But there are right ways of doing things, if you’re going to advertise yourself as a professional in a pool of professionals who have been doing great work for years. If you’re going to be serious about wedding photography, you can’t show up with just one camera. If you’re getting paid, you need a business license. If you’re going to offer high quality photos, use the right equipment and the right software. I feel bad for clients who trust people that say they can do the job and they get crap. You don’t HAVE to go to school, I did actually get a degree in photography but know a handful of excellent photographers that I look up to that went to my college and did not finish. I do agree that if you’re just starting, and it’s still more ‘for fun’ and a lot of ‘clients’ are friends & family, then fine, that’s okay by me, probably no need to get all mega serious about it. I was there at one point. But basically, it boils down to MUCH more than “I get paid for it”.

  • Tanya True-Lillie

    I prefer to call myself an photographic hobbyist, which I’ve been since I was 10 years old entering photography events in 4-H. I get paid for my work sometimes, usually just enough to cover costs or save for new gear. I attend workshops and love learning more about my hobby. People often ask why I don’t go pro and I respond, “I enjoy it as my hobby, but I don’t want the stress that goes along with it being a job.”

  • Crystal LeBlanc

    100%…the majority of people that I have seen call themselves are “photographers ” that pick up a camera one day and automatically assume they are a photographer. no lessons no background….and interesting that these people also think their paint program on the pc is good enough to process their….”work”. Sad people would pay money for that. I understand getting a feel for the field some way but seriously….do some homework on.how to use your camera in just Manual mode!!!

  • Cleetus Nomenclature

    I am an unqualified chef. I have cooked for some very, very well known people. I have been practicing this profession for over 25 years. Until the invention of the “celebrity chef”, gastronomy was rarely considered an art form. I have recently taken up photography (with no illusions of grandeur) and after a short time have a portfolio of about 3 dozen shots that I consider worthy of publishing. Now I am being called a photographic artist. BTW I am still saving for my first DSLR. I am using a Nikon Coolpix L16 shooting macro wildlife in my DIY studio. I use Microsoft Paint to resize and crop only. I’ve never sold a print or won an award so I am most definitely an hobbyist. I follow the work of a lot of professionals and sometimes SMH

  • Deborah

    I would paraphrase Shakespeare and say a rose is still a rose and still smells as sweet no matter what you call it.

  • Pierre Cornay

    For Photography there seems to be a misconception in most people minds that the quality of your work is associated to the “Professional” adjective. People will ask if you are a “Professional photographer” not because they want to know if you make a living from your work but rather if you do Quality photography.

  • It’s a pity that the term amateur and hobbyist has come to mean second rate.

  • Photography by James

    I love these debates and the polarised views they throw up. I agree that the description professional relates to someone who primarily earns their living in that particular role. As an extension of that there is the term “semi-professional”, widely used in the music business, to describe somebody who receives some money for their work and this covers a large number of photographers, myself included.

    Professionalism, however, is a different measure altogether. A professional in that sense is someone who turns up promptly and fully prepared for a shoot. Someone who deals fairly and efficiently with their “clients” whether it is an album cover for a rock star or family shoot of their sister and her children. In that regard photography is just like other professions such as accountants, doctors and IT consultants. You can have spent 5 years training and passing exams and be unprofessional yet someone who has had no formal training but has mastered their craft can be a true professional.

  • David2014

    I call myself “Semi-Professional” because I’m semi-paid.

  • Ron Olivier

    I don’t think that either term automatically denotes someone as being ‘second rate’. I’ve seen lots of photos from non-professionals that are better than some professional shots (at least IMHO). When I hear the word ‘Hobbyist’, I think of someone who has a great passion for photography, and when someone has passion about something, it usually shows.

  • Day Tooley

    I feel better now.

  • Brian

    Being a professional photographer I heard a few years ago someone said it takes 10 years to be considered a professional photographer. I think this is the most accurate description I have heard.

    It really isn’t about the money, you are essentially mastering a trade. To become a master mechanic or master electrician (strange comparison but related) it takes time. You have to know your gear, use your gear, have been challenged by the situations you have to shoot / work in and the clients / subjects / products you may have to shoot.
    The only real exception is someone that goes to school for a photography degree and masters these skills and challenges with instructors that teach them the tools to be a “professional” the only exception then is working in the field that makes you a “Pro”. Engineering you go to school 4+ years but you are not a “professional” engineer until you have worked in the field. Many times for 100’s of hours and then you are required to pass a test to prove you are a professional.
    Many associations like the PPA have put test in place for photographers to demonstrate they have the professional skill set and I think that is a great start. I cringe when I see people 2 years out of high school calling themselves “professionals” with or without quality work.
    I have been shooting since 2004 part time but only since 2009 full time and I have spent as much time learning the craft as I have making money. As they say, you can make a small fortune being a photographer but you have to start out with a large fortune.

    The guy working at the local burger joint is not a professional chef, he is a cook, maybe a burger chef but professional no, his trade is simply a cook. Just like the person taking portraits at the local retail store is not a professional, he is simply a photographer.

  • What makes me a professional photographer. Well, I take quality photos and post process them until I like them, however do not receive remuneration for them as I prefer to avoid the rat race of photography for hire and instead capture visions that I enjoy and in the process hopefully give joy to those who view them.

  • Mario Oostendorp

    The best way to look at being professional or Amateur. Yes I agree there are unpaid photographers who can run rings around highly paid and paid photographers, passionate about their photography, have the skills, equiptment and ability to back it up. The term for Hire or Reward would best suit the professional and amateur debate. If you receive a financial reward or Hired for your work that makes you a professional. Professional Photographers who produce outstanding work and are members of a professional Body where they pay an Annual subscription to that Body which protects them and their clients may see it differently.

  • Mario Oostendorp

    I totally agree.

  • Emma

    by the OP’s definition, you’re a professional. you’ve been paid your your pictures (and not by your mum because you were poor).

    Just because I work in a job part time, doesn’t mean it’s not my job. 🙂

  • Dark Rose Love

    I don’t like the term, “amateur” because it has come to have so many negative connotations of late.

    A number of people question whether they are truly classifiable as “professional” when they have other jobs but do have some income from photography.

    The IRS has some definite views on who is a “professional” and able to deduct “business expenses” and who is a “hobbyist” and not able to deduct same. Everyone who is borderline should be familiar with the IRS guidelines. Yes, even here there is a grey area, but it is much narrower than in general usage. http://www.irs.gov/uac/Business-or-Hobby%3F-Answer-Has-Implications-for-Deductions

  • Chris

    A professional is someone who makes the majority of their living off of photography. If I sell a photo at a gallery and get paid or do a shoot here and there I’m not a professional; but if I then decide to start putting more time and energy into the gallery business and shoot fine art photography and make 80% of my income from it then I would consider myself a professional photographer.

    The quality of someones work has nothing to do with if they are professional or not. That is my definition and as a college student when people call me a professional it sort of ticks me off. To me, I have a long way to go before I’m at that level, although my work I took with point and shoots back in the day (Shoot with 5D III and L series lenses now) has won merits in professional photography competitions (photo posted below, taken with Canon Power Shot IS when I was 14).

  • Chris

    Forgot to post this, if it doesn’t show up then it was cause the computer messed up.

  • RobynEV

    some people say that amateur photographers are taking their work! (getting paid) so wouldn’t they be considered a professional then? When I hear this I feel hurt, cause I am a emerging photographer into a business and getting experience and being paid, and when someone says this I feel that maybe I am one of those amateur photographers they are talking about. I don’t consider my photography “out standing” but I do believe I am improving and have technique and style but because I am still learning and am not that outstanding as yet! I don’t want to charge to much for my services. so where do I sit. maybe I am a Amateur/Professional – AmPro maybe 🙂

  • Mannock

    I have to explain to people that I am NOT a pro. I have looked at the definition of professional and I am not of that definition. And people say that my pictures look pro. No. I would rather hear that my pictures look good.

  • david

    you need to look at the key word here “JOB”!

  • I agreed with Pierre, for the public at large, they are consider whether you are photographer, if yes, should take good picture relative better than those who take photo just for hobby.

  • ASEugenio

    “Professional” photography, or professional anything involving the arts, is in many ways like prostitution…it’s fun, exciting, and energizing, until you have to do it to make a living. I’ve worked in photography and media for half my life, but using it to pay the bills is tough and it can stunt your creativity. The fortunate few who are able to maintain their artistic integrity do so from a careful balance of business acumen and pure luck.

  • Sally A. Schwartz

    Ok so what makes an Advanced Armature vs. a Semi-Professional? Also although one may have another profession, yet does photo- journalism on the side and instead of being paid is compt for their efforts say to a show or other event, where does that put person even though they have been published. (BTW use to be if you were published on the net you were not considered professional nor taken seriously it had to be in Print.) Yet now with the net and getting published is the norm. So where does that put a person Published solely on the net and gets compt instead of getting a paycheck?

  • me

    I shake my head when I see overcooked images, poor composition, even slanting horizons (not in an arty way) and they watermark the image “xyz Photography”

  • Michelle James

    Defined by definition I am an Amateur… I have only had my camera a couple of months and have not yet been paid for a single photo. I have however done a couple of shoots and I teach myself from the internet, in hopes that I can learn something to be good enough to be paid for a shoot, so I can afford a course in photography. At what point can I be called a photographer? At what point will other photographers see me as a photographer? and at what point will I be seen as a Professional by others?

  • Shreelashmi Vinodkumar

    I guess semi pro is a good suggestion. Or we can think of some portmanteaus.. “Amatessional” or proteur”

  • Shreelashmi Vinodkumar

    I completely agree. The words really refer to the quality of the work the photographers do and doesnt refer abt their earning

  • Photographers come in all shapes a sizes. Lets face it, anyone can call themselves a photographer. Professionals who feel threatened by amateurs are often quick to judge but I think it says more about their self esteem. I have built a career on Photoshopping professional photographers work. I am a Photographer according to the government because Photoshopper is never in the drop down menu. I only feel justified in calling myself a photographer in public because I have been posting weekly pics to my amateur photoblog for 10 years.

  • M.h. O’Dell

    A professional is someone who practices to the point that they rarely get it wrong. An amateur is someone who practices until they get it right. There is a big difference between those two levels. I wish I had learned it many years ago when I was playing horn in a college jazz band. When it comes to photography, I’m still practicing to get it right some of the time.

  • Meredith

    I think it’s really interesting to look at the definition of “profession” as well. One of the first things listed is: “a type of job that requires special education, training, or skill.” So, it would follow that a “professional” is the person that has received that special education or training and/or possesses the necessary level of skill.

    Then again, as someone who has taken/taught years and years of photography classes, I can also say that sometimes it isn’t the photos that follow all the technical rules that best speak to my heart and emotions. There are some amazing, world-renowned photographers that take pictures in a stle that I just don’t prefer. So, how is it possible to really define who has “skill” and who doesn’t, when art is so subjective?

    So, I’m going to go with a real basic answer–if you pay taxes on your photography income, you are a professional photographer. 😉

  • Carol Thompson

    I totally agree! I have a photo club (after my 9-5 M-F job) and have been criticized highly by a “few” who say I am NOT a photographer as I organize (spend tons of time) the club for all members to take advantage of various opportunities (places to go together if they choose) to shoot, to hang in galleries (I have sought out some of the best in the city for them), provide speakers, training at monthly meetings by more advanced in the club…and yes, I shoot too. I prefer to work with charity-worthy groups who want/need photographers. This is a personal “feel good” thing for me and what I highly encourage amongst others in our group. We’ve ventured into all types of photography, learned, and grown our own skills by sharing. Yes…there have been a “few” who hate this philosophy; but the vast majority love it. So…I get quite upset when I hear one of those few make the comments that I am not a professional…not even a photographer. I connect with most all the clubs within a 50-75 mile range of my city (the capital of our state), man other arts and gallery related organizations and groups. I’ve been told my some whom I consider to truly be professional, that I am quite talented and have a good eye. (I know this to be true about myself, too)…but the hurt that is associated with the demeaning from those who consider themselves as being professional…when you see their work and it isn’t any thing you’d even want to post on your club’s website. It’s overkill, overly post-processed, and often the composition has quite a bit to be desired. So, if folks want to call me an amateur, a hobbyist, a “whatever”…I’ve come to accept that. And, when I’m asked to shoot a wedding or other function that I don’t really want to do…I can always fall back on “You really need to hire a “professional” for your event.

  • Carol Thompson

    Well said; Thanks!!!

  • This is definitely right. But the thing is: most people want to be admired by the photography community and be considered “better” than the others. And they think that they will get more legitimacy if they call themselves “professional”…
    I have some income from my photography, but I still need another job to pay bills. I don’t care about being considered a pro or an amateur; I’m just a photographer.

  • Elena Cintron

    Great explanation. And although it seems clear, I find that there are some negative connotations associated with the word amateur sometimes. At least that’s the feedback I often see on social media. It seems that some people think amateurs lack skills. And as you mentioned, that is not necessarily true. Thanks for posting this article.

  • Very true is what you saying – I always needed to explain this to people who do not have any experience with why they are in need of hiring a professional photographer.

  • Mike Ray

    I like the term “Master photographer”. I think it highlights the skill rather than the business sense of the person taking images. It shows that they have mastered the disipline of their chosen craft and highlights their skill set over business savy.

  • ana bruno

    when was this published??

Some Older Comments

  • nicole July 16, 2013 11:20 am

    check out some of my cool pictures

  • Mike Frazier November 16, 2012 02:19 am

    For 40 years plus I took wedding pictures a professional photographer, was, at one time hired by an established studio to shoot weddings, and have been a stringer for the wire services. I alos have belonged to the New Hampshire Professional Photograohers, (which required a portfolio review, New England PPA, The PPA, The WPPI, Triangle PPA and North Central PA Professional Photographers. And for those 40 plus years I taught in the public schools and was an administor in the public schools. I retired and have a 1600 Sq, foot studio (with all the equipement needed to work) in my home. I am a professional Photographer and a professional Photographer. My best year as a photographer had me making more as a photographer then I was making as a teacher. I now have a pension and health insurance becasue of my retirement as an educator and still do pictures for money as well as sub as a teacher. I don't fit eather of your ideas of what is a professional becasue I' a professional in both fields. To me the difference between a pro and anyone else is your attitude. A pro puts his rep on line when he accepts and assignment. A want to be pro says "I try my best" That's the difference.
    Mike Frazier.

  • Amy November 16, 2012 01:51 am

    Interesting article! I guess by a technicality, a pro is defined as someone who is monetarily compensated for their work, but I feel there is much more involved to being a TRUE professional. I believe there should be a certain level of competence/knowledge, consistent quality, an artistic eye, a genuine interest/passion, & good client relations/customer service. But I guess my debate would be comparing being a professional with exuding professionalism...one doesn't necessarily include the other, but I think it SHOULD.

  • Beetwo77 November 12, 2012 11:29 pm

    Pretty sure there is no definition other than the dictionary definition. This is in my view the point of the article. Professional and amatuer are well defined. People for personal advantage or for whatever reasons try to assign other meanings to words that are clear cut.

    It doesn't really matter to you what being a professional photographer means. Its about what the word actually means and there is no indication of quality, attitude, etc. In the more historical dictionary definitions, I suspect there was some suggestion of formalised training but that has disappeared from the modern definitions so that leaves us with a professional being someone who does it as their primary vocation. There is no semi-pro. That is a term made up by American sports commentators.

  • Micky November 9, 2012 03:16 pm

    Good post. I have no issues calling myself an amateur. I was never comfortable being called a professional by some when I covered their dogs shows as a favor. The first time I said yes to someone wanting a sitting I learned I really like NOT having to make financial decisions based on who I would or would not photgraph. I do this for my own pleasure. I'm learning and lovng to learn.

  • Allen November 9, 2012 09:36 am

    I'm rather fond of the term "semi-professional", myself. I shoot for hire and have made some money at it, and am certainly hoping to earn more in the future, but I still shoot for the love of it more than anything else. I did like one defining factor someone pointed out to me about a year ago on this topic, saying that the difference between and amateur and a pro is that both take plenty of crappy shots in between the ones we are oh so proud of, but the pro doesn't show their crappy ones to anyone, lol! So in many ways it does all come down to self image, or projected image. Bottom line, if you're trying to make money at it, whether it is a primary or secondary income, it's a profession. As for some previous comments downing people for inserting themselves into the "competition" for customers without "countless hours of study", I've put my time in, believe I know what I'm doing, and have no guilt in that regard, even though I did start out some years ago just "playing with my camera". A person need not know the name and function of every single spring and rod within a camera body to be a "real" or "professional" photographer.

    So for me, I guess the deciding factor on whether I call myself a "professional" or not is if it's a potential client asking. If so, obviously it is not a good business choice to label yourself as an "amateur" just because you didn't take any college courses specifically on photography, much less because some other photographer does not think you personally meet their strict qualifications for use of the word "professional". So, being that I shoot "off the clock" a lot more often than I shoot for hire, I'd say semi-pro is the term I feel best describes me. If and when I start selling more of my prints or start shooting more events and portraits for a sitting fee, then ya, I'd feel comfortable dropping the "semi" part of that title. Unless someone is a paying customer though, my bank account and I really don't care much whether they perceive me as a pro or an amateur or anything in between.

  • R Swartwood November 9, 2012 07:58 am

    The only problem I see is that if you are going to use the dictionary definition to answer this question is that it says professional is " main occupation rather than as a pastime" and an amateur engaging or engaged in without payment

    what is a person that gets paid for photography but has an other job that is his/her main occupation.
    Makes you think don't it :)

  • Christian Tudor November 9, 2012 07:57 am

    I see claims of photographers, " being published"
    What does that mean?
    Having a photo on a different website than yours?
    Sharing a phot online?
    Someone using your photo for an article or a book?
    Pay advertising in a magazine?

    I really have doubts about this term. Does that make you professional?

  • Paula November 9, 2012 07:02 am

    Whether I am a professional photographer or not depends on who is asking the question. When my house got robbed, all I had to make is one penny and my camera was now "business" equipment. Some people call me a professional because I have "pro" equipment. I think when people argue about whether someone else is a pro or not, it just makes them look petty.

  • Dee November 9, 2012 06:22 am

    What about "semi-professional"? I love photragraphy and do most of it for the sheer pleasure, yet I also get paid for some of my work. I guess that puts me somewhere between amateur and professional --- "semi" meaning "partly".

  • Valerie November 9, 2012 05:08 am

    I totally agree with you! although many people out there (aka possible clients who have no clue on the subject of photography) base it on the quality of work and type of equipment. I'm much happier and less stressed being dubbed amateur! If I decide to take a job, I don't feel as though I have an enigma hanging over my head that says, "Live up to my expectations or else!" They hire me purely because they have seen my work and like my style. My work speaks for me and not an ad.

    BTW. . . I've seen "professionals" who I describe as "hand grandma the camera" type deals. I cringe. Some people need to realize there is more to photography than pushing the shutter button and handing over a CD or prints. Some photographers are professionals, but not all professionals are photographers!

  • Wade November 8, 2012 10:59 am

    If people want to call me a professional, who am I to argue with them. For some people, it's about how they are treated, for others it all about the quality, for others it's about the gear.

    I don't have the worst gear and I don't have the best. I've been published and recognized in contests. I've sold my work as fine art.

    Photography isn't my money earning career. For that I turn to writing. I've been a professional writer for over 10 years. It's what I do, I'm good at it. But I would wager to bet that none of it has been read by any of you. Why? Because it's never been published to the general public. I'm a technical writer. A professional writer. Not a screenwriter, novelist, playwright, or poet. A technical writer. But a professional.

    According to the definition of Professional and amateur, where do I fall? I don't really care. What matters to me is that people like my work, and if I'm getting paid to do it, that I get paid well.

    Just my two cents.

  • Shannon November 8, 2012 06:03 am

    Also, gear doesn't make the professional. Like I said, thousands of people see my work every day but I shoot with a 7D and non-L series lenses. Can't afford them right now because I'm paying off the bills. Why do people think that they're better photographers just because they own a better body and huge (sometimes overkill) lenses?!

    I work as a professional. I create like an amateur.

  • Shannon November 8, 2012 05:57 am

    Some people will apply the term "professional" just after they make a few bucks on their photography. I think the majority of your income should be from photography before you can call yourself a professional. Then it goes without saying that your skills are of a professional grade if you can pay your bills with photography alone. I really feel that until recently I couldn't call myself professional because my work wasn't steady and reliable. Now I'm a staff photojournalist for a large publishing company that publishes a newspaper and a magazine. My work is seen by thousands of people every day. Finally, after 3 years of hard work, education and freelance, I feel like I can call myself a professional.

  • Jeff Sinon November 7, 2012 09:41 pm

    I'm a photographer.

    Not quite a professional, though I do put quite a bit if effort into selling my images. Not quite an amateur, as I do sell my images, and actively try to do so.

    Whether I make a fortune with my camera, or never sell another print, I'm a photographer.

  • Yahn Darkwood November 7, 2012 09:56 am

    A lot of folks are talking about the great photos they have taken. I have only taken one great photo myself, i'll let you know when i take a better one, and then i'll only have taken one great photo, professionalism is about constant improvement imo.

  • Juan November 7, 2012 09:29 am

    I agree with the dictionary definition. A professional is one who makes more of their income from a specific activity. Professional does not imply, by any means, that what you deliver (as professional) is the best in class, maybe just the standard or a little up the standard that is expected from you, since, after all, if you look for a professional to deliver certain service or product, you hope he/she will deliver certain level of quality, but you "can" most times choose the level of quality you want delivered. Professional does not even have anything to do with the time devoted to the main activity one derives income from, since an amateur could as well spend as much time or even more time than a professional to a specific activity.

    I really stick to the dictionary definition on this one.

  • Agung Semara November 6, 2012 05:23 pm

    Being a professional means you deliver good level of images CONSISTENTLY everytime, period.

  • Reed Lovick November 6, 2012 11:13 am

    Let's face it. Everyone feels like a professional today with these new digital cameras. In fact, new affordable digital cameras are the reason so many "professionals" are closing shop and hocking their backdrops and tripods. And…. there are other reasons.... such as a photographer with a bad PHOTOGATUDE! (pronounced fo-tog-a-tude) I know…..hmmmmmm. We won't go there!

    Sadly, as Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. pad their coffers professionals find themselves deducting from their coffers. Reality is that today a simple auto setting with kicking saturation from a $400.00 camera instantly creates PROFESSIONALS. At least that's the way AMATEURS see it. In that same vein of reality, many professionals are now victims of their own poison due to price gouging. DUELY EARNED!

    The author of this article makes some very good points, however, with regards to photography, the titles "amateur" and "professional" may very soon become obsolete, muting into history. And we haven't even talked about what computers have done to this business. Sela.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer November 6, 2012 07:21 am

    I have no idea why this is even a debate at all, especially since the top of the post clearly defines what a professional at anything is. Being a professional photographer simply means you make most of your income from photography. I make a 100% of my income from photography, therefore I am a professional photographer and have no qualms saying so at all.

    Just do not confuse being a professional at something with automatically having a certain level of skill and/or talent. What this post should really be debating is probably something like, what makes a person a "master photographer," which is a subjective term. "Professional photographer" could not be more objective.

  • Dan Cassat November 6, 2012 06:44 am

    I am a landscape photographer.

  • charlie November 6, 2012 04:40 am

    I attended the best photography school in the US in the 1970's and have been working in the business for 32 years. Back then it was so different. While earning a living has always been the definition of a pro, a resume full of publishing credits was just as important. Back then it was much more difficult: you did not have the net to learn and instead it was books, classes/workshops, and magazines. Film was a different animal as well.

    Today, you can learn everything online and using the digital tools has made it so easy to solve photo problems you had with film. You also do not need publishing credits to build your name and recognition and with publishers struggling thats even harder. Today, you can use the web to establish yourself as a pro and build a following who buy from you without ever doing a single assignment or paid job.

    The playing field is flat now and everybody has a chance. That is good for those entering the business but also makes the business more crowded which is turning the profession into a minimum wage vocation. The other thing I think establishes a pro that is not mentioned much is the ability to light subjects. That's crucial!

  • Denny Jump November 6, 2012 04:32 am

    A fantastic article. I completely agree with you in every respect.
    Those who know me will be amazed at the brevity of my comment here.
    Well done, James :-)

    Denny Jump

  • Michael November 6, 2012 04:26 am

    This is the best article I've read on this site in a while. Thanks for that.

    The only reason I ever wanted to be under the "professional" label is because of the naive notion that "pros" have the ability go to great places and shoot amazing pictures. Course then I graduated college in 2004 and realized that this was not the case at all. This was cemented by the beginning of the digital photography movement as well as the rise of social media.

    Circa 2012. I no longer want to be a "pro". I have seen the "pro" lifestyle and, to quote one of my favorite memes. DO NOT WANT. Thanks to social media, I've seen a world consumed with gear-lust, shameless self-promotion that borders on delusion, cut-throat tactics such as image theft and trash-talking, etc. Even the whole "OMG someone is shocked about my pricing so let me explain how much it costs me to run my business" meme burns me up. And aside from the ugliness, the unreliable income, lack of benefits, and so on isn't very appealing. On the flip-side, when I do talk to people about my love of photography, being a "non-professional" garners reactions of "Well why not?" like this choice is something to be ashamed of.

    In my personal opinion, the profession of photography has been marred by the idea that when someone picks up a camera, the image captured should be perfect and better than any other. And the label of "amateur" now has the ability to erase the pride we have in our images. The work no longer speaks for itself...the work is reduced to a whisper while the ego of the artist is yelling through a microphone.

    Anyways.... as for me? I'm a photographer. And "what kind" is irrelevant.

  • Abhinav November 6, 2012 03:36 am

    Enjoyed reading. Good comparison between professional and amateur.
    But in my opinion, professionalism should be judged by the quality of his/her work. If a person's main income is from photography and if he is not able to take great photographs he is not a professional, he is an 'amateur professional'. So I think there is something in between an 'amateur' and a 'professional'.

  • Stephen November 6, 2012 03:27 am

    Hey James,

    I think the problem is that most people want to be taken seriously and there is a certain stigma attached to the term amateur. "You behave like an amateur." " You aren't very professional." Basically I think when people hear amateur they hear the term used in a degrading way, as opposed to the dictionary definition. It's become a social norm to throw the term in people's faces to denigrate them somehow. It's like when people think poor=lazy. It's not necessarily so and it is an unfair way to view things. Yet it happens.

    Some confusion comes about when people think, " I behave professionally. I get people a copy of the images when I say that I will. I never show up to a shoot drunk or stoned. I take photos even when I am ill. I am very professional (in the way that I present my work, self, and in dealings with people).

    At least, that's what I always thought.

  • Jeremy Skupien November 6, 2012 03:18 am

    If you pay your bills with money generated from your photography, then you are a professional. If you occasionally make some extra cash with your photography, then you are an amateur. If you do amazing work and love photography, then you are an enthusiast. If you keep firing my slave drive when I haven't even taken my group shot, you are going to get kicked in the crotch. Just kidding!

  • Mario Kluser November 6, 2012 03:04 am

    I think about pro-tips when I'm reading this. How much worth are the tips of someone who's photographic results are point-and-shoot-like even though he uses a D4 or 1Dx? And I guess this is what many people have in mind when they talking about the difference between a pro and an amateur.

    When we go back to the dictionary then indeed the guy without any skill and knowledge who manages to sell himself in a way that people allow him or her to mess up with their weddings is a pro. But there is absolutely no reason to be bitter or full of anger about that, because as a pro in the sense of skill this couples are not your clients anyway.

  • pril November 6, 2012 02:44 am

    Umm. I never classified my self as either. But with your meanings listed I am hands down amateur. I make money and other professional photographers want me to work with them. . Bit I call my self a girl who likes to take photos. And that's what I tell them. Just a girl who likes to bring emotions into photos. I hate labels.

  • Stephen D Brian November 6, 2012 01:57 am

    Amateur, professional, at the end of the day it is just a word. When I am out taking photographs and someone asks me if I am a professional photographer, I just politely reply no just a photographer who enjoys what he does.

  • Frank Villafane November 6, 2012 01:56 am

    I am a published author. I got paid for my publications, so technically, I am a professional writer. But it is not my chosen profession - I'm a software engineer. I write on occasion, but not full-time.

    I am also a professional musician...over the last 30 years or so I've been paid a significant sum to perform at various venues, mostly on weekends. I have two CD's out and I've gotten airplay on a number of well-known jazz stations, both internet and terrestrial. I am not, however, a full-time musician, where that is my SOLE source of income.

    Finally, I am a professional photographer...I have been paid for work that I've done with my camera. While I enjoy the work and continue to pursue other paid photographic endeavors, I do not shoot (i.e. photograph) as my chosen profession - that is, full-time.

    If you classify professional as a paid-for-hire individual, then technically, all photographers that get paid are professionals (I believe the IRS would agree with me on this one). Still, I believe the dividing line is the amount of time spent - if one's sole source of income (or a majority of it) is from photography, then one is considered a "full-time professional".

  • Cathy November 6, 2012 01:52 am

    Well said, Michael Driscoll.

    I take photos for my job at a small campus of a large university, but it's not my main role. I take photos of friends and family -- portraits, events, studio -- but I rarely get paid for it, nor do I expect to. It makes me happy to make those I love happy.

    I've done a lot of studying and experimenting to find a style and to get a handle on lighting. I'm better than I was a year ago, and I was happy a year ago with how I was then. Next year, if I keep working on improving, I'll be better than this year. My photos hang all over campus and in one of the vice president's offices at our main campus. I teach photography and photojournalism in three different classes.

    Meanwhile, our "official" headshots are sent out to a "professional" because someone doesn't like the more natural look I provide. And that professional was hired to shoot an event I was already shooting. (I never mind having a second shooter at a big event, but still....)

    Am I a professional photographer? I guess that depends who you ask and the context. In my case, sometimes the "expert" is the one you hire, not the one who's already on the payroll. But that doesn't change the quality of the work that I do.


  • Tommy November 6, 2012 01:38 am

    I think too many people put an emphasis on the word "professional". Many photographers throw that word around as a way to pat their own backs, beat their chests, etc. I would rather be known simply as a "photographer".

  • Micheal Rhian Driscoll November 6, 2012 12:30 am

    This is getting to be like comparing the various iterations of Star Trek or the merits of Canon vs. Nikon. I am a photographer because I take photos as often as I can. Sometimes I get paid for it, other times not. For me, it's that simple. The rest of y'all can split hairs as much as you like.

  • Raffa November 5, 2012 11:25 pm

    @Jai Catalano: "growfessional" nice term, good definition for me and my long way on professional photography! :)

    I agree with the article but especially with many comments and opinions beneath.

    In my humble opinion, a good photographer (professional or amateur) is the one who owns a certain 'eye', which brings him to have a different point of view and perspective from other people. I believe that this particular chord must be 'educated' anyway, not only refining technical aspects but comparing with other photographers, amateurs or professional ones and even great artists, contemporary and from the past.
    Professional cameras and lens are important but not all!

    Secondly, being a professional photographer doesn't authorize people to be aggressive or snob towards amateur or 'growfessional' ones; this is a great lack of professionality, however. Being Humble is the best way to be great.

  • Peter Spy November 5, 2012 10:51 pm

    I'm not sure that making money in the age of Internet amateurs is the most important and distinguishing mark of being professional (see: Andrew Keen's books). I'd say that's the measure of success, and admittedly that requires some knowledge and skills too (e.g. finding your target audience and proper marketing), but it's not directly related to the trade or craft itself. I always associated professionalism with having vast knowledge, experience and the ability to use them in almost any circumstances.

  • Ricardo Galvao November 5, 2012 10:04 pm

    Professional do not work for money...
    Professional photographer do the same photograph twice, threetimes whenever he wants...
    What I have been seeing is people earning money just copyng presets and do not even know what they are doing...

    unfortunately raw file leveled everyone

    with the exception of real photographers what I call them PROs (earn money or not)

  • Dave Webb November 5, 2012 04:51 pm

    I'm sure this debate isn't as silly to photographers as it may seem to non-photographers. For the record, I don't call myself a photographer. I enjoy photography, have for many years, even considered it as a career path, but actually persued archaeology instead (ironic, huh?). I am not at all bothered by people that call themselves amateur archaeologists. Some that do have next to zero competence in the discipline, while others have considerable knowledge and insight. So what makes a pro? If a person successfully fights a traffic ticket, are they an amateur lawyer? If they treat a scraped knee or a child with a cold, are they an amateur doctor or nurse? Or my favorite; when I balance my cheque book perhaps I'm an amateur accountant? Of course not. It's nothing more than inadequacy seeking the reward of title. It seems to me you really have only two choices, 1) adopt a new term to describe an accomplished photographer who doesn't get paid for their work (or doesn't want to be called a "pro"), or 2) get over it.

  • Lynnette November 5, 2012 04:04 pm

    I somewhat disagree on this. There are so many people today who go out, buy an expensive (or inexpensive) dSLR and play with it until they get a nice photo, or they take a decent photo and make it nice with the help of a good photoshop program. And then they consider themselves a professional photographer and start taking clients even though they still don't fully understand the features of their camera or the difference between ISO400 or ISO1600. This really rubs me the wrong way because I know many photographers who have spent countless hours and dollars to learn more and their business and their living are being taken away by people who still don't understand their camera but can take a nice computer or work a photoshop program. I believe a professional is someone who has poured countless hours into studying the art of photography, not just playing with their camera. To define a professional by how much they earn is wrong. For example, my husband is a firefighter. The majority of firefighters across North America are volunteer, but don't ever make the mistake of saying they are not professional or you will wither away under their glare. My husband, and many others, has more experience and more skill than some guys who have full time career positions on big city fire departments. They have poured hours of practice and responding to calls into becoming better at what they do. You can not say they are not professional when they carry themselves in a most professional matter, so we call them careers and volunteers. In the same way, you cannot say that someone who spent no time studying photography is a professional, while someone who spent countless hours studying is an amateur.

  • Mridula November 5, 2012 03:28 pm

    A very interesting take on the issue.


  • Steve Sullivan November 5, 2012 03:22 pm

    I think I am a photographer or maybe just a photographic aficionado. I love photography and have sold photography related goods and I have been published but I work a day job. I like my freedom to create what I like. I could be a "pro" or an "amateur" but I think I am just a Photographer. I'll let someone else worry about what I could be.

  • Craig A. Mullenbach November 5, 2012 02:54 pm

    I don't want to ruin my fun hobby by making it a job. :-)

  • Jeannie November 5, 2012 11:37 am

    This is a rather intriguing article! I consider myself a photographer and try to only discuss the designation of "amateur" or "professional" when a person is interested in knowing what "type" I am. The more important thing to me is whether my client likes the final product and whether I like the final images I post online.

    I believe that, no matter the designation - passion, continuing study and openness to constructive feedback are all vital to continual improvement in the field. Is photography subjective? Yes, in many instances. Can I improve my images in some way? Always. :)

  • GradyPhilpott November 5, 2012 11:32 am

    I believe that in many endeavors, photography being one, there are amateurs, professionals, and hacks.

    There are volumes written on the subject of what constitutes each and a dictionary is probably the least helpful in understanding the distinctions, but I think that most people instinctively know what each means and the kinds of practitioners that deserve which titles.

  • Mei Teng November 5, 2012 11:28 am

    In my opinion, the difference between a pro and amateur is the part on being paid for your work. Work quality can be a subjective thing. But I guess being a professional has a somewhat "branding" advantage over someone who's just an amateur.

    I am an amateur and I have a day job. Photography is something I enjoy to de-stress from my daily grind at the workplace.

  • Paul November 5, 2012 11:00 am

    Why do photographers always try to redefine the meaning of the word professional? If photography is your "profession" then you are a professional photographer. It is that simple. That is how it works for every other occupation on the planet, and photography is no different.

    Are we stupid enough to ask what makes a professional football player? No... We know the answer. Whether or not you carry yourself in a professional manner or are dependable and competent has no bearing on whether or not you are a professional photographer or not. There are unprofessional, incompetent idiots in every profession including photography.

  • Barry November 5, 2012 10:06 am

    James, your premise is quite correct and there is no real debate. I think it stems from photographers thinking 'amateur' is somehow less than ' professional' in terms of quality or perhaps skill. The Olympic games was nominally amateur until about 1988 I think. Did allowing professionals to participate cheapen the athletic prowess of Olympians before and since then. I would think not. The same goes for photography. I am very happy being an amateur photographer.

  • Andy Mills November 5, 2012 10:02 am

    I think it's a case of whether you are "a professional" or "professional". Someone who earns a living from photography may be "a professional" but may not be (or act) "professional". Someone who does it as a hobby could be more professional than a professional.

    If you seem what I mean.

    My head hurts.

  • Paul Deveaux November 5, 2012 09:19 am

    Being a professional is more than just being paid for your work. It communicates a degree of dependability and consistency that many amateurs don't want or really need to have. The questions become: can you get the shot when things don't go as planned? Do you have a robust back up plan (extra cameras, lenses, lights, etc.)? Do you deliver your images on time and in accordance with your terms and conditions?

    It is more than just making money. It involve how you go about making your money.

  • Florian November 5, 2012 08:14 am


    I enjoyed reading your post. I seem to be among the few who are actually happy being amateurs (http://www.blog.floriansphotos.com/2012/02/in-praise-of-amateurship.html).

    I have the impression that in photography, "professional" is used by "professionals" to attach more value to their photographs and to distinguish themselves. It may have arisen exactly because it is possible for "amateur" photographers to take "professional-looking" photographs and because there are many "amateurs" who take better photographs than "professional" photographers. Eventually, "professional" is probably a marketing term, similar to the term "art" or "fine art".

  • Paul November 5, 2012 07:20 am

    There are no barriers to entry or licenses to acquire for a photographer (other than local business). Ultimately this leads to a very diverse market in a totally free market system.

    Does it really matter what makes a person a professional? You either create inspiring work or you don't. You either profit from your work or you don't. The title is not relevant.

    If people want/need to assign themselves a title or label for self-identification purposes, then that's fine. It does not change what they actually achieve or produce.

  • Tim Gray November 5, 2012 07:19 am

    What makes me a pro? being published. Getting paid for my photography. But to some others it's the cost of the gear that makes them a pro.

    My junky t2i and non L series glass has made me some money and published in a lot of places, but that doesn't count to some people. It only counts if you shoot with a 5D, or even better a 1DS! That's even more professional!

    And the funny part is, What makes you a pro is more about being able to convince people to pay you to take the photos and less about actually being able to take incredible photos. Photography is one of those businesses that is really fickle that way.

  • Jai Catalano November 5, 2012 06:49 am

    Never say you are a Professional. Say you are a Growfessional. Someone who always grows in what they do.

    It's corny but it gets people thinking and keeps you grounded.


  • Rich November 5, 2012 06:13 am

    I agree, the "professional" designation in any field is about making money rather than your skill. A professional photographer is someone who is making, or attempting to make, a living from photography. I have talked to professional photographers who could not tell me anything about the camera they were shooting and I have met non-professional photographers who create amazing images.

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