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What Makes You A Professional Photographer?

Seattle's Pike Place Market | Seattle, Washington | James Brandon Photography

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
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!

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