Becoming a professional photographer is easy — all you have to do is charge money. With cheaper alternatives for gear and education, here is how the industry has been affected by the lower barrier of entry.
The Problem With the Label 'Professional'
We want the word “professional” to mean someone with the highest level of skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. The dictionary definition of the word “professional” is someone who charges money for something. Regardless of which source you look at, Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, or Oxford, you’ll find lots of definitions for the word. If you meet just one of the definitions, then you are a professional. Having a high level of skill is great, but not required. Unfortunately, simply charging money for your services is the bare minimum requirement to technically being able to call yourself a "professional photographer," even though the industry expects the term to be used differently.
Unlike other professions, such as doctors or lawyers, there are no educational requirements to call yourself a professional photographer. Some activities, such as beard or fingernail trimming for money, have both educational requirements and licensing requirements in some states. Professional photographer requires neither. The only requirement to being a professional photographer is deciding that you want to start charging, regardless of your skill level.
“Professional” is a fairly charged word. Although there is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist photographer, the opposite of “professional” is either “amateur” or “unprofessional,” both of which carry derogatory connotations. So, being categorized as “professional” or “not professional” carries a lot of emotional sway, whether intended or not.
In today’s market, saying you are a “professional photographer” carries as much meaning as saying you are a “published model” or an“ internationally published photographer” because you paid $8 to be published in a print-on-demand magazine that no one has ever heard of that you can buy digitally from any country that has internet. It would be nice if it meant something, but it doesn’t anymore.
Low starting costs are also making it easier to jump into photography. Cheap gear and cheap lenses are widely available. Cheap lighting equipment, light stands, and other equipment can be bought on Amazon. An abundance of free or cheap educational resources online are also widely available. And that is not to say that affordable gear and free learning resources are bad. But it is simply a fact that anyone can spend between $1,200 to $1,500 on initial gear purchases, watch some YouTube videos, and decide to charge for photography all in the same weekend and non-fraudulently describe themselves to the public as a professional photographer. Far too many people are prematurely jumping into the field of professional photography before they are ready to accept the responsibility of performing at an industry standard.
How This Hurts the Community
Having an abundance un unskilled "professionals" puts the burden on the public to weed out who is a real pro and who will just take your money. For example, take the case of young wedding photographer/videographer, Lexie Cruz, aka Lexie Linda:
In her 14-minute apology video, she explains how she used wedding photos that weren’t hers to market her business and took deposits from people and never showed up to take pictures. There’s even a Facebook group of people all over the country who claim to have been scammed by her.
I’m not doing anything on purpose. I’m not being malicious. I’m not trying to sneak people. I’m not scamming people. I’m a real freaking person. I’m just trying to do this business and I’m new at this, so I’m sorry if it’s not 100 percent, like, but, this is something that I love and that’s why I’ve been wanting to do it…
I understand there are a lot of things that I could have done differently. There are a lot of things that I wish I could change, but it’s in the past now. It happened and all I can do is move forward and be better. Um. Nobody’s perfect obviously and I’m only 22 like I’m far from perfect so, I’m still learning this business and still trying to figure out what to do and I’m looking into doing a mentorship with another photographer that’s skilled and understands the business and so I can better myself and figure out how I can do better at this business.
That was the video she gave to the local news station in response to the report on her business practices that came out a month ago. Her goal of moving on from the past and doing better is not working out so great. Last week, with two weeks’ notice, she canceled a wedding that she was hired for in May and told the bride that she thought it was September 2022, not September 2021.
I recently wrote how I’m not concerned about low-end photographers stealing my high-end clients, but that same influx of low-end photographers is making things like a $2,000 price tag that includes her flying to meet you anywhere in the country, an 8-hour wedding shoot with unlimited edits, and a free engagement shoot a camouflaged red flag among so many new “professionals” trying to learn on the job and charging accordingly.
In another example, a mother-to-be who was eight months pregnant booked a photo studio and hired a photographer. The client paid for two hours of studio time, seamless paper add-on, and rented studio strobes add-on. She got her outfits together and went to the studio for a maternity shoot in the last few weeks of her pregnancy.
When she met the photographer at the studio, the photographer asked the studio owner if he would stay in the shooting area the whole time and show the photographer how to do the lighting. When he said that he typically doesn’t do that, the photographer waited for the studio owner to go back into his office and told the clients that the studio is not suitable for shooting on seamless paper with strobes because the overhead lights are not bright enough. The client and the photographer left 10 minutes into the session and the client forfeited her entire rental fee.
It turns out that the photographer had only done her first shoot five weeks prior and this was her first maternity shoot. In the very infancy of her “professional” career, she received payment, obligated the client to pay additional studio costs, and decided to accept the responsibility of documenting something important that was time-sensitive and could not be redone, and she was completely unqualified to do it.
On top of that, there is the whole GWC epidemic. GWC stands for "Guy With Camera," and it refers to unskilled photographers who just want to shoot naked and semi-naked ladies to amass a collection of photos with little or no artistic value and often sexually harass models along the way, another topic I touched on earlier. So, if a young model wants to get into modeling and wants just digitals or some editorial shots for a portfolio, she might not know how to vet photographers and assume that someone charging money is going to be skilled and act professionally. She might not know what price ranges are normal, and if she doesn't have a big budget, she might choose one of these non-skilled, unprofessional "professionals" and end up sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by one of the GWCs.
There are safety hazards that rookie professionals don't understand, like the dangers of shooting on train tracks. I saw in a Facebook group someone post a maternity shot where the pregnant woman was standing with her eyes closed and her head back. I thought it was a nice shot, but someone commented that pregnant women are prone to dizziness when they close their eyes and tilt their heads back, so that specific pose could cause injury. Turns out, that is a real thing. There might be poses or locations that look pretty, but experienced professionals would know to avoid them.
It is exciting to live the dream of being a professional artist. That eagerness coupled with the lower barrier to enter the field of professional photography has resulted in far too many unskilled "professionals" rushing into the market. It looks easy on TikTok, so people think anyone can do it. They find out the hard way that professional photography requires a lot of technical skill and talent.
The Silver Lining
Although there is a low bar for entry into the profession, the growth opportunities in the profession that are being created are amazing. Unlike any other time in history, amateurs and professionals alike are able to learn all of the technical skills from the top working professional photographers across the world. There are very few technical secrets of photography that cannot be found on YouTube or in online tutorials that are used by photographers to charge thousands of dollars per session. The ability to share ideas, techniques, and portfolios is incredible right now.
If I want to analyze and review 1,000 headshots taken by Peter Hurley, I can do it right now from my desk. If I want to learn everything about how he works with clients, I can do that here. I can learn all about his lighting for headshots here. I can learn his advanced headshot techniques here. I can watch a free explanation with lighting examples of the inverse square law here. I can watch a free one-hour seminar he gave on headshot photography here. When global pandemics are not happening, you can take a two or three-day seminar from him all over the world. I can go to Lindsay Adler's YouTube channel and watch 13 years' worth of content in over 100 videos about studio lighting and portraits for free here. There are entire Instagram accounts dedicated to behind-the-scenes content to show lighting setups and camera settings information. There are countless YouTube channels and other online resources (of various worth) with information about almost any topic in photography. There are Facebook groups with members of different industries to share ideas. If you are using Capture One, you can join the official Facebook group and interact with employees of the company to answer questions that aren't covered in any of the many free tutorials available on their YouTube channel here.
Likewise, the prosumer and advanced hobbyist market are adding much-needed capital to manufacturers. Cameras such as the Sony a7 III, the Canon EOS R, and the Nikon Z 6II are excellent affordable cameras that can be used by professionals at a cost that makes them attractive to people who don't yet charge for their work. The bottom line is that with declining camera sales, the manufacturers need the prosumer camera sales to continue to develop new technologies for the professionals.
Are You Ready to Go Pro?
How do you know if you are ready to start taking the responsibility of charging money for your photographs? See how you answer these questions first:
- Are you comfortable with the entire workflow? Do you know how to light and pose people? Do you know how to set goals for your shoot and all of the steps needed to achieve those goals? Have you already done the type of shoot you re looking to charge money for multiple times? Do you know where the shoot could go wrong and are you prepared with a backup plan?
- Are you going to be using your paying clients to practice your skills? You can gain experience by doing trade shoots with models looking to build their portfolios. You should be confident enough with your skills and have enough practice that you are not experimenting and using your clients to learn skills on the job. That's not to say that you shouldn't be gaining experience and getting better with each paid shoot, but you should have your core techniques down before you charge people. I do personal creative shoots a few times a month between client shoots. Personal shoots are where I try out new things, experiment, create portfolio images that I can share in my feed or on my website, and create for the sake of creating.
- Do you have experience communicating with clients and managing expectations? Do you have contracts?
- Do you have the equipment necessary? You can't shoot a wedding with a crop sensor camera and just a kit lens and a speed light. Do you know the white balance of the lights in the reception hall and how the pictures will be affected if you use a speed light in a room with tungsten-balanced lights? Do you know where you will be and cannot be during the ceremony and what kind of lenses you will need to capture it? Are you doing a fashion shoot on a plain white backdrop where you need even color on the backdrop? Do you have the lights for that?
- Would you hire you? If you had a wedding or an event or a product you were trying to sell, would you hire you to shoot it? Would you trust your own photography business to shoot something very important?
If you are not ready to start taking on the responsibilities of being a professional photographer but you are passionate about it, continue to hone your craft. You can be a second shooter at a wedding. You can be an photographer's assistant in a studio. You can do trade shoots with models. Make sure you know what you are doing first, and then, take advantage of the great learning and growth opportunities mentioned above.
Did you ACTUALLY take money from someone to remove a splinter or is that just a comparison you're using? 🤣
The difference in your examples is that Webster and Oxford mention it being a regular thing that you do for your job or livelihood. Oxford: doing something as a paid job rather than as a hobby. MW: participating for gain or livelihood in an activity. Although I am doubtful that anyone has ever paid you to remove a splinter, doing something one time doesn't mean you are doing it for your livelihood or that you are doing something as a job. I would go by MW or Oxford over the 1910 online version of a dictionary that has typos in it. But, for example, in California, anyone can paint a house for money, but if you charge $600 or over, the activity requires a state license. There are thresholds for auto repair as well and I'm sure it's the same for performing medical procedures.
Thelawdictionary.org is not American law. Blacks Law Dictionary, the real one owned by Thomson Reuters and available only with a Westlaw subscription or in hardback, is not American Law either.
Mr Davis, you might wish to take the time to read Mr Bennion's bio before getting into a pissing contest about legal definitions.
That's Mr. Bennion, Esquire to you, sir. 😂
LOL. Esquire is a strange usage of the word especially in connection with American pettifoggers.
Oh my god. Regardless of whether your intent was to make a baseless insult, I am so happy that I learned a new word today, especially one that I can use on a regular basis. Cheers
No personal insult intended.
I've dealt with American lawyers in the past and found them to be unintentionally funny. One wrote to me and put "Esquire' behind my name - not realizing that outside the US the word has a different use and meaning. I wanted to write back and say that the proper term is "Lord Almighty" and to remember to genuflect when in my presence - but I didn't.
I believe you Americans start an action with a "complaint' (another odd term given its meaning). Nevertheless, when the facts may fit, allege that the defendant is "gambrinous". You'll send the judge running for a dictionary.
Yes, a Complaint which ends with a Prayer. Pursuant unto my hithertofore experience with said profession (hereinafter "Profession") I agree with your observation that they are just the worst. Lol
Wouldn't #2 fit most photographers?
Nothing has really changed over my twenty-seven year career, perhaps the internet has simply given the angry clients more opportunities to complain.
While there are so many photographers out there, what will set you apart from the rest is the experience you provide for a client. In general with the exception of commercial photography (with creative directors), no one will care what system you shoot with or how you light/pose them, all they will care about is how you made them feel. Focus on the experience and you'll have clients for life that will refer you to everyone. On top with SEO and up-to-date social media, you'll have business coming in as long you do that. I did that in my freelance career and until I got my government photography job, I'm set for life since I still run it as a side business. Just keep shooting and networking. Keep in mind there is not just one path to success in this profession.
"with the exception of commercial photography (with creative directors), no one will care what system you shoot with"
I have never had a client request a certain brand of camera. That was left up to me, they sometimes requested a certain film format (35mm / 120 / 4x5 / 8x10) though...now it's file size.
Congrats on the govt photo gig, those are rare and have great pensions!
Oh of course! The government gig was more luck and networking. Networking goes so far. You could be taking awesome photos but if you combine it with amazing imagery you'll go far. And yes I'm relieved I don't need to worry about the freelance life.
Digital photography has opened the Barriers. You couldn't just start a photography business 6 months(or less) after buying your first film camera back in the day.
also you definitely can shoot a wedding with a crop sensor. I do it frequently and it turns out professionally.
Yeah, that's why I said crop sensor camera and just a kit lens and speed light. I'm sure there are weddings where you could do that and make great images, but those are exceptions
For $17 a month you can become a member of PPA ( Professional Photographers of America). You don't even have to have crop sensor camera with a kit lens. Cell phone will do. Now tell me that calling yourself "professional photographer" has any meaning at all. You can be professional engineer, professional plumber or electrician if you can pass exam for the license and have appropriate education and training . As you mention in your article so called professional photography does not require any education or licensing. If you can sell yourself or your product - you can make money. Shoe salesman has just as much right to call himself a professional as a photographer does.
Ive read it but I’m not sure what the actual point is he is trying to make.
That people fool themselves into thinking they can take great photographs. Wow you see that on the pages of this forum every week. This person or that person proclaiming to be expert on ………… aspect of photography.
Self delusion is nothing new. I did, as a more mature student, an MFA in film and film directing some years ago. I was stunned by the number of young people on the undergraduate and post grad film courses who saw themselves as the next big thing in film. Misplaced self belief! Making a film is a much more complex business than shooting a still yet there are folk out there who through the power of bullshit who try to pass themselves off as filmmakers. Taking the talk while sitting on your ass is nothing new. These days you are just made more aware of it. Photography with it’s lower entrance bar just makes it easier to become a bullshit photographer. Don't get me wrong I’m not saying photography is easy, it’s not and there lies the rub……it’s bloody difficult. But saying you’re a photographer is one of the easiest things in the world, that is until people want to see some of your work. I would not worry bullshit photographers have by virtue of being crap no talent and as such will have a short shelf life. Those with real talent will survive. A bullshit photographer can buy any number of cameras and kit and watch Peter Hurley till the cows come home and at the end of the day still be crap. Being a good photographer is not about gear, or knowing the difference between split and Rembrandt …..I do wish people would stop with the gear obsession and the paint by numbers approach to photography…it’s about your vision, in that it all takes place between the ears, it’s a cerebral thing. Knowing camera settings…….give me a break. If you have to look up the internet to find out about camera settings!…especially in the studio it’s time to go home.
The word professional has lost its meaning as it’s often used to describe mundane products like kitchen cleaner. If you are a good and talented photographer I would not waste a second in thought for those bullshit photographers, they will be found out. You can fool some of the people etc….etc…
I recently saw someone advertising his photoshoot services. The photo that he used to showcase his talents appeared to have a tree growing out of a child's head. I felt embarrassed for him.
As a lifelong hobbyist it makes no difference to me but I was thinking that there needs to be some sort of fellowship, where there is a high bar for membership. Perhaps there already is something like that.....
Having worked my way up over the years through various commercial projects and being on set for large productions has given me the perspective on how a set should run. The level of planning and detail that goes into making sure all the moving parts click is incredible.
Its in those areas of set safety, organizing the day, managing people, being insured, dealing with contracts, etc that you really see the lack of experience come through with photographers that take short cuts to calling themselves professional.
And this is the biggest issue with lower barrier to entry. Its people coming into an industry and focusing on the "fun" parts without taking time to study the "boring" parts. Because of the increase in demand for content many smaller clients are under the pressure to deliver a non-stop stream of work and they cut costs with inexperienced photographers. But thats not what the working dynamic should be even if the set isn't a high caliber production. There should still be a professional standard at all levels.
Its really great that photography has become more accessible to people, but work is work, and photographers should bear the responsibility of that if they want to call themselves working professionals.
As an enthusiast I am comfortable with my camera, flashes, and how to adjust to varies lighting. I have successfully photographed engagements/small weddings, bridal and baby showers. However, modesty is important and I place limits on myself and the jobs I will take. I have had people ask me to photograph large wedding or events and I have turned them down, not do to skill, but man power and the type of gear needed. A small intimate wedding of 50-100 guest, great! A cathedral wedding with 200 guest, let me refiere you to such and such.
I've still only shot weddings for free (both paid me because they were so happy with the results) but I'd feel uncomfortable taking anyone's money up front. I'm a competent photographer, maybe even decent. But as you said I know my limits, and I'm not going to be delivering the kind of 'wedding photos' that they're used to seeing on social media. I recognise the time and effort that goes into being a 'Professional' wedding photographer.
I worked as an industrial photographer in the aerospace industry in the 80s and studied concurrently photography part time.
The technical knowledge required has no comparison with a lot of what is done today apart from forensics and medical work. The man on the street with his mobile camera wouldn't even have a start ...
Welp... welcome to the party.
In the 1990s I was a newspaper reporter. And when I say "newspaper," I mean a building with a newsroom on one end and, on the other end, house-sized high-speed presses manned by guys in ink-stained overalls. Reporters walked in one door, trucks full of newspapers came out the other.
And then came the age of: "I just bought a Mac! I'm a newspaper now!" Fast forward 30 years and this erstwhile reporter works in... PR and marketing. I might still be a reporter if you needed a license to be one. Stupid First Amendment. (Kidding! But still bitter.)
Photography has always been susceptible to the same incursions, so in a sense this isn't anything new. But I think it's gained critical mass with the widespread availability of digital tools for taking, processing, and above all distributing images, as well as the ability to pose as a pro online.
I'm probably 85 percent good enough a shooter to call myself an entry-level pro if I wanted to go that route, but I never, ever will pose that way. Because I know it would be an insult to the real pros who are that essential and ineffable degree better than I am--and who shoot to put food on the table.
In order to get some type of professional standard, you first need a generally accepted organization to create and maintain a standard. Unfortunately, photography doesn't have an American Medical Association or American Bar Association or National Association or Realtors equivalent. While PPA and ASMP exist and do what they can, there is no accepted national or international organization of photographers. God help us if the government ever tried to set one up! (lol)
I doubt a standard will ever be created. As Lee Christiansen said, the perceived value of photos is minimal, so the need for a governing body is not strong. The low perceived value is probably because of the 1.4 trillion photos taken each year. We're bombarded with photos on phones, on computers, on TVs, on websites like Instagrab, etc. It's a river of crap photos that continues to flow. To put the 1.4 trillion photos in perspective - if you could print each photo 1-ft x 1-ft, then laid them all in a row and drove along side at 60 miles per hour 24/7, it would take about 500 years to reach the end!
Then you have the libraries and libraries of stock photos that are cheap to purchase and never die. The requirements/markets for unique and valued photos are shrinking because mediocre is now perfectly acceptable. There are pockets such as personal events, product photography, fashion, etc, where skilled photography is still valued.
Here are some common beliefs we've all heard.
Why do I need a portrait when I can take a selfie?
My mobile phone takes good photos, why should I pay someone?
You saw my ad on Craig's List? Cool!
Tell you what, I'll come over and do it for only $50 cash!
All I need are a few $10 stock photos for my website or ads.
It just takes the press of a button. Why should I pay that much?
The photos don't have to be perfect, I can make them look better in the computer.
Any person who can continue to support themselves year after year, while contending with all this stuff, should be called a professional! Maybe longevity/survivability is the standard.
Are you saying there used to be a photographer's guild, or just mentioning guilds in general?
Almost all photographers I know, who are consistently making a living through their photography, call themselves...Photographers.
Yeah, agree. Generally, I've noticed a correlation between photographers who have to use certain designations about how good they are, like "professional" "award-winning" or "published" and how good they actually are. As the poet Bruno Mars once said, "Don't brag about it come show me."
In the UK we have national tiered standards set by the Royal Photographic Society
we also have special standards for qualifications in highly specialised areas such as sciettific photography or creative industry work.
I am the first to say that you can be a great photographer without training or qualifications - but if I am paying 1000's for a service, my first step in the UK would be to ask what level of RPS qualification the "photographer" posessed and ask for a sight of his or her portfolio and feedback from recent clients. This sets a "floor" below which standards should not fall as well as somewhere to complain to.
Getting damages after a failed wedding shoot is really no help - what clients need is a guarantee that the job will be done well in the first place !
Earnings vary across the UK for wedding photography with the South East being the most expensive with the average cost at £1,600. This is followed by London, the South West and then Scotland. The North East came in at the cheapest with an average cost of around £1,000. Wedding Photographer London Prices: £1520
for those in the USA 1,000 Pound Sterling =1,377.20 US Dollar
The US figures are said to be $2000 -
so is there an equivalent national standards body in the USA - or do you now need one?
This of course does not excuse the clients from hell who also manage to bring the service of wedding photography a bad name !- https://fstoppers.com/wedding/bride-arrested-allegedly-forcing-photograp...