What Makes a Professional Photographer In 2023?

What Makes a Professional Photographer In 2023?

A few months ago, I reluctantly took the plunge into Instagram reels, like many other still photographers. My most popular reel by a wide margin was a joke comparing “amateurs” to “professionals.” And, although my point was not so much to make a distinction between two classes of photographers, but rather to comment on photographers’ common obsession with gear, sometimes at the expense of fundamentals, I touched a nerve with some people who took exception to what they saw as an insult to amateur photographers.

Formal Training

Ironically, I have put little stock in titles when it comes to artistic endeavors, since, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I often joke that in my many years working as a freelance musician in New York, I was never once asked by a club owner or band leader if I had a degree in music. The bar separating the pros from the novices was whether one could "hang," i.e., play at a high level. No one in the professional community cared whether I had a diploma to confirm my status as a “jazz musician.” The same has been true in my photography career. My clients never ask me if I have a degree in photography, because at the end of the day, they care about the results I give them more than letters after my name. To be clear, I am not denigrating the importance of education. I believed in the value of a formal education so much that I achieved the level of doctorate degree.

The obvious question I am asking is, does a formal education in photography make one a professional?

Although I have been in the photo industry in some manner or another since my college days, I began my journey as a portrait photographer around 2017, and then, in 2020, I decided to commit to creating a viable business out of what was a very small side hustle at the time. Since I had spent the majority of my life in school, and as I have a family, a full-time job, and all of the other responsibilities that come with the territory, I decided that mentorship would be the way to go when I wanted to improve my photography skills. I found a variety of mentors who created work that spoke to me and began attending workshops as well as one-on-one Zoom coachings with a variety of today’s top headshot and portrait photographers. I also have purchased many tutorials and regularly consume free educational content from YouTube and other sources. This has been my education in all aspects of photography, outside of some classes I took in college, and I have even mentored with photographers on how to run a successful portrait studio. The path I took in photography has been the reverse of my traditional training in music. Yet, in some ways, I have achieved a higher status as a photographer than I ever did as a bass player, even after all my years of schooling and performing.

Full-time Work

Another common way to create the dividing line between professional and amateur is using a monetary standard. Do you make a living with a camera? Then, you are a professional. I’ve heard some people parse this division even further, by suggesting that only a full-time photographer can be deemed a professional. Many professional services and organizations use this standard, so perhaps this is a valid way to make the distinction.

At this juncture, I think of one of my favorite composers, Charles Ives. Ives is recognized as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and his works were some of the first to be recognized internationally as a genuine expression of American high musical art. For the majority of his life however, Ives’ work was ignored by the prevailing musical establishment, as many found his compositions to be strange, offensive to the ears, and downright bad. Because of his difficulty breaking into the professional music world, Ives took on a career in the burgeoning insurance industry and not only found great success, but also developed many of the systems and practices that would define modern insurance companies. For the majority of his life, Ives self-funded his compositions and their performances and used his success in the insurance industry to help him share his musical passion with the world.

Does the fact that Charles Ives made his living as an insurance salesman diminish his right to be called a professional musician? We can certainly name many photographers, musicians, and artists in various fields with similar stories, who made very little money with their art throughout their lives. Perhaps the amount of money one makes is not the correct metric after all.

Before I had a dedicated studio space, I used the lobby of my music school for headshots and portraits.

Labels

Over the past few years, the use of labels to identify what a person does or who they are has become quite common. Many of us take great care when presenting who we are online in the bio sections of the various social platforms we use. This becomes more complex for a person of note who is often in the media spotlight, because a variety of labels can be assigned to them with which they do not agree. And, without going into the politics of labels, it is worthwhile to consider if our labels are what defines us as professional photographers.

For instance, I can easily label myself as a professional photographer online, but does using the word itself in my own copy make me a pro? The problem with labels as a metric for defining a professional is that we and others can use whatever labels we choose, to a point. Labels also provide external validation, especially if we are labeled in a positive way for our work by noted organizations and publications in the industry, but perhaps this is not the best metric to define a professional either. Even when a label is attained only by years of schooling and regulated by governing bodies, like a Juris Doctorate or medical degree, the term "professional" may still not be entirely accurate. Most of us have met a person with many letters after their name who we would not consider a professional in any sense of the word, so again, maybe the label isn't the best judging factor.

Online Following

Should we define a professional based on their online following, then? After all, if a photographer has tens of thousands of followers and hundreds of thousands of views, something they are doing is resonating with the public. Let’s get back to my reel at this point. As of today, my reel has over 122,000 views and thousands of likes. This might be the dividing line we were looking for. The problem is, the reel in question has nothing to do with my professional work and instead is a silly joke created exclusively for an algorithm. In fact, after just a few months, I look at this reel with a similar cringing feeling that I do when I see a picture of me in grade school with a mullet! The intent of the reel was to grow my Instagram page, which, if we follow conventional wisdom, will lead to more work, and therefore, more success. I hope it’s clear that my gag reel is most certainly a poor yardstick to judge whether I should be included in the realm of professionals, other than the fact that it has led to some engagement on my page and inspired this essay.

Perhaps a more legitimate example would be one of the many photographers who have a massive online following posting behind the scenes reels of their work, with the final images featured as the payoff for watching the reel. Often, these photographers use novel effects in their composition, interesting locations, and unconventional lighting to create eye-catching images that are indeed unique. It seems to me, however, that many of these photographers make their living with content creation, rather than by selling images to clients. If this is the case, does it impact whether we should call these talented, hardworking photographers, professionals?

A screenshot of my Instagram reels page. A joke reel about amateurs and professionals inspired this essay and got me thinking about what makes a photographer one or the other.

All About The Work

It's all about the work. Or is it? After everything else is considered, should we judge a professional by their work alone? If the work is excellent, they are a pro. The problems with taking this view are obvious. Who defines what constitutes good photography? There are many professional photographers out there who I am sure many people consider nothing more than hacks. There are also amateur photographers who are arguably creating the most impactful images of our time. Some of the best photographers I know, who have a creative eye that I could only dream of, have careers in a variety of other fields and take pictures simply for the joy and fun of it.

I could go on and present more examples, but hopefully I have given some food for thought as we attempt to understand what constitutes a professional. My semi-viral reel, for some viewers, implied that professionals do not care about gear, just aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Without beating that dead horse, I will leave the subject of gear and technical know-how for the comments section. Some may also say that owning a studio is a sign of a professional, but I know many amazing photographers who work out of a home studio or no studio at all. There are probably many more examples we can come up with, but my goal for writing this piece is to stir a conversation rather than give a definitive answer on the question at hand. Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all.

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6 Comments
Edo Photo's picture

Pros versus amateurs commentary and related articles have exploded in the last year. It could be more from an existential crisis for photography in general when big tech has commoditized is the activity that we love and try to make profit from.

Photographers are scared. They should be. 8 years ago I did a marketing research of the industry to earn my business license. The market for photographers at least in the USA is beyond terrible. Absolutely miserable numbers of income with the average of a what 30k or so? At the top of the chain were the superstar photographers like Annie lebowitz and wedding photographers since they bring in a relatively consistent income. The rest of the market was absolute apocalyptic , fast food like numbers.

I can say personally the last two years after COVID I took a long look at what my next 10 years looks like and for me, photography is not worth trying to pursue full-time unless you desire to do commercial studio work where you have a lot more control over the entire process. I've been alongside photo directors and seeing the trivial nature of them selecting photographers for our spreads. It is utter insanity to want to be a part of that at least on the editorial side.

On the other hand, I will still be pursuing some parts of the photography business - and if that can eventually lead into bigger opportunities, I'll definitely appreciate it and try to do that. But the financial focus on photography in my opinion, as a photographer based out of New York, is just kind of nonsensical.

At some point we have to admit photography is one of those passions you pursue only if you have enough resources from friends family, the luck of God, the network and ability to pay rent and put food in your mouth. Most photographers are never honest about this stuff. Pursue your passion is great and everyone should be able to try to do that. But with a market so broken you generally need very special circumstances in order to succeed.

That's not even touching the area of photographers discussing rates... it can be very disheartening. At the end of the day do the work you love and if you can profit form it sounds good. I personally don't think these amateurs versus pros narratives are helping anyone. I will industry is constantly taken left and right jabs and hooks and it's just hard to see where the light is at the end of the tunnel.

Pete Coco's picture

My intent when I made my original reel was just to make a joke about people who are obsessed with gear and know every single feature of the camera, not so much amateur v. pro. It may have been better titled as "gear heads vs. non gear heads" but it did raise an interesting point for me, hence this article.

The truth is, none of my clients care about any of these labels. They care about my service and my product, and that's why they hire me.

Regarding rates, I'm not sure why that topic is disheartening. Personally, I'm able to do the work I love and profit from it, so that is an excellent goal to have as a photographer. It's better than doing something you hate.

Nick Rains's picture

I always took the line that Committed Enthusiasts (amateurs) take photos for themselves whilst Professionals take photos for other people. Pros have to produce the results, CEs don't.

Pete Coco's picture

There's some truth in that for sure. I like the term "Committed Enthusiasts," as it's a more accurate description for sure. Thanks for the comment.

Leon Kolenda's picture

It's really simple, Pros get PAID for doing work for other people other than themselves. Now, are there different levels of Professionals, Absolutely!