Since the spawn of the DSLR revolution I’ve been hearing the saying, “Anyone with a camera can call themselves a professional photographer,” more and more. Most often I hear this phrase when talking to a photographer who just lost a potential job to a low-balling amateur photographer calling himself a professional.
Is this phrase true? Yes ... I can call myself anything I want. Didn’t you know I’m the best photographer of all time? Oh, and I’m also the best lover and salsa dancer in the world. Sorry ladies, I’m taken.
Let’s look a little closer at this phrase. A photographer is defined as someone who creates pictures using a camera. According to Wikipedia, a professional is: A person who is paid to undertake a specialized set of tasks and to complete them for a fee. It’s simple: If you are paid to take pictures, you’re a professional photographer; If you get paid to play football then you’re a professional football player.
In high school I used to take pictures of football games for the school newspaper. Most of them weren’t very good but on a few occasions I was asked if I was willing sell some prints. If I remember correctly, I would charge about twenty-five dollars for an 8 X 10 print and was ecstatic to do so. Was I a professional photographer at the age of 16 because I was paid for my football photography, or was I merely an amateur photographer who got paid for some lucky shots I took?
I also worked part time as a bag boy at a supermarket making minimum wage while in high school. Was I a professional bag boy because I was being paid $4.25 an hour to bag groceries? On the other hand, when I am hired to shoot national ad campaigns for tens of thousands of dollars, am I that much better of a professional photographer because I am getting paid much more than I did as a high school sports photographer?
Dollar signs have very little to do with what truly defines a professional photographer in my opinion. I believe the Cambridge Dictionary makes an interesting point with their informal definition. It states that a professional is: Someone who has worked hard in the same type of job for a long time and has become skilled at dealing with any problem that might happen. I would like to add that a professional must also be able to realize there is a problem in the first place.
As a professional photographer I am constantly problem solving and it’s via this process that I would like to evolve to become an even better photographer. I’m not talking about problem solving instances where I planned a sunny outdoor shoot and now it’s raining, or about the problems that arise when a model is late to a photo shoot. I’m referring to the creative problem solving that goes into every single picture I take: The inner dialogue where I am thinking about how I can make better and more interesting pictures.
It is rare that I look back at a picture I shot a month or week ago without seeing something I could have possibly done better. When looking back years ago this becomes even more apparent. A photographer’s eye is constantly evolving and there is no replacement for years of trial and error as the key to this evolutionary process. I can’t learn anything from images I consider great or perfect. It’s only when I have the ability to realize that there are faults or failure in the pictures I take that I can learn from my mistakes. I find it’s most difficult seeing my faults when I’m in the heat of the moment on a shoot where there are so many distractions, but I have learned to slow down and make sure I’m happy with what I’m shooting. The day I stop finding faults in my photographs is the day I stop photographing. There is always something I could do better, and a professional photographer knows this.
It’s difficult to define at what point a photographer should be labeled a professional. I wish a global guild system existed in the photography field. If so, a young photographer would start out as an apprentice learning the ropes from a professional or master photographer. After years of hard work and dedication they would hopefully develop their technical skills and their creative eye while being guided by their master photographer. Once they have proven their skills and created a career for themselves, they could ask to be labeled as a master by a group of their peers. Those who have been labeled a master by their peers could then, and only then, be labeled a master or professional photographer.
Unfortunately no such guild exists today so anyone with a camera can indeed call themselves a professional photographer. With this in mind, how do we differentiate which photographers are professionals, and which are amateurs getting paid to take pictures? Am I a professional photographer? It’s been eighteen years since I was first paid to take pictures, I have my own studio, I make a great living doing it, I have won some awards, I have had my work published countless times, and I’m writing this article. I guess we’ll never know for sure.