What makes a professional photographer in 2023?

A few months ago, I reluctantly jumped into the Instagram wheel, like many other still-life photographers. My most popular story by a large margin is a joke comparing “amateurs” to “professionals”. And, although my point is not so much to distinguish between the two classes of photographers, but rather to comment on the general obsession of photographers with gear, sometimes at the expense of principles. Basically, I’ve touched with some exceptions with what they see as an insult to amateur photographers.

Formal training

Ironically, I appreciate titles less when it comes to artistic endeavors, because, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. I often joke that in my many years as a freelance musician in New York, I have never been asked by a club owner or band leader if I have a degree in music. The barrier between a pro and a novice is whether one can “hang”, i.e. play at a high level. No one in the professional community cared if I had a diploma to claim my status as a “jazz musician.” The same is true in my photography career. My clients never ask if I have a photography degree, because after all, they care more about the results I get for them than the letters after my name. To be clear, I do not deny the importance of education. I believe in the value of a formal education so much that I have earned my doctorate.

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

While I’ve been working in the photography industry in one way or another since my college days, I started 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 once very difficult. Small party hustle at that time. Since I spent most of my time in school, and because I have a family, a full-time job, and all the other responsibilities that come with the area, I decided that mentoring would be the right path when I want. to improve my photography skills. I found many of the mentors who created the work to talk to me and started attending live Zoom seminars and training with many of today’s top portrait and portrait photographers. I have also purchased many tutorials and regularly use free educational content from YouTube and other sources. This is my lesson in all aspects of photography, in addition to some of the classes I took in college, and I even mentor photographers on how to run a successful portrait studio. labour. The path I chose in photography went against my traditional training in music. In some ways, however, I’ve achieved a higher status as a photographer than when I was a bass player, even after all these years of schooling and performing.

Full time work

Another popular way to draw a dividing line between the professional and the amateur is to use a monetary standard. Do you make a living with cameras? Then you are an expert. I’ve heard some people analyze this divide even further, suggesting that only a full-time photographer can be considered a professional. Many professional organizations and services use this standard, so it’s probably a valid way to make a difference.

At this moment, I think of one of my favorite composers, Charles Ives. Ives is recognized as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and his works were among the first internationally recognized as authentic expressions of high musical art. of America. However, for most of his life, Ives’ work was ignored by the mainstream music establishment, as many considered his compositions to be strange, hard to hear, and downright lousy. Having struggled to break into the professional music world, Ives began a career in the burgeoning insurance industry and not only enjoyed great success, but developed many of the systems and practices that would define modern insurance companies. For most of his life, Ives has self-funded his compositions and performances, and used his success in the insurance industry to help him share his passion for music with the world.

Does the fact that Charles Ives makes a living selling insurance diminish his right to be called a professional musician? We could certainly name many photographers, musicians and artists in many different fields with similar stories who made very little money in their art during their lifetime. After all, perhaps how much a person earns is not an accurate measure.


Over the past few years, it has become quite common to use labels to identify what a person does or who they are. Many of us are very careful about presenting who we are online in the biographies of the various social platforms we use. This becomes more complicated for a celebrity, who is constantly in the media spotlight, because it is possible to assign them many labels with which they disagree. And, without going into the politics of trademarks, it’s also worth considering whether our labels are what define us as professional photographers.

For example, I could easily call myself a professional photographer online, but does using that very word in my copy make me a professional photographer? The problem with labels as a yardstick for identifying an expert is that we and others may use any label we choose, to some extent. Labels also provide external validation, especially if we are labeled by well-known industry publications and organizations in a positive way for our work, but this is probably not the best metric either. to identify a professional. Even if the title is only achieved after many years of schooling and is regulated by governing bodies, such as a Doctor of Laws or a Medical Degree, the term “professional” may not be entirely accurate. corpse. Most of us have met someone with a lot of letters after their name, who we wouldn’t consider a professional in any sense of the word, so again, perhaps the label doesn’t. must be the best evaluation factor.

Online tracking

So should we define an expert based on their online following? After all, if a photographer has tens of thousands of followers and hundreds of thousands of views, something they’re doing is resonating with the masses. Let’s get back to my spin at this point. As of today, my reel has over 122,000 views and thousands of likes. This might be the dividing line we’re looking for. The thing is, the reel in question has nothing to do with my professional work but is instead a silly joke created specifically for an algorithm. In fact, after only a few months, I look at this reel with the same thrill as when I saw my elementary school photo with a mullet! The purpose of the reels is to grow my Instagram page, which, if we follow the common sense, will lead to more work and, therefore, more success. I clearly hope that my gag reel is definitely a poor yardstick for judging whether I should be brought into the professional field, other than the fact that it has resulted in some interactions. on my site and inspired this essay.

Perhaps a more legit example would be one of the many photographers with huge online followings posting behind-the-scenes reels of their work, with the final images seen as rewards for watching that reel. Often, these photographers use novel effects in composition, interesting placement, and unique lighting to create truly unique and eye-catching images. However, it seems to me that many of these photographers make a living creating content, rather than selling images to clients. If this is the case, does it affect whether we should call these talented, hardworking photographers professionals?

All about work

It’s all about work. Or is it? After considering everything else, should we judge a professional solely by their work? If the work is excellent, they are a professional. The problems with this view are obvious. Who defines a good photograph? There are a lot of professional photographers out there who I’m sure many consider to be nothing more than hacks. There are also amateur photographers who are said to have created the most influential images of our time. Some of the best photographers I know who have creative eyes I can only dream of, have careers in many other fields and take pictures simply for the fun and excitement of it. .

I could go ahead and present more examples, but hopefully I’ve given some knowledge to think about as we try to understand what makes a professional. To some viewers, my semi-viral film implies that professionals don’t care about equipment, only aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Without beating that horse to death, I will leave the topic of equipment and technical know-how in the comments. Some might also say that owning a studio is the mark of a professional, but I know many great photographers who work in home studios or have no studio at all. There are probably many more examples we could come up with, but my goal in writing this was to stir up a conversation rather than give a definitive answer to the question at hand. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all.


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