Have you dreamed of becoming a professional photographer? I did for most of my life, but I can’t honestly say I ever asked myself why I wanted to be a professional. I think it had more to do with ego than anything else. For me the word professional implied competence, and I wanted to be viewed as competent in my chosen craft. In the old film days you had to be competent to make good photos and money with photography (cameras weren’t smart and didn’t do the thinking for you).
Today’s digital cameras are small computers and almost guarantee good (if not great) results. There are various definitions of professional these days (especially as the word relates to photography), but this old definition still holds up pretty well: A person engaged in a specified activity [such as photography] as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime. Simply stated it comes down to livelihood versus hobby. This is subjective and controversial within the photography community.
Digital has muddied the waters. In the days of film photography a photographer had to be technically competent; today much of that hard learned competency has already been preprogrammed into the camera’s software algorithms. Granted there is much more to photography than just focus and exposure, but with the old cameras it took some knowhow to achieve those results alone. The word professional assured the customer they were getting what they paid for.
Today there is no assurance that a customer is buying a high level of competence when they hire a photographer, much less professionalism (ethical practices and conduct) in a business sense. Skills that were once implied now have to be vetted, a customer has to do their own due diligence beforehand. There are photographers today (far too many in my opinion) who don’t have the required skill set, but charge for their photography (and call themselves professional). There are also nonprofessionals who take amazing photos and don’t get paid for their work.
Shooting professionally isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. It is very hard to make a decent living in photography (even if you’re extremely talented). When you shoot for a customer you have to provide what they want (they’re paying for your services after all), and not necessarily what you consider to be good photography (that can be extremely frustrating). A professional (by definition) is in the business of photography, which is completely different from the aesthetic of photography. Is this what you truly want?
Most of the professional photographers I know don’t earn their livelihood from the images they take. That’s the truth of it pure & simple. Some do: wedding photographers, event photographers, sports photographers, the paparazzi, and some portrait photographers. You really have to bust your ass to make it in those genres. Fine art photography including scenic, nature, and wildlife (my chosen genres) are even harder. Many professional photographers today make their money by providing educational services like: video tutorials, workshops, product reviews & endorsements, travel photo tours, and how-to articles (like I write for Northrup Photo).
When asked I don’t even refer to myself as a professional photographer; I simply say I’m a photographer, a writer, and a world traveller (my ego was satisfied long ago). When looking for work my resume will reflect that I’m a professional photographer, a published writer, and a seasoned world traveller (but that’s when I’m marketing myself for the business of photography). I sometimes wish that photography had a certification process in place to assure the buying public of a photographer’s technical and artistic competency, but it probably wouldn’t be practical.
It’s been almost four years since I worked for the newspaper, and I will only occasionally do a private photo shoot. Today I shoot what I want when I want. No deadlines and no customer expectations (and attitudes) to deal with. If people like my fine art prints they buy them, and I still enjoy writing my freelance articles and these blog posts. Do I still consider myself a professional photographer? Yeah, I do, but it’s no longer a big deal. My advice is to do what you love, and not to get too hung up with labels and ego.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveller