The Professional Amateur Hobbyist

One of the most commonly abused words in photography is the word professional. I’m not so sure anyone knows what it means anymore as the lines between professional and amateur have grown increasingly tangled. Some photographers who have been shooting long enough to be technically proficient seem to be afraid of calling themselves amateurs or hobbyists out of fear that they won’t be taken seriously. I remember reading a long while back that a good way to look at the the term is simply to only consider yourself a professional photographer if you are currently making a sustainable living from your camera alone which is no small task.

This way of viewing the concept of being a professional leaves out the amount of skill one possesses, which of course leads to the source of the confusion. Someone such as myself, for example, has lived with a camera in front of my face for somewhere around 15 years but I don’t make a sustainable income only from the images I shoot. I certainly know my way around a camera and consider myself to be a very experienced photographer at this point but do I call myself a professional? No.

What do I call myself? I call myself a photographer. Simple as that. I realize this doesn’t count for much these days but I feel honest in saying it. Aside from instilling trust into a potential client I simply don’t see the need nor the boost in ego associated with the word. Many of us seem to start making up titles for ourselves to try to describe what sort of skill level we possess. My recent favorite was Marco Arment recently calling himself a Pro-Hobbyist, I can only assume as a means to say he has been shooting long enough to be confused by what he should call himself like the rest of us, or more likely, just trying to establish that his musings on a Leica M9 were from the standpoint of someone who know his way around a camera but its just a nonsense made up term all the same.

No matter the choice we make when we share with someone that we are photographers, there is always an awkward dance after being asked or telling someone because is often greeted with the followup question of “what kind of photos do you shoot”. I have witnessed first hand many times a photographer awkwardly stumble through the answer to this question. “Oh? me? I shoot life, love, the moment, portraits maybe? I don’t know, I do weddings too sometimes though”, and so on and so forth.

I can tell you this much about myself, over the years I have been paid many times for shooting photos and just as many times for selling rights to some I had already created. While I have never made the jump to try to live off of photography alone, I have made my own slow moving timeline revolving around 50ft as a means to monazite my shooting habits in the future rather than take on the full time profession of being a commercial photographer. Of course that’s just me.

Is calling yourself a professional a right you earn after getting paid for a few sessions? Or is it something you earn by having an extensive skill set and a fully certified education on the subject? If so then at what point is it okay to add the term to your business card? Where is the line drawn and who decides when good enough is good enough? Has amateur, in fact, become the new professional? The word has become so diluted by many simply proclaiming themselves Pros that there is no longer a level of distinction to be make.

I’m reminded of something comedian Louis CK touched on for a bit in his stand up special, Hilarious. He discussed the way people use words such as ‘amazing’ or ‘genius’ as a means to describe something usually seen as average in most circumstances leaving no better word to use when you do need to describe something truly amazing. Casual use has diluted the meaning of some words into something far less substantial. The word professional in conjunction with photographer has entered this slippery slope. (You can see it here, start at 1:30 and be aware, he has a foul mouth at times)

While considering the implications of calling yourself a professional I can’t help but also bring up the gear we use and the apparent divide between those who are professionals and those who are simply hobbyists. The way I see it, there are a lot of professionals using what many would see as a hobbyists set up and there are also a lot of hobbyists who have way too much gear for their own good.

I understand being competitive and wanting the latest gear to show that you are a hip, modern photographer but when it comes to the heart of the matter, your camera and gear does not define you as a professional. Some photo sessions do require a more elaborate setup. It’s just that I think some photographers may feel that the comforts of the newest technology are a needed commodity. While this does often come down to client needs, many have come to rely on the creature comforts of an auto focus system that thinks for you or enough pixels to crop a usable photo out of 40% of an image. It’s important to remember that these bells and whistles and others like them were developed not only to make photography easier and more robust, but also to sell new cameras. Progress for the sake of progress. The biggest problem here are those who are using new technology as a shortcut to a decent photograph which is not a trait I see honest professionals use. A fun video series released by DigitalRev on Youtube highlight this in a series where they give established professionals cheap or toy cameras to capture the best images they can manage to get from them.

When I think of the word professional I think of those who have established themselves as masters of their chosen gear, no matter how simple or complex, and are able to capture photos to exacting standards using either a full studio set up, a fully natural light scenario, or a combination of the two. They are able to walk into any scene or situation and come out with something usable. Being creative is all well and good but means nothing if you are not proficient with your gear.

We have all seen event photographers running around with slings and two big 1D’s with different lenses dangling by their side and most people see this and think, woah, he must be a pro. Only I know from experience that this is not always the case. On multiple occasions in my life as an audio engineer and the A/V industry, I see companies buy fancy set ups for employees that may or may not actually be all that proficient with them. I have seen the results of these little photo sessions with amazing gear that look like they were snapshots from camera phones. Just because you see what you assume is a pro running around an event, doesn’t mean they are one. Then again, on the flip side of this, perhaps they do make their living from it, no matter their skill set or ability to capture what most of us would call a “good” photograph. Does this make them a Pro, or just a lucky so and so that was given a camera and told to run with it.

Most of you know by now that personally I have a decidedly minimal approach to gear and post processing. Any time I start to look at new cameras I often come to the conclusion that I am perfectly happy with what I have.

At the moment I don’t need faster AF or more pixels and I often wonder how many photographers really need any of the features newer bodies offer over older ones. Something new to this argument is video, the feature they tossed on a DSLR just because they could. No one knew they wanted it till it was there and now many think they need it.

I love video too, but I don’t need a swiss army knife camera that tries to please both videographers and still photographers. The only reason they became popular among film makers were because of their size and lower cost but now we have these cameras with split personalities and every review of a new camera takes away points if it won’t shoot video well.

I want a camera that can make great photographs without getting in my way. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, any camera can be capable of making great photos if you have enough of an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses and being clever enough to work around them creatively. A cameras age or modern trendiness is irrelevant in the face of the end result. I shoot portrait sessions with a 15 year old Hasselblad which uses a lens built in 1977. Now, at the risk of contradicting what I just said, I do have plans to upgrade my camera body for a few reasons,  details of which can wait for another day. I wanted to mention it because I am not against upgrading cameras, I am simply using myself as an example to illustrate that it is important to consider our needs when choosing gear.

There is one more factor I wanted to pull into the conversation today and that is one I don’t often hear debated because I am not so sure many modern, younger photographers really know much about it and that is the difference between fine art photography and commercial photography. My brother and I are always waxing poetic about the differences in approach. I see a lot of less experienced digital shooters sort of stuck in limbo between wanting to call their work art and wanting to make money from it but without an understanding or education in the history of the medium as an art form.

I remember years ago when I discovered this for the first time. I am among those who never had a full four (or more) years of study in university about photography, only three years of darkroom and studio lessons in a high school commercial photography course. My style grew from this point based on an approach born from learning photography from a commercial perspective.

A turning point occurred when I took my portfolio to a fine art photography conference in Nashville years ago and had it reviewed by a fine art photographer. I remember sitting there anxiously while he glanced through the book of photos. The first question he asked me was blunt and stuck with me through the years, “what are you doing here? You know this conference focuses on fine art right?”. The conversation drifted toward us talking about the difference between fine art and commercial photography, and how my photos were wonderful for what they were but had no place among the fine art world.

My initial reaction was typical and ego fueled, what is he talking about? My photos aren’t just advertising goods, right? But as the conference went on and I listened to talks from many different fine art photographers and the creative approach and deeper meaning and stories behind their photos I was struck with a realization that I still had a lot to learn.

At the time I wanted to think I was well on my way to calling myself a professional but I had not yet considered the two distinct paths one could take as a photographer and the amount of skill and years of work it took to honestly get to that point of comfort.

This ultimately lead to me splitting my photographic output into two different worlds and still to this day I shoot this way. On one hand I have my more commercial work, shots which contain ample negative space and well considered compositions, as though part of the process of shooting was designing an image that would work well as a desktop or advertisement. These images are typically shot digitally and come very quickly and naturally to me at this point. Then I also capture images wanting to tell more of a story and often contains less focus on usable negative space but is composed in a way that could help speak to a story into the image. I usually use film cameras for these shots because I feel the aesthetic adds to the sentiment I am making with them. I have also heard these kind of shots being called “storytelling compositions”.

Now, to tie this back into the subject at hand, even if my time becomes fully devoted to photography and it is my primary source of income in the future I still would not feel comfortable calling myself a professional anything. The way my photographic life has evolved I feel more comfortable paving my own way through. At the moment the only thing I have against me to reach my goals is time. So what can my life as a photographer show us about the widely misrepresented concept? I still firmly believe after exploring the idea more, that I don’t really care for the professional designation. It doesn’t feel like me, it doesn’t feel honest. I don’t have it in me to put any undue expectations into my abilities based on my title.

It is clearly up to you what you want to call yourself but I believe being honest is the best approach. There is no official certification to call yourself a professional photographer, but there is a level of trust that goes along with calling yourself one. A certain trace of dignity lines this space and it is important to represent the professional community with pride.

My point in writing today is simply this, if you plan to start pushing yourself as a professional be ready to stand behind that statement. Don’t understate or even more importantly, don’t overstate your abilities. As for the value of your work, you must seriously consider the prices you choose to charge for your services. When deciding this please consider the impact your choice has on the photography market as a whole and on your future work. A big part of growing your client base is networking through previous clients, therefore, if you get a reputation for being cheap, that very well may stick with you over time. It is my belief that the best way to become qualified to charge professional rates it’s through years of training and hard work. Use your friends and family as much as possible in this time, not as clients but as subject matter. Build a strong portfolio first and give yourself time to discover your voice behind the lens. You will often read that photography is about patience and this trait also comes into play when giving yourself time to grow.

Confidence grows with time and practice, you wouldn’t try to cut down a tree with a butter knife so why would you try to shoot professionally before maturing as a photographer? I only say this from my own experience. Early on I tripped on my ego and found myself broke and lost for years because of it. The misstep taught me a humbling lesson and is why I mention this now. I don’t mean to sound as preachy as I do here. This is not the only blueprint to success in the photography buisness. I write these sorts of things only to evoke conversation and spark thoughts.

Prior to the digital photography revolution and the era of seemingly unlimited attempts at capturing the photo you are trying to take, photographers used to learn from apprenticeships and shadowing professionals before taking on their own solo paid work. These days the way many seem to think you do it is to start by charging less because your not worth as much. I don’t mind admitting to being guilty of this a few times myself. The only problem with this is that it lowers overall industry standards, at least in some specialties. Speaking of which, I realized that I also have more trust in a photographer who knows his or her specialty and introduces themselves as such. Rather than the blanket “Pro Photographer” phrase if I hear someone call themselves a commercial photographer, architectural  photographer, portrait photographer, fine art photographer, etc. It shows me that they have confidence in their specialty and in turn their level of professionalism. Nine times out of ten when a company feels the need to add the word “professional” to their product name, it is far from it, just something to keep in mind. Do you buy the hammer with the words “professional hammer” stamped onto the side, or do you buy the one made by a company you know and trust from their years of making hammers and having a good reputation for building great tools?

This whole conversation is potentially endless with the amount of variables and circumstance to consider. I’m not sure why I bring up such endless topics to discuss here on 50ft.

At any rate, if you are among those who simply love to shoot for the sake of shooting and do it for the love of exploring the world through a few sculpted pieces of glass without the need to justify that simple joy then by all means carry on. I respect this viewpoint because it takes confidence and humbleness.

It’s good to remember that we are more than a title. We are curators of life, the moment savers. We make time capsules and hold in our hands the responsibility to represent life at its best and its worst for those who wish to remember. Fleeting, hollow victories of a web page full of likes come and go unceremoniously but timeless images do not. They live on. So despite your viewpoint on whether or not you deserve to call yourself a Pro anything, keep in mind that sometimes the love of the art is more than enough.


  1. Dan Hawk - January 8, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    John, this post is really fantastic. Although I’ve been taking pictures for years, I only recently started thinking of myself as a photographer. I’ve pondered what triggered the change and I think that it had a lot to do with a change in my approach that happened gradually over time. I gradually chose to compose images instead of just capture shots.

    Your description of how you put together and envisioned the Christmas desktop was awesome, and really show the type of care that goes into a great image.

    There is a whole lot of stuff here to chew on. I’ll probably be revisiting this post again.

    Keep up the good, and inspiring images and words!

  2. Bill - January 8, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Beautiful, John. Absolutely beautiful!

    25 years of practical experience, still learning. But the piece that still gets me as I watch friends and relations pick up a camera and jump straight into the “professional” realm is – “don’t overstate your abilities”. But people continue to buy.

    I probably understate my own abilities, but I’m OK with that. But that extends to other arenas of my life as well, but in my 44 years, I’ve yet to find the usefulness in being a braggart.

  3. Moin - January 8, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Such a fantastic post, John. I’ve been having this identity crisis for the past few weeks and you’ve articulated my thought process better than anyone.

  4. Jorge Quinteros - January 8, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Fair to say that musicians, actors and writers are faced with the same conundrum surrounding the vague definition of what “professional” really means. To tell someone that you’re any one of 3 is for a few to instantly assume that you’re either unemployed or in between jobs because more than likely you’re not making money out of any if you have’t obtain a record deal, starred in major films or published a book.

    Being a “professional” for me isn’t the result of one particular thing. In fact, it’s a mixture of having simple tools that you’ve familiarize yourself very well so as to manipulate it and get the shot you want, it’s to know the basics the technical aspect of the craft so that it helps you in an given situation and perhaps more importantly, it’s about being honest about your work, your abilities and having a personality that will make your clients or anyone you deal with comfortable.

    The key to being a professional photographer is having consistency. Everyone’s definition of “pro” already means one who makes a full-time living out of it but then again one can still produce compelling work and not make one single dime from it. To me, Chris Arnade is the best example of this. He’s a Wall Street trader by day and a person who simply knows how to proficiently use a camera and has develop a deep relation with individuals who society has for ever given the cold shoulder to.

    The term “professional” has been severely overused and even those who walk around with their head high saying that they are one doesn’t necessarily imply that they’re a good one. It’s like being a manager. Just because you have the title doesn’t mean anything. Being a manager is about being a leader and inspiring your employees and one could certainly be that person without necessarily being in that position.

  5. Dan - January 8, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    Outside of the namesake I think what makes a “professional” anything – handyman, photographer, painter, musician is their ability to show up and guarantee a particular result.

    Beyond that it’s just a meaningly term like “luxury” or “deluxe”, something meant to inspire confidence where there might otherwise be none. This quote from Chris Farley in Tommy Boy comes to mind:

    “…because they know all they sold ya was a guaranteed piece of shit. That’s all it is, isn’t it? Hey, if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time.”

    In my experience you just have to be honest about your work and what you do. If you do mediocre photography, that’s fine, just don’t try to bill it as something it’s not.

  6. John - January 8, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful input guys, and yes this is exactly what I was talking about, a title is just a title, what this is about trust, dignity, and standing behind your word and ability. My reason for writing things like this is to raise awareness and I am happy to see it has been well received so far.

    Also, I remember that Chris Farley line! Classic!

  7. Tamara - January 9, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Love these questions you pose. I too just say photographer. I have sold photographs, had photographs in shows, and have been paid for portrait sessions. However, saying I’m a professional photographer, just sounds snobby, and there are already too many photo-snobs. I am not bother by the bells and whistles in a camera, I’m more impressed with what I can see with my eyes and then capture. So I have no answer, just my opinion. And I love DigitalRev, he’s so funny and the videos are great! x Tamara Red Coat Studio

  8. PhilippmitderUhr - January 9, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    This post is great. I hope, we will see more of your thoughts about questions like that.

    A friend of mine has this problem, I hope, this is able to help him to decide.

    On my own, I do not have this problem, because I think, I’m to bad. I know the technique and the physics behind photography, my works are good enough for me, but a pro? PFFF. Amateur? not really. I’m an interested hobbyist and I think, it’s good. Because I’m pleased.

  9. lovemachine - January 10, 2013 at 11:10 am

    a wonderful post.

  10. Nathaniel - January 11, 2013 at 12:41 am

    You’re an essayist, too, John. Enjoyed.

  11. steve - January 17, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    A really great read. Keep up the good work.

  12. Pavel - January 22, 2013 at 10:50 am

    great post

  13. Javier - July 3, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    I really liked this post. It reminds me a quote that really inspire me:

    “…one is not really a photographer until preoccupation with learning has been outgrown and the camera in his hands is an extension of himself. There is where creativity begins.”
    – Carl Mydans

  14. Eva - October 20, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    Wise and well written. Thank you.

  15. Photographer Zurich - November 14, 2015 at 6:38 am

    The Professional Amateur Hobbyist!

    I think this is the perfect title for me right now. I used to be a pro, now I am trying new things and I feel like an amateur and really it is just a hobby.

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