Hiring a Pro Leaves No Room to Chance


There’s been a lot of talk that amateur photographers are a threat to the livelihoods of professional photographers these days.  I just don’t see it.

Consider the different kinds of amateurs you come across.   There’s the photographer who has an unlimited amount of time to accomplish an image.  There’s the student, who has a week or two to complete an assignment on, say, lighting a bowl of fruit.  There’s the hobbyist who captures an occasional great image and posts it on Flickr or iStock.

Are these photographers a threat to the professional photographer who works on assignment? I submit that they are not, in virtually every case.

Demanding Consistency

Experienced clients demand the continuity and consistency that only a professional photographer can bring to the table. They want a track record of success. They’re also more impressed by clips and covers than sample work on a Web site, because these are real-world demonstrations that you can deliver on time with a high degree of certainty.

When you are a student, you might shoot an assignment three or four times, realizing you missed a critical issue each time, and then finally get it right.

The hobbyist photographer can take thousands of images of the sunset, their kids, and so on and, based upon the law of averages, eventually get an amazing shot. Sometimes, they simultaneously discover “how” they created such an amazing image, and thus can repeat it. Usually, however, they don’t.

The Definition of a Professional

No one has to say she’s a “professional accountant” or “professional doctor.” Unfortunately, we do have to say we are “professional photographers” to distinguish ourselves from amateurs.

Why? As Merriam-Webster explains it, to be a professional can mean to participate “for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.” Like a professional golfer, for example.

Rob Haggart at A Photo Editor defined professional by quoting chef Mario Batali, who said that the difference between an “amazing amateur chef and a professional chef is the ability to make that perfect meal 100 times in a row.”

Einstein once famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So I’ll use the inverse of that for my own definition of “professional” —

A professional is someone who does the same thing over and over again expecting similar results.

The Client’s Best Interests

How many times can a magazine’s photo editor commission an assignment and get nothing usable back before his job is on the line? Once? Twice? If twice every other month a shoot were unusable, that editor’s judgment would be called into question and in short order he would be out of a job.

What happens to the advertising agency’s art director, when the photographer can’t deliver while the art director and client are both on set, and the shoot fizzles? How many failures like that can occur before the agency loses the account, and the art director loses her job?

The biggest challenge for the photo editor, art director, or other photography client is to separate the wheat from the chaff. That means separating the professional who can deliver every time from the amateur — who may have a nice online portfolio but who can’t be counted on with the same degree of certainty.

The mistake some clients make is that they don’t compare apples to apples when choosing a photographer. They may see, for example, that a photographer has produced some nice stock images. That’s fine if you are interested in purchasing a stock image — but not if you are looking for an assignment photographer.

When you are assigning a job for a one-time event that is not re-shootable, you better find someone with a proven track record in precisely that kind of work. Hire someone who does the same thing over and over again — and always gets superior results.


7 Responses to “Hiring a Pro Leaves No Room to Chance”

  1. Good points.

    I personally distinguish the difference between an amateur photographer and professional a little differently.

    An amateur photographs what they are passionate about and the professional knows how to photograph other people's passions as if they were their own.

  2. Love the post. Great definition of professional. Go one step further and we've clearly defined our business as a profession and not an industry.

    Industry is a term that photography buyers are fond of since it lumps us all, professional and amateur in the same boat. The term industry (as in photography industry) lowers the value of our work.

    And yet, somehow the term industry (look through the next PDN to find dozens of references) has stuck and professional photographers apply this description to our profession without hesitation.

    What if every time a magazine editor, art buyer or publisher used the term photography industry to describe our profession, we took pains to correct them?

    That's a titanic change in mindset and it would improve everyone's bottom line.

    We are professionals after all and we practice in a profession just like doctors and lawyers...

    Great post!

  3. Interesting post.....although there are a world of professional photographers that are anything but. Poor images, bad attitude, cannot deliver on time and completely arrogant to say the least.

    Then there are also a world of amateurs that have superior consistent results to many professionals, yet they do not "go pro" simply because of other circumstances in their life.

    I think this word needs re-defining and I believe that to stereotype people in this way is awful.

    "Hiring a pro" photographer is taking the same risks as hiring a a "pro" anything. There are good and bad on both sides. the upside of a good amateur is that you wont get ripped off with the poor quality that you would from a bad "pro". And lets not just limit this to widely published commercial/editorial photographers, Photography is a huge business going down to local guy with a studio extension on the house making his living in this. Is he any less a "pro"?

    I say bad "pro's" beware, the next generation of amateurs ready to go "pro" will take you down.

  4. I agree with Craig 100% Sounds like regular competition to me? If your taking care of business producing professional quality work, you should not be impacted amateurs, why not take your mind off it.. On the other hand if your attitude and work is sub par then you'd better duck!!

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with Craig... I've seen some good "pro's", some bad "pro's", some great amateurs, and some great hobbyists...

    Pro is only defined in a sense that being a photographer full-time is the only thing I really captured out of this post. Just because you make a living being a professional doesn't mean you can deliver professional work. I've seen some professional photographers who works last minute, have bad attitudes, think they are THE only one who can do it like they can, and put other amateurs down because they're work doesn't appeal to them.

    Being a photographer, we all started out somewhat on the same level. Someone had to give you a chance to shine, you had to perfect that same assignment time and time again to get it right at one point, so don't berate amateurs as having bad work, inconsistent, or not "professional" because they don't quit they're day job to photograph things everyday for a living.

    Now a days, the Flickr contributor, or getty image contributor will take out the professional assignment photographer because they can get they're work electronically submitted much quicker than maybe an average pro... so watch out! Reasons why newspaper are dying out... the hobbyist, and Flickr photogs are submitting work electronically and getting published... why hire pros when you can get it cheaper from an amateur who isn't going to charge you an arm and a leg for a photo.

  6. I don't think John is attempting to say that every pro does perfect work every time, or that there aren't some very talented amateur photographers out there.

    The point is that a corporate or editorial buyer is much more likely to get the consistent quality they are seeking by hiring an experienced pro -- generally one they've worked with in the past and have a track record with.

    You can't know about a photographer's consistency or ability to think spontaneously on news or corporate assignments from an online portfolio of nice pictures, for the reasons John points out.

    But certainly there are amateurs who elevate themselves to pro every day by gaining experience and building a clientele. More power to them, and I think that's exactly John's message.

  7. So called "Pro"-photographers are always trying to put art on a stop-watch. Lets say one photographer will get good results from each of his 100 shots. But take another middle great "Look at me, I am PRO" and you will get same 100 shots. Consistency - yes. Creativity - no.

    Result? > Custom ordered stock images.

    Let´s put it this way, I never heard Joe McNally say hi is a professional photographer. Or Moose Peterson. They just don´t need too.

    So if you think you need to add a pro to your tittle - you are not.

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