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.
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.