What Defines a Professional Photographer?

In May, Peter Phun published an article on Black Star Rising entitled “It’s Time for Pro Photographers and Hobbyists to Call a Truce.” The article has received a lot of comments. I would like to weigh in with my thoughts on the difference between professionals and non-professionals.

First I need to define the word “professional.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines professional as someone, “a : participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs b : having a particular profession as a permanent career.”

My definition is someone who earns his or her entire living from producing images. An amateur may earn some money –- even a lot of money — from the images produced, but photography is not his or her sole means of support.

Image Quality

In photography the question of whether a person is a professional or an amateur says absolutely nothing about the quality of the work. Among professionals (those earning their living taking pictures), the quality of the imagery varies greatly.

Some professionals are able to earn good livings by producing very mundane images because they are exactly what their customers want. Customers are often much happier with a simple, straightforward image than an artistic masterpiece.

Images produced by amateurs can also vary greatly in quality, but it is undeniable that some of the images produced by part-timers are of outstanding commercial and artistic quality. The numbers and range of top-quality images produced by amateurs is increasing.

Most professionals have a bad day and produce weak images now and then. Some amateurs produce great images now and then.

Education and Training

Some professionals point to the training and time devoted to learning their craft and argue that this is a reason why the images they produce should be worth more. This is a false argument.

All that education and experience will not guarantee that the images they produce will better supply the needs of the customer. This is particularly true when purchasing stock images. The customer sees the image and determines whether it meets his or her needs. The education and training of the creator is not factored into the stock photo buying decision.

Another factor that plays into this is that, given how technology has changed the business, much of a photographer’s previous training and experience has little application today. Knowing how to make a color print in a darkroom is of little value in today’s market — but the professional had better be an expert in using Photoshop.


Professional photographers are required to devote a lot of time and energy to activities other than actually taking pictures in order to make photography their sole means of support. This includes marketing and general business management activities.

Once an image is captured, there is a huge amount of effort required to get that image to a place where it can be seen and purchased by customers.

Among the things that tends to discourage amateurs are all the work required in preparing images for marketing and in determining the subjects that are most likely to be in demand in order to know what to shoot. Amateurs and hobbyists got into photography for the fun of taking pictures and seeing the results.

They have very specific things they enjoy doing and like to photograph. Money is not a goal.

If they can earn a little from the endeavor, that’s fine, but there is a limit to how much energy they are willing to expend to earn a little extra money or get the satisfaction of knowing that someone liked their images enough to use them.

The money earned from photography is secondary. It is not a sole means of support.

Supplemental Income

Based on the research I’ve done, very few photographers are currently earning their entire living from producing stock images. The number has declined significantly in the last few years.

I also believe that, of those earning their sole living from producing stock, about as many are licensing their images through microstock sites as through traditional RM or RF strategies to license their work. An increasing number use all three licensing strategies.

The growth is among people who look at the income they can earn from stock photography as a supplement to some other primary source of income.

In some cases income earned from stock photography may supplement the income earned doing assignment work, shooting weddings or working as a staff photographer for some organization. In such cases the income from stock photography (RM, RF or microstock) might only be $5,000 to $10,000 a year.

If an individual is earning all his or her income from engaging in various aspects of photography, then I would define that individual as a professional photographer — regardless of whether they are licensing some or all of their images through microstock sites.

Equal Footing

Amateurs or hobbyists do not expect to earn enough from the images they produce to support themselves or their families. They have another job or profession that supplies the primary income for their family.

That income may come from being a teacher, lawyer, administrative assistant, cook, carpenter or any other career you can imagine. If they can earn a little extra from something they enjoy doing, that leads to an improved lifestyle regardless of the actual amount.

In many cases, amateur photographers are willing to expend as much energy learning about photography as their professional counterparts. The improvements in equipment and technology have made it possible for amateurs to participate in the market on an equal footing with professionals.

Professionals simply need to accept this — and adjust their business strategies accordingly.

25 Responses to “What Defines a Professional Photographer?”

  1. As an amateur photographer I totally agree. I'm just happy to do things other people think are cool and am especially proud of the money my pieces have raised for charity - and I'm not about to ONLY do photography with my life. But if the pro photo folk are bent out of shape by the equal footing amateurs are able to achieve these days, just think how pro writers and authors must feel! Yuck!!

  2. I agree the point of view... and amateurs in my working area like to do it for free or just a penny. And client now is happy to use them, because they believe that can save their cost of doing business(some client even call up a few amateurs for one shoot, they seems not count time as a cost).

    As my understand amateurs in my area also not counter fees of usage, they most do shoot and burn or shoot + retouch and burn... that make most client very happy.

    How do professional suggest how can we adjust the business strategies to fit the current situations? Do we going to because a teacher / hero to open workshops and or free web training to burn our time and create more amateurs?

  3. I agree with Ken. I would like to know how you would suggest a professional is to adjust his or her business strategy?

  4. "In photography the question of whether a person is a professional or an amateur says absolutely nothing about the quality of the work.[...] My definition (of the word professional)is someone who earns his or her entire living from producing images."

    And this is valid for any profession!

  5. We are done, toasted, fried, and rolled over. Hard-nosed businessmen take the lowest bidder, regardless of how good they are -- the workman-like image is good enough for most of them, and if it comes from an amateur, so be it.
    We don't provide anything special: it's an image, not rocket science or brain surgery. We can't even fill cavities...
    Create your own projects, market them your own way.
    That's the only future we got.

  6. Our own projects is what makes the difference, an amateur is not always able to follow a long time project ... sometimes they do, at times you encounter artists among the amateur realms.

    Sometimes clients realize the quality they are getting from a pro only when the job is done so the "before-project" is hard part to manage.

    Events and wedding photography has become a tough field, I have heard a print lab owner saying that for the equivalent of $350 he would have done the job and the printing of the images, I have removed that lab from my list of suppliers, he is digging his own grave in my opinion.

    To me this issue is non existing hence always present. It's called democratization of the digital era.

    When you look at magazines, most of the time, the quality of the images is far better than what you may find even just 10 years ago, the problem is that the quality is only superficial, on the technical side, it's the message that is lacking.

    Can you recall any recent, therefore memorable, campaign that has struck you for the quality of the image, technically and "narratively" speaking?

    I can't.

  7. Professionals (freelancers) start losing money when they walk through their front doors. Amateurs start making money....

  8. So Jim's definition is "someone who earns his or her entire living from producing images."

    Does that mean a working pro of 20 years who has to take on a part-time job to make ends meet should suddenly be stripped of his professional label? Or someone who has to rent studio space to help pay the bills? How about someone who accepts child support payments?

    Once again, Jim Pickerell has attempted to pigeonhole the entire photography industry into his little world of stock photography in an attempt to elevate himself above others. That unless you're deriving 100% of your income from selling stock, you're not a true professional.

    News flash, Jim: stock photography has been decimated. It will never be the same. There are amateurs out there producing work that rivals or bests the work of many "professionals", even yours.

    The true professional understands where market trends are going. He or she finds ways to continue to earn a living by exploring new avenues and technology, not whining about the good ole days.

  9. In my area... pro photographer mean well / clear contract with client (now my client hate), they licensing their images for different usage with fees(now the client say they never hear about), and pros sure deliver on time (except accidents ;)).

    And amateur normally mean, get rip-offed but they even don't feel it... I have see many case that amateur cannot deliver i the end. But client really not care... even big corp like U*S have use amateur in their last truck shoot and finally the images cannot be see in print of used in any where (in that case the amateur just asked for1/20 of what a professional quote).

    In quality wise...

    I believer an experienced amateur and professional photographer may result similar quality(different in vision tho)... and or the pro's images may be a bit finer in lighting, with better small details they put in their images or better communication with the target(while do portrait).

    I am now consider to switch from Pro to Amateur... 😉

  10. While the dictionary may give the above definitions, the thesaurus also informs that "professional" is synonymous with "experienced; polished; qualified." I have spent many years as an architectural and fine arts photographer. Steady income for artists is not always able to be calculated monthly or even quarterly in the same way cashflow can be measured for commercial photographers. I do not consider myself any less a professional than, for example a wedding or fashion photographer, who may even have time off between gigs. In the field of professional art photography ( a few noteables are Ansel Adams; Man Ray and Clyde Butecher) there is no time off; a constant scramble to market; endless efforts to show and be "seen" and a host of other activities that fill my life. Forget the expenditures in time, money and energy, the focus (forgive me) of my life is photography. I do not think that may translate into a dollar amount. I consider myself no less a professional if a regular paycheck does not appear. Surely a life's work must equate to a more elevated staure than that of "amateur" which is synonymous with "casual participent."

  11. I think of (and tend to explain) the difference in terms of golf.
    An amateur golfer (me) addresses the ball and HOPES to make the shot. A couple of times each round, I actually succeed.
    A pro golfer addresses the ball and EXPECTS to make the shot. A couple of times each round, he fails.

  12. Photography is not like golf or any other kind of spot... it havs very small percent of chance to be unEXPECTED once the shoot is well funded and planned.

  13. Really Ken? Well I use a Holga for some of my commissioned shoots and I never entirely know what's going to come out. Maybe I'm lucky to have (some) clients who like the suspense too! 😉

  14. Cashflow: when client did research and hire you, and they should know how you (style of shoot) do your photography... and they should already understand the risk.

    I am in a complete different market segment (area), people like come up and ask for "How much is it?", then they will pick the one with the right price in their mind. It may sound strange? But here is really like that.

  15. I think your definition is a little too narrow. I earn a majority of my income from photography but I also take on consulting jobs as a creative director to supplement my income. Does this mean while I'm adding CD jobs I'm no longer a professional but during those periods where I am only doing photography I am? Does this also mean that a professional athlete is no longer a professional athlete when he starts making commercials. Or when Justin Timberlake makes a movie he is no longer a professional singer?
    I agree with Anthony, I won't be pigeonholed and limit myself just to maintain some professional label. And what the hell does stock photography have to do with it? I know more 'amateur' photographers doing stock than 'professionals'.

  16. here too, Ken, mate. Pockets like Yorkshiremen, they have around here...

  17. i was shooting an airplane the other day the bosses son was an intern... and has pro equip and was shooting along side me. when we were done he said yeah its more of a hobby for me. and i said its more of a profession and a living for me. its hard enough to make a descent living as a photographer without every person with a DSLR competing for the same $.

  18. It's what you do with the camera and the end product that counts.

  19. I used to be a musician. I'm sure there were many who played a lot better than I, but because I did it for a living, I was a professional. Same idea with photography and arts in general. If one makes a career of it, they are professional. If not...amateur.

  20. *My definition is someone who earns his or her entire living from producing images. An amateur may earn some money –- even a lot of money — from the images produced, but photography is not his or her sole means of support.*

    I could not disagree more. As a single person and the only bread-winner in the household, I have found myself more and more having to undertake alternative work to make ends meet. I have been a professional photographer for 8 years and my work is second to none, as is my behaviour towards my clients. Not to mention euqipment, insurance and all the things associated with professinal photography.

    I find this stance somewhat insulting when we all know that most photographers who claim to earn a living solely from photography have a husband/wife/partner who will cover the bills if work is thin on the ground. There are exceptions, of course, but in my experience most photographers nowadays *have* to have an alternative source of imcome. Be it another job or a spouse.

    But to call me an amateur because I have to pay my bills when photography is quiet, is just unfair.

  21. "My definition is someone who earns his or her entire living from producing images. An amateur may earn some money –- even a lot of money — from the images produced, but photography is not his or her sole means of support.*

    I would have to join asimpson in saying that according to this definition then I am not a professional photographer. Yet this year alone I have photographed a global campaign for Coca Cola, Chiquita Banana and In-N-Out (US) as well as 6 cookbooks. However, since I derive other income from writing books, blogging and speaking engagements then I'm NOT a professional photographer.

    Does that really make sense?

    I think that's the problem with labels. So many of us don't fit neatly into a category. I'm cool with that though.

  22. A professional of any occupation is someone who is, has or can make a living off of what they do. I made a living solely off of my photography for many years while I was single and then was the breadwinner in our household once I got married. Then, 9 months ago, I had a baby and work very part time. Am I any less of a professional because my photography income is now secondary to my husband's? Absolutely not. I am a much better photographer now than I was even just last year. My inability to currently provide for my family off of my photography doesn't negate my professionalism.

    I think Al Graham had the right idea, though:

    "I think of (and tend to explain) the difference in terms of golf.

    An amateur golfer (me) addresses the ball and HOPES to make the shot. A couple of times each round, I actually succeed.

    A pro golfer addresses the ball and EXPECTS to make the shot. A couple of times each round, he fails."

    Professionalism is a mindset and a skill set. Just do your own thing. Your work and your attitude will speak for you.

  23. "My definition is someone who earns his or her entire living from producing images. An amateur may earn some money –- even a lot of money — from the images produced, but photography is not his or her sole means of support."

    This fails wholeheartedly as a definition of a professional, majority of income I could except or does this as the main part of the job, but not solely basing it on the income only coming from here. The same can be said about many professionals. How would this fit for say a teacher who is a professional (by all definitions) who also earns from photography (maybe even more than they earn through teaching) does this stop them being a professional teacher?

    Perhaps we should be looking at calling people full-time or part-time photographers rather than amateur or professional

    Professional footballer David Beckham makes a good deal of money from the sport, however he makes a damn sight more from sponsorship, doesn't stop him being a profesional footballer?

  24. Good article. I like your categories but think image quality is the best criteria of whether someone is a professional photographer or not. I relate this to a professional golfer. Anyone can hit a good shot in golf every once in a while but a professional will hit a good shot 4-5 times. The snapshot to photo ratio is what makes a professional photographer a "professional"


  25. totally agree with Ashley Beolens. a good read tho

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