Christmas is right around the corner and cameras can make a great gift. So be prepared for a new wave of ‘professional’ photographers. If you have a camera, any kind of camera, and you snap away taking pictures, you could consider yourself a photographer. But what is a ‘professional’ photographer? There are definitions all over the place attempting to define ‘professional photographer’. I have seen definitions that state if you earn money off of your photography, you are a professional. Others state that you have to earn at least 50% of your total income from photography to be considered a professional. Even others state your work has to be peer reviewed and published at least a time or two. There are no official requirements to identify and advertise one’s self as a professional photographer. There is no specific education, testing, or certification required. This is why the graphic above is so true, and to some degree troubling.
Technology, as it always does, has changed the landscape of photography drastically. It used to be if you wanted decent wedding images or senior pictures, you would contact a local photographer or company. Back in the day in my area, Olan Mills was the big go-to name for photography needs. “Old school’ photographers were typically trained in the art of photography through both schooling and apprenticing. The equipment was expensive (as is true for some equipment today) and the average citizen couldn’t afford a decent camera and the continued expense of film and developing. Sure, there were consumer level cameras and equipment available, but the ‘professionals’ had the ‘real’ equipment. The first few digital cameras were far more expensive than their film counterpart but over time, innovations in technology began to drop the price of the digital cameras while at the same time increasing their functionality and features. Film cameras are now more of a nostalgic hobby than anything else. It was this shift in technology that allowed the ordinary person to experiment with photography and at a much cheaper cost than previously. Add to that the ability to see your images immediately without the need to develop film and photography changed forever.
It’s not hard to imagine how the more ‘classically’ trained photographers might despise those individuals that start calling themselves 'professionals' overnight simply because they visited a local electronics store with a few bucks (or got a camera as a gift at Christmas). These untrained amateurs are sometimes seen as a legitimate threat to the ‘classically’ trained photographers’ livelihood. Traditionally trained photographers start losing business to these individuals who will do the same job for less, or no cost at all – and sometimes produced better images - sometimes. With the supply of photographers seemingly increasing exponentially, many larger companies, like the one I mentioned above, simply couldn’t continue to stay in business. Even today you see fewer and fewer portrait studios in malls and shopping centers. Although they still have some locations here in Colorado, Olan Mills has permanently closed several locations.
So what does this all mean? Are all self-taught photographers hacks who are stealing food off of the table of true photographers? Does the word “professional” in front of a photographers tag mean anything? Can I even objectively consider the merits of this argument since I am apparently one of those self-taught hacks? To the last question, yes, I can! Photography is an art, and more to the point, a service and product based industry. That being said, demand controls who makes it and who doesn’t. If people like your end product, I highly doubt they will care one bit how or where you were trained. When a photographer attempts to get new work or clients, they typically present their portfolio, or examples of previous work, not their scholastic transcripts.
If you are trying to make photography a full time career, which I think is incredibly hard to do in today’s day and age, your work will be compared to a flood of images that exists almost everywhere, especially online and with social media. Finding a way to separate your work from everybody else’s is the key. Even though there are far more cameras out there than ever before, that doesn’t mean the images from all those additional cameras are any more creative, interesting, or superb. In fact, most casual photographers will tend to take the same pictures as everyone else. Finding a way to be the one photographer that takes that same view in front of them to create a more interesting image than all of the others that came before them is key. This has been my goal from day one – to try and create images that make me, and others as well, pause just a tad longer before swiping to the next of a thousand images on their phone, laptop, or desktop.
I doubt photography will ever account for more than 50% of my income, and I’m not sure I want it to. Although there is the old adage of ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’, there’s also the concern that making a hobby a job will strip it of its pleasure making it an ‘I have to do it’ instead of an ‘I want to do it.’ Given everything mention above, I do wholeheartedly consider myself a professional photographer; not because I occasionally get paid, or have been published, or because I think my images are any better than anyone else’s (which couldn’t be further from the truth), but because I pour myself into the craft with everything I have. I continually educate myself, stretch my boundaries and step outside my comfort zones, and critique my work far more than anyone else ever could. I approach the art of photography with a dedication and passion that can only be defined as professional (or maybe just clinically obsessive). As for me not being ‘classically’ trained, blame it on YouTube tutorials!
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.