Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

What Makes a Pro Photographer?

Shot with Canon D30 (3Mpx Crop Factor Camera)

Myth #1: Pros shoot with full frame cameras and only use the best lenses and equipment.

This one is just ridiculous. We’d all like to have great equipment – but the equipment doesn’t make the photographer. A pro needs to learn to use the equipment he does have, and understand it’s shortcomings as well. Varina and I both own crop-factor cameras as well as full frame one. We use those crop sensors regularly because they work well for certain situations. We have several great L-series lenses – but we’re perfectly happy to use a less-expensive lens if it meets our needs. Take a look at the shot above – I took this shot several years ago with a 3 megapixel crop-factor camera. That’s one gorgeous sky, isn’t it? Being a pro isn’t about your equipment – it’s about how you use it.

Myth #2: Pros make a full time living from photography.

We’ve heard many variations on this theme. Some people believe that a pro must work as a photographer exclusively. Some believe that a pro is someone who makes at least 15% of his income from photography. Well – Varina works as a photographer full time. 100% of her income comes from our photography business. So she’s clearly a pro, right? But I work as a program manager most of the time. My income from photography may be less than 15% of my income overall… but does that make me less of a pro than Varina? We teach together. We write eBooks together. We run our business together – selling prints, teaching workshops, shooting weddings, portraits, and events. We have similar skill sets overall. And yet – by some definitions, I’m not a pro. Obviously, this definition doesn’t make much sense in our situation.

Myth #3: A pro teaches workshop on a regular basis.

Well – Varina and I have been teaching workshops for years… but what about photographers who never teach a single class. There are lots of different ways to make money from photography (if that’s what it comes down to in the end). Selling prints in a gallery or at art shows, selling merchandise, working as a journalist, offering tours, selling images for stock or microstock… the list goes on and on. And lots of photographers who do teach workshops don’t make a full-time living from photography, which takes us back to myth #2. ;)

Myth #4: A pro has been published in print.

Here we are in the internet age – and the world of publication has changed dramatically. You don’t need an agent anymore, and you don’t need to go through a publishing company in order to see your work in print. So anyone can be published now. Varina and I have both been published in a variety of magazines and calendars… and we also have a collection of self-published eBooks. Are they less legitimate because we published them ourselves? Do we really care? We put a whole lot of work into them, and we do our best to make sure they are professionally presented and packed full of good information. Heck – we make good money selling them too, so I guess it really doesn’t matter if they count as “real” publications or not, right? :) And many photographers don’t work with print media at all. If I sell my images at fairs or in a gallery, does that make me less professional?

The lines between pros and amateurs have blurred. There is no single, clear definition of what it means to be a professional photographer. It seems that we each make our own standards, and that’s entirely ok. What’s your definition of a pro photographer?

10 replies
  1. Stefan Somogyi
    Stefan Somogyi says:

    Good article. In my opinion, then a professional is a professional, if he can present images day after day in his own visual language and the highest quality. This means that each picture brings a wow effect on the viewer. Continuity in the image quality is probably the most difficult in photography. The equipment is certainly not relevant.

    Keep up with your great blog. Many of your articles and ebooks have already helped me to improve my way in photography.

    Cheers, Stefan

    • Jay Patel
      Jay Patel says:

      Agreed. Our philosophy is to showcase image quality and then let other decided if they want to consider you PRO or not. And if they choose not to do so it we just enjoy the process of taking photographs.

  2. Michael D. Ratcliff
    Michael D. Ratcliff says:

    15%? I am so totally a PRO then ;) I heard some time ago that the submissions rules for contests were 51%. I kind of went by that until I heard a statement posted on G+ and it made a lot of sense.
    A Pro is one who can recreate the same image, given the same situation time and again. This is all about knowing your equipment and it’s abilities and inabilities just like you stated above.
    Thx for posting Jay!

    • Jay Patel
      Jay Patel says:

      Michael,

      Sometimes I feel that making money at things you like to do is a best way to loose passion for it. I would rather make small income from photography and love it…even if this means I am NOT a PRO. ;)))

  3. Ney Daniel
    Ney Daniel says:

    I think the most glorious time to live as pro-photographer was 30 or 40 years ago, when you could go to a country like Africa and come back with never seen wildlife-and landscape photos. There where less photographers and less photos compared to todays time. Now, with the organized tourism, anyone can get the chance to take photos on nearly any place of the earth. It was my dream that time, when I was teenager, but I didnt get the chance to realize it…
    Today, all I want is to take photos, to bring my impressions, ideas, feelings and sights to prints and to realize the best quality photos I will be able to. Its my personal challenge, just for myself. Of course it would be great to get an Wow-effect from people, but if not, its ok also.
    Im not interested either to show fancy equipment and machinegun-camerabodies as many like to do. Im not a pro and no need to do as if.

    Oh, and about the question if you Varina and Jay are PROs or not…
    Watching your amazing beautifull, meditative works, shows clearly that you are not simply PROs but MASTERS of photography.

  4. Raymond Juris Upenieks
    Raymond Juris Upenieks says:

    Thank you for placing a concise article in regards to the public perception what a pro photographer is. In my case I carry many a low price cameras if that’s what takes for a given situation. I think there is this illusion besides having the latest and greatest equipment, that a person will walk into the photographers studio and be over-whelmed by the artistic factor.

    What a pro does is work, and how the job accomplished varies from photographer but the illusion that society in general as placed on a “Pro” is not only misleading but a falsehood.

    Again thanks,
    Ray

  5. Alistair Nicol
    Alistair Nicol says:

    An interesting discussion and the thought of labeling someone a pro or not seems silly. However I would caution that when needed for an assignment, wedding etc, hiring someone who is a “professional” is highly recommended. What exactly does that mean? I’m not sure anymore, but you want to be careful that you do your homework on the individual and ask for examples, references etc. Insurance, certifications and legal documents all help to identify someone who is legitimate and serious about their craft.

    I shoot primarily landscapes, run workshops and shoot corporate and advertising assignments. But I would not dream of shooting something like a wedding. I might assist someone but I know that I don’t have enough experience shooting weddings to feel like I would do it justice.

    Good discussion.

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