When I conduct a workshop or seminar, I’ll often ask the attendees to define a professional photographer. The most common answer is, “Someone who’s primary income comes from photography.” After I hear that, I’ll disagree and remind the group that the key word in my question was define. Money doesn’t make a photographer professional no more than a keyboard makes a person an award-winning author.

The word define in my question is a transitive verb that means, “to identify the qualities….”

Define Professional Photographer Photo

You can define a professional photographer by his photographic style.

Just because you get paid, it doesn’t always make you a professional at anything. For example, if you sell a hot dog to someone that doesn’t make you a culinary chef. So, lets first dispel the myth that when a photographer makes money with photography it makes them professional.

The Making Money Answer

While professional photographers do get paid, not all make their primary source of income through photography. I know professional photographers that is a heart surgeon who runs a professional photography business and photographs weddings, seniors, family portraits, and sports. But I can guarantee you he’s not going to quit being a surgeon. While he does make great money with his photography, it’s not his primary source of income.

Some may label him as a part-time photographer, but I’ll disagree because the beauty of self-employment is that you set your own hours and schedules. Just because one professional photographer works 40 hours a week and one 20, doesn’t make the one that works 20 hours less professional than the one that works 40 hours. The greatest professional photographers can work less hours because they can charge more and don’t have to book as many assignments.

Sports Photo

I worked for five years as an NBA credentialed photographer and there was always action to capture.

I spent five years as an NBA credentialed photographer and in all those years I met many photographers who worked part-time for various publications and had other full-time jobs. One photographer shot for the Associated Press but his full-time job was as a local real estate agent. Still another shot part-time for Reuters, but like the AP photographer, he held a full-time job too.

The Only Guarantee is Zero

Most professional photographers realize that making money in this art form is like most art genres, difficult, at least if you’re after earning beyond the middle-income bracket. They realize some days you eat, some days you starve, and that the only guarantee in self-employment is zero.

Today with social media, smartphones and digital technology it’s even more difficult then ever to survive as a professional photographer especially if it’s your primary source of income. No matter how great you are as a photographer, photography is at its worst it’s ever been for full-time photographers. It’s very difficult today to maintain your primary source of income through only photography.

Many photography studios that employed professional photographers as part of their full-time staff have closed their doors over the years including Playboy Studio West. Many publications have fired their photographers and told the journalists to start taking photos on their stories or purchase inexpensive stock photography.

Those that are surviving in photography fit in one of three groups: 1) work solely as a full-time photographer and are very established; 2) those who are successful in photography as a professional plus hold another professional job too; 3) those that do well as a professional photographer because they adapted and diversified into video, directing, writing, teaching, etc., within the arts genres.

In summary, you can’t define a professional photographer simply through their primary source of income. As identified in the article, Five Photography Myths, what separates a professional from a non-professional isn’t just money, it’s the fact that a professional knows what makes a great photo and what does not.

True Identity of a Professional Photographer

The true identity to define a professional photographer is their photographic style. Photographic style develops throughout a photographer’s career and it truly defines one professional photographer from another. It’s a professional photographer’s identity and brand. Photographic style is about consistency in your craft.

This doesn’t mean one can’t change their style temporarily to please a client or for self-promotion, it means a professional can consistently deliver their type of photography style in every photo they take at any location.

Professional photographers have photographic style because they understand photography thoroughly with knowledge and experience. They also understand comprehension, creativity and communication as outlined in, Great Photographers Know What it Takes.

So, for what it’s worth, to define a professional photographer on their primary source of income is an illusion.  A professional photographer is defined by their photographic style that sets them apart from others and clearly identifies who they are amongst their peers.

Model Photography

The key to great photography, develop a consistent method to capture your images.

The Professional Photographer Illusion

Part of the reason the illusion that income defines a professional exists is the mirage caused by smartphones, apps and social media. The landscape to capture, share, and distribute photos has grown tremendously since film and tube-television. Technology has grown the popularity of photography and helps amateurs make their mediocre images look great.

As mentioned earlier, part of professionalism in photography is the ability to capture with a consistent photographic style and this is something most “social media and Internet photographers” don’t have, though they often get some lucky shots. Consistent photographic style also comes from the ability to choose the right lenses, apertures, shutter speeds, white balance, ISO’s, etc., something you can’t currently get with smartphones — hence the luck part.

Professionalism in photography doesn’t rely on luck, it comes from years of experience, learned knowledge, and the ability to work with others. Rarely do you hear an award-winning photographer say, “I got a lucky shot.” You might hear them say, “I was at the right place at the right time,” and sometimes that does take luck, but you still need the experience to get it right in the camera at the right moment. That takes a thorough understanding of the fundamentals and principles of photography too.

So, while smartphones and apps, along with the Internet and social media might make it seem like there are a ton of professional photographers out there, it’s just an illusion thanks to technology. Technology provides many illusions when it comes to other professions too, for example, when the written page went from the typewriter to the keyboard aided by print on demand and the ability to self-publish, now it seems like everyone’s an author.


Rolando Gomez is a professional photographer and author of five photography books that has traveled to 45 countries for assignments. The former soldier and U.S. Army combat photographer has taught hundreds of photography workshops for almost two decades. A 2016, 2017 and 2018 Top Writer for Quora, his partial credits include Newsweek, Parade, Playboy, Rangefinder, Maxim, Rangefinder, New York Times, Stars & Stripes, and various other publications.
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