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by Bart Arondson

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I describe myself as an amateur photographer to other photographers and avoid using qualifiers like "pro" or "amateur" when talking to clients, but after reading a number of articles in Rangefinder that really attacked amateurs I started wondering where the line is.

So what is the distinction between a professional and amateur photographer?

I describe myself as an amateur because I have had no art training and photography is not my primary occupation.

Side note: I'm disappointed that people consider "professional" or "amateur" descriptions of the quality of a photographer's work. Pros can take some pretty crummy pictures and amateurs can take some spectacular ones.

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Were the articles attacking amateurs because of giving out otherwise valuable images for $0.01, or was it something else? –  che Aug 8 '10 at 20:48
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The article, as a side theme, was claiming a need for a "Photographer Certification" which would weed out the "amateurs who don't belong in the industry." However, I think a discussion of the article is outside the scope of this discussion and site. –  jif Aug 8 '10 at 20:59
    
Hah! I can't even begin to imagine what certification would entail. If I know all about apertures, would that be enough to certify me? If I don't know about high key photography, could I not get paid to shoot something? –  mmr Aug 9 '10 at 12:55
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A related problem is the term "pro" used in marketing to sell more expensive gear. The business needs of a professional intersect those of someone who wants "the best", but they're not necessarily the same at all. Think of it this way: a taxi driver is a professional driver, but somehow you don't see car enthusiasts lusting over Ford Crown Victorias. –  mattdm Jan 12 '11 at 16:14
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Whenever some body starts talking about 'professional certification' you can be sure it is a device to create an elite and so to restrict the number of entrants to a profession. This creates a shortage in supply and therefore drives up prices. Naturally this is done under the pretext of raising standards and protecting the interests of clients. Its real intent is to raise the incomes of the 'elite'. –  labnut Jan 12 '11 at 21:42

5 Answers 5

up vote 33 down vote accepted

I think, in general, you are considered a professional photographer if your primary source of income comes from your photographic work. For example, if you are a wedding photographer by trade, your job is to photograph weddings. You are a "professional" wedding photographer. The same would be true if you were a sports photographer, and sold your work to various sports-related franchises, newspapers, magazines, etc.

On the flip side, you would generally be considered an amateur photographer if you simply do photography as a hobby, without making any money on the deal. Other common terms for this are "hobbyist" or "enthusiast". It is possible to be considered "semi-professional", in that a portion of your income is earned from photography, while your primary profession is something else.

Fundamentally, I don't think formal education really has anything to do with being a professional or not. I think that many professionals are formally educated, but I know some photographers who do sports or wedding photography professionally, and they simply picked up a camera one day and started learning. They have no formal education, but have some phenomenal raw talent.

I think it is important to note that, like you mentioned yourself, the quality of a photograph has nothing to do with whether you are a "pro" or not. The quality of a shot ultimately boils down to the individual taking the shot, their skill/talent, their work ethic, their diligence, and their sense of artistic vision. None of those things require any kind of formal education, nor do they require that your photographic work be the primary source of your income.

That said, if you make your living via photography, you will undoubtedly become more skilled than someone who casually does photography, simply because of the sheer volume of shots you'll likely take, and the time you'll invest in using your camera and its settings, in post-processing, in working with prints, etc.

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+1. It's just about money - if photography is a meaningful source of income, you're a pro, if not, you're an amateur. Same distinction as in any other field. –  Reid Aug 8 '10 at 23:11
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Remember to read 'making money' a little liberally; e.g., you can have a failing business and still be a pro. –  ex-ms Aug 9 '10 at 21:10
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@exms, but not for much longer :) –  Benjol Jan 12 '11 at 6:47

Ask your tax officials. They will have a very clear definition as to which category your activities and earnings belong. I have met amateurs that are some of the most accomplished photographers I know. I have met professionals that are inept.

"Let me here call attention to one of the most universally popular mistakes that have to do with photography - that of classing supposedly excellent work as professional, and using the term amateur to convey the idea of immature productions and to excuse atrociously poor photographs. As a matter of fact nearly all the greatest work is being, and has always been done, by those who are following photography for the love of it, and not merely for financial reasons. As the name implies, an amateur is one who works for love; and viewed in this light the incorrectness of the popular classification is readily apparent." -Alfred Stieglitz

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+500 for that quote, if I could do it! –  mattdm Jan 12 '11 at 16:07
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@mattdm: that's what bounties are for :) blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/06/improvements-to-bounty-system –  chills42 Jan 12 '11 at 17:44

Do you have a business license? Do you market your work and solicit business? You're a pro.

Do you sell an occasional image or print? Not a pro.

I don't think it's about income; it's about intent. Are you putting time in on a regular basis on your photography business? Then, you're a pro.

I just evaluated where I am in all of this and decided NOT to move forward on "going pro"; it'd only take away time from the photography, and I'd rather focus on that for now. To successfully run a business you have to invest time and sweat. Right now, my long term view is that my photography business will be better invested in building a portfolio and inventory and improving my skills than trying to general revenue. Fortunately, I don't have to right now, so I can afford to stay amateur (happily).

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There needs to be another category of photographer: "expert". An expert photographer could be pro because they can deliver the results consistently, but, for whatever reason, chooses to not derive their primary income from photography. –  Greg Jan 30 '11 at 3:28

The distinction depends on the context, how you use use the words 'professional' and 'amateur'

Used as a noun or compound noun
Professional means an activity that is one's profession, i.e. carried out for reward
Amateur means an activity outside one's profession
Since the words are nouns in this context they do not describe the degree of excellence.

Used as an adjective or adverb
That was a professional job, meaning it was done excellently.
That was an amateur job, meaning it was done in a slipshod or careless way.

The problem arises because we use the same terms to convey very different meanings and must use the context to arrive at the real meaning.

A false dichotomy

The issue is further complicated because the terms create a false dichotomy
To illustrate this, photographers could also be classified as
Serious photographers <--> Casual photographers

Pentax, for example, state that their medium format camera, the 645D, is intended for serious photographers, meaning competent photographers for whom photography is very important.

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See my comment to @chuqui's answer: "Expert" is a needed category/distinction. "Serious" photographers can still not know much but intend to learn and become expert. –  Greg Jan 30 '11 at 3:31
    
@Greg, yes, 'expert - serious - casual' would work well. –  labnut Jan 31 '11 at 11:26

I definitely think that the line between professional and amateur should be drawn according to money, and not skill, training, or artistic merit.

How about this: you can consider yourself a professional when your photography earns you more money than you've spent on gear and other costs (ie: you're turning a profit)?

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A pro can still be in the hole, or operate at a loss. Not for long, but they can and sure do. –  dpollitt Aug 31 '12 at 3:34

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