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What It Means to Be a “Professional” Photographer

A lot of photographers out there debate what it means to be a “professional” photographer. Is it the amount of money you make? Is it that being a photographer is your full time job? Is it the quality of your work, or the price tag attached to your gear? It’s time to take a look at what it actually means to be a professional photographer, and lay to rest some of the popular misconceptions on this topic.

Instead of simply stating what we at Spectacle Photo think the definition of a professional photographer is(because that would be disastrous, and set photographers into rage-induced seizures), I’m going to start off with the three definitions of “professional” as they are listed in the dictionary: 1. of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession. 2. Participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs. 3. Following a line of conduct as though it were a profession.

Ok. There they are. What most people don’t realize is that you can’t look at just one of those definitions and decide what it means to be a professional photographer. These definitions all work together, and if one of them doesn’t apply to you, you’re not a professional photographer. The first one is frustratingly vague, and is often misinterpreted to fit someones argument. “relating to, or characteristic of” does NOT mean that being involved with photography in any way makes you a professional. It’s an obvious, no-brainer definition that simply states in order to be a professional you have to be involved in the specified profession. Thank you, Captain Obvious.  The second definition is the most specific. It states that to be a professional photographer you need to gain from it in some way that can lead to a livelihood, and it also states that amateurs are not professional photographers. Even though it doesn’t say it specifically, this definition establishes that there’s a difference between professionals and amateurs, and a big factor in that distinction is whether or not you gain from it. And no, emotional fulfillment doesn’t count as a gain when it comes to this definition. The last definition assumes that professions have a code of conduct, and that code needs to be followed if you’re to be considered a professional.

So, when all is said and done, to be a “professional photographer” you need to be in the field of photography, you need to gain from it, and you need to follow a code of conduct. If you’re anything less than that, or don’t meet even one of those requirements, you’re an amateur by definition. I’d like to point out that nowhere, in ANY of those definitions, does it state that your gear defines whether or not you’re a professional. People who prattle on about how gear makes a professional are almost always amateurs. The words professional gear, kit lens, iphone camera, hypersync, Canon 5D, etc. are nowhere to be seen in the definition of professional. If you think someone isn’t a professional just because their gear isn’t up to your subjective standard, you’re wrong. Just flat out, dead wrong. There’s people out there making hundreds of thousands of dollars each year taking pics with their iphones, and it has no bearing on their professional status. Nobody cares about how big your lens is.

Now, lets talk about the code of conduct. This, to me, is the most salient and necessary aspect of what it means to be a professional photographer. Sadly, it’s also up to interpretation. There is no official code of conduct for photographers, so a lot of so-called professional photographers don’t have one at all. They rip people off, insult other photographers, belittle amateurs, bully people online, and act like all-around idiots. They think they can behave like this and still be considered a professional photographer, simply because they have a camera and make money off of photography. It’s too bad they don’t realize that without following a code of conduct that’s accepted by the photography and customer community as a whole, they don’t have the level of professionalism needed to be a professional photographer. Like I said before, there’s no official code of conduct for professional photographers, but both the photography and customer communities have a pretty good sense of what’s tolerable. Some of the time that’s enough to weed out the people masquerading as professionals. Unfortunately, it’s not always enough, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The best you can do is just grin and bear your way through the douchebags and the weirdos, and be professional towards them even though they won’t reciprocate the courtesy. We’ve found that being kind to customers, being able to step away from ones ego in business situations, and helping both professional and amateur photographers alike succeed in the field of photography creates a pretty solid foundation for a code of conduct worth following.

If you have any thoughts or insights on what it means to be a professional photographer, let us know in the comments below!