Surprise, time for a long overdue Living with Photography column--I missed writing this regularly. I'm returning this week to talk about something that's been on my mind for a while now--a question I've been struggling to wrap my thoughts around since the summer: what defines a professional photographer? Or more specifically: what's the line that separates an amateur and a professional photographer?
This question started bothering me at this year's Comic-Con, where I met a bunch of Tested readers at our Incognito party. A few of you brought up the photo galleries I post on on the site (mostly praise--thanks!), and there was even a request to schedule a photo shoot back in San Francisco. I had to respectfully decline, because I honestly don't think I would be qualified to do so as a hired photographer. I really don't consider myself a professional photographer.
In the work I do for the site and in my own time, I've taken thousands of photos of products, events, and people. Through that experience, there are types of photos that I'm well on my way to having spent the requisite 10,000 hours of practice taking. If you need a photo of a smartphone for an article, my brain can immediately pull up the dozen different ways to illustrate its features to a viewer. If you need a photo of a cosplayer posing outside the San Diego Convention Center on one of the last weekends of July, I'll know how to frame a few good shots. There are photos in my Lightroom library that I really like, and some that I think could be considered "professional" in quality. But I am not a professional photographer. No way. And every time I get a compliment from people I respect, I feel like an impostor.
Which leads to my original question, which I want to discuss and explore with you guys: what defines a professional photographer? Maybe the best way to start is to consider the attributes that I don't think define a Professional with a capital P.
Education is probably the most logical attribute belonging to a professional photographer. The study and practice of photography under an academic setting--whether it's a photojournalism class or at one of those photography seminars or retreats run by notable photogs. Education is great, and goes a long way to giving you a structured understanding of the important technical aspects of taking photos. I've always wanted to take a few weekend classes for myself. But I don't think it's a requirement. It's not essential. There are plenty of working photographers who are self-taught or never had any formal training.
Ah, so maybe that phrase--working photographers--can point us in the right direction. Is a photographer a professional if they've been paid for their work? I suppose that in the strictest sense, making money from photography would define you as a professional. But I don't think that's the case, either. Paid photography says as much about the photographer as it does about the client purchasing the photos. It's subjective. And just because someone liked a photo you took enough to pay you to license it, doesn't necessarily mean you would be qualified to do the same kind of work again. I've sold two photos before, but they were far from my favorite photos--they just suited what the licensee needed. Just because you see a great photo on Flickr doesn't mean that the photographer would be capable of taking an assignment to produce the same caliber of work. Photography is fickle, and new technology has made it easier than ever to take a good photo without explicitly knowing what you're doing.
That's not to say I don't take the photos I shoot for Tested seriously. When I shoot product photos for stories, YouTube thumbnails, or behind-the-scenes materials, my mind is absolutely "on-assignment." So can the definition of a professional photographer be something literal: a sense of responsibility and professionalism? Again, I think that falls short of a proper definition. Professionalism and a purposeful approach to photography are valued qualities of a professional photographer, but not what I would consider essential for professional practice. We're getting closer, I know it.
How about that Gladwell-notion of mastery, then. Is the number of photos taken or how many hours you've spent practicing the craft that makes you a professional photographer? I don't doubt that 10,000 hours spent taking photos would give anyone a technical mastery of photography, but this is still talking about experience in terms of quantity, and not quality. There's likely a strong correlation between quantity and quality that converges as you reach a certain amount of experience, but this still is too abstract an association that doesn't satisfy a concrete personal definition. As someone who isn't a professional photographer, I want a objective definition that doesn't feel like an arbitrary goal.
So after much thought, here's my proposed definition of a professional photographer--the standard I hold myself against as an amateur: