Professional vs. Amateur

Posted on 8/3/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (4)

In May Peter Phun published an article on BlackStar Rising entitled “It’s Time for Pro Photographers and Hobbyists to Call a Truce.” The article has received a lot of comments. I would like to weigh in with my thoughts on the difference between professionals and non-professionals.

First I need to define the word “professional.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines professional as someone, “a : participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs b : having a particular profession as a permanent career.”

My definition is someone who earns his or her entire living from producing images. An amateur may earn some money – even a lot of money -- from the images produced, but photography is not his or her sole means of support.

Image Quality

In photography the question of whether a person is a professional or an amateur says absolutely nothing about the quality of the work. Among professionals (those earning their living taking pictures) the quality of the imagery varies greatly. Some professionals are able to earn good livings by producing very mundane images because they are exactly what their customers want. Customers are often much happier with a simple, straight forward image than an artistic masterpiece.

Images produced by amateurs can also vary greatly in quality, but it is undeniable that some of the images produced by part-timers are of outstanding commercial and artistic quality. The numbers and range of top quality images produced by amateurs is increasing. Most professionals have a bad day and produce weak images now and then. Some amateurs produce great images now and then.

Education and training

Some professionals point to the training and time devoted to learning their craft and argue that this is a reason why the images they produce should be worth more. This is a false argument. All their education and experience will not guarantee that the images they produced will better supply the needs of the customer. This is particularly true when purchasing stock images. The customer sees the image and determines whether it meets his or her needs. The education and training of the creator is not factored into the stock photo buying decision.

Another factor that plays into this is that given how technology has changed the business much of a photographers previous training and experience has little application today. Knowing how to make a color print in a darkroom is of little value in today’s market, but the professional had better be an expert in using Photoshop.


Professional photographers are required to devote a lot of time and energy to activities other than actually taking pictures in order to make photography their sole means of support. This includes marketing and general business management activities. Once an image is captured there is also a huge amount of effort required to get that image to a place where it can be seen and purchased by customers.

Among the things that tends to discourage amateurs are all the work required in preparing images for marketing and in determining the subjects that are most likely to be in demand in order to know what to shoot. Amateurs and hobbyists got into photography for the fun of taking pictures and seeing the results. They have very specific things they enjoy doing and like to photograph. Money is not a goal. If they can earn a little from the endeavor fine, but there is a limit to how much energy they are willing to expend to earn a little extra money or get the satisfaction of knowing that someone liked their images enough to use them. The money earned from photography is secondary. It is not a sole means of support.

Supplemental Income

Based on the research I’ve done, very few photographers are currently earning their entire living from producing stock images. The number had declined significantly in the last few years. I also believe that, of those earning their sole living from producing stock, about as many are licensing their image through microstock sites as are using traditional RM or RF strategies to license their work. An increasing number use all three licensing strategies.

The growth is among people who look at the income they can earn from stock photography as a supplement to some other primary source of income.

In some cases income earned from stock photography may supplement the income earned doing assignment work, shooting weddings or working as a staff photographer for some organization. In such cases the income from stock photography (RM, RF or microstock) might only be $5,000 to $10,000 a year. If an individual is earning all his or her income from engaging in various aspects of photography then I would define that individual as a professional photographer – regardless of whether he or she is licensing some, or a lot. of the images produced through microstock sites.

Amateurs or hobbyists do not expect to earn enough from the images they produce to support themselves or their families. They have another job or profession that supplies the primary income for their family. That income may come from being a teacher, lawyer, secretary, cook, carpenter or any other career you can imagine. If they can earn a little extra from something they enjoy doing, that leads to an improved lifestyle regardless of the actual amount.

In many cases amateur photographers will expend as much energy learning about photography as the professionals. Amateurs are required to make determinations about who they will ask to represent their work. They will need to spend just as much time preparing their images for marketing as the professional spends  The improvements in equipment and technology have made it possible for amateurs to participate in the market on an equal footing with professionals. Professionals need to accept that and adjust their business strategies accordingly.

Copyright © 2011 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Ellen Boughn Posted Aug 3, 2011
    In stock photography it is the image that is either professional or amateurish. Buyers of stock rarely care who took the photo or what they or anyone else calls themselves or how they make their living.

    In assignment photography, it's the professionals that pull away from the pack.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Aug 4, 2011
    PRO PHOTOGRAPHER = Values his work so charges a fair price!

    AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER = Willing to give his work away because it is not his real profession, thinks of it as beer money!

  • Justin Black Posted Aug 6, 2011
    As always, Jim, a well-reasoned perspective! Great piece.

  • Bryan Alexander Posted Aug 6, 2011
    An Image needs to 'win' on the lightbox in order to earn a place in a publication and it doesn't matter who took it. I suspect that one of the reasons for the falloff in travel stock sales revenue is the amount of tourists who are happy to give their work to the company they travelled with. It doesn't matter how low you cut your fee structure, you can't compete with good & free!

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