What Makes A Photographer A Professional?

Posted on 2/7/2014 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

I’m getting tired of the overuse of the term “Professional” as it relates to photographers. Webster’s defines a professional as “a person who earns a living in an occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs, or a person who is expert in his or her work.”

Many stock photographers want to call themselves “professionals” after they have sold their first image.

My definition of a “Professional Photographer” is someone who “earns a living” – enough to support him or herself, and a family -- from the revenue earned producing images. Profit is a key element. By that definition there aren’t many professionals in the business and the number is declining rapidly.

There are a lot of young people who call themselves “aspiring professionals.” They own and use professional equipment. They take classes and attend conferences to try to learn more about how to take better pictures. Photography is the only occupation they are engaged in and they earn some money licensing rights to or selling their images. But the money they earn is at best barely enough to provide them with food and shelter. They may still be living with their parents, or being supported by the revenue earned by a spouse. They may be “aspiring,” but by my definition that is a long way from being a “professional.”

The professional is concerned about the time invested to produce a work because time is money. If he is trying to earn a living he has to be concerned about the time it takes to produce every dollar of revenue. If “a living” is important, he has to be concerned about whether he could earn more by doing something else.

Good News

The good news is you don’t have to be a “Professional” to take great pictures or be an “expert” at what you do as a photographer. Amateurs take many of the best pictures. These people earn their living in some other way. Taking pictures is an avocation. They take pictures to please themselves. Often these pictures are also pleasing to others. They spend time learning about and engaging with a particular subject matter. In many cases the subjects of their photographs are also related to their occupation. Because they truly understand the subjects they photograph they often produce better, more story telling photographs than someone with great technical expertise in photography, but little knowledge of the subject matter. Not all amateurs are “skilled practitioner” by any stretch of the imagination, but many are.

For most amateurs profit is not a motivation. Sure, they would like to be paid something for their work. If someone is willing to pay something that is an affirmation and evidence that someone else believes their work has value. But, the amateur will do whatever it takes to get the picture he wants. If the monetary compensation does not cover the cost of production, that is not a major concern for the amateur. In many cases knowing that many people liked the image, even if they paid very little for it, provides more personal satisfaction than one person being willing to pay much more for it.

Thus, because he will spend whatever time, effort and expense necessary to get the best picture the amateur sometimes produce better photos than the professional. The professional knows that he will lose money if he puts as much time, effort and energy into the job so he either doesn’t take on the project at all, or settles for something that may not be quite as good, but can be achieved by investing less time and expense.

In many professions a formal education and training is necessary to achieve professional rank. That is not true of photography. The equipment required in most cases has become less and less expensive and more and more foolproof. There are countless inexpensive seminars and online training sites where aspiring photographers can get the technical information they need. Practical experience and assisting more experienced photographers is often of more value than a formal education.  

Want to become a professional? Here are some things to think about.

1 – Rather than just taking pictures of the things you like to photograph, make an effort to determine what customers are interested in buying. One way to do this is to go to iStock or Dreamstime, search for subjects you want to photograph and organize the search returns by downloads. This will let you see which particular images are most popular and how many times they have been downloaded. Don’t just look at the first image. Look at the 200th and 400th as well to see how quickly demand falls off.

For example, on searches for “woman, office, computer” iStock has about 32,175 images. The first has been downloaded more than 10,000 times; the 200th >500 times and the 400th >300 times. At Dreamstime, the first has been downloaded more than 500 times; the 200th >59 times and the 400th >40 times. Also consider how likely it would be that any similar image you might produce will be seen or chosen. (See here.)

2 – Find customers that need photographic services, determine exactly what they need and their deadline for delivery. Produce what they want and deliver it on time. This is a much more reliable way to earn income than to shoot what you like on speculation and hope that someone will want to buy it some day.

3 – If you have time, interpret the request in your own way and give the customer additional choices, but always deliver what the customer asked for and deliver it on time.

4 – Many photographers believe that once they become professionals they will spend most of their time taking pictures. In fact it is more likely to break down like this.

Pre-production planning 8%
Travel to locations 6%
Actual time taking pictures 15%
Post production and Computer Editing 30%
Client Communication 5%
Marketing 8%
Bookkeeping 7%
Social Media 6%
Networking 5%
Portfolio Preparation 4%
Continuing Education 3%
Tech Upkeep 3%

5 – Determine your cost of doing business and charge for your services appropriately.
On average at least 65% of what you charge will go to operating your business. In the beginning it may be even higher because you will have fewer jobs. The client thinks that the picture taking part of your work is all that is required for you to produce the results you deliver. The client thinks you’re out there taking pictures 100% of the time. You have to earn enough from what you produce in that 15% of time to cover 100% of your living expenses.

Under price your services and you simply drive yourself out of business. Often, rather that shooting an assignment for someone who wants you to work for little or nothing, it is better to spend the time looking for new clients willing to pay reasonable fees.

6 – In the beginning you may have to break some of these rules to get experience and build a portfolio, but always keep focused on the goal of eventually becoming self-supporting.

Copyright © 2014 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Feb 8, 2014
    This post tends to ramble. For a while, Jim, you sounded like you were going to really make the professional sound better,

    Then you started almost telling every amateur to just enjoy shooting and not care about making $ because he has another job and the "glory" of someone liking their work was plenty. Just go out and tell them you are a professional and try to get jobs. . Then you seemed to switch back and tell them to run a business the right

    Seems all over the place & vague.

    Have to add this from Arnold Newman, a master. The numbers may be slightly wrong but the feeling is cute. "Photography is 88 % looking for work, 7% inspiration and 5% moving furniture!"


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