What Makes a Photographer a Professional?

Is it just a nice camera? Or perhaps something more? This is a question that I have been asking for a number of years as I see more and more “amateurs” entering the market place and calling themselves professionals.

First and foremost, a nice camera does not make you a professional photographer. Just as a nice set of kitchen knives does not make one a master chef, buying a nice camera will not make you a professional photographer. Certainly, a nicer camera will take a better quality picture than a cheaper version, but I have seen some truly wonderful photographs taken by master photographers using the worst of cameras. Likewise, I have seen some absolutely horrendous photographs taken by amateurs and hobbyists using top-notch equipment. Therefore, it takes something more than just a nice camera.

Having said that, there is a place for proper equipment. Having the right camera, the right lenses, the right lighting equipment goes a long way to call oneself a professional. And a true professional will work withing the boundaries of their equipment and the circumstances to make their photographs the best. There is nothing worse than someone would doesn’t know the boundaries of what their equipment will do and won’t do and try to make a situation work regardless.

Several years ago, a couple buddies of mine were getting married (different weddings) and they didn’t want to pay too much their photography-so they sought out and found a “cheap” photographer. Both of these photographs had no idea what the heck they were doing and were trying to take their “formal” shots in a dark church using their little camera flash. The result-disastrous! The photographs were some of the worst formals I have ever seen. With the exception of central figures being overexposed in every photograph, the remainder of the subjects were dark and looked to be standing around in a dark room.

A professional photographer would have known what to do in this situation. The easy solution would have been to have the right lighting equipment, but excluding that they could have selected a better and more evenly lit area to take their formal photographs. Or using a tripod, these photographers could have adjusted their camera in a manner to make the formal shots more acceptable. (Note: neither of my buddies exercised their option to create an album of their wedding photographs since they were so bad).

A photographers eye is probably the single biggest fundamental quality that goes into making one a professional. Certainly, anyone can take a decent photograph. And as one of my mentors likes to say, “with today’s DSLR and the ability to “machine-gun fire” your camera, everyone is bound to take a good photograph now and again.” However, it is knowing when to press the shutter button, knowing how to compose (and sometimes pose) the subject, knowing details like your depth-of-field and how to make the adjustments to get that image out of your mind and onto the image sensor is what makes the difference.

“Chimping” is an expression that a lot of photographers use to describe one of two things: the instant review of a digital photograph on a camera viewfinder (followed by some verbal expression to express a positive emotion) or the action of an amateur following a professional around and shooting over the professionals shoulder.  It’s the latter that I want to talk about.  In this, the professional does all the work of composing the shot, posing the subjects, adjusting the light, etc. and then someone else steals a shot. First of all, this is not cool! If you are doing it-stop it! We’ve had more shots and many fun surprises ruined by people chimping, stealing shots and posting them on Facebook before we can deliver our finished photographs. Second of all, anyone can get great shot when someone who knows what they are doing sets it up. The real test of a professional is someone who can set it up themself.

Training is another key attribute of a professional. I am not going to spend much time on this as it is fairly self-explanatory, but even master photographers get themselves into workshops and seminars from time-to-time. The aim here is to make oneself better than they currently are-even if they have reached the apex of the industry.

Nothing can substitute for experience. This will include the time one is training to be a photographer, working with another photographer either as an assistant or second camera, and ultimately venturing out on their own. I know that everyone has to start from somewhere, and I don’t begrudge anyone getting a start in the business. Where I draw the line is someone claiming experience when they have none–and believe me, I see this a lot! This is not fair to the photographer, the industry, and most of all the client. That client is expecting someone who knows what they are doing, and it is a travesty to have their event marred by someone who claims to be something they are not.

Proper experience will put the photographer in many different situations, some of which will require quick thinking and problem solving. Proper experience will show a photographer their strengths and highlight their areas to improve. And proper experience will ultimately make that individual a true professional.

There is some debate in the photographic community as to whether or not product offerings should be part of the equation. On one hand, a real professional will have access to good printers, book and album binders, canvases, and other specialty products that others may not have access to (keep in mind I am not talking about the Costco or Walmart quality prints and canvases and such, but high-quality, professional level suppliers). And on the other hand there are/were many professional photographers that do not use these services to the general public (but could if they wanted). Either way, your garden variety amateur will not have the access to the types of products and services that professional will, so I leave it up to you to decide if that is an important factor.

Professional ethics, or a ‘code of conduct’ is an area that is often overlooked today. Many times, if one were to ask someone whom they are doing business with or intend to do business with what their own personal business ethics might be, more times than not you would get a blank stare or some non-thought-out answer such as “be fair, be courteous.” But ethics is something than that-something that everyone really needs to be concerned with-and we are! Our code is as follows:

  • We will conduct all business transactions with honesty and integrity. We will treat each customer with respect, making sure they fully understand the services for which they have contracted. I will regard fellow photographers and other trade professionals with respect.
  • We will strive at all times to produce work of the highest possible quality.
  • We will constantly advance and improve our skills as a professional photographers. Further, we will share our knowledge with fellow photographers, students, and others who aspire to become professional photographers, so as to attempt to raise the standards of the industry.*
  • Engage in fair and honest business practices, adhering to local, state/provincial, or federal laws and rules.
  • Use dependable equipment and accessories, which I will maintain in good working condition. I will also maintain and have available back-up equipment, wherever possible.
  • We will conduct ourselves with grace and professionalism at any House of Worship, or other facility, that we enter. It shall be our goal to establish a positive working relationship with other professionals and clergy. My attire and demeanor shall be appropriate to the dignity of the occasion.

So hopefully you can see that being a professional photographer is more than just owning a nice camera. As the saying goes, “owing a camera will just make you the owner of a camera-it doesn’t make you a photographer.” Certainly, equipment has a place, but knowing how to use that equipment properly, what your strengths and limitations are, how to think and successfully overcome obstacles, training and experience, and respectfully and fairly working with and within the photographic community are all factors that make one a true professional.

I hope that you found this posting helpful. If you are searching for a photographer, maybe it will give you something to think about before hiring “uncle charlie” for your event and if you are a photographer, aspiring or otherwise, my hope is that will challenge yourself and portray yourself in the marketplace as yourself and not as something you are not.



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