There has been and continues to be talk about how the professional photography industry has been “overrun” with amateurs, flooding the market with photographs and driving down photographer income. This is only one part of the phenomenon. Three main elements are 1) technology which allows nearly anyone to make a well-exposed and, if they are competent, a well-composed photograph, 2) the capability to distribute photographs worldwide for almost no cost, and 3) buyers who enjoy increased profits from lower fees paid to individuals who have very little or no knowledge of the photography industry or how to price their work accordingly to make a reasonable profit.
You could distinguish amateur from professional based on a wide range of criteria. Some amateurs are very competent and in many ways operate similar to a professional while others have really no clue or care what they are doing.
One critical factor that separates amateur from pro is commitment. Commitment to stick it through the tough times, to understand the industry, to build relationships with clients, to maintain a certain level of technical and creative skill, to use ethical and moral business practices, to help others become better professionals.
Another term for an amateur who isn’t committed is dilettante, an Italian word which in its first usage referred to a person who loved art. But today, the term is more negative, describing a person who engages in non-serious dabbling within a presumably serious field and is ill-equipped (or actually has no intention or desire) to meet the minimum standards of that field, study, or practice. One of my pet peeves is hearing someone tell me “I don’t want to be a professional” when we’re talking about pricing work. That’s the sign of a dilettante. They’re happy to make a little money from their efforts, but not committed enough to take it further – to learn about the business side of things, to help themselves make more money, for one thing. You don’t have to be a “professional” to act like one and just because you don’t intend photography to be your career doesn’t mean you must give away your work for free (or nearly so) or not understand copyright or how contracts work. Meeting the minimum standards (and in photography, the minimums are fairly reasonable to meet) would help boost the industry, help raise the “standard of living” of photographers across the board.
I wouldn’t presume to call myself an auto mechanic because I have a complete set of tools and know how to replace an alternator belt, and if I did I’m sure auto mechanics across the nation would scoff. I might make a decent pizza dough or cornbread, but I’m no baker. I painted landscapes and abstracts a lot when I was younger, but I don’t claim to be a painter.
I’ve been making photographs since I was young. I don’t have an art degree, but I’ve been a full-time photographer for 15 years and part-time for 6 years before that. I study copyright law and business methods even though it’s not my favorite thing. I’d much rather be out photographing. I’m a member of professional organizations and become involved in their operation, though I’d much rather be out photographing. I spend hours on the computer processing photographs, keywording, uploading to galleries, creating marketing materials, creating invoices, chasing invoices, calling and emailing clients, even though I would really much rather be out photographing. I attend professional education programs and continue to learn online and from others so I can maintain and improve my skill level (this I enjoy, even though I would still rather be out photographing).
I have a college degree and graduate education in wildlife biology and ecology. I worked in that field for over 10 years. I still mention that in my bio and casual conversation because it helps inform others about my background, but I don’t call myself a wildlife biologist anymore because my commitment to that field is much less than it was when I was actively conducting research, working in that field and getting paid for it according to the standards in that industry.
When I was working as a wildlife biologist, people would be envious of my job when I mentioned what I did. They had a romantic ideal of what it was like to be a biologist, imagining how beautiful it was to be “in Nature”, sitting beside gurgling streams or contemplating existence on a mountain top, handling cuddly animals, or having the pick of hunting and fishing spots. Sure, those times happened and it was incredible when it did. But, that was in between days of fighting off mosquito attacks, avoiding sunstroke or hypothermia, getting drenched in freezing downpours, digging a stuck vehicle out of the mud, dealing with the politics of government and private agencies and organizations, egos of co-workers and supervisors, writing reports, writing grants, filling out job applications, packing and unpacking.
The same applies when I tell people I’m a photographer. They imagine the romantic National Geographic travel photographer roaming the world seeing beautiful places, meeting new people, having an ongoing vacation. Yes, that happens, and when it does it’s magical (I’m not a National Geographic photographer – but for an ideao f what it’s like check out this short video about NatGeo photographer Joel Sartore, and his full length video called “At Close Range”). Most of the time, it’s simply work, background stuff. Especially these days when I’m doing all my own marketing, image processing, accounting, doing shows, in addition to being in the field shooting.
Being a professional is not about how much you spent on equipment. It’s not about your level of education, how much you charge, whether you are full time or part time, if you have a studio or work out of your house, although these things can contribute to the appearance of professionalism. It’s the level of commitment you choose which meets or exceeds the minimum standards for whatever industry/career you’re in.
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.