Professional vs Amateur Photography

Photographers love to talk about and dream of the title of being a ‘professional photographer’. It stems from what I believe to be a pipe dream of ambition to break free from a more monotonous life. This ‘professional photographer’ that we all idolize is someone who shoots all the time, has the best images, makes a ton of money, and has all of the gear. This daydream is just as false as it is dangerous to our amateurism in photography. Plainly put, being a professional photographer isn’t all its cracked up to be. Let me explain…

Can you tell the difference?

Being a professional photographer doesn’t mean you take the best photos out there. Professional means you make money doing whatever it is that you do. Of course, your photography has to be good enough to sell. People have to want to buy into your work, but that doesn’t mean it is the best. It could be more accessible, part of an experience you sell, or price competitive. 

I have known many photographers that have great work but don’t make money selling it or anything else related to photography. The inverse of this is also true as I have seen many sub-par photographers making good livings doing their own thing. Honestly, so long as nobody is getting hurt or swindled in the process, who are we to judge?

Amateur photographers can actually be some of the greatest out there. Without the pressure to create something that sells, you are free to fail in spectacularly beautiful ways. What I mean is that when you are willing to take risks in photography, the art resulting can be better. Not putting yourself under the pressure to find profit from every image/trip allows you the freedom to be more creative in your expression through the art of photography. 

Professional Business

As stated earlier, being a professional photographer brings its own baggage of the business of photography. This includes the accounting, taxes, marketing, invoicing, organizing, etc… that are all part of owning and operating a business. Photography, like many other arts, requires a certain amount of “right brain” being expressive and visualizing things. The daily operations of a business is more of a “left brain” activity which requires linear thinking and logic. This just doesn’t always come naturally to great photographers, and to the amateur, it might not be what we are looking for.

If photography is your escape from the order of society, your day job, or anything else that is more “left brain”, becoming a professional and starting a business might be the worst thing you could do. It is ok to let photography be a creative expression of art. Allowing the pursuit of becoming a ‘professional photographer’ turn into that job you hated and were trying to run away from will kill your passion. The day that your passion project turns into the same kind of job you were running from will be a very sad day, indeed.

You can still make money at photography while maintaining amateur status. So long as you are doing something you enjoy, that is what’s really important. Perhaps you can have a smaller passive income from stock photography, advertisements on a blog, or selling something from an art depot. There is also the option of partnering with someone more “left-brained” that can focus on building the business while you focus on the art of photography! Just don’t let the photography feel like a job or it will lose its luster.

G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)

Nobody wants to have gas. It is uncomfortable and always ends with a lot of crap. All joking aside, chasing the equipment, lenses, tripods, camera bodies, and filters gets expensive and never gets you anywhere all that quickly. In fact, it could mean you don’t get to go anywhere because all that money you just spent on gear no longer can be partitioned out for a trip to a decent location. 

The gear you have or wish you could have isn’t going to take the images for you! You are the photographer, and you have to get out there to experience the light, composition, and location before making images. A photograph isn’t bought at a camera shop, it is handcrafted in the field after all. While the ‘latest and greatest’ helps make things a bit easier, knowing the gear you have like the back of your hand is better. I watched a video recently where Thomas Heaton (landscape photographer extraordinaire) picked up a Fuji GFX 50s (a medium format 50-megapixel camera) and couldn’t create the image he wanted on it because he couldn’t use the gear. Thomas is a very talented photographer, but he is used to making images on a different camera system. It just goes to show that upgrading your kit doesn’t instantly make your images better if you can’t make the most of it.

Most people who happily have G.A.S. use it as an excuse to talk photography rather than make images. I suppose everyone can approach photography in their own way, but I never liked the idea of owning a ‘garage queen’ Lamborghini either, so who am I to talk? Anyways, if you want to take images other than of a test chart or the basement wall stop buying more crap and get out there with what you have!

For the love of…

That is what it means after all. Being an amateur means doing something you love just because you love doing that. It is very French, and that is all the further our language lesson will go. If you enjoy doing something, that can be enough! If you have a passion for the art of photography then keep on doing it the way you enjoy practicing your own photography. Enjoy being an amateur!

If you don’t have to force an income from photography and you don’t have an interest in the business side of photography, it might be best to leave it as is. Don’t listen to the “why don’t you sell your work?” or “Could you shoot my wedding?” from friends and family if you aren’t interested. Being an amateur means you have no obligations to creating a business out of your photography, and that is a very good place to be.

The debate of amateur vs professional is a silly one. It all boils down to one thing, one person. You! What do you want to do? If you want to make money creating a business out of photography, be a professional. If you prefer to let your photography be something you do because you enjoy it, be an amateur. The one thing we can all agree on is that photography is awesome and you get to chose what you make of it!