I’ve been fairly active recently on Quora answering questions in photography and yesterday I answered the question, “What defines a professional photographer?” However, before I answered it, I glanced at seven answers by other people, including professional photographers, and most of the answers seemed to claim that a professional photographer is someone who’s primary income comes from photography and that’s what really makes them a professional.

Professional Photographer

Behind the scenes of one of my commercial photo shoots for Evan Williams bourbon.

I took a different approach because the latter is not 100% true in today’s world of photography. The key word I pointed out in my answer was “defines,” which is also a transitive verb that means, “to identify….” So in my answer below, I decided to first dispel the myth that a professional’s primary income is through photography and that is what makes them “professional.” Basically, just because someone makes their primary income from anything doesn’t necessarily make them a professional in what they do anymore than a hot dog stand vendor becomes a culinary chef.

The Making Money Answer

While professional photographers do get paid, not all make their primary source of income through photography. I know professional photographers that are doctors, airline pilots, lawyers, CEO’s, etc., including several heart surgeons, that run a professional photography studio and photograph weddings, seniors, family portraits, sports, etc., but they’re not going to quit their day job. These people also make great money with their photography—but it’s not their primary source of income.

Some may label these people as part-time photographers, I’ll disagree because the beauty of self-employment, or running your own photography business is that you can set your own hours and schedule your clients. Just because one professional photographer works 80 hours a week and one 20, doesn’t make the one that works 20 hours less professional than the one that works 80 hours. The greatest professional photographers work less hours because they can charge more and don’t have to book as many assignments, plus they enjoy their time off.

Professional Sports Photographer

One of my photos from my NBA photography days; met many other professional photographers at these games.

I spent five years as an NBA credentialed photographer and in all those years I met many photographers who worked for various publications, plus NBA team photographers, and other media professionals. While I don’t remember their names, two professional photographers, with many decades of experience, worked part-time.

One photographer shot for the Associated Press but his full-time job was as a local real estate agent. I don’t remember what the one that shot for Reuters did for his full-time job, but like the AP photographer, he worked part-time for Reuters and held a full-time job during the day.

A professional photographer isn’t about the money, though we all would like to make tons of it. Most professional photographers realize that making money in this art form is like most art genres, difficult, at least if you’re after earning beyond the middle-income bracket. They realize some days you eat, some days you starve, and that the only guarantee in self-employment is zero.

Today with social media and digital technology it’s even more difficult then ever to survive as a professional photographer especially if it’s your primary source of income—no matter how great you are as outlined in the recent article, Photography Is At Its Worst Ever; it isn’t easy to maintain your primary source of income through photography. Many photography studios that employed professional photographers as part of their staff have closed their doors in the past few years including Playboy Studio West.

Those that are surviving in photography and are in the upper-income bracket fit in one of three identities: 1) work solely as a full-time photographer and are established so they naturally demand higher rates and get them; 2) those who are successful in photography as a professional plus hold another professional job; 3) those that do well as a professional photographer today because they adapted and had to diversify into shooting videos, directing, authoring books, teaching, etc., within the arts genre.

Professional Photographer Lecture

This photo was taken during my Calumet/California Sunbounce European Tour in Berlin.

So in summary, making your primary income in photography to hold the title “professional photographer” is a big myth. As identified in the article, Top Five Photography Myths, what separates a professional from a non-professional in photography isn’t money; it’s the fact that a professional knows what makes a great photo and what does not, plus gets it right in the camera.

The True Identity of a Professional Photographer

The true identity of a professional photographer is their photographic style. Photographic style develops throughout a photographer’s career and it truly defines one professional photographer from another. It’s a professional photographer’s identity and brand. Photographic style is about consistency in your craft. This doesn’t mean one can’t change their style temporarily to please a client or for self-promotion, it means a professional can deliver their type of photography style in every photo they take at any location.

Photographic Style

When I created Holley’s headshot for Playboy, I relied on my photographic style to create a simple, high-key headshot.

Photographic style also comes from understanding photography thoroughly through knowledge and experience plus understanding comprehension, creativity and communication as outlined in the article, “Three Elements of Great Photographers.” So for what it’s worth, what actually defines a professional photographer isn’t their primary source of income, it’s their photographic style that sets them apart from others and clearly identifies who they are amongst their peers.

I close as always, please don’t forget the men and women who proudly serve to protect our freedoms. God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.

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