Professional Photographer: Business or love? Or Both.
I consider myself a professional photographer. Having received a formal photo education, but seeing many other students turn away from being a professional has made me think long and hard trying to figure out what might be a decisive difference between the”professional” and “amateur/hobbyist” categories of photographers. Is it just the individual’s perception? Is it their actions, or quality of work, etc?
I made a keynote presentation to a local camera club last month, and this was my topic then. I think it’s an important topic – and that got reinforced when the new CEO of Yahoo! went and said this:
There is no such thing, really, as professional photographers…. Everything is professional photographers.
This was said at the press release discussing some of the recent big changes to Flickr – including removing pro accounts and giving everyone tons of storage and other awesome features. This statement got under a lot of people’s skin. At least according to the internet.
but really.. what doesn’t get people upset on the internet?
Here’s some examples from the maelstrom of comments in response to this:
No need to get your panties bunched up. That statement was geared towards the mainstream crowd to make them feel like they’re special and know what they’re doing.”
There is no such thing really as professional chefs anymore, given the pervasiveness of pots and pans.”
Then the whole discussion turned into a big yelling match about stuff like repeatable skill vs. hacks – oh gear matters, no it doesn’t matter, etc… and it was basically the typical response from the internet photographers that love to comment on stuff like that because they think they know everything and what’s best for everyone else.
Now I’m a far-cry from a seasoned photographer, but I wanted to share with you the same thoughts that I shared at that presentation and see what you (the rational internet) think.
The TALK – Photography: Business or love? Or Both.
Photography is a large and varied craft. Within it, there are many labels and genres people throw around. Portrait Photographers, Wedding Photographers, Nature Photographers, etc. You can have smaller categories within those, like New Born Photographers, Boudoir Photographers, and Wildlife, Landscape, and so so many more. It goes on and on, these different labels. And along with those, you have people seen as “hobbyists”, or “amateurs”, and then finally “professionals”.
You might believe you fall within that category of “amateur”. Then what do you do if you want to become a professional photographer?
Amateur really means “lover of” or “for the love of”. It’s old french.I looked it up.
So outright, I’m going to say that it is annoying or stupid at the very least, when someone disregards people by telling them that the work they do is amateur or amateurish. If anything it should be a compliment. And no matter what kind of a photographer you are, or think you are – doing it because you love it is the absolute most important thing, and simultaneously the most easy and difficult aspect of being in the business of photography.
You already love photography, that’s why you’re here. I really don’t think anyone is here for the dollar signs.
But you might still say “we’d stil really like to make money with a camera in our hands”
Well, the big realization that I had was that you don’t really choose what you love to do – what you love to photograph. For an example, are you a “landscape photographer” because that’s how you market yourself? Maybe, but inside of you, there’s something that makes you photograph the world around you, focusing on what is interesting and beautiful to you. It draws you in. It doesn’t have to fit within any category besides this is something I was interested in, and I like this photograph.
Maybe you enjoy hiking and the scenery of the outdoors. And by photographing that scenery, you’re encapsulating what it is that you love.
Now instead of trying to reach the lofty goal of being a professional photographer, it is easier to approach it from the perspective “I want to run a business that sells photographs or photography services”.
Because at that point I’m going to contradict myself and say it doesn’t matter what you’re interested in and what you like to photograph, but rather, it’s what other people want and need with regards to photographs. For me, as a self-labelled commercial photographer, that means I photograph for businesses, and the phrase I most often say is “Can I add value to your business?”
So, in a perfect world, what I love to photograph, would be what the clients want me to shoot. Right?
I guess sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. That’s what they say anyway. It applies here. If you love to photograph lawyers or real estate agents, providing them with headshots. Well then you could have a pretty good business with that. But if you hate doing that, you’re probably not going to last more than a year or two at the most. What’s the point? Photography is hard, when it’s something you hate. You have to look for a different client that has needs that align with your likes.
Back to that photographer that likes to hike and photograph the outdoors. Sure, people love seeing big beautiful landscape photos. Computer wallpapers, canvas prints, etc. But you might have to get creative to separate yourself from all those other people out there doing it for the love of it if you want to charge a premium for your photographs. Finding the people that will pay that premium is probably the hardest thing.
The best thing I’ve learned in the last couple of years is “shoot what you want to shoot” meaning, produce great work on your own, that is the subject, calibre, and style that you would enjoy getting paid to do. This is where it can be very easy to go and photograph what you love, with these personal projects.
It’s very rare that people are going to come to you. You have to find a way to get out to the people that fit within that position of buying your images. This is obviously a lot more difficult than just going out and asking people, but sometimes you’ll be surprised.
The downside is sometimes your personal vision will have to be compromised in order to pay the bills. You’re filling a need for someone else, so the customer is indeed always right. See, these are all business principles.
It’s all about running a business, but it is constantly complicated by the fact that you have a relationship with photography on a more personal level. You have your own taste and standards, and it’s not an easy thing to just let go of that.
Taking good photographs and being a good photographer is of course a baseline thing that is needed to be a professional, but there is so much more after that, and it can be its own adventure.
Just think critically: Do I really want to be a photographer who runs a business of photography, or do I just want to be a creative photographer who wants to do my own thing and enjoy it completely.
There’s no wrong or right answer, and it might change. I know for the longest time I was the second example. I was in the sciences, but I would love photographing anything interesting as I came across it, but very rarely people. Sometimes you just grow, and your ideas change, and lucky for me I discovered what I found interesting, and it happens to fit within a sphere of something that already exists as a “niche” or a market.
I really do believe that the world of labels and categories within photography is crumbling. There is no formula or set way to develop a business around making photographs anymore. It’s wide open, which is both scary, and also good and refreshing. You are free to become your own person.
So, again, it’s a decision – should I run a business or not? Not, should I be a professional photographer. It might be an important distinction to help you along the way. I know it was for me.
I wish you all luck in your future photography, regardless of your decision.
send me some questions or comments below, I’d love to hear from you!
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