What makes someone a professional photographer?

The other day I was at a networking event, and one of my clients said they knew I was a professional photographer when I pulled my camera out and saw the size of my 70-200 mm lens.  I always smile when I hear someone say that.  While I really do love that lens (not more than my kids, but pretty close), I don’t think that necessarily makes me a professional.  I think it kind of just means I can afford to buy that lens.  I have actually worked at weddings and events where one of the guests had a better camera than I did, but did not know how to use it.

The definition of a professional is:  Someone engaged or qualified in a profession.  However, doesn’t being a professional also imply there is a certain level of skill or expertise?  I would also argue that it means you can reliably produce a consistent result.  There are plenty of people out there, some even calling themselves professional, that cannot consistently produce a high caliber of work.

I honestly do not think I produced consistently until I had been a photographer for almost 15 years.  Seriously.  And it was through a lot of hard work because the technical side of it was really, really difficult for me.  I understood composition and I knew how to get good expressions, but boy did the technical challenges of lighting elude me for a really long time.  Off camera flash was my personal nemesis.

Saratoga Springs NY Professional Photographer

When I first started working as a photographer, I would have loved to create images like this, but would not have known where to start.

It as only after I started taking in person workshops and practicing a lot that I started to understand what I needed to do with lighting and gear to get the results I wanted.  The key being “in person” classes.  I needed someone there to make me do it until I got it right.  I needed to be able to get answers to questions as I was trying things out.  This type of shoot from today would have totally overwhelmed me in the past.

Prom Photos Saratoga NY

Another thing that used to really throw me was posing for all types of bodies.  I couldn’t understand how one week I would photograph a wedding and everyone would look great.  I would go to a wedding the next week, and it would just be really difficult.  Like painful almost because I knew how I wanted things to look, but it was somehow–OFF. It was because I did not realize that not every body looks good in every pose, and that by just tweaking things a little bit, I could make anyone look great.  It was really liberating to finally understand and be able to implement this.

Do I shoot high fashion over the top theme jobs all the time?  Nope.  But I know I can if a particular client wants a certain look.  That is what a professional can do.  Part of the reason I make time for personal projects such as this shoot is that it allows me to try new things and practice.  Because I don’t think it is right to practice on your paying clients.  Clients are paying for you to produce at a certain level.  They deserve your best, not some half-ass attempt while you try to figure things out.  I think if you are half assing it, you should just give it away for free.  When you have mastered things, then you can charge. The catch is that if you are giving it away free you are not a professional.  That is called an amateur.

Most professions like hair dressers, electricians, etc. have people apprentice and work under someone for a certain period of time.  The apprentice is only fully licensed when they can do their work to a certain standard.  I kind of wish photography was like that.  I know I probably would have learned a lot quicker than trying to figure it all out on my own.

I think the bottom line for me is that while someone can have a lot of high end gear or a cool website, the proof is in the final images they deliver to their clients.

So that is my soapbox speech for the evening.  If you want, you can read about Professional Headshots.