The Differences Between Professional and Amateur Photographers

Photography: netamir

Making your first sale is a big step. The second, third and fourth sales feel much easier and once they’re coming in regularly, you can soon find yourself wondering whether you shouldn’t be selling images for a living.

Surely it would just be a matter of stepping up the pace and producing more photos. In no time at all, you’d be able to swap the day job for full days of photography.

Not quite. There are a number of important differences between professional photographers and even semi-pro shooters.

You Have to Get the Job Done.

One of the most important is the commitment. Hobbyists and semi-pros shoot primarily for fun. That means if the weather’s bad, the kids are sick or there’s a big game on the telly, they can leave the camera in the garage and shoot another time.

Professionals don’t get to pick and choose the times they want to take pictures. Whatever the conditions, they have to take the shots and come back with a pile of images that the client can actually use.

“A pro photographer learns how to flip their switches and bring the heat to any assignment,” says Ron Houser, a semi-pro who applied his professional programming skills to creating FlickrLeech. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the white sky of death outside, if you are hired to nail the shot, then you just have to nail the shot. No excuses.”

You Spend Time Marketing

Shooting when you don’t feel like it might not be fun but in fact only a small percentage of a professional photographer’s time is spent behind the camera. Most of it is spent dealing with the logistics of a shoot, talking to clients and models, and yes, marketing too. Selling in particular requires a whole different set of skills and one that even many professionals find they lack.

In fact, it’s possible that amateur photographers with a good head for marketing can find moving prints easier than many professionals do. Brandy, a hobbyist who goes by the name “The Way You Look At Me” on Flickr spent time networking on to sell her first prints. She has since sold more than 80 photos by persuading café owners to display them on their walls.

That sort of marketing requires a dynamic personality and a skin thick enough to handle frequent rejection but marketing can be technical too. Josh McCulloch, a professional outdoor photographer, has invested in his website to supplement his word-of-mouth recommendations. It’s a strategy that requires either a certain amount of Web skills or the willingness to pay someone to do it for you. The result though is that if you put ‘BC Stock Photos’ or ‘Commercial Outdoor Photographer’ into Google Josh turns up in second and first place respectively – and he gets to sell his postcards and stock licenses.

You Count your Expenses

Marketing is an investment. But when hobbyists spend money on photography, they don’t expect to see that money back. It’s not an investment any more than a trip to the cinema or dinner in a fancy restaurant. The most important return is the pleasure of creating a good image. If that image happens to sell, that money is a bonus.

Professional photographers though do have to count the cost of their equipment – and that includes the use of their car to reach a shoot, their time on location, the software they need to edit the pictures, the hard drives they use to store and back up their images, and just about anything else that goes into creating commercial photos. Fail to take their real expenses into account, and they won’t be in business for long.

Of course, when you do have to factor in those costs, prices go up and sales become harder to win. And it’s something that every professional photographer has to contend with.

Yuri Arcurs, a leading microstock photographer based in Denmark, says that he spends between $10,000 and $11,000 a month on staff salaries alone.

“I try to reduce the expenses that I have, but since this is Scandinavia and people in Scandinavia really don’t want to do work for less than $20 an hour, it’s not easy to keep the expenses down,” he told us.

You Pay the Mortgage (and the Taxes too)

The biggest difference between professional photographers and those who hold down other jobs though is the knowledge that it’s your pictures that will pay the mortgage. As soon as your camera has to carry that burden, picking it up starts to feel very different.

When you have to take pictures every day rather than when you choose to do so, when you have to count every penny you spend on your photography rather than simply enjoying the purchase, when you know that a large chunk of your efforts will go to the Inland Revenue, and when you have to do all sorts of dull things to support your business and keep it afloat, photography can stop being fun.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of the world’s top photographers such as Sacha Dean Biyan – a former engineer — have made the switch to professional photography without looking back.

It helps though to know where you’re heading first.

22 comments for this post.

  1. Embassy Pro Books Said:

    This blog post makes a lot of sense. I think many people don't realize what goes into being a sucessful anything. As you or your business gorws so don't your expenses and your photos or only as good as your last.

  2. Udi Said:

    I think you are right on the mark. Every one can get a great shot. The question is can you deliver good consistent work?
    If you are consistent you are likely to get hired again (and have less white hair on your head).

  3. Fotografo Said:

    Run a business is always a difficult way.
    To ba a photographer you need good skills and a lot of experience and strategic ideas.

  4. Raymond Said:

    All entirely valid points -- but none specific to photography I believe. I spent a large portion of my life as a IT consultant, and all this applies equally in that world. Yes there are lot of people who can fix your PC, but a pro will get it done predictably, consistently - and be making enough money to still be in business the next time you need help!

  5. Mellissa DeMille Said:

    Excellent post and underscores many of the reasons I have chosen to join a team of photographers rather than to continue to wear all of the hats of a sole proprietor.

  6. AndyOrtega Said:

    I'm a semi-pro that shoots mostly on weekends. I'm a business owner with plenty of marketing experience. I noticed that there were tons of amateur photographers that blew me away as far as photography talent but didn't have a clue on how to market themselves. I'm still learning how to take good images and their still trying to figure out how I get business every weekend.

  7. Taylor Davidson Said:

    As you point out, ability is one part; but effort, dedication, commitment and single-mindedness is a far more important differentiator between an amateur and a pro.

    I think "we" (okay, me) need to be more comfortable with the idea of being amateurs. The traditional definitions and dividing lines between amateur, professional, expert, leader, etc. are being more blurred by the day.

    And that's a good thing, in my mind.

  8. Terry Smith Said:

    These are all good points, espcially the business and marketing skills, but to really be a professional you have to be able to CREATE images on demand in any circumstance with any subject matter. This goes far beyond just snapping the camera when something that is obviously a good pictures happens to be in front of it.

    One of the most important skills to make that leap is previsualization, the ability to imagine precisely what you want to capture in a picture beforehand. Sometimes this means previsualizing a scene a few seconds before you adjust the elements within it, the lighting, and/or your own position to capture it. Other times it means previsualizing a scene in another country before you even arrive on location to shoot it and then capturing it exactly as you had planned.

    Plus, you have to back it up with the technical skills to make it happen. Amateurs tend to make an effort to improve their technical skills solely for the purpose of capturing a better exposure for whatever just happens to be in front of them. Professionals add technical skills to their toolbox and use them as a means to an end in achieving an previsualized goal.

    Previsualization brings together all of the creative side of professional photography: creativity + technical skills + research + hard work.

    For more on this topic, every photographer should be familiar with the late Galen Rowell's Created Images article originally published in Outdoor Photographer in September 1999. (His website does not allow me to link directly to the article, but you can click here and scroll down to it.) In it, he discusses his four-part visualization scale. Though he speaks in context of nature photography, the points of the article apply to all photographic genres.

  9. kalem Said:

    Great post and great comments. At one time, I found out, much too late, that "taking pictures for fun and creativity is one thing. Taking pictures because there are bills to be paid is 'something else' entirely." My love of photography soon became "high anxiety." I quickly "fell out of love" with photography.

    I've returned and I now know the difference. Your post is one that I wish I had read when I first started in photography. Anyway, I understand now and my love for photography has returned and "flourished!"

    More new photography enthusiasts must read this.

    Great post!

  10. tony Said:

    I'm very grateful for this site and this article + the helpful comments (Terry, especially!)
    Taylor, if you take good photos and people enjoy them and congratulate you, consider yourself something of an artist! The pros will always be pros and their photos (and equipment!) leagues ahead of us mere mortals. But we should be glad we have a goft for capturing an image that gives pleasure to others. Some can paint, others play the violin, others make big bucks on Wall Street, let's all enjoy our gifts, but make sure we share them!
    After 20 years in teaching then preaching, I am on a kind of sabbatical and really enjoying marketing and selling my images from South America, Norway and the UK...
    Check out my latest efforts here

  11. Oscar Said:

    This is such a great article. Someone tried to recently chase me out of a public venue that I frequent. They said that because I started selling my prints then I can't do the photo shoots anymore. Of course they have no foundation to make that kind of statement but it did prompt me to find something to support my standpoint. I'm a hobbyist according to every article I've found. Your post really articulates the difference between a pro and an amateur.

    To be honest, I think I would love to sell tons of my prints but I would never want to rely on this for my living. One, I don't feel like I can really pull it off. When I see some of the professional shots on the same subjects I shoot, I'm just so humbled by them that I wouldn't even dare compete in the pro arena. Two, I think photography is a real luxury item that suffers tremendously in tough economies, like the one we're in now.

    For me, it really is the thrill of getting that great shot. I love to see the people's smiles in their faces when they see a great picture I took of their pet and they get excited.

    I don't have "clients" and I think that's a great point. I don't go to take photos somewhere because I get paid to do it. I don't have to do this, I just love to do it. I go where I want and take photos, then if you'd like a copy you can get it from my site. Sounds like an amateur right? I hope so.

    Thanks so much for putting this out for the world.

  12. stephen Said:

    Thank you for this article. Reminds me that I am not a professional, yet I have potential. Now to buckle down and get each step completed in order.

  13. Erick @ DSLRBlog Photo Business Blog Said:

    Nice post. On your last point about it "feeling different," I'd say it can actually be a very hard transition. To some extent, the carefree joy of going out and taking pictures is replaces by a subtle (sometimes intense) feeling of stress and pressure to get the right shot. You HAVE to get it.

    I'd also like to say there's one other big difference, kind of related to commitment. While enthusiasts can go out and shoot what they want, pros have to stay focused, shooting deliberately and strategically within the niche field of their specialization.

  14. Ray Said:

    All true"
    But! The most important thing to be doing Pro Photography as a business is to have > PASSION for Photography! Passion equals a much bigger probability for top photography skills and a desire to want to make sure you have done your best.
    Many out there so called Professionaly self aclaimed do not reflect such work. One can see work such as wedding shots. Often i see in them more as a reflection of production work and wedding sequence rather than a good finished product.
    Then" They slug the Customer a large sum of money for it.
    I see great work out there done by Pros and self taught Pros and it is easy to see why. They are passionate about what they do.

  15. Ray Said:

    In response to Terry Smith"
    Terry" You are very correct. As you have already explained in being a pro Photographer. Never the less" It largely depends on what type of work one wants to do. If it is just Weddings, differnet methods and to direct and utilize your skills to suit this task are warranted as is with many other tasks and a number much more specialized photographic projects or jobs.
    Not everyone wants to do the Jobs that are indeed of need of a higher skill level.
    Cheers" Ray

  16. David Brainard Said:

    There is but one difference between an amateur and a professional photographer.
    The amateur makes a photograph and says, 'I hope this come out.'
    The professional makes a photograph and says,'This damn well better come out!'


  17. Dana Goetz Said:

    Great points about making a living as a professional photographer. My first love is photography, but I learned marketing because no matter what you love you will have to market it at some point. I have the ability to place products in a sales pipeline and use a 1 click upsell software to sell products. If that is something that you feel could help you or any other professional photographer than we should have a chat. Keep the great blog posts coming. 🙂 Dana

  18. mark at digital photo buzz Said:

    Great points, I think the main difference is your photography pays the bills. And even though that does change things a bit, it still can be very, very enjoyable! After shooting for 10 years I have a bigger passion for shooting weddings than I ever did.

  19. Andrea Matone Said:

    The days when I was photographing rusted nails and abandoned buildings are gone. Not to say that I don’t miss that as I remember those days as wonderfully creative and intense but nowadays I have to make sure that what I am shooting is somewhat commercial. This doesn’t mean that creativity is gone, it just needs to be funneled into something commercially successful. I started for example to apply creativeness to walking photo tours in Rome, my hometown. I put into practice what I learned when shooting amateur stuff and the outcome was both stimulating from a photography point of view as well as successful.
    The thing is that marketing, blogging, promotion is hindering professional photography. While we spent endless hours behind our pcs, amateurs or semi-pro photographers are out there getting the shoots, taking great pictures, trying things out, experimenting with HDR and making break through steps while we have difficulties even finding just a few hours a week to take pictures.
    Those pictures need to be good otherwise the whole structure won’t hold. Here is what I tried to put together with what was left of my time in the world of wedding photography:

  20. Marcy Said:

    I find this supremely obnoxious. Its helpful to those who aren't professional to know the difference, but some of us don't make a full time living at it. Thus, we have more than one job yet still conduct ourselves professionally, file our taxes accordingly, and kick ass. Don't break it down to 'having to pay the mortgage'.

  21. Tracey Said:

    All very valid points and something I've been discussing a lot as of late. The only point I would make is there are those of us who are by no means hobbyists, we have a substantial portion of our income coming in from the photography business however still have a full time job. I still pay submit and pay taxes on my photography business, I still have to account for every expense, and I still have to be serious about my trade. The only difference is, I don't have to live the life of a starving artist. My day job may pay my rent but my business, something I take very seriously, sustains itself. You don't need to suffer to be considered "professional."

  22. Jaclyn Said:

    Tracey... that makes you an independent photographer. You're still professional in what you do but you don't only take pictures for a living.

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