Want-to-be versus working photographers


Exactly when does a hobbyist morph into a professional photographer?

When I compiled a such a list for the Rising Black Star blog, I was quite surprised by the comments that it received.

It was, after all, written in fun.

It wasn’t like I woke up one morning and said to myself, “Let me see how many photographer’s cages I can rattle today.”

No one I know wakes up one day and becomes a professional photographer overnight.

Professional photography is not some country club where you pay your monthly dues and you automatically become a member.

I can only speak for someone with a background in newspapers. The closest you could come to some sort of nationwide club membership is if you work at a newspaper as a staff photographer and you would qualify to be a member of National Press Photographers Association.

Those pros who do illustration or studio work who honed their skills slogging long hours as an apprentice/assistant to an established photographer before heading out on their own might be members of Professional Photographers of America or American Society of Magazine Photographers.

Regardless of their backgrounds, most working pros today are self-employed because there are less and less staff photographer positions out there and the competition increases daily as digital photography becomes more and more accessible to the masses.

Those slow to embrace the transition to digital or too busy working to make the commitment for continuing education are understandably troubled by a new breed of competition.


The mamarazzis and hobbyists with their 1st digital SLRs have always been around even in the film days. It’s just that today, to the lay person they’re harder to spot because

  • Out-of-focus, less than perfect images at web resolutions all look good to the less discerning eye since many buyers of photography base their decisions on websites and not on actual printed portfolios
  • Anyone can register a domain name, throw a website together within a few hours, post some testimonials and viola they get instant legitimacy
  • As Chad Perkins points out in his post, thanks to photoshop plug-ins and ever generous trainers like Scott Kelby, anyone can mimick a look when given step-by-step instructions–the equivalent of painting by numbers

There’s a photoshop filter or a plug-in for just about any type of effect you don’t know how to create in camera.

Never heard of shallow depth-of-field or bokeh? No problem. Make a selection around your subject. Under Filter, choose Gaussian blur.. Prefer a plug-in? Try FocalPoint.

Don’t know how to pan? Make a selection around your subject. Under Filter, choose Motion blur.

Like the Dave Hill look for portraits? Use the Topaz Adjust plug-in.

Heck if you don’t know how to light or own any lights, but want to fake it, try using (Filter>Render> Lens Flare). The picture above is from a previous post on photographing a belly dancer.

Change is hard. When I made the jump to digital, I’ll admit, I didn’t do it willingly. But I saw the handwriting on the wall and I embraced it.

Which brings me back to my list of 21 signs.

So every working professional out there was a wannabe at one time or another. I was.


While I can understand why some of those hard-working pros might be a little sensitive, I thought they must have forgotten not too long ago, they were on that very same road themselves.

Do all artists have to suffer for their art?

From my personal experience, I know that most artist have to sacrifice quite a bit.

Why is that? This medium which is totally dependent on light seldom presents you with breath-taking natural light at noon after you’ve had all your beauty sleep.

If you are a documentarian, you have to be there when things happen not when it’s convenient.

So you have to sacrifice mostly family time and personal time from your loved ones.

You can’t beat the price of free.

The biggest difference between a hobbyist and a professional is the latter derives their income wholly from their art.

The professional has made the commitment to making a living from their art. So, they have to run it as a business,their livelihood depends on it.

The hobbyist who has a full time job tends to have more gear than they know what to do with.

It is not uncommon for the hobbyist to “feel honored to be asked to shoot something.” It’s only natural.

It’s flattering to think someone actually likes your work. But your “toys” are not free.

Camera bodies don’t last indefinitely. You should be thinking about who will pay to replace them when they go off to that happy picture-hunting ground.

Because of that, be mindful when you’re starting out not to low ball your competitors just to get the job.

You ruin the marketplace for those professionals and ultimately yourself if you make that jump to pro yourself. Your clients won’t like the price increase when you realize you’re losing your shirt by low-balling your competitors.

Feeling honored and giving your time and work away is fine if it’s for a cause like a charity to raise money or awareness of some illness.

Even in that instance you can claim that work as a donation for tax purposes especially if the agency you’re working for has a non-profit status.

The time you put in has a value, after all.

So this begs the question, now that I no longer work as a staff photographer for a newspaper, what am I?

I’m a  has been with a difference. I have some measure of influence since I’m teaching and you’re reading this.

11 thoughts on “Want-to-be versus working photographers”

  1. Hi Peter.
    Thanks for your reply. Yes it is Soccer World Cup fever here in South Africa, but to be honest i am and have always been more of a rugby fan. I guess like 99% of all other white people in this amazing country. Soccer has traditionally never been as big with the white guys, (maybe amongs the minority english speaking folks, but definately not amongs the afrikaners) but amongst the black population it has a massive following. But…to be honest us whities, even the Afrikaans speaking one,s here, are now also getting into it as there is such a nice spirit in this country at the moment and we are all trying our best to do some nation building amongst each other. South Africans have always been like that. We fight amongs ourselves about all kinds of trival nonsence, but boy can we stand together if someone else from another country tries to take us on ! Then there is no more petty race quibling and short sighted internal rubbish. Makes me think al lot of you Americans to be honest.
    Anyway, we of course are a completely sport mad country. At the moment all of us here, white, black, brown,purple and being South African are supporting our own team, the Bafana Bafana, which i must admit at this time does not look to have a hope in hell to get to the final. But who knows !That is what everyone thought about the Springbok rugby team during the rugby world cup in 1995 and boy did we show them. So miracles does exist and only time will tell.
    About the photography, jip looks like all of us, all over the world are in the same boat more or less. Times are extremely tough at the moment. Some months i feel i realy do not know how i am going to make ends meet as there are hardly any phonecalls and because of this recession (which i feel is still in full swing no matter what people say) is no over by a mile yet. People just do not want to spend bucks on luxuries anymore. Photography being one of them. Luckily things like weddings, etc will always be there so that can be a steady income if you advertise right and back it up with good service.
    And yes you are 100 % right about the old media employers. They just screw you where they can. Try to pay you as low as possible when you freelance, always with the quick answer when you complain that “there are many others out there that we can use !” Well i will tell you one thing, that is when you actually must be brave and say, okay, you do that and put the phone down. They will be back believe me. Nothing, but nothing can replace years and years of media experience as a photographer (or journalist).New guys just do not have that natural instinct that you can only get with time and experience to realise this is a good shot and somthing they would wnat, and this is not. Nevermind getting used to every publications own style as well.And as you should no with media photography there are no re-takes and second chances. Things might happen in a split second and you had better get it right the first time. I think that is why most serious ex mediamen are good photographers.
    No, i will tell you something these big media houses will realise one day, it was a BIG mistake to just let experienced people go. By that time we will all hopefully truly be on our own feet again and be able to show them the proper finger.
    That is to say if there will be any newspapers (printmedia) left in 15 years time ! The cost of printing and distribution is massive and everything is going internet these days. But internet or not there will always have to be shooters out there to get the quality shots and also guys to write the well researched stories. Nothing will ever replace that.
    Anyway, i am taking up all you blog space. You must keep well my friend and happy shooting over there !
    Cheers from sunny South Africa – Gerhard

  2. Gerhard,
    Thank you so much for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment. As I read this, I wish I were there in South Africa covering the World Cup. If there’s any sport that I love, it’s football.

    It is a very trying time for those of us who have been professional photographers especially the editorial kind. When we worked for pubications, they took care of everything and they provided the gear.

    Today due to the glut of wannabe photographers or out of work news photographers, publications are finding they can ask that freelancers sign a work-for-hire clause. My former employer is doing that. They fired some staffers and then are hiring them to continue to shoot for much less money yet want all the rights to their pictures.

    It’s not a pretty picture. Good luck to South Africa especially the Ivory Coast in the World Cup.

  3. Hi Peter. I only read you article today when i came across it while browsing the net. Used to be a staff photographer for a mega Sunday paper in South Africa for about 20 years when one day i just got a phonecall out of the blue to say i was retrenched because of the recession.Me and some 1500 other people in the same media group. Well photography being the only thing i know how to do well i had to go on my own as a “professional” all of a sudden. What a wakeup call that was. All of a sudden i had to compete for my very real bread and butter against those very hobbyists with the cosy jobs. How very frustrating everytime i lose a possible asighnment to someone who has a regular job just because he can afford to make his price three times cheaper, and sees the money he makes only as a handy way to bring in “pocket money”.
    With respect to all “amateur” shooters out there it is always amazing to me that these very hobbyists are the ones for ever coming up to you when you are working, having a disdainfull look at your maybe slightly out of date gear,then showing off their very latest Canon or Nikon, just to ask you something like ” so by the way, how does this white balance thingie work ?. Someone asked me to come shoot their interior tommorrow” !!
    The worst thing is that the clients are just as ignorant. That old saying that buying cheap is not always buying the best is definately true when it comes to photograpy.Therefore i only have the greatest respect for someone like Ian who commented earlier.
    Concerning me i am in the fortunate position that i was also a journalist for many years. Something i taught myself while being at the paper. So i do a bit of journalistic freelancing as well as freelancing as a photographer. between the two i try to cover the hunger pains. But i will tell you, being a “professional photographer” definately is not for sissy,s as they say here in Africa.
    Anyway, before i complain too much, i still enjoy it very much, hobbyists or no hobbyists.
    So keep up the good work and all the best from South Africa !
    At least we are making few bucks now with the Soccer World Cup in progress at the moment !

  4. Ian,
    Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I love your attitude and your sense of where your place is as a hobbyist.

    Unfortunately not many people realize some people actually have to make a living from taking pictures. They don’t think it through when they open their mouths to quote a price. They are too caught up with just getting the job, even if it means they’ll be ruining the market for professionals.

    I especially admire the fact that you make a conscious effort to stay out of the way of those “working”

  5. I often shoot events at the school where my wife works, and the owner is a close family friend. I choose to do that for free mainly as it improves my photography and gives me access to opportunities I wouldn’t get otherwise.

    What I never do is to accept jobs from attending parents: there are always professionals present who are trying to scrape a living from their craft and I try to send the work their way. Even if they do get in my shots when I’m trying to keep out of theirs…

  6. Hello Tony,
    Thanks for stopping by and correcting my French! Trouble with English is its infrequent use of accent marks, besides the apostrophes, so we tend to completely omit them or use them in the wrong places.

    Have a wonderful Christmas Tony and a Happy New Year!

  7. Many thanks, ‘Teacher’ (!) for this and other helpful posts. GR8 blog… love the engaging style.
    BTW 1)love the http://www.apture.com/ plug-in
    2) the teacher in me shares this for your ?typo “viola” is better “voilà” )if that “alt+133” worked!!!) if it was French you were speaking LOL
    Tony, morphing into Freelance Photography since Jan 09 and finding it a challenge with unexpected requests, a mixture of “easy-to- please” and “not-so-easy-to-please” clients!

  8. Brian,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Something I didn’t mention is this: when you do make the jump to being a “pro” there will be jobs or gigs where the actual work is not as glamorous or challenging.

    You may have to shoot “events” like check passings at awards and groundbreaking ceremonies.
    When it’s a business and you need the cash flow, you do whatever jobs that come by so that it can finance the projects that don’t pay which you want to do for yourself.

    When you’re a pro, don’t expect every client that comes to you is good-looking and easy to get along with. Your job is to make it seem to so.

    Good luck Brian, you have a great attitude. I’m sure you’ll succeed.

  9. A very strong article in realistic terms. Yes, I admit I am on the wanna be list to become a professional photographer, meaning my income will be solely derived from my “ART” of photography”. An independent contractor of twenty eight years in the construction field I have always held a high interest and regard for photography. Like any business in which one wears the hats of success, photography is no different in the wanna-be game to becoming solely dependent in all realms and costs. As a contractor I have thousands of dollars worth of equipment to do my job including office space, work shop, etc. After all the investment I had better make a profit but not just from the investment of equipment but the years invested to develop my skills. I do see myself in a very different class than the wanna-be of my trade but the fact that these people can do my job cheaper does threaten my security. Thus, reference to a “whores Market” is inevitable, particularity in recessionary times, and has been a fight from the start of my career. There is a saying that states; “there is an ass for every seat to sit”, and as we know everyone wants it cheap. So as like any other business, choose your market, stick to your guns and work hard. Some jobs are harder than other’s but it’s the love of what you do that will make the difference and show in your work to set you apart from the competition.

  10. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for taking the trouble to comment. We are both in the same boat and our numbers (former photojournalists) are increasing daily as newspapers are grappling with the change in how news is served.

    I am naturally curious how newspapers abroad are doing compared to here in the US.

    There is no doubt both our futures as photographers will be further impacted by the accessibility and popularity of digital photography.

    You’re right about “us” having to improve ourselves. If there’s any irony here, it’s either we learn other skills which will complement our skills as photojournalists or teach others how to put “us” out of business.

  11. Very well-written.

    Especially the “low balling” part.

    You nailed the argument about what wannabes CAN charge (or not), and what pros MUST charge: wannabes have other income.

    But maybe it’s also a wake up call to expand ourselves and become better at something other than photography?

    Thanks again Pete.

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