How to Become a Professional Photographer

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What is a professional? In any form or any endeavor, a professional is usually one who makes a living out of their work. Some definitions for being a professional include making at least 50% of their income from their activities, to some this percentage has to be 100%.

In photography this is not always the case. True that most professionals in this field do make their entire living from the photos they capture, to include writing books and selling prints to individuals.

But more than making money, it is the love and appreciation for photography that often is the defining factor in being called a professional photographer.

There are definitions within photography itself as to who is a professional; A full time professional is one who has been making a living from photography for his entire career.

A full time photographer is one who makes a living from photography but has done it for a partial time during his career, often after making a career change. An amateur by the standard definition is one who makes less than 50% of his living from photography. This is too simplistic and naïve of a definition.

Because of the advances in technology, almost anyone who can afford a good quality digital or SLR camera can take great photos. Doing it consistently, time after time, image after image is often what separates an amateur from a professional.

Most professionals are so good at what they do that they rarely have the need for photo editing software programs such as Photoshop, other than to remove the occasional dust particles, scratches and minor imperfections from their images.

A professional can replicate results anytime and an amateur most often gets good shots on occasion.

A professional will look at a scene and think of many ways and compositional elements to transform the image into one that inspires awe and elicits a response before snapping one single image; they make the viewer take a second look. Most amateurs see a scene, take one photo and they're done.

An amateur is familiar with how to focus, aim, shoot and how to set up the flash unit in the majority of cases. A professional knows all of the intricacies of his equipment, from shutter speed, ISO to f-stops.

They know the rules, know how to break them to create a desired effect, know how the light affects the final shot, know how to pose people, how to make them feel at ease, when to shoot horizontal or shoot vertically.

A professional knows when to be seen and when to become invisible. He or she sees a potential photograph in almost anything, whether the scene is full of color or totally devoid of it. Knows when it's better to use a monochromatic format or use color.

Some professionals have taken formal studies and training, but it is the years of experience and gained skills that separates them from an amateur. Whether or not a professional makes a living from photography is not a true test of professionalism. It is the total application of experience, knowledge and skills that makes them who they are.

Any professional can take an inexpensive 2 mega-pixel digital or an over the counter disposable film camera and produce totally different results that an amateur would with better gear.

An amateur can become a professional if they are serious about their photography and no one was born a professional. A good starting point is to research, read all the technical details about their equipment and understand how to use them, know the rules of photography; rule of thirds, depth of field, shutter speed, bouncing light, the limitations of an auto mode and the capacity of manual, know how to soften the light etc. and putting this knowledge to practice until they get it right.

It should not feel shameful for an amateur to try to duplicate professional samples. By doing so they are learning first hand the work and preparation that often involves taking what seem like simple shots.

With determination, practice and dedication most amateurs can become professionals in a relatively short span of time. Be aware that you will not become a professional by taking weekends shots.

Professionals takes hundreds if not thousands of shots at every shoot and are not afraid to quickly dispose of any image that is not 100% technically perfect or that seems ordinary, they are their worst critics.

Photography means many things to many people and is mostly different from one person to the other. To some it's a hobby, to others its a passion. A professional feels a passion and you can't really be a professional without feeling a passion for what you do.

Most amateurs will record any image of any subject so long as it appeals to them, at least until time and experience leads them to have an affinity towards a particular style or technique. Most professionals, probably the vast majority of them, are specialists, although most dabble into other genres from time to time.

The most successful professional photographers have become so specialized in their genre, such as nature photography, that they often are more knowledgeable about their subjects that most field experts.

Professionals have a clear vision of what it is that they want to accomplish with their images, they know what message it is that they want to convey through their images regardless of whether or not they are working for a client or by themselves are being paid for their work or not.

Regardless of whether you make money from your photography or not, if you are satisfied with your images, know your rules, understand the techniques and your equipment, have a mastery over lighting techniques, know the difference between auto and manual, do more than just press a shutter, have been photographing for a while, your photos stand up to critics and can time after time duplicate technically sound quality images and above all have a love for photography, then in essence you are a professional.

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© 2011 Luis E Gonzalez

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Comments 21 comments

Guanta profile image

Guanta 5 years ago from New York City

Thank you LuisEGonzalez for this excellent Hub. I'm just a novice but I appreciate the excellent information you've provided. I can see I can learn a lot from your expertise.


Open Thoughts profile image

Open Thoughts 5 years ago from Idaho

great insights here. Reminds me again that I could still use a little work with my shooting skills.

Thanks for sharing


Lynn S. Murphy 5 years ago

Love the insights and I learn from each and every one of them. I'm ok with being an amateur. I have fun with it. But that doesn't mean I don't wanna learn. My goal is to take pix with no need of photoshop after. Which means I get to play play play.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Lynn S Murphy: and playing is also a key in becoming better. Good to hear from you


justom profile image

justom 5 years ago from 41042

Luis I think the advances in photography (digital) has had a terrible effect on the profession as a whole. Now anyone that picks up a camera can have the grand illusion that they know what they're doing (as we see here on HP's way too much). I would also disagree that every shot taken by a professional is always a great shot. Those of us from the film days understand that. I remember shooting a roll of film and being very happy if I managed to get just a few shots that were exactly what I wanted. With lager format cameras it was even more critical to pay attention, when you only had one or two attempts to get it right your concentration was much more keen. Don't get me wrong, I love having more options than the traditional darkroom offered but IMO I think it's dumbed down the profession terribly. Great hub and I could not agree more about knowing the rules , we both know someone who should learn that :-P Peace!! Tom


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Justom: I agree digital has taken photography backwards instead of forwards. It's just too simple to make changes to images, thus people don't pay enough attention to details or care about rules as much. A true professional is one who rarely needs to do anything to the images after the shot is taken. We have probably become to lazy and expect everything on the spot. I remember the anticipation that I felt while waiting for my film to be developed and was also happy with just a few good shots out of an entire roll of film.


justom profile image

justom 5 years ago from 41042

Yeah, my anticipation was even worse because I developed and printed my own stuff. A lot of work if it didn't turn out right but I think that stuff just makes you better. I don't miss the darkroom stuff so much though.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

Hi, as you said, everybody has to start somewhere, and nobody starts of as a professional, I seem to take better photos with a small easy to use camera, or even my cell phone, in fact some of my best are from my phone! lol maybe it's because I haven't really tried the more professional ones yet, but I think I am getting there! thanks nell


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Nell Rose: Once you learn the rules and the concepts, changing to a DSLR or SLR is the easy part


Grrr 3 profile image

Grrr 3 5 years ago

Luis, I nearly stopped writing on hubpages until you gave me some valuable advice which is working. Very informative hub this is, I need to get a camera ASAP!


Cardisa profile image

Cardisa 5 years ago from Jamaica

Hi Luis, I am always impressed with your photography lessons. Yes, they are lessons to me. You have taught me so much with your hubs. I love photography and even thought of doing it as a career. Your hubs have helped me understand the art a little better. Thank you.


Credence2 profile image

Credence2 5 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

Thanks for the tips, I have a camera and always wanted to know what the difference between an amateur and professional photo entailed and if I could actually aspire to the latter. It seems that there would be a lot of intangibles as to what makes a memorable photo. Could I ever tell the difference between a photo taken by Ansel Adams from one taken from the neighbor next door? Like Julia Child said of her cooking, a great chef applies a certain amount of experience and judgement that can't really be quantified for others in written instructions.

Thanks Cred2


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Cardisa,Credence: Thank you both for your comments, becoming a professional in most cases only takes time, and this is no different in photography with the caveat that you acquire knowledge in the process.


randomcreative profile image

randomcreative 5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Great post! I agree with a lot of your points.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Randomcreative: Thank you for your kind comments


sonnynoregon profile image

sonnynoregon 4 years ago from Lake Oswego, Oregon 97035

I am considering going back to college for a degree in

Photography. What is your take on that, I would like a professionals thoughts. (age 67)


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 4 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

sonnynoregon: A degree will help you if you would for example consider becoming a teacher or if you want to learn the technical ins and outs of the medium as well as the latest concepts and innovations. If you intend on making a living from it, then you are better off practicing and learning from someone in the business and then branch out into one of the many disciplines such as wedding photography.


justom profile image

justom 4 years ago from 41042

Hi Luis, how've you been doing? After reading the hub again I realized just how good and on point it is. Your last comment here is exactly right. I have a degree in commercial photography and while it means something I've never earned a living with it. That never bothered me though because I love it for what it is, everything is not about $. In my almost 2 years on HP you are the only person I've found that understands photography (all aspects) and I have great respect for you for that. Finally got the website up and while we need to add more scans and tweak it a bit I think it looks great. I'll send you the link in an e-mail and see what you think. Peace my friend! Tom


sonnynoregon profile image

sonnynoregon 4 years ago from Lake Oswego, Oregon 97035

Luis, thank you for you comment. I am not sure I want to be

a teacher or not but would like to supplement my income by

taking pictures. I have been taking pictures most of my live but never thought of making money until recently. I am

a Jewelry Artist, so Photography is important to capturing

the best look of my Jewelry.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 4 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

justom: Good to hear from you again. let me know about your site and if there is anything I can contribute, please let me know.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 4 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

sonnynoregon: Thank you and good luck. Maybe you can become a specialist in jewelry photography and offer your services to others. A good idea is to create a website for this purpose.

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