Thoughts on the “Professional” label

December 1, 2018

Things are not always what they may seem – model: Larissa Angharada, Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island



There aren’t many great benefits from getting old.  One might be that you become much more self aware, which can help you avoid repeating the same mistakes time and time again.  If you listen to the message and respond, rather than react, of course!  I have become much more aware of my “triggers”, for example. Unfortunately awareness is only the first step towards change …

One set of primary triggers for me is to have doubt cast on my intelligence and performance.  I am sure some of this stems from my modest home background yet attending one of the most exclusive and upper class universities .  I suspect, however, there are many contributing factors.  Whatever the reason, casting aspersions on these aspects of me (or me perceiving that someone is doing this) raises my hackles intensely.

Just recently, a photographer commented publicly to a model that, given what she saw in a photo I had taken of the model in a stunning dress that maybe they should do a professional shoot with the dress.  Through a red haze, I shot off a withering reply.  And then I started thinking… “What does “professional” really mean, especially within the context of photography”?

If you look in a dictionary, professional is an adjective that describes someone who engages in the activity as the main driver of income, rather than as a pastime.  This definition makes no reference to relative capability, just whether you make your primary income from that activity.  Yet there is a bad odour around the label “amateur”, perhaps with connotations of inadequate  or  sub-standard work, and it’s that association that set me off.

The association of “professional” with “skilled / good”, and the counter implication might come from the understanding of a “professional” as being someone in a field who is required to study extensively to learn erudite knowledge and skills and to gain certification to warranty adequate performance.  In the days when there was a high barrier to entry into serious photography as cameras required special skills and services to create anything approaching a good result, maybe there was reason for association of professional with performance.  At least a qualified professional photographer could be expected to produce workmanlike pictures with consistency.  Now it’s not hard to create ok images with a camera that is cheap, the barrier to being a photographer is low.  Many jump in and hang up their shingle as a “professional” photographer.  Some have that innate talent and work hard to create worthy images.  Others, to my eye, do a lesser job, yet are reasonably successful in business terms.

That leads to the understanding that I have developed over the years.  Successful professional photographers (in the sense that they make their living this way) are successful because they excel at the business aspects of the job.  They may or may not be excellent photographers.  But they certainly have understood and marketed to an audience that will pay, and they know how to drive income from that base.  In the end, it really isn’t about the photography, it’s about how well they use it to drive money to the door.  Amateur photographers have no need of that driver.  They can be lousy marketers.  All that matters is that they derive pleasure from the activity.  For some it’s a pleasant record keeping activity, and quality / artfulness is not top of mind.  Some just like the technology (and will emote about the capabilities of their tools, yet produce uninspiring photos).  But they are happy,  because for them it’s about the toys, not the art.  For others, creativity and technical excellence are what provide the satisfaction.  As with the professionals, there is little correlation between the title and the excellence of their work.  I know of a number of amateur photographers whose images at the very least stand head and shoulder with those of established professionals.  They just don’t make money from their passion – by choice.

My conclusion is that “professional” in the photography world does not actually have a higher value in terms of technical and artistic worth, at least when comparing with amateurs who are trying to do well.  Yet the stink persists at a base level within us.  I suspect this is because the value judgement is very useful as a marketing driver for  the photography equipment / software industry.  The more expensive gear is marketed as “professional”, with the implication perhaps that it will make you a better photographer.  I’m sure that’s behind the headlong rush to “full-frame” cameras from crop or smaller sensor equipment that, for may would actually help them to deliver pleasing images more consistently.  Money talks …

So where does that leave me?  I am happy to be an amateur photographer, pursuing my vision of meaningful art.  And I need to practice more reflection before responding  😉


1 comment

  1. Comment by Leslie

    Leslie Reply January 14, 2019 at 10:24 pm

    Hi Vic. I found this discussion truly provocative, and well-considered and written. I thank you. However my Little Ego was hopping up and down, objecting to the simple acceptance of the “Professional” definition being based upon an activity generating primary income, because he feels there is more to it culturally and historically. (I do not, however, have a succint alternative to offer.) Looking forward to future blog entries, and love the image at top.

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