What’s the line between amateur and professional photography? (OPINION)


posted Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 10:15 AM EST

Scott Johnson, primary photographer at Contrast Studio

(Editor's note: The following opinion piece is by Scott Johnson, the primary photographer at Contrast Studio in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. It first appeared on Contrast Studio's blog and does not necessarily reflect the views of Imaging Resource.)

I’ve been thinking about the evolution (or devolution, depending on your point of view) of the photography industry a LOT lately, and after reading the statement below (which was transcribed in this Imaging Resource story), it seemed like the right time to chime in:

"There's no such thing as Flickr Pro because today, with cameras as pervasive as they are, there's no such thing, really, as professional photographers, when there's everything that's professional photographers. Certainly there's varying levels of skills but we didn't want to have a Flickr Pro anymore. We wanted everyone to have professional quality photo space and sharing."

- Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO, May 2013

Her comment, understandably, hit the emotional backbone of the photography community and many comments and blog posts followed, most of them blasting her for being so callous and thoughtless.

When I saw the video (about 46 minutes in), I thought her comment had been taken out of context, and that she was specifically referring towards the trends that Flickr was experiencing. But aside from what appears to be an off-the cuff response to a reporter’s question, the question she raised is a great one: is there a line between the Amateur and Pro Photographer?

Sadly, I don’t think there is.

If you want to be a Professional Photographer, there are absolutely NO qualifications or schooling required. There’s no photography license needed, no college degree, and no board certification. There’s not even a universal definition of what a Professional Photographer is or is not. The barriers to entry are zero, and there are no industry-wide standards. If you have a camera and a Facebook page, you’re in; you can call yourself a Pro.

So if there are no definitions or mandatory qualifications of what a Photographer is or isn’t, does that mean we’re all Amateurs? Or are we all Professionals? While there are recognized photography associations like the PPOC or PPA, they only supply an accreditation and in no way are needed to call yourself a Professional. A few examples: Let’s say you’ve been a hobbyist for a few years and you make incredible images and you get your first client. Are you an Amateur? Let’s say you’re great at marketing and get a ton of clients but your work is mediocre at best. Are you a Professional? What if you were once a full-timer but now just do a few shoots a year. Has your Pro status been reverted to Amateur? How you got started, how long you’ve been around, and how good your work is doesn’t determine your photographic status, and by definition these things can’t, unless there are specific tests or milestones that a photographer needs to pass and achieve in order to progress from Amateur to Pro.

I think that the only person that determines if you’re a Professional or Amateur is you.


I also think that more and more often, the ethical responsibility within the choice of how a photographer promotes him/herself gets lost in the quest to get a business started up fast, but that’s another discussion for another time.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a professional as: “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.” It’s a fairly broad meaning that’s open to interpretation, so it’s no wonder that so many people are calling themselves Professionals whether they’ve been in business for seven days or seven years. Personally, I’ve always thought that a Professional Photographer was someone who earned the majority of their income from photography, but that’s true for very few photographers today.

After 16 years of part-time and full-time photography, I hate to say it, but the line between the Amateur and Pro is all grey. It’s not doom and gloom though - photography will continue as an art and a business, and no matter how it’s classified, photographers will continue to make money doing what they love to do.

(Now that you've read Scott's piece, tell us in the comments what you think the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer is, if any.)