It's a loaded question, I know that. But, I thought I'd take the time to explore the topic and to let you chime in with comments about what you think makes a photographer.
In the grand scheme of pixels, the difference between an amateur and a pro photographer should be pretty clear. The distinction is that pros, by simple definition, are paid for what they do. Does that mean if you're paid $50 to do a portrait shoot for your neighbor then you're suddenly a pro? In the eyes of some photographers, yes, maybe. In others, no, not quite, and no way. The belief among the "real" pros is that unless you're making a living at it, and it is considered your profession, you're not a pro. Pros who have worked to perfect their craft for decades and who make a real living with their trusty camera would argue that anyone with a camera in hand who charges a fee to photograph a wedding or portraits or whatever else are not automatically categorized as a pro. Just like writers and other artists, when you break away from being a "starving" artist and support yourself through your art, then you can hang the "Pro" sign on your door.
This discussion is about what makes someone a photographer…does that mean they do it as a serious hobby, part-time career, or full-time career. There are so many gray areas, and I like to break it down to more of a photographer's ability to understand and utilize their craft. This is really more about commitment, genres, and methodologies. Think of it this way, did you know that 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook EVERY DAY! Does that mean there are 250 million photographers out there? No. But, the images uploaded are a blend of professionals posting shots from their latest gig to their fan page right down to people taking iPhone pictures of themselves in the bathroom mirror. So, how do we separate the real photographers in the crowd?
To start with, just having an expensive camera and kick-ass lenses to go with it doesn't constitute being a photographer. It's knowing how to use that equipment. It's the underlying, fundamental understanding of the craft. It's knowing where to compose your subject to convey the correct emotion in the photo. Knowing what aperture to shoot at in order to gain less or more depth of field. It's knowing what minimum shutter speed you want to shoot race cars at in order to freeze the action. And so much more.
I've heard that it takes 10,000 hours to perfect something. Is that the goal? To put 10,000 hours into photography in order to say you've perfected it? Or does quality of the time spent make a big difference? Naturally, the more you do something, your knowledge increases and the better you get at it. But, that time can vary greatly in quality. If someone photographs only flowers in a greenhouse for 10,000 hours, they ought to have perfected that, but what skills have they really learned? Photographers who learn different genres ranging from portrait, street, sports, fine art, travel, etc. tend to have a wider knowledge base and can then find their niche. If they devote 10,000 hours to these genres, wouldn't their perfection of the craft be further advanced than our greenhouse photographer?
Humbled by Travel Photographers
One look at National Geographic's website and you may not feel as though you rank as a pro-like photographer anymore. It's humbling to see some of the images posted on there. It seems that the idea that travel alone separates the great photographers from the rest is easily assumed by viewing their site. Does that mean you have to have the funds and time to travel in order to captures awe-inspiring photos? Hmmm.
Monochrome or Gray Areas
The answer isn't all black and white. Just like a real monochrome photograph, there are gray areas. Where each photographer chimes in on the topic will likely depend on their level of appreciation for photography. There are actually quite a few fantastic iPhone photographers out there. I've profiled them here on this blog. There are books and blogs on the topic. And many of them are being recognized. So, we can't say that someone who takes pictures with an iPhone doesn't constitute being a photographer.
It's already easy as pie for anyone to capture a photo. Whether it's a point-and-shoot, their iPhone, a DSLR, or an old Hasselblad, where the image originates isn't the issue so much. I can't imagine it being much easier to take a photograph, but as technology advances, the quality of photos will continue to increase. Part of the gray area that people struggle with is whether the image was enhanced by after-shoot software tools such as Photoshop. How many times have you heard, "Has that photo been Photoshopped?" I'd argue that at least 90% of photos out there are. It's not a matter of if it's Photoshopped, it's a matter of to what degree and quality. These days, "being a photographer" does mean understanding a photo's best end result via the utilizing of software. Photoshop hammer-heads will be obvious. Part of being a photographer means understanding the histogram, filters, cropping, layers, and so much more that Photoshop (and other programs) offer.
Open for Debate
I'd love your feedback on this topic since it's highly subjective. Feel free to leave a comment below and chime in!
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