What Makes a Photographer? :: Digital Photo Secrets

What Makes a Photographer?

by David Peterson 15 comments

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!

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Dave Munn says:

    Hello David
    This subject has always been a contentious issue among photographers. Whether that's paid photographers, amateur or club photographers. I spent numerous amounts of time studying the techniques and the technical artists. I followed eminent photographers through there journalistic images so that I had an understanding of 'what makes a good photographer' and what makes a good photo. I also read and observed the way images are produced for the end viewer. Most i would say have some sort of post processing added to the final product although we all try to produce our best work 'straight out of the camera'.
    What I would like to say about all this is.. sometimes, not always, but definitely sometimes, the better equipment, especially in adverse conditions, will produce better images that need very little manipulation. However, not all of us can afford that type of equipment so we have to rely on good shooting conditions or good knowledge of our settings. But if those conditions do not prevail then you can and almost always will 'pull it back' with a some Photoshop manipulation, or whatever software you have at your disposal. I do not see anything wrong with doing this if you find that your image will be saved from slight overexposure by just moving a slider or two or bringing back the light by moving the 'shadows' slider in Lightroom.
    My colleagues at the club i run nearly always ask me if I have done some manipulation on the photos I put up. I nearly always say 'yes'. The end product of a photo is subjective and what might appeal straight out of camera to someone will look bland and lacking clarity or sharpness to others. Which is where your post- processing comes in handy. Don't loose a potentially great image because it's to dark or to hazy. Software has been developed to help us all improve and enjoy our photography. Finally, a great shot may be suddenly there in front of you but you are not quick enough to change the setting to make it a great shot- but you take it anyway and hope to 'put it right' with software. Better to 'cheat' than loose the chance.

  2. alishah says:

    Hi david i found the article interesting.Hi all i use a compact digital compact camera fo my photography its not a dslr but its perfect for an amateur,im 14 and have been taking photos since i was 13 ,not long but enough time to get to know my camera! I would class myslef as a photographer.

  3. Ndiwalana Khasim says:

    tnx David...for the topic but to me i think the more technology is advancing the more the pro element is eliminated from photography...it is so cause we use the lastest photo editing software to correct wrong exposure,color etc n to me a pro z aperson who knows how to operate their camera and take good composition...because u can edit composition but u can correct the elements o a good picture..............tnx Digital Photo secrets......dats my opinion

  4. Bradley says:

    This is very helpful as i have never knew there can be so many logistics in wedding photography.I have already apply these skills before i was reading this information when i was a secondary photographer, let me say an student who was just shadowing an opening up my mentality of doing things differently.Thank you David for the professional advice.

  5. Doug says:

    All of the above!

  6. Mike.S says:

    I have Nikon D 600 with Nikon 24-85,and Sigma 50-500 lenses. I bought this equipment before I retire in plan to follow my younger age hobby when I can't afford next to nothing I'm far from prof. but i try my best ,which after i see my pictures taken ...my best is not good enough. In the last of couple of weeks we went to Maui,I made a lot of pictures,and more pictures i take the bigger different I can see. I got the question thou. Some of my pictures I can improve by using a Photoshop programs....Where to start

  7. Clive Cook says:

    I always thought that pro or semi pro means 'does as a living' and as in any job,you are always going to get somebody that may do that job better than the other person.
    Its all down to skill and creativity and time and place and how you use your camera. Its a shame that Photoshop has to be involved at all unless its a not so good picture in the first place but then again, shooting in raw is for that purpose.
    Clive Cook, not yet a pro!

  8. Bill says:

    I have enjoiyed photography for sometme now. What I have done is combine my love of photography with my love of racing and have been shooting for a small town local newspaper for the past 7 years. Payment to me is seeing your work in the next edition and having people say I saw what you shot and it was good. Even with writing and shooting for the paper I have never earned a dime, but you know what it doesn't matter when you are doing what means something to you. Just because I have been shooting for a paper does not in my mind make me a pro. One of my deeply held beliefs is that you will never shoot the perfect picture. The reason, once you consider yourself to be a photographer, the last shot you took is never good enough and you always strive do better for the next one.

  9. François says:

    For most of us, being a photographer is just for fun. You are a professional photographer when you worry about copyrights, earning a living or making some money on the side (like I do) to buy one day beter equipment or simply travel.

  10. Suzanne Rose says:

    Am I a pro, or not? I think I'm a photographer/artist...but, when do I use that word? I shoot/paint things that have an unusual feel to them...does that make me a photographer/artist, or not. My feelings go from "serious photographer/artist" to "amateurish photographer/artist" within minutes. So...whatever I am, photography has me in it's hand...I must keep shooting/painting until I come up with the photography/artist that makes me go "Whoa, that is truly great!"

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *