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How to identify the Hobbyist Photographer from the Professional

Photography Reaches the Everyman

The turn of the 20th century introduced a groundbreaking instrument that anyone could own and use without official training: the roll-fill photo camera. Eastman’s enormously popular invention of the Kodak camera in 1888 allowed the everyman to document key moments of their life. Since then, photography has become a cultural mainstay across the world. It paved the way for motion picture films, became its own artistic genre (with accompanying subgenres), and opened our eyes to new discoveries. 

3D Insider writes that from the 1950s until 2010, camera sales had a steady year-to-year increase. That includes the proliferation of the digital camera in 1975, which became a household item at the turn of the 21st century. Those sales slowed down dramatically (a whopping 84 percent from 2010 to 2019) once mobile phones began perfecting their camera technology. 

This new photography reality, coupled with the digital boom of social media apps and visual sharing platforms, has made the “shutterbug” all the more contagious. 

Photography for All?

Anyone these days can pick up a mobile phone and label themselves a photographer. It’s influenced the creative careers of countless individuals, and it’s proven to be an essential ingredient to marketing and advertising. One can easily scroll through Instagram and find quality and value in any kind of image, whether or not the visual is compositionally sound. Liking a photo because it’s visually pleasing doesn’t necessarily mean the photo itself is of professional quality or the account attached to it belongs to a professional photographer who can charge for their services and establish a client base. This matters greatly when it comes to hiring a photographer for your needs.

Food Photography taken by the SmartphoneLandscape Photography taken by the smartphone

Despite the popularity of and access to camera equipment (like DSLRs), there is a slew of actions and skills that separate the hobbyist or the amateur from the professional. True photographic talent is in a class all its own. That certainly doesn’t mean hobbyists or emerging photographers should pack up their cameras and call it a day — it just means the field is hugely competitive, and success is bound for those who nurture their craft, perfect their skills and establish themselves as a full-fledged business.

Operating and approaching the camera as a sophisticated tool and leveraging the power of photo software can be deceptively challenging to novice documentarians. This prowess becomes crucial if you’re a business owner, marketer or simply an individual who’s seeking the right professional photographer for your needs. Here are the ways in which the hobbyist or semi-professional photographer differs from the professional. 

Pros Have Mastered the Basics

Judging the quality of a photo as a layman (or even as a beginner or amateur photographer) may seem simple: You look at an image, assess your reaction to it, and form an opinion. You may even think, “Oh, I could do that!” The beauty of photography, though, is that you rarely, if ever, see all the work that takes place behind the lens to achieve the image you’re viewing.

Here’s the reality: Professional photography can’t reliably be taught through free, online tutorials alone. Visual creators who want to derive revenue from their business need to dedicate themselves to learning from professionals, assisting on photoshoots, attending classes and workshops, receiving tons of critique and feedback from mentors and teachers, experimenting with specific subgenres, earning degrees and certifications, and becoming a veritable player in the photography industry. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of time to play in the big leagues of professionals. 

When a professional photographer considers a shot, they take into account three main elements (light, subject and composition) and establish their approach accordingly. Here’s a closer look:


Photography is synonymous with light, and its presence determines how we view the image in the first place. The ability to measure light — through the “exposure triangle” of ISO, aperture and shutter speed — to achieve a specific look is the hallmark of a pro.

“At its simplest, light is emotion. The feel of your photograph will be vastly different depending upon the lighting conditions: harsh light, gentle light, warm light, cool light, and anything in between. Each type conveys a different emotional message, changing around the character of your final image.” — Photography Life

Lightning workshop for Photography


What and/or whom are we looking at? What’s the story? The subject is the pivotal figure inside the frame that commands our attention without us realizing it.

“The subject leads the photographer’s decisions about aspects like lighting, composition, exposure settings and more. How do you decide what shutter speed to use without knowing if your subject is standing still or moving? How do you decide where to frame the scene without knowing what your subject is? The subject, then, plays an essential role in shaping the entire image.” — Creative Live


This is how the image, its subjects and objects, its framing, its setting and its details all come together to create a visual aesthetic. You can capture a scene a million different ways, but developing the eye for a compelling composition sets apart the beginners from the experts.

“[Composition is] where all the fun and creativity really gets going in our photography adventure. We can set ourselves apart from the crowd here and really introduce a sense of individuality into our images. This is where all the magic happens!” — Photographer Alexander Wrigley 

Digital photography now can do a lot of work for us with options for automatic exposure settings, but true professionals don’t rely on the camera to make those decisions. They rely on a thorough understanding of these basic principles. When a photographer has mastered the basics, the proof is visible in the final product. 

A complete knowledge and understanding of these essentials help the photographer establish a keen eye for detail. It allows them to catch (and correct) details that could diminish the image quality, like dust, dirt, fingerprints, bad reflections, moisture droplets, background interruptions or moiré. This not only makes the images better, but keeps the retouching costs smaller and tighter deadlines become possible. 

Pros Know Their Equipment

You don’t need a certificate or a license to purchase camera and lighting equipment. You don’t need these to actually figure out how they work, either. But professional photographers have dedicated hundreds, if not thousands, of hours getting hands-on experience learning how to navigate the tools that help them capture the shot. They spend time with their cameras, reading the manual and understanding how one model differentiates from another, or how one lens will achieve a certain look compared to another one. They know the ins and outs of photo editing software so that they can touch up images swiftly but impressively so that they stay within their client’s budget and deliver high-quality images at the same time.

Professional photographers don’t necessarily need a treasure trove of pricey gadgets and tools to execute fine work. As previously noted, it all comes down to mastering the basics and developing a hard-earned, unique viewpoint and an individual aesthetic from there. But when a professional photographer is hired by a client, it makes a huge difference to have a variety of equipment on hand to achieve the client’s desired look, or to be prepared for documenting a live and unpredictable setting.

B&H Photo and Video recommends any professional photographer has the following items in their basic toolkit: tripods, light meters, straps and camera holsters, wireless remote triggers, battery grips, filters, batteries, gaffer tape, memory cards, storage devices, posing stools, ladders and step stools, folding reflectors, flashlights, multi-tools, two-way radios and essentials like first-aid kits and incidentals. And these are only the basics. There is so much more! For example, own tethering cables, backup systems, paper rolls, calibration tools, laptops, additional computer monitors and screens (calibrated) — and pretty much everything you see from iWorkCase

Pros Adapt to Any Environment

Photography is completely reliable on light. Because of that, professional photographers understand how to make adjustments to their environment so that they work with the light and control it. They also know that various forms of lighting greatly influence the image, and can select the right form to achieve the look. This makes photography a material science, and learning how to treat a multitude of different environments and surfaces is crucial to navigating a photo shoot. 

To stealthily maneuver any environment and deliver great results, professionals need to know exactly how their equipment and tools function. That level of knowledge goes well beyond owning the right equipment. It means being so close to their equipment that they know how to use it in every kind of scenario. They know how and when to use the vast spectrums of light shapers and reflectors, light bulbs, gels and diffusers, barn doors, scrims, grids, softboxes and so much more. 

Professional photographers also pay heed to Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong! While this may seem superstitious, it illuminates the need for photographers to work against circumstances beyond their control and still deliver the content their client needs them to deliver. A professional should be able to make photographic magic when the odds are still stacked against them.

Pros Conduct Themselves as Full-time Business

Professionals who earn a living from their craft know that it’s more than a craft — it’s a well-rounded business. Mastering their skills to the level of a pro means also managing client relationships, keeping their equipment fine-tuned and their software up to date, hiring support staff when needed, fielding new business inquiries, conducting marketing and promotional work, performing basic accounting, managing licensing, setting up contracts and non-disclosure agreements for their team, researching topics and subjects, networking to keep their business fresh and relevant, continuing education, considering new innovation, strategic business growth and possibly operating a studio — among other key responsibilities. As you can see, professional photography is more than snapping great photos. It’s a round-the-clock business that needs nurturing and development. 

Tyler Stalman, a professional photographer with a YouTube channel and podcast series, emphasizes the importance of conducting yourself as a pro (or rather, “acting like a grown-up”) when you want to be taken seriously as such. This includes paying attention to basic shoot preparation and being able to troubleshoot on the fly — but more so, it includes basic professional respect and communication.

“Show up on time. Communicate with your client. Every time you receive an email, make sure you respond. Don’t be late. So many people screw this up. It’s shocking to me how many people say they want to do creative work but it’s still more important for them to watch the next episode of their TV show than to spend the night invoicing or responding to a client, or whatever it is,” Stalman says in a video titled “What You Need to Know To Be a Professional Photographer.”

He adds, “There’s not a lot of creative jobs in the world, and if you want one of them, you have to be responsible. You have to be accountable to your client.”

Operating as a full-time business demands that professionals keep themselves knowledgeable about the industry. Photographers need to adopt industry lingo and standards to work seamlessly with clients and partners. They need to understand advertising history as well as trends, visual design elements and narrative construction, and the array of styles and motifs that achieve the client’s preferred look. Each of these areas has their own wealth of knowledge, too, emphasizing how extensive a photographer’s viewpoint must be.

Lastly, owning your business in this field requires a good deal of courage, assertiveness, fearlessness and confidence (even when you’re not feeling confident yourself). You can’t be afraid to defend your work, and you can’t be afraid to speak up if someone isn’t respecting your work. Likewise, you can’t be afraid of your own ambition or of stepping outside of your comfort zone. This is perhaps where the hobbyist and the professional differ the most.

Pros Know They’re Team Players

Generally, there are three basic stages of media production that involve many necessary actions: 

    • Pre-production: concept development, budgeting and funding, location scouting, scheduling, casting and staffing, storyboarding, purchasing, equipment selection, and overall shoot preparation
    • Production: set building, equipment set-up, testing, hair and makeup, wardrobe, directing models and subjects, and reviewing content with the client
    • Post-production: image selecting and archiving, retouching and editing, reviewing the results with the client, revising based on client feedback, finalizing image inventory and delivering creative assets. 

The scope of the project depends on many different factors, but regardless, there are so many people who are needed to make a shoot successful. Many of these professionals are freelancers, assistants and/or interns, too, and pros know how to communicate appropriately with each of them to maintain a respectable environment. This also means that photographers know which portion of the project falls under their responsibility. While they may weigh in on certain aspects, it’s important that photographers know when to direct, when to step back and when to intervene (and that only comes from experience). It’s crucial to their business that they maintain positive relationships with the individuals who affect their work. 

The Reality of Professional Photography 

Like Stalman says in his video, creative professions are at a premium. Being successful at one of these jobs calls for lots of work, constant learning, learning lessons the hard way, confidence in your craft and determination to overcome obstacles. In today’s visually saturated, media driven world, it may seem like anyone with a camera can be a professional photographer. But when you look behind the lens of those who are professionally successful, you’ll see an entire world of talent, experience, wisdom, know-how and hard work.

Not everyone has what it takes to be a professional photographer who owns and operates their own business — just like not everyone has what it takes to be a professional soccer player, ballerina, surgeon or technological inventor. Professional photography is a competitive field that requires a certain amount of drive and passion in order to be successful. The more the field grows, the more competitive it becomes. But at the same time, that’s when we see the best of photography and visual storytelling. That’s what makes it the beloved art that it is.

Do you have any suggestions, additions, is this post out of date, or have you found any mistakes? Then we look forward to reading your comments. You are welcome to share this post. We are very grateful for every recommendation.

Covid-19 World is temporarily closed

Photography in the time of early COVID-19

As 2020 reached its dramatic conclusion, and the world approached the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, websites and publications all shared a similar content strategy: curate the most harrowing images from across the globe that depicted life turned upside down. The visuals captured moments from hospital ERs, overwhelmed funeral homes, lonely and isolated home lives, overworked essential workers, and traditional events rendered anew in the face of public health protocols. National Geographic, in its January 2021 issue, asked, “How did photography capture such a year?” It swiftly replied that our digital culture made photojournalism one of the most significant tools of documentation.

Seen through that lens, it’s easy to think of photographers and photojournalists as the truth-wielding, emotionally wrenching, cultural arbiters of our time. But photographers themselves have been impacted immensely in the past year. While images flooded our screens with daily depictions of distanced lives, professionals behind the cameras were challenged to flex new skill sets, reimagine their income sources, and simply find a way to make it all work without the regular opportunities to fund their lives and careers. Here were the cultural arbiters of our time, tasked with turning water into wine.

“The photo industry is still struggling to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic after being hit hard last year,” Rangefinder Online wrote in a March 2021 article that summarizes a Zenfolio survey of professional photographers. The survey found that 63 percent of photographers saw a 40-percent decline in business in 2020 due to COVID-19, and almost 78 percent saw a decline of at least 20 percent. Not surprisingly, wedding photographers reported the hardest impact, and landscape and fine-art photographers reported the least. 

Still, for an industry that offers as much cultural impact as it does today, a whopping 68 percent of photographers are seeing their business slower than expected in 2021. So, how have photographers been coping?

The Pivot

It’s safe to assume that few professionals are tasked with “thinking outside the box” as often as creative professionals. Seeing and operating differently than the norm is part of the job (or calling, if you prefer). When life itself was upended around the globe, photographers found themselves needing to pivot on a dime to stay afloat financially. 

Refinery29 took a closer look at how 29 photographers were responding to the moment at hand. In Milan, Italy, Lucia Buricelli wrote, “I can’t wait to go back to photographing outside. I am really interested in documenting how life will have changed in the streets after this situation.” She added that the circumstances call for photographers to break out of their comfort zones. “Even if we are confined and limited in our spaces and contact with other people, we can always find a way to produce something cool.”

German photographer Julia Lee Goodwin echoed that sentiment. For the past four years, she is working as a fashion photographer. But when lockdown orders took hold, she pivoted: “Now, with no access to a team, I threw myself into shooting food, trying to translate my eye for fashion photography into still-life shooting. With this project, I created a typology as a study to see the way your eye is drawn to subjects depending on light, coloring, and layering.”

English photographer Ana Cuba found herself with a new approach to visual documentation as well. “I take a walk every day between 6 and 7 p.m. when the sun is really low, and I take my film camera with me,” she responded, adding that the habit has prompted her to pay closer attention to where light falls. “When I get to the park, the sun is gone from this beautiful, huge lavender plant, so I’m going to leave earlier today to try to get a nice photograph of it. Kind of makes me happy to have a tiny purpose like that.”

A new perspective?

How-to blogs and articles sprung up to guide photographers towards new revenue streams. Vallerret, a Norwegian company that designs premium photography gloves for cold-weather shooting, published a blog titled, “How to survive as a photographer through Covid-19 when all your gigs get cancelled.” With tones of encouragement and sympathy, they recommend that photographers consider selling photos online, putting together a photo book, harnessing the power of social media through YouTube and TikTok, creating a virtual course, and selling image presets

Similarly, Toronto-based photographer and digital artist Alana Lee sought to soften the economic blow for photographers through a similar blog post. She wrote, “By using the resources and skills you already have, you can diversify and create new income streams to keep your small business running!” She recommends lending photo editing and retouching skills to businesses with marketing campaigns, and hosting virtual photography sessions. She also advises that photographers move their business online by selling additional images to clients from past sessions, selling photography stock and digital assets to sites like Shutterstock and Getty Images, and rendering their prints as wall art

Are these drops in a bucket that will usher photographers into a new industry level, or is this simply photography in the COVID age? It depends on whom you ask and who’s up for the challenge. Lensrentals found, in an April 2020 survey of more than 1,000 photographers, that 18.6 percent were considering a new line of work altogether in the face of such challenges. 

The New Reality

At present, the world is slowly re-emerging from the isolating stillness of quarantine, and reckoning with the devastating fallout from COVID-19. Vaccine distribution in Europe, North America, Asia, and South America has offered glimmers of normalcy on the horizon — or rather, a new reality. 

The fashion industry has been steadily making its cautious return, and the lingering side effects of the pandemic still pose a number of obstacles. Fashion photography, after all, needed to pivot just as much as other creative professions.

A Vogue Business feature shed light on the different ways brands have been executing their marketing campaigns and promotional efforts. Truest to the traditional fashion shoot, Brooklyn photographer Mary Fix has managed a skeleton crew alongside a stylist, makeup artist, and model, and followed a number of safety protocols. She also introduced a new photography method of photographing models over FaceTime with an iPad or iPhone, which caught the attention of Victoria Beckham Beauty and resulted in a partnership. 

In other situations, brands scaled back their on-set roles and asked models to perform the styling, lighting, and dressing themselves. The Vogue feature includes model Daphne de Baat’s insights on the new norm: “One client took the time to go over everything with me over Zoom, so I was prepared [to wear] a bunch of different hats… I just didn’t anticipate how much work it was going to be.”

Some fashion photographers have found their presence altogether eliminated because shoots are not a viable option for the time being. Drapers wrote in an April 2020 article that fast-fashion brands like Asos, Boohoo, and Zara invested in their trusted influencers, tasking them with snapping photos of their garments at home. The publication remarks: “The results are impressive. Although — naturally — less polished than a professional photoshoot, the content remains aspirational and appealing. Seeing product worn in bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens feels both more intimate and more relevant to consumers stuck at home.”

Marketing photography isn’t entirely lost to the quarantine mandate, though. Public health guidelines from governmental bodies have been filtered through various organizations to get professionals back to work. The Association of Photographers (AOP), headquartered in London, recently outlined protocols that affect every aspect of production, from contracts to casting to managing sets to catering and transport. The protocols are sweeping, detailed, and comprehensive. 

The AOP didn’t graze over the challenging realities of being a photographer in the COVID age, either. Among other guidelines, they offer recommendations from a perspective that seems both familiar and sympathetic. They suggest taking a break from the news cycle for the sake of your anxiety, avoiding social media message boards, and keeping in touch with friends and family to “feel that bit more connected,” among other pearls of wisdom.

Similar to the how-to-pivot-your-business blogs, they issue guidance on remote working, cancellations, and managing existing and current work. They implore, “We suggest that now more than ever, you do all that you can to keep hold of your own cash — if clients want something paid for, upfront, for a commission, you really need to make every effort to get your client to advance you that amount, or for them to pay for it directly.” From top to bottom, they communicate a desire for photographers to take care of themselves so that everyone can get back to the business of photography, of documenting reality — of capturing life itself. 

The future, of course, remains to be seen. The world may very well have no choice but to adjust to new realities, and life will fall in line accordingly. Zenfolio’s survey reflects a few anticipated outcomes, all a little different in their own ways: one-third of photographers are optimistic about business between now and June, one-quarter of them expect their business to continue to decline, and 50 percent expect it to take at least a year for business to return to normal. 

Regardless, let’s hope that enough photographers haven’t lost their momentum. History, as it is written in the present, relies on their vision. 

Do you have any suggestions, additions, is this post out of date, or have you found any mistakes? Please let us know. We also look forward to reading your own experiences in the comment section. You are welcome to share this post. We are very grateful for every recommendation.