How do you know when you can finally call yourself a professional photographer, legitimately and unapologetically? When will you be able to name yourself as a real ‘pro’ without fear of being called out as a fraud? In one sense, the technical definition is: as soon as you receive money for work you’ve done using your camera, you can technically call yourself a professional photographer.
But I know what you mean. It’s an existential question. You’re looking in the mirror and asking when the day will come that you will have finally ‘arrived.’
Well, I say, when it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck*, (*assuming you replace ‘duck’ with ‘professional photographer’) it’s finally a duck. And here’s what a professional waddle looks like:
You will be a ‘true’ professional when…
1.) It’s not about you.
When you realize your work isn’t about validation of your worth as an artist or as a person. Instead, you realize that being a professional is about doing a job, providing a service that you are equipped to provide for a client. A professional is paid for the value they create for their clients. They are not paid to have their art or their selves validated by their work. When you are a pro, the ego is disengaged. It has to be. A professional serves his or her clients, not the other way around. If the purpose of your photography ( or the length of your lens… ) is to validate your worth, then you’re not yet a professional.
2.) You can define the value you offer.
It comes as a shock to many an aspiring professional, but just having talent or expertise is not enough to get paid for it. You may have talent, you may have expertise, but that has no meaning for your clients until you offer it to them in a way they can understand and in a form that they can buy. Part of your job as a professional is to translate what your abilities mean in terms of service, making the abstract concrete and the intangible tangible for your clients.
Business titan and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie said, “The only thing more important than doing the right thing is telling people when you are doing the right thing.” Likewise, second only to producing value for your clients is packaging the value you offer your clients. Your job as a professional is not complete until you connect the dots and define your value proposition in terms of service for the client. This means anticipating your clients’ needs and making decisions in advance about what will be of value to them and then packaging your skills, time, and talent into buyable units.
A professional photographer is in some ways less like an artist than they are a wine sommelier: she matches the skills she has “in the cellar” to the clients’ needs and desires and makes recommendations at different price points. A professional thinks ahead of the client and helps them to understand what they need to reach their goals, and how much it will cost to get there. She also knows and communicates what clients need to pay to allow her to perform a professional service not only once but repeatedly. Because, when you are a professional…
3. You get paid for your work.
A hobbyist spends money on their hobby because the hobby exists to serve his personal needs. For his investment in the hobby, he receives something back: enjoyment, personal achievement, relaxation, or recreation.
In contrast to the hobbyist, a professional provides the benefit of their experience and skill to the client in exchange for compensation. Put another way, a professional gets paid for their work, not the other way around. When you are operating professionally there is a value proposition at work for both the client and for the photographer. The client gets the work they require completed and the professional photographer gets the money to pay for equipment costs AND rent and some nice groceries for their kids to eat.
Anyone shooting for ‘free’ ( or ‘photo credit’, same thing), is in fact paying for the privilege of shooting. If you pay for the privilege of doing something, you are operating not as a professional but as a hobbyist. Profit equals income, less expenses. If you are not making a profit, you are not in business. Professionals price their work appropriately and realistically, in a way that takes into account equipment costs and the time spent, not only on photographing, but also post-processing, and administration. Professionals acknowledge the fact, to themselves and to their clients, that there are fixed costs in any shoot. And they don’t devalue their work by pretending that those costs don’t exist.
You should never hear yourself saying to a client, “I am shooting this to gain experience.” You gain experience off the job, shooting personal projects and taking classes. If you are benefitting by working for the client in any other way than getting compensation for your work, you are operating as a hobbyist, not a professional. Choosing to pursue photography as a hobby is a perfectly fine path to take, but it is vastly different than being a pro. A professional is not shooting for fun. He is not shooting for ‘experience’. He is not shooting to build his collection of portfolio images or to achieve recognition. He is shooting because he has honed a professional skill, the use of which has a monetary value.
4.) Even when it’s not fun, you get the job done.
A professional is not ‘precious’ about their work. She doesn’t wait for the mood to strike her. The deadline moves the professional, rather than the feeling. She shows up on time, prepared, and can be depended upon to produce a consistent product each and every time.
The client pays not for the pretty pictures in your portfolio, but for dependability, repeatability. The pretty pictures, the talent, the creativity, all of that is taken as a given.
The client pays the professional not to have fun, or to love what they do, but to provide a service for the client. As a professional you may love to do your work, or you may hate it, regardless what matters is you DO it. The difference between the hobbyist and the professional is when the job becomes ‘not-fun’, the professional still gets the job done. The professional follows through and finishes the job because a professional reputation is on the line.
5.) You DO the work.
Every day you do something professionally. And you do it not because it strokes your ego, not because you ‘feel like it that day’, but because it’s your job. It’s how you pay the bills. You do it because if you don’t show up, no one else will to do your work that day.
Photography is one of those enigmatic professional fields in which, unlike nursing or hospital x-ray operation, there never comes a ‘pinning’ ceremony: a time when you’re slapped on your behind by your betters and told, ‘Welcome! You have jumped all the pre-qualifying hurdles and are now one of us.” However, when you finally are a professional in this field, you won’t need your ‘betters’ to tell you. Your clients will. The value you create for them will speak for itself.