Just about everybody has a camera. So almost everybody can take photographs. But not everybody describes themselves as a photographer. So what is a photographer, and why do some people call themselves photographers?
Google dictionary defines a photographer as somebody who takes photographs, especially as a job. This definition seems to imply that a “photographer” is usually taking photos for money, and is therefore usually a professional.
So what is a professional photographer, and how do they differ from amateurs, exactly? What are you paying for when you pay a “professional photographer” to take pictures for you, or of you?
There are a lot of definitions out there, but basically they revolve around the theme that a professional photographer takes pictures for a living – it is their main or even only job. They are “creating a source of income from their photography” (http://www.howtobecomeaphotographer.biz/what-is-a-photographer-2/) . Ken Rockwell, on his excellent web site, reckons you need to be making 50% of your income from photography to be a “professional” (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/what-is-a-pro.htm). Other people take a more liberal approach. James Brandon, writing for The Digital Photography School says you are a professional
“When people love what you do and recognise you as a ‘photographer’, when you make any amount of money or business out of photography, then you are a ‘professional’”. (http://digital-photography-school.com/what-makes-a-photographer-a-professional)
Are there any other characteristics of professional photographers? Is it having a top-of-the-range camera? Is it that they take better pictures than amateurs? The answer to both of these questions seems to be “No”. Anybody can buy a wizzy camera, set up a studio, put up a web page and describe themselves as being a “professional photographer”. It doesn’t mean anything that you have the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it. Likewise, many professionals will take photos on lots of different cameras including compact cameras and mobile phones. As Ken Rockwell says “It’s never about what’s the best camera, it’s about what camera makes it the easiest and fastest to create what we need to create. Artists like to make things; we could care less about buying more cameras.” (http://kenrockwell.com/tech/artist-or-technician.htm). The camera, in this situation, is the tool that lets you achieve your vision, rather than the be-all and end-all of photography.
And are the photos taken by a professional any better? Well, that depends on the professional, and on the amateur with whom she or he is being compared, and also the subject area – it is difficult, for example, to make money from some types of photography, such as nature and wildlife photography, probably because there are so many talented amateurs out there. A well-trained professional working in a commercial field will do a good job – photos that are technically proficient, correctly exposed, nicely-lit, in-focus, do what the client has asked for, well-processed and delivered in an appropriate and timely format. Professionals may also take very beautiful, creative images in their own time. But not all professional photographers take good photographs, either artistically or technically. Not all professional photographers take time and trouble over their shots, or their processing. Take a good look at photographers’ web sites – how many of these honestly strike you as being creative, different, interesting, technically proficient, exciting or outstanding? Some are, for sure, but many of the outstanding photographers web sites you see online are not professionals.
Amateur photographers take pictures because they love to do so, for the challenge, for the love of recording where the have been, what they have been doing, who they were with and what they were feeling. Now, to me, that sounds like the definition of photography as “painting with light” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photographer) – you see something you love, or feel strongly about, and you try to create a light painting of that scene. I have seen many hauntingly beautiful images taken by people who would not call themselves photographers, often with very simple equipment or even with mobile phones that meet the definition of “light painting”. I have also seen many images taken with top-of-the-range cameras and lenses that would not meet that definition.
To me the difference between a photographer and one who takes photographs is this: A photographer, or “light-painter” will know the effect that they want to achieve, will know what the final image is going to look like before they even push the shutter button. It is the act of pre-visualising, or seeing in your head, what the final picture will be that distinguishes a photographer from somebody who takes snapshots. In short, it is the creation of art that makes a photographer, and a good photographer knows how to do this: How to convey their emotions, feelings, thoughts, the glorious patterns of light and shade. The truly exceptional photographers make you draw your breath, and make the hairs on your arms stand on end. They are able to convey what is in their own brain, in their own eyes, and draw you in, and make you experience what they have experienced. It is a very rare talent, and one to which I aspire, but most certainly have not risen.
As for me, well, I think it is up to others whether they consider me to be a photographer. I take photographs because I love to, but would not presume that anybody would want to pay me to do this (although people have indeed paid me to take photographs and bought some of my work). I wish I could improve such that one day I achieve this label, but for now, I just take pictures with my camera, enjoy doing so, and strive every day to improve what I do, learn from my mistakes and from others, and most of all, convey my love and respect for the natural world to others through my images.
Ken Rockwell distinguishes 7 levels of photographer (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/7.htm). This is definitely worth reading for anybody who wants to call themselves a “photographer” and you may well recognize yourself in there somewhere. It is also worth reading his take on “what is photography?” (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/what-is-photography.htm).