What Makes a Photographer a Professional?

With the availability and relative affordability of digital SLR cameras—those big bodies with the interchangeable lenses—it may seem the line between “photography enthusiast” and “professional photographer” continues to thin. When everyone and their Uncle Joe is claiming to be a “photographer,” how do you separate the professionals from the wanna-be’s?

Knowledge and Fundamentals

A true professional photographer knows the ins and outs of photography, and never stops learning. ISO, aperture, white balance, composition, shutter speed, f-stop . . . all terms a professional photographer knows and understands. A firm and thorough understanding of these basic fundamentals allows for greater use and control of the equipment, making for better, higher quality images. That cannot happen if the photographer is relying on the camera’s “auto” mode.


While a professional photographer typically has higher quality gear than a hobbyist, this cannot be taken as a given. Digital SLRs, or DSLRs, are becoming more affordable with almost every release, meaning that anyone with the money and interest can purchase one.


More importantly, a professional knows what gear to use, and when, to get the job done right. Which lenses are best for capturing a tight shot of the first kiss or to throw the background into a soft blur to make the bride stand out? An experienced pro knows how to balance the flash so it lights the scene evenly and looks natural. And a pro will always have a backup for everything because cameras and lenses will always break when it’s the worst possible time.

Speaking of gear, having it is only part of the equation—the photographer must know how to USE it, too. Professionals don’t fumble with settings or menus, or struggle to find the solution to a particular photographic challenge. They know their equipment inside and out, and use their photography knowledge to adjust their shooting style and camera settings with barely a thought.

Dedication and Professionalism

Wanna-be photographers generally see any photo job they get as something to do “on the side.” This part-time attitude shows through in their behavior. “Sure, I’ll shoot your wedding for only $200, sounds like fun and I could use the extra money! Just tell me when to show up!”

A professional photographer makes ALL of their income by taking photographs. Photography IS their job and not just something done when they feel like or or have time. Unlike “Uncle Joe” who’s already “doing you a favor,” a professional is dedicated to making your photos look the best they can. A pro puts his or her reputation and livelihood on the line with each and every shoot. As such, a true professional photographer generally meets with you before the actual photo session to discuss the schedule, expectations and services provided.

And most professional photographers possess a passion that most hobbyists lack. They are photographers because they can’t see themselves doing anything else.


While this is a strongly debated point—even among the professionals!–you can generally tell how serious a photographer is about his or her career by the prices they charge. Professional photography fees range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending upon various points such as job details, location and experience. These fees pay for the photographer’s insurance, equipment replacement, studio maintenance, knowledge, experience and labor. And taxes. Can’t forget those.


An all day event such as a wedding requires weeks of preparation and after-the-fact processing. Professional photographers price their wedding packages accordingly to provide the client the very best service and photos possible, while still keeping their expenses and bills paid. A photographer who only charges a few hundred dollars for wedding photography isn’t taking the job seriously, and is only doing it “on the side.”

A Professional Photographer Is Still a Professional

Contrary to popular belief, a professional photographer doesn’t have an “easy job” because “all they have to do it show up and snap a few pictures.” For every hour behind the camera, there is an average of 5 to 10 behind the scenes, between backing up, preparation and refining each image to look its very best.


If you’re looking for a photographer to capture your important moments—from your wedding, family reunion, birthday party, etc—keep in mind that you’re looking for a reason. You want quality images, from a professional who knows how to take them. Simply owning a camera doesn’t automatically make someone a professional photographer. It takes knowledge, experience and dedication, and you won’t find that on Craigs List.

About Annette

Wife. Mother. Nerd. Writer. Amigurumi designer. Lover of bad movies, good movies, good books, and chocolate. I make snarky, sarcastic, snappy remarks when appropriate, and sometimes even say them out loud. I live in Missouri with my professional photographer husband, my daughter, son, and too many pets.

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