What Makes a Photographer a Professional

June 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment
Wedding couple swinging at the playgroundp1259669362-5
Sarah and Phillip Swinging After Their Wedding

I read a few photography forums online and subscribe to a number of photography magazines. A forum post on Linkdin last week got my attention. The question was asked: What makes a photographer a professional? I’ve been thinking a lot about that question subconsciously for quite a while. A significant amount of the photography sneaking into publications these days has gotten me concerned about the level of skill required to get published and call oneself a “professional” photographer.

I guess the short answer would be that a professional is a photographer that gets paid for what he or she does. That seems a little too easy for me though. I do feel that there are minimum skill levels required before a photographer is qualified to hang out a shingle. I also think that those minimum requirements should be standards for publication too, especially in professional industry publications. Here are some standards I think should be minimum requirements for publication and for delivery to a client. In the fields of photojournalism and fine arts some exceptions could be noted but for most portrait, wedding and event photography this is some of my list.
The subject of the photograph should be obvious and should be in focus. If the viewer is uncertain who or what the subject is then the photo is a failure. If other elements of the photograph are in sharper focus than the subject, the photo is a failure. This is not the same as sharpness. Moving subjects may not be razor-sharp but the focus should still be on the subject.
Exposure must be adequate for the subject to be illuminated. This may mean using supplemental lighting. Our new digital cameras are great at creating images in low light situations today. Just because you CAN shoot without a flash doesn’t mean you SHOULD. The long-held standard here is that you should be able to see the color of the subject’s eyes. If the bride’s eye sockets are black holes you don’t have adequate exposure and need to add some light. A professional photographer should first, be able to recognize this problem and second, be able to solve it. Some skill at being able to use supplemental lighting should be a minimum requirement. Editors and clients should expect and demand images of people who have eyes that you can see. Zombie photography is becoming too popular these days.
A professional photographer should be able to anticipate or create actions and reactions. Henri Cartier-Bresson called it “the decisive moment”. The peak of the action is the picture. The photographer has to understand human nature and emotions as well as how the camera works. If there are multiple subjects in the photo they should be involved with each other, relating to each other. If you’re creating a portrait of a group they should all be looking in the same direction. That doesn’t necessarily mean looking at the camera but their attention must be focused on the same place. A professional photographer need to understand the event or group and know how to anticipate or direct the action and attention. That’s really what being a “photojournalist” is. It’s not dressing in black and being a “fly on the wall”. Being a photojournalist photographer requires being involved in the event and sometimes directing attention to get great photos.
Finally, (for today) the contents of the photograph need to work together to create a cohesive composition. Art, if you will! A professional will use the training, experience and skills acquired to eliminate or “play down” distracting elements of the photo so the story being told is succinct and obvious, not left to the imagination. This can mean moving, selecting a different lens, changing camera angles, cropping, selective focus and/or using post-event production tools like Adobe Photoshop to create a story-telling image without confusion. This part is a lot more difficult than it sounds but these are skills a professional will have. Since the client is usually the subject the photographs should also be flattering.
I guess I’ve just heard it too many times to let it go but phrases like “he’s got a really good camera”, “how many megapixels”, and other similar statements completely miss the mark. Professional photographers are highly trained and skilled people who create flattering, well composed, well-timed, story-telling images with a high degree of technical precision under a variety of physical and emotional conditions. I might have missed something but I think that’s about it.

Natalie Center Stagep1259669398-5

Natalie dancing at the Center for the Arts, Crested Butte, Colorado

Clint Black at The Powerhouse in Crested Butte, Coloradop1259669430-5

Clint Black and Little Big Town with the girls.

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