What Makes A Photographer A Professional?

The phrase heard every day in the world of photography is “I am a professional photographer.” This statement must be viewed in the context that 8 out of 10 people with a DSLR refer to themselves as professional photographers. Of course, this statistical claim is a MUS (Made-Up-Stat). OK, the math is fuzzy, but in reality, the claim is not that outlandish. The serious question is, “What makes a photographer a professional?. Is one, and even though a friend recently paid me for a portrait last month, I am not one. So what are the criteria that allow photographers to label themselves as professionals?

Perhaps the more important question is, “What is so great about being a professional photographer?” I do not want to be too critical, but much of the work that a truly professional photographer produces is rather mundane. In contrast, much of the photography of “amateurs” is phenomenal. Finally, the question remains: who should and who should not be considered a professional? If you need advice on your wedding photography, check out our photography packages and services at Wild Romantic Photography.

In any scientific research, the source must be above reproach. My source is the acclaimed newspaper, the Washington Post. The highly respected news organization presently is sponsoring a photo contest, which in itself is interesting. The rules for entry state that “only amateurs are eligible” to enter. As I read this, the thesis question immediately entered my mind. The Washington Post did not let me down. They defined a professional photographer as “anyone who earns more than 50 per cent of his or her annual income from photography.” As a math teacher, I must admit I loved this definition. It is both clear and measurable. This simply means that if one earns $50,000 a year, $25,000+ must be derived from their photographic output.

This definition makes the pool of professional photographers relatively shallow, which it probably should be. After thinking about this, I probably do not personally know anybody qualified to be called a professional photographer. This is not a criticism as many of my colleagues are outstanding photographers.

15 Differences Between Amateurs and Professionals

A very ambitious person asks him or herself the same question — what will make me successful? What qualities, traits, or habits set those who achieve incredible things apart from those who merely dream about it?

Researchers and experts periodically turn out intriguing answers to this question (mindset matters hugely, for example, and so does your network). But each of these findings seems like just one piece of the puzzle. If you could assemble all the pieces, what would you see?

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The answer would probably look a lot like a recent blog post from Farnam Street. The piece pulls together wisdom from both science and thought leaders like Ryan Holiday, Ramit Sethi and Seth Godin to develop an incredibly comprehensive list of the differences between elite performers and amateurs. Here are some of the most intriguing:

  • Amateurs stop when they achieve something. Professionals understand that the initial achievement is just the beginning.
  • Amateurs have a goal. Professionals have a process.
  • Amateurs think they are good at everything. Professionals understand their circles of competence.
  • Amateurs see feedback and coaching as someone criticizing them as a person. Professionals know they have weak spots and seek out thoughtful criticism.
  • Amateurs value isolated performance. Think about the receiver who catches the ball once on a difficult throw. Professionals value consistency. Can I catch the ball in the same situation nine times out of 10?
  • Amateurs give up at the first sign of trouble and assume they’re failures. Professionals see failure as part of the path to growth and mastery.
  • Amateurs don’t have any idea what improves the odds of achieving good outcomes. Professionals do.
  • Amateurs focus on identifying their weaknesses and improving them. Professionals focus on their strengths and on finding people who are strong where they are weak.
  • Amateurs focus on being right. Professionals focus on getting the best outcome.
  • Amateurs think good outcomes are the result of their brilliance. Professionals understand when outcomes are the result of luck.
  • Amateurs focus on the short term. Professionals focus on a long time.
  • Amateurs focus on tearing other people down. Professionals focus on making everyone better.
  • Amateurs make decisions in committees, so there is no one person responsible if things go wrong. Professionals make decisions as individuals and accept responsibility.
  • Amateurs show up inconsistently. Professionals show up every day.
  • Amateurs believe that the world should work the way they want it to. Professionals realize that they have to work with the world as they find it.

12 Steps to Becoming a Good Photographer

What Makes A Photographer A Professional?

The actual key to growing as a photographer is to dedicate and immerse yourself in it consistently. Passion and enjoyment are essential to becoming great at your craft.

That being said, there are many things to consider to progress through this journey as effectively as possible. If I were to start all over again, these are the stepping stones that I would have preferred to have taken, beginning with the technical and ending with the conceptual.

Look at Light

When you start photography, it seems evident that learning to use your camera is the logical first step. However, thinking this way can confuse you. A camera is just a tool that can record light.

When you walk out the door to photograph, you should think about light and not the camera. What time of day is it? How intense is the light, and what direction is it coming from? Is it sunny or cloudy? Is the light soft or contrasty? Is the sun in front of or behind you? Where are the artificial light sources, and what colours do they give off?

This is the first thing that a seasoned photographer will look for every time they begin to shoot and constantly be aware of the shooting. They do this for a reason. The light will affect how they shoot and the settings that they use. Even a slight change in direction to your light source can completely change how an image will look. You can’t learn how to use your camera correctly if you do not first understand the light.

Learn Your Camera Settings

Once you evaluate the light and environment and figure out how you want the image to look, you want to think about camera settings. For instance, do you want as much of the image as possible to be sharp, or do you want a lot of bokeh in the background? Do you want to zoom in and have a close look at the image, or would you instead use a regular or wide-angle lens? Do you want it to be a high-key shot or on the darker side?

That is when you change your settings to achieve the desired effect. It sounds like a lot of work just to take a single photo, and it is. However, if you start out shooting this way, eventually, it will become second nature. It is just like learning a basketball shot or a golf swing. Doing it the correct way might feel unnatural and weird at first, but eventually, it will come naturally and quickly, and you will be much better off for having spent time, in the beginning, focus on it.

Take your camera off Auto and experiment with either shutter priority, aperture priority, or manual mode. Some photographers take pride in shooting manual, and sometimes it makes sense to shoot that way, but the manual is no better than shutter or aperture priority modes, and in many situations, it can be a worse way to shoot. It all depends on the situation.

Experiment with different zooms on your lens, with different apertures and shutter speeds, and experiment with different ISOs to see how the digital grain (noise) looks. Do not be afraid to raise your ISO when you do not have a tripod. Go back to look at your photos in Lightroom, zoom in to the details, and look at the settings to see how they altered the way your images look. 

Composition and Form

Now is the time to think about composition. Some newer photographers tend to have a bad habit – they look up, see something interesting, then they photograph it quickly and move on. Yes, sometimes you’re on the move, which is the only way to shoot, but take some time to compose your image in the best possible way. The difference between a snapshot and a work of art is thought. If you see an exciting scene, you need to think about how to best capture it. Where is the best place to stand? Can I include other elements into the background to create a more complex composition?

I prefer to think about composition in this way – if I made a giant print, put it on my wall, and a friend came over and saw it for the first time, where would their eyes begin, and how would they move through the image? How would it feel to them? Where are the lines in the image? What is the relationship of the main subject to the background? Is the rule of thirds better here, or is it better to centre the main topic? Are there exciting shapes in the image? Do the edges of the image look good and keep the viewers’ eyes from moving out of the composition? Is there a foreground, middle-ground, and background in the picture, and does the image even need that? 

The difference between a decent image and a great image could be moving a foot to the left. This is another idea that can seem overwhelming at first but will come to you more naturally when you pay attention to it. Planning your dream wedding and don’t want to miss out on the special moments on your big day? Worry no more, Wild Romantic Photography has you covered.


Colour (or lack thereof) is an essential element of photography. Look at a colour wheel and study how the colours work together. What do different colours represent? Do the colours add to the image or detract from it? I enjoy creating both black and white and colour images, and this is one of the first questions I think about when I am editing.

What is the colour quality of the light? Is it cool or warm, is there a colour cast, and does that add or detract from the image?

In addition to thinking about colour while shooting, you will find yourself significantly improving your ability with colour while you are editing. Play around with colour temperature to see if you like an image warmer or cooler. Desaturate it, or add a little saturation, to see how it feels. How does changing the contrast affect the colours?

For doing quality colour work, make sure that you have a good monitor that has been recently colour corrected. All your work will be for naught if your monitor shows colours that are different from the file and final print.

Learn Lightroom

What Makes A Photographer A Professional?

Editing is vitally essential to developing your vision and becoming a good photographer. I suggest using Lightroom, as it is the industry standard and works well for many photographers. Photograph in RAW to get the most flexibility and quality in your images and explore all of the RAW development settings. Try to recreate the looks of other photographers to get a feel for how their editing was done.

Be diligent about organizing your archive. A little time spent each time you upload images will save you so much time in the future. Star your good photos (Lightroom allows 1 through 5 stars), so they are easy to find, and create collections based on ideas that you grow over time. Viewing your work in this organized fashion will help you develop your skills much faster than if you have a messy archive.


Maybe my views are rooted in the past, and nobody will print in the future, but I do not feel like an image is truly complete until it has been printed and framed. That is the final step to all of this, and it is a great feeling to put an image on your wall.

But there is another aspect to why you should print. It is one thing to see how your images look on a monitor, but it is an entirely different experience to see them in their final, printed form. This will allow you to see how the light, colour, and camera settings all affected the final image. You will learn a lot about how to shoot, from the art of printing. Try different papers, and view your prints under different lights.

My favourite printer is the Epson 3880, but you do not need to do the printing yourself. Create a relationship with a local printer or one of the reputable companies online and make them for you. If you do not print frequently, it can be much more affordable to have your prints made for you than making them yourself. Don’t forget that doing the printing yourself can be very fun and satisfying, and it gives you the ability to make slight changes and see how they look right away.

Try creating a photography corkboard. I have a 36×48 inch board next to my workstation, and I swear by it. Fill it up with 5x7s and 4x6s and constantly change it. See how the images play off each other, which images last, and which you lose interest in. Use this as a playground for your prints.

Once you have gotten this far, you are in a very good spot. Technically, you know what you are doing, your prints look beautiful, and they are well-composed. But what’s next?

The next step is to figure out how to take unique and interesting photographs. It is now time to spend more effort thinking about what resonates with you in photography and what makes an image stand out in your mind. We have the best wedding photographer in Yarra Valley to capture your beautiful moments on your wedding day. 


This is so simple, but it is the key to everything and needs to be said. So many people only take their cameras out on trips or vacations. They go to places specifically for photographing, such as mountain ranges, zoos, gardens, safaris, cute towns, or cities with great architecture. While this is great to do, push yourself further than that. Take some photographs during your everyday life. Even use a cellphone when you are unable to take your main camera with you.

The best photographers can take great photographs in the most ordinary of places. Practice this. Go out, anywhere, or specifically go out to someplace that you think will be terrible for photography, and figure out how to take an interesting photograph there. This practice will help you so much in your development. You can understand light and camera settings cold. Still, if you are not out photographing in various situations on a somewhat consistent basis, you are selling yourself short as a photographer.

Galleries, Photo Books, and Reading

One of the best ways to develop your voice and style is to look at others’ work. Go to galleries, purchase photography books, and study the images of great photographers. The internet is a great place to view photography, but it is so easy to get lost. Galleries and books are curated for a reason. Study the images, think about how they were done, and figure out the context behind them. Sometimes images will hit you whether or not you know the context behind them, but other times it can be important to learn about the photographer and the history behind the image. This will add another layer to your appreciation.

Try out the different styles of photographers that you like. Try to shoot like them to learn how they did it and why. Pick and choose your favourite elements from different photographers and merge them to create your style.

Purchase some prints. I’ve heard this a few too many times (sorry for the gender stereotyping), but it’s usually a wife saying something to me like, “I’d love to get this for our wall, but if my husband sees me buying the work of another photographer, he’ll kill me!” The average home has a lot of walls, enough for many artists.

Yes, something is satisfying about seeing an image, then going and figuring out how to create it for yourself, but it is really important to appreciate others’ works. Buy prints from other photographers to display along with books. Immerse yourself in the works of others to create your inspiration.

Finally, one of my favourite ways to gain inspiration is to read about things unrelated to photography. Learn about where and what you are shooting. Read poetry, read current events, read anything. This practice is about growing your voice outside of photography; the two are related.

Keep Coming Back

Pick an area or a subject and immerse yourself in it. Go back to the same place at different times, in a different light, and keep photographing it. This is very important for your growth since it will allow you to learn the area or subject like your hand’s back. Your images will take on more depth. Some photographers have spent 40 years photographing in the same area.

Curate a Small Group of Photographers and Friends to Show Your Work

The internet is an amazing place for sharing your work and learning about photography. However, it is also a very impersonal place. Everyone sees thousands of images a day from hundreds of people. While it’s possible, it can be tough to get a proper critique and evaluation of your work over the internet.

Find a few people and put together a group to show physical images to every once in a while. You ultimately want to shoot for yourself, but seeing how others relate to your images is important for your growth. The more they get used to your work and style, the better comments and thoughts they will have for you.

These people do not have to be photographers. They can be friends, creatives, even significant others. A good tough critique from your partner can be very valuable. It can sometimes be tough to hear at first, but figure out how they feel about an image. Your partner will know you well enough to be honest, and not hold back, and that will be good for you to hear. Figure out what they like and what they don’t like.

Put Together an Edit of Similar Images

One of the most beautiful aspects of Lightroom is that it allows you to create collections of images outside of your normal file structure. Start to the group and sequence your images that relate to each other. Begin to turn them into a project. You can see how the images in this post relate to each other. This was done over time, not all at once. You can, and should, think about projects from the very beginning and go out to photograph them, but often projects and ideas will come about naturally during the process of daily shooting.

Doing this will help you notice these moments when photographing in the future, and over time you will develop ideas organically into beautiful projects. If you’d like to work with professional photographers for your wedding, book with us at Wild Romantic Photography.

Develop a Voice in Your Photography

If you have done the rest of these steps, your voice and style will develop organically over time. Think about it, and pay attention to it as you progress, but do not force it. Let it come to you over time. You can learn to use your camera quickly, but you cannot become a good photographer overnight. Take your time and try to improve each day slightly, and you will make huge strides for a few years. Looking for a Mornington Peninsula wedding photographer? Look no further! Wild Romantic Photography has you covered.