Professional Photography Defined

Certified Professional Photographer Stickers

If you want to have an online debate not involving politics, religion, or sports, you can find it quite easily. Ask which is better: Dogs or cats? Cake or Pie? PC or Mac? Or, you can have a go at asking an international community what makes someone a professional photographer.

“Professional” in the Oxford English Dictionary

The OED uses phrases like, “worthy of or appropriate to” and, “competent or skilled in a particular activity”, leaving plenty of wiggle room. The favored definition for this debate includes, “…as a main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.”  What if a photographer’s success results in their main paid occupation becoming teaching or developing tools for photographers? Does less emphasis on the actual work of photography disqualify them from being a professional photographer? After all, those who can’t, teach, right? [For the record, I strongly disagree with this cliché!]

Stop Arguing, Start Acting

In a world rife with cameras, who is concerned about what makes someone a professional photographer? Based on my experience, it is not necessarily the potential client.

Many argue that a professional makes at least half of their income from photography. Let us use absurdity to illustrate absurdity. An otherwise unemployed man’s only source of income is a dollar he is paid to take a photo. Is he a professional? A woman makes $100,000  a year as an accountant and brings in $99,999 as a photographer. Is the one dollar shortfall enough to strike her professional status?

What if you hire a wedding photographer for $3000 and every image is over-exposed and out of focus? He was an hour late, missing the images of the bride and groom preparing for their big day. To top it all off, it has been over a year and your wedding album has still not been delivered! All of his income is generated by photography, so do we still consider him a professional?


Back in 2018, I went through the process to earn my Certified Professional Photographer credential. It was primarily to prove to myself that I could do it. It was challenging but, for my impostor syndrome laden brain, very rewarding. The image with this post displays my credentials in sticker form. Does this make me a professional photographer? Not on it’s own. It only means that I have met the requirements to earn a certification.

In my mind, being a professional photographer is far more about consistently delivering quality images while behaving appropriately across the board. I have a lot of photographers I consider friends who easily out do me in both categories. They do not need a certification, but they could certainly meet the qualifications.

What do you think defines a professional photographer? Which is more important: percentage of income or competency? Are there other factors that you feel are important?

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