If you’ve been around the photography scene, you’ve probably heard the terms “hobbyist” and “professional” by now. You can find these terms in plenty of places – there are many tutorials out there targeted at one group or the other, and the terms also come up in casual conversation. But if you aren’t familiar with the terminology, you may have some questions about the differences between a hobbyist and a professional photographer.
A hobbyist photographer is someone who takes photos for personal enjoyment, while a professional photographer uses their skills to generate a liveable income. Although both professional and hobby photographers can take equally good photos, the main difference between the two is a professional photographer makes money from their photos while a hobbyist does not.
Of course, that’s simplifying it and just looking at things from the broadest perspective. There are more details to both categories, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to be a professional to become the photographer you want to be.
Many people take great photos without selling them, and so they fall into the hobbyist group, while others become professionals because they’re just more willing to invest the time and resources into turning their photography into a business.
To give you a better understanding of the differences between a hobbyist and a professional photographer, let’s break them down individually.
What is a hobbyist photographer?
A hobbyist photographer is someone who takes photos purely for personal enjoyment, without any significant financial gain. A hobbyist photographer may make a small amount of money from selling prints or stock images, but not enough to live on. This isn’t because a hobby photographer takes worse photos than a professional, but they have different intentions for their photography.
It doesn’t matter if you have the cheapest gear in the world or the most expensive because being a hobbyist is more about your intentions. What you want to do with your images, how much effort you put into marketing yourself, or what goals you may have for your career. If you’re doing photography for yourself, or perhaps to show off to your family and friends, you would fall into the hobbyist photographer category.
Now with that said, might sound like professionals are obviously the better photographers between the two groups, but that’s not the case.
It’s true that the pros often have a better eye for getting the right shots and have better equipment much of the time, too. After all, they’re in the competitive business of earning money for their photos, and they need to provide the highest quality product possible to keep clients.
But neither good skills nor equipment are locked behind a barrier of professionalism. A hobbyist can take better images than a high-level professional. These titles don’t always reflect on the caliber of an image a photographer is taking.
Likewise, making money from photography doesn’t necessarily make someone a professional photographer. It’s possible to be a hobbyist and still make money from the endeavour, even if it’s smaller amounts of money compared to the full-time income of a professional.
A hobbyist photographer might make some passive income through selling prints online, or from photographing events such as weddings, behind-the-scenes, or business headshots.
The main thing that sets a hobbyist apart from a professional is that they aren’t looking to make photography a main source of income. Rather, it’s something they do on the side, and whatever financial gains they make from it are more of a cherry on top.
What Qualifies You As A Professional Photographer?
There are no “requirements” for becoming a professional photographer as there are in other types of careers. You can build a successful photography business regardless of your post-secondary education. The only real requirements of being a professional photographer are having a keen eye for composition, being good at networking, and being extremely self-motivated.
In short, there are no official requirements at all. A professional photographer isn’t a job like a doctor or a lawyer where a higher authority decides who can be a professional and who can’t.
Things like college degrees may help you build up your skills so you can have a better shot, but everything from those courses can be learned on your own with enough time, research, and practice. After all, most photographers are freelancers, so they are working on varying contracts, rather than being hired by a company with specific education requirements.
Some paid photography jobs out there want to see a specific degree as a prerequisite for getting hired. However, these requirements aren’t universal. There are enough clients out there who don’t care about your past experience as long as you can show that you’ll deliver results.
The thing that qualifies someone as a professional is the quality of their photos. Not a specific benchmark like having a photography degree or taking a certain number of photos per year.
At the end of the day, your talent with a camera speaks more volume than any level of education in photography.
When Can You Consider Yourself A Professional Photographer?
You can consider yourself a professional photographer when the majority of your yearly income is generated through photography. By working with clients, selling prints, stock images, or licensing photos, you’re able to generate a liveable salary from your images. Once you reach this stage, you can consider yourself a professional photographer.
The term professional usually refers to those who make a full-time income from their work, which can be achieved in many different ways. One of the most obvious ways to become a pro is to work for a professional photography agency, but there are many options out there for independent work.
Those independent options can include photoshoots for specific clients, making money from prints, selling your know-how through workshops and online courses, and getting hired to do photos for specific events.
Not all of these jobs are easy to find. Some of them are dependent on geography as a main factor. If you’re in a big city, you can bet on having better chances to find jobs like these than in a small town, for example. But if you keep at it for long enough, you can gain more flexibility and control over your own schedule compared to someone working for an agency.
You might also find yourself with a higher ceiling as an independent professional. Your earnings are only limited by how much your clients are willing to pay, and if you build up a buzz around your business, you can justify raising your rates. Just look at how people can generate $80,000+ a year through real estate photography!
Regardless of whether you go the independent or agency route, you should know that the path to becoming a professional is open to whoever is daring enough to try it and stick with it.
Can Hobby Photographers Take Professional Photos?
Let’s get something out of the way – there’s no such thing as a ‘professional photo.’ Some photos may be taken by professionals, but there’s nothing objectively setting apart the work of the pros from that of hobbyists. Many pro photographers will have more developed skills and a better eye when it comes to capturing the best shot, but that’s more of a guideline than a rule.
At the end of the day, skills come from practice and learning rather than position, and even someone with no professional experience can learn to take photos at the same quality as the pros. Some of the ways to learn include classes of both the in-person and online type, YouTube videos, and manually practicing and experimenting with techniques.
We also live in the age of social media right now, and this is a huge equalizer for photographers. You don’t need to be a professional to get your work out in front of millions of people. On platforms like Instagram, it’s common to see viral images that were taken with cell phone cameras that are easily available to the average person.
The success of complete amateurs on sites like these proves an important fact: the average person doesn’t think like a professional photographer and isn’t going to analyze your photos to see if they have the marks of a pro or not. To them, a good photo from a hobbyist and a professional are often indistinguishable.
You don’t need a professional career in photography or even a strong background in it to take high-quality images that most people will love. You just need to have an eye for photography, and that’s something that you can develop on your own without turning photography into your full-time career.
Can Anyone Be A Photographer?
These days, there are fewer things than ever stopping someone from becoming a photographer. Aside from having readily available social media now to share images far and wide, you should also consider how common it is to have a good smartphone camera compared to even five years ago.
Everyone has a camera in their hands now, and these cameras are getting more advanced each year as new phone models come out. And while these phone cameras aren’t going to cut it compared to a DSLR for serious photographers, they give everyone a chance to try photography out and see how they like it before they spend big on a DSLR.
Photography might be intimidating to get into at first, especially if you want to turn it into a professional job down the line, but remember that everyone starts out as a hobbyist and that, like anything, it takes time to learn. Just like it takes time for an artist to learn to capture an image using paint, it also takes time for a photographer to learn about capturing the scene perfectly.
You’ll get more out of photography if you go into it to capture the images that excite you and focus on refining your skills at first when you’re still learning the ropes – but if you stick with it and consistently practice, you might just find that there are more ways than you thought to monetize your work.
Professional photography isn’t for everyone – it’s not always easy getting hired, and making the first jump from amateur to pro is often a notoriously hard process. But the door is open for anyone to try at it, and there’s definitely no shame in staying a hobbyist and doing photography for fun if the professional life isn’t for you.
If you’re just getting started in photography, but want a faster way to take professional photos, check out my complete guide to getting started in photography!