A few words about professional photography

The term “amateur photo” ought to mean compositions with excellent technique, real works of art, because an amateur driven by love rather than a need to make money or restrictions of employment has no excuses for mediocre work.

“Soviet Photo” magazine, 1926


When I was just getting into photography I wanted to become a professional. It seemed like a dream job – take pictures and get paid for it. But eventually I began to notice that my envy of professional photographers was petering out and that I was myself avoiding paid work. And why was that?

For starters, you have to be clear on this point, that a professional photographer is someone for whom photography is a profession. A trade. Forget the image of an artist who photographs whatever and whenever he likes and sells these pictures for millions of dollars. There is just a handful of such people in the entire world. Likewise, don’t imagine that professionals tour the globe on newspapers’ money, pulling leisurely snapshots. When you work for an editor, you always sign up for a specific job, often difficult and sometimes extremely tasking and even dangerous. Besides, these days the institute of editor-paid travel is almost dead, and very few people manage to get such a gig.

Real-life professionals are those who:
– take wedding, family, children’s, portrait pictures
– photograph objects – make close-ups etc.
– take passport, visa and other document 3x4s in studios
– work in advertising and fashion
– work in photo journalism

All professionals work for a customer, and the photographer must consider his opinion. That’s neither good not bad, it’s normal practice. But I’ve never wanted not only to factor in customer requirements but even consult them about what to do.

First, a customer usually doesn’t know anything about photography, so we’ve got nothing to communicate about. Second, I just want to do what *I* want to do. Third and most important, custom work significantly limits a photographer’s power of expression and personal development and forces him to adhere to very specific rules and procedures. Yes, there are some strong personalities who can go against the flow and develop even in unfavorable circumstances. But they are few and I’m definitely not one of them – not because I can’t resist but because I see no sense in that kind of daily struggle.

Ideally we would all want to take pictures of what we like and be able to sell them afterwards. But in practice to make a living off self-expression (turn it into a profession), you’ll have to follow market rules and cater to fashions. The chance of your interests and hot trends coinciding is pretty slim, so you have to do what you are expected and what you can get paid for. A photographer in this situation can’t completely distance himself from demand, no matter what he might think. Otherwise he won’t be able to put bread on the table. The extreme end of catering to demand is stock photography, where true professionals begin by studying and analyzing popular searches and end with typing up a block of themes and meta tags to the pictures. It can bring good money, but what does photography have to do with it?

I’ve tried my hand at many genres of professional photography. I did magazine work, took orders for journalistic, portrait, object, advertising photography, I sold my pictures as stock and even did a wedding. In all cases I was fairly successful – except possibly stock photography, which was terribly dull and I gave up on it, only earned $20 there. But for custom work I was able to make $2-3 thousand in a day of shooting. There was a time when I lived entirely off orders. You might have called me a professional photographer then.

But it didn’t last. Even though professional work has always been pleasant, except stock pictures and the attempt at a wedding, I’ve always felt rather stiff restrictions that prevented me from moving forward with what I wanted to do. I was much more interested in developing my artistic vision and experiment with art photography than in earning progressively more and becoming ever more specialized and limited. So at some point in my life I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to go on the path of a professional photographer. That I didn’t want to turn the chief joy of my life into a trade.

And so little by little I started to turn down offers. I did it in a delicate manner to avoid offending people. On one hand, I tried to explain my interests in photography so they would understand, on the other, I kept raising the price. I reasoned that if I had to sell myself and spend time on rather boring things (even if I was able to do them well), then I should at least charge a lot. Sometimes it was a whole lot! I settled for the same policy in my fairly unrelated activities – blogging and travel. So gradually most of my clients and sponsors dropped away and freed my time for actual photography and photo projects of my own: the photo school, the photo travelers club, the smart camera, research, book-writing, photo festivals and exhibitions and so on. The few sponsors and customers who remained became much closer and more valuable to me and I – to them. And our projects became a joint effort.

So nowadays, despite being dedicated to photography in everything I do, I make most of my money not on picture work itself but on related activities. In fact, actual photography is on the debit side of my budget. I’m a real amateur — as in, a lover. And I’m fine with this situation. I do everything I can to avoid becoming a professional photographer and continue to spend rather than earn through photography. It’s worked so far, and I hope to preserve the status quo. The only scenario in which I can see myself as a professional is if what I do for myself becomes popular and begins to sell. The difference with the situation described above, with stock photography at the extreme end, is that I consciously focus on pursuing my personal interests instead of making money – without excluding the possibility of money coming in. But that’s my approach in everything in do.

Why did I have to explain all that? Often enough I get to explain my position on professional photography to students at the school and field workshops. So I decided to put it down in writing for reference. Also many beginning photographers might do worse than read these words of caution so that, dreaming about professional status, they stop to think what that entails and whether it’s something they truly want to aim at.


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