How to Know When You’re a Pro Photographer

Anyone with a camera can call themselves a photographer, sure. But how many of you can really say you’re a professional? Follow along and find out.

There are many ways to measure success. What matters to one person doesn’t cross the mind of another. These are things such as technical knowledge, integrity, moral code, artistic composition, and much more. But how do you know if you’re a professional photographer or not? What makes a professional and how can you identify if you or anyone else around you is pro? Well, there’s no steadfast way of deciding, but there are definitely some things to look out for. To see how many of the below steps you fit into to find out whether you’re pro or newbie.

1. Holding the Camera

Professionals shoot constantly, and anything that makes carrying the camera easier and less fatiguing is going to be taken up. The first way you can tell if someone’s amateur or aiming for pro status is the way they hold the camera. Do they place their fingers on top of the lens and thumb underneath, adjusting the focus or zoom ring as they go? Well, they’re probably a newbie.

The easiest way to hold a camera is with the left hand underneath the lens, palms facing up. That’s because you can rest the elbow into the body and support the weight through the whole body rather than just with the arm and shoulder. That means a more stable shooting position and steadier, sharper shots.

2. Squinting Your Eyes

Who closes one eye while shooting? Put your hands up now if that’s you. Come on, be honest. Want to know something? You shouldn’t be doing that! It’s far better to shoot with both eyes open because you not only get a good view of the rest of the scene you can’t see through the lens (and are therefore able to react faster to a developing shot), but you’ll also have unbalanced or fuzzy vision if shooting with one eye closed. It may be an old habit that’s hard to break, but it’s worth it. See someone shooting with both eyes open? They’ve got it right.

3. That Camera Strap

Hey, check out that guy in the park with his shiny new camera-brand neck strap. Looks like it’s come straight out of the box (it probably has), and it’s advertising the camera manufacturer to everyone else around. Why is this person almost certainly not a pro? Well, there are two reasons. One is that it looks totally uncool and professionals should develop their own sense of fashion sense when shooting. And the other less pretentious reason is that those straps are quite short and sharp.

There’s often not a lot of padding on them, and the material cuts into your skin, making it quite uncomfortable to wear. The fact that they’re short also means you end up hooking it over your neck with the camera and lens weighing down in front of your chest, straining your neck. It’s much more comfortable to put a longer, padded strap on the side, slung over one arm. Professionals know this, and that’s why it’s one of the first upgrades they make to their kit when shooting with something new.

4. Firing Pop-up Flash

The pop-up flash is only used sparingly by the pro because it looks flat and unflattering. Most professional-level camera bodies don’t have pop-up flash anyway. Instead, the professional opts for an on-camera speedlight flash that can articulate and change position and angle. With more room for adjustment in terms of intensity and spread of light, the professional knows they can make a shot look better than with the amateurish pop-up flash. That said, pop-up flash is better than nothing and can even be used to trigger other lights in dire situations.

5. Off-Camera Flash

Can you use it? Do you know how to set it up? No? Then you’re probably not a professional. Pros don’t have time to wait for the right light because they’re on assignment or have to capture a shot in a given timeframe. The only way to get consistently high-quality lighting is to take your flash off-camera and perhaps add light modifiers like softboxes and umbrellas. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all genres of photography, so if you’re in the landscape or astro world, give yourself a break on this one.

6. Natural Light

Saying “I’m a natural light photographer” is often another way of saying “I’m not a professional.” Not that there’s any difference in the quality of photographs (often there isn’t) or that natural light isn’t brilliant (it is), but professionals that shoot all the time need consistent lighting and often find themselves shooting in dark locations or in studios where there are no windows.

Even on location if you’re working for a brand selling a product, you’re not going to rely on natural light alone (unless simply using reflectors/diffusers) because you need to illuminate the product, so professionals often turn to artificial lighting to ensure consistent quality in their photos because they know that they can’t rely on the light or the weather.

7. File Formats

This one’s simple. Shoot JPEG? Are you a sports or motorsports photographer and need to upload to the media desk while you shoot? Then you could still be classed as a pro. As for everyone else, you’re probably not. Raw gives such flexibility to the way we edit photos and we have such vast amounts of digital storage now that there really isn’t a good enough reason not to shoot raw anymore.

8. Editing Your Photos

Beginners often add too much contrast, weird heavy filter presets, or overly saturated images. Look at the HDR (high dynamic range) fad that hit the scene back in the 2000s, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Professionals are just beginners that have been through all those stupid editing phases and have come out the other side with cleaner, more refined processing styles. 

9. One Color to Rule Them All

Selective single color edits (like in the film Sin City) are a favorite of beginners, and you’ll hardly spot a pro using them. Why? Because it’s overdone and a bit of a gimmick. It’s totally fine if you like it, but most pros grow weary of the look. If you see a black and white image with one red piece of clothing, it’s probably not a professional’s work. But of course, someone will definitely prove me wrong in the comments.

10. Culling Photos

Beginners include several versions of the same shot in their portfolio or social media advertising. This is in contrast to most pros who will choose one that works from a sequence and only publish that single shot. Putting your absolute best foot forward is key to creating the illusion of high-quality work because not showing the other 90 shots where your exposure was wrong or you accidentally cropped out a key element to the scene will make others think you’re amazing.

11. How Happy Are You With the Photos?

As photographers get further along in their journey, most find that they like fewer and fewer of their images. In fact, if you’re building a portfolio you may only get one or two really great shots per year, as opposed to the beginner who might get 100. Why is this? It’s due to a learning curve and your standards increasing. It’s a natural progression for almost every art form. If I look back at photos I was taking 10 years ago, that I was publishing 10 years ago, I usually cringe. It’s a sign you’re moving forward and heading towards professionalism.

12. How Much Money Do You Make?

Technically, the whole quiz is overshadowed by the fact that professional just means that you make the majority of your financial income from that one thing. If you’re earning most of your money from photography then it doesn’t matter if you do or don’t do all of the above steps, you’re a professional photographer. But then again, there are always those pros who retire or leave the game for a while.


So, how did you do? Total your score in your head and take it again in a few months to see if things have progressed. Just bear in mind, I’m being rather tongue in cheek with this one. Don’t worry if you score more in the beginner category than professional. Lots of professionals I know are pretty tired of their work schedule, so perhaps staying an amateur or hobbyist is the best way to enjoy the art form?


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