So who gets to call themselves a ‘professional’ anyway?

Missy MWAC is making a name for herself making fun of folks who “get a camera and go pro”, making professional photography look as easy as 1-2-3. While I don’t condone making fun of people just because they aren’t where you are {and sometimes, the people making fun don’t seem to be proficient themselves}, I do think it’s interesting to see how many people have jumped on that bandwagon.

Seems to me that the biggest underlying debate/source of tension, whether it’s said outright or not, is the definition of a ‘professional’. And it’s not too hard to find the solution: just look it up in the dictionary. Job done. Except that the American and English dictionaries can’t agree. On what a professional actually is, Merriam Webster says that a professional is someone “who takes on the characteristics of a profession”. Look up ‘profession’ and it states that it’s a “calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation.”

HOWEVER {drum roll please} the Oxford Dictionary says that a profession is when you’re “engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur”. No talk of requiring an education. Which fits the Elizabeth Halford Dictionary’s definition perfectly: “you’re a professional when you do something as your profession.”

So there you have it. In America, you can call yourself a professional when you have a highly specialized education in photography. But if you live in England, feel free to buy a camera and become a ‘professional’ all in one day!

Now, all joking aside, I think that people place far too high an emphasis on whatever right they think they have to call themselves a professional. Some people rot in school for 4 years with a professor who is only teaching because he can’t be doing and then graduate with the divine right to call themselves a ‘professional’ and look down on everyone else. And then you have the self-taught photographer who spends every waking minute of years and years studying to learn everything they possibly can about becoming great at photography. Of course on the flip-side, you also have the student who actually learns something and the self-taught aficionado who doesn’t know what exposure is. But what I’m saying is that everyone’s got their pedantic panties in a twist over a very inconsistent, unclear picture of what exactly constitutes a ‘professional’.

Who gets to define when someone is a professional photographer, anyway? Is it when you start making money? Only make a certain amount of money? Have completed your first job? Or your tenth? Been published? Get a degree? When someone else deems you worthy of the title? Get accepted into some association? Clearly, there are professions where you can’t possibly practice until you’ve completed, as Merriam Webster puts it, “long academic preparation”. Such as being a doctor. Or a lawyer. Although in some societies, you need only call yourself a doctor and you are one. It’s buyer beware and the clients have to know what they’re looking for. So could it be that the market saturation of photographers toting a business card and a self-bestowed title is actually not the fault of the people calling themselves professionals, but rather, the people paying them for it? If people didn’t go to Walmart for portraits, then maybe we wouldn’t have this problem?

It was only 7 years ago that I, myself, was taking my own kids to Walmart. I didn’t have a clue. But if there hadn’t been someone there willing to fulfill the roll of the five-and-dime photographer, my children’s infancy would have never been captured because I didn’t have any concept of why I should be paying more. We’re awfully hard on people sometimes. Both the people who simply want cheap photography and the person willing to provide it. Most people don’t look at photography the way we do. The don’t know what they’re looking at – they just see their kids smiling.

So you want to be a photographer? Pick up a camera and start taking pictures. Want to be a professional photographer? Start charging. I mean, honestly…the guy at Walmart has been taking horrible pictures his whole life, right?


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Elizabeth Halford

Elizabeth Halford


She blogs about photography and business with her unique plain English approach. Elizabeth has been-there-done-that with running a photography business that doesn’t profit a penny and loves teaching photographers how to get away from the starving artist model of running a creative business.
Elizabeth Halford
  • Heather N. - Ohh Elizabeth I love you! This is a fabulous article and very thought provoking as always.

  • Taryn van Rensburg - I had this debate with my printing company… he pointed out a [horrible] photography business up the road… and, we both agreed, said business provided horrible photos (really sub-standard… although, who am I to critisize, right)… but, this particular company was bringing in hundreds of thousands of rands (sorry, maybe not huge in dollars, but anyway) EVERY month. So who’s the better photographer? Him or me? Or another way to look at it, is who is the professional? You can be the best photographer in the world… but if you’re not making any money… well, it’s just a really expensive hobby! A hobby is hardly a profession, right? There’s some great golfers out there… but if they’re not making any money out of it, they definately wouldn’t be considered professional players! The only thing that irks me is that the guys who come in and charge a pittance, provide a sub service, and quality, and are weekend warriors (just a side-line thing), make making an honest living out there for the photographers who do it full time, challenging. It’s hard to educate the consumer, BEFORE they see the difference, right? Whats your advise on that? Does it just come down to advertising and word of mouth?!

  • Kristin - Here! Here!  Well said 😀


  • Glitterbird Tammy - It’s always been drilled into me that to be considered a “professional” in this business, you need to not only make money from your sessions, but more importantly… PAY TAXES.   If you file a tax form on the money you make from doing a job.  That’s a profession.   I too, get tense when I hear of someone who has decided to pick up a camera then they start telling everyone they are a professional photographer.  My immediate comeback always wants to be “oh so you are paying taxes on your earnings?”    I know that may seem harsh.  We all started somewhere.  I literally spend 10-20 hours per week learning photography.  My degree is not in photography.  My degree is in marketing (which also tends to help me in my photog business).  🙂
    Excellent article.  Love this topic. 

  • Milissa - OMG …. I just started reading your blog due to a link on Pinterest … where have you been my whole life? LOL …. I couldn’t have said all of that better. Cudos to you! And, thank you for being there for all of those who are not “trained” but happen to have the “eye”. We love you!

  • rochelle - Great Article Elizabeth!!! I see Pros take aweful portraits all the time and “ami’s” not charging doing a better job.
    I say , the cutomer chose me for a reason and if  the customer can do better than me, that go for it ! This MWAC lady is soooo annoying.

  • KIm Smith - Very well done! For myself, I am happy with ‘semi-pro’. I make money from photography for my time and the products I sell. I pay taxes on that income. But it is not the main source or majority of my income.
    A client or potential client has never asked me ‘Are you a professional?’ nor do I ever bill myself as such. They like my work, I do the work, they pay me money. The only time I’ve ever had to classify myself was for photography competitions. I think a lot of people are getting really hung up on the word.
    Now, who gets to call themselves a photographer?? Lol! There’s a question 😉

  • Denise Burridge - Elizabeth, Thank you for a great read. I feel that success is determined when you are progressively working towards a worthy ideal. With anything you have to pay the price to excel. Whether that’s thru blood sweat and tears and endless hours doing self study or being instructed. Each person has their own journey. How you get there doesn’t matter. It’s the getting to your destination part that is. When on a journey One person may use GPS another may use a terrain map. Each choosing their own way but in the end they are are but tools. People need to stop worrying about competition. There is plenty for all levels. What we need to worry about is “creating” Don’t conform to what you “think” the masses want. By creating your vision you will always be representing your vision. Create be the best You you can be and the rest will be moments treasured in a journey. It’s always great to read your post. May this New Year bring you prosperity, peace and love. Thank you for being an inspiration.

  • Misty Waldenville - I love this! I’m a self taught photographer who has yet to start my business because I just can’t decide if I’m “professional” enough. Mainly because so many people keep throwing it in my face that I’m not formally educated in it despite the countless hours I’ve litterally been living, eating, and breathing photography. I’d say at a minimum half of my waking hours EVERY SINGLE DAY are devoted to photography whether it be learning, shooting, editing, or just dreaming about it. I think a professional is someone who people are willing to spend their hard earned money on and takes on the professionalism of owning a business. No matter how much you make, if you’re not running a legitimate business (taxed, insured, and all of the other boring stuff involved) then you’re not a professional. If you have all of that stuff but people still aren’t willing to spend money on you then you can’t really call yourself a pro either because professional requires a certain amount of knowledge/talent/creativity. I’m personally about to take a professional photography certification course (certificate of completion, but I’m more interested in the knowledge and I’m going for free so definitely not something I should turn down) but while some people will say it adds more credibility to my business I can’t see how a certificate (or degree) will make anyone more professional if they don’t have the talent or business savvy to back it up.

  • Anonymous - I’ll have a bit of a ramble about it – not sure if it’ll come out as I intended, but here goes:

    I don’t particularly like fauxtographers – they are annoying, and they possibly damage the image (no pun intended) of the photography profession as a whole, and devalue photography. But when compared to some other professions, do they cause as much harm to their clients?

    People often comment on the fact that someone can just buy a camera and call themselves a professional photographer with little or no training. But the worse thing (in most cases, obviously there are exceptions such as weddings) that can happen is that the client gets back some crappy photos and because fauxtographers generally do not charge as much, the financial loss isn’t as great. Obviously no one wants to lose money no matter how little, and there will be disappointment there, but compared to mechanics, lawyers and health care professionals (doctors and nurses), etc. where a lack of training  can cause a great loss of money or even life…

    I used to work as a mechanic and spent over 10 years doing this as my profession. Four of those years were spent in training, as an apprentice and in college on a day release basis (where you spend one working day in college per week). I took and passed over 10 exams in total, so I can call myself a qualified mechanic.

    There are jobs people with little or no experience can do to cars, and with a little common sense some people can do some of the more involved stuff. But like fauxtographers, not everyone will take the time to research, etc. I have seen some really scary things over the years that could have cost a lot of money to rectify, or could even have caused someone to die. Things like brakes being incorrectly fitted so they barely worked, and where the driver’s floor had rusted away, someone painted some underseal to the bottom of the carpet so it looked like a solid floor (just a couple of examples).

    I’m not defending fauxtographers, or making excuses for them, etc. But perhaps we do need to put things into perspective. Or at least remember that while we don’t need formal training, the consequences of doing something wrong or not as well* are less because of that than of other professions.

    A video of Zack Arias on about Amateur vs. Professinal:

    *I mean for fauxtographers – they are not likely to be hired by the likes of Adidas or similar big company where a budget can run into the tens of thousands, and where if the photographer does screw up, it can cost a lot of money.

  • Anonymous - Thanks so much this was great. And Zack Arias is a professional badass. Love that man! Great video.

  • Rayleigh Leavitt - This is a really great blog post!  I agree with you 100% and I’m often frustred by photographers who get so bothered about what other photographers are doing. 

  • Rayleigh Leavitt - I charge for my services, but I end up doing more free work for people than paid work.  And my expenses are greater than my income.  So overall, I’m not earning any money.  So am I a professional?  Haha!  Who really cares.  I’m a photographer, trying my best to do what I love.  That’s all the title I need.

  • Sara - Thank you for this. I agree with what many others have said that if you want to call yourself a professional, you’d better have the business side of things in order (taxes, insurance, etc). Beyond that, I think photographers just need to recognize that there will always be others of varying skill level. You can’t control who gets to create art – even if some of the art sucks.

    I can’t help but rant a little against these  MWAC Attack videos and the “You Are Not a Photographer” site linked to below the videos. I kept having scenes from the movie “Mean Girls” flash through my head as I watched the videos and looked through the Not a Photographer web site. Some of the points trying to be made by MWAC Attack are fair. But other times, she just needs to get off her high horse. I have a great sense of humor that is quite sarcastic at time, and I still find these over the top. The “Not a Photographer” web site is even more troubling to me. (And no, my work isn’t featured there – apparently that’s the first retort given to anyone who criticizes the site.) These people are forgetting that everyone has the ability to improve. Are there people in business who shouldn’t be? Yep. But you know what – in a few short years they might be a photography rock star. It’s kind of like why you shouldn’t tease the nerdy kid in high school – because he or she might grow up to be Cameron Diaz or Steve Jobs. And what if someone who is just beginning, but is really working hard to learn how to shoot in manual and be a good photographer, sees a photo of their own on there? That’s pretty much enough to crush someone’s spirit forever, and cause them to give up when had they kept with it for another year or two, could have gone on to be a really talented photographer.

    Instead of wasting my time submitting another photographer’s photo to the “Not a Photographer” web site, I will focus on MYSELF and my own business. There is always more to learn and improve upon, no matter how good you are. And if a local “fauxtographer” ever reaches out to me, I will not respond with the same cynical, sarcastic bitchiness featured on MWAC Attack and will instead try to provide some actual helpful mentoring. That seems to be a better way to help the industry.

    So thank you, Elizabeth, for this post and for ALL of your blog entries – because they better the industry by building people up and improving them, rather than ripping apart the dreams of someone who is really trying to learn and get better, even though they are making some rookie mistakes.

  • Anonymous - Oh Sara 🙂 <— huge smile. Loved this.

  • Wales - I count myself as a pro. Why? Because I earn my living from my photography.
    I class semi-pro as someone who earns “part” of their income from photography.

    It has nothing to do with your training (or lack of it), nothing to do with any society accreditations and nothing to do with whatever the PRO down the road thinks (I find Taryn Van Rensburg’s comments and his use of the phrase “Weekend Warrior” speaks volumes about himself).

    On the rare occasion I am in the company of an individual who rants about those “weekend warriors” or “Uncle Bob’s” who are taking business away from “us”, I usually test out their technical knowledge of photography and usually (always actually) find that they know bugger all themselves.
    It’s usually a bitter wannabe who resents anyone else that is out there having a go and doing better than they are sat at home bitching on blogs!

  • Julie - Interesting that you are arguing the definition of who is a professional photographer by putting down another profession: “Some people rot in school for 4 years with a professor who is only teaching because he can’t be doing…”  Professors (and other teachers) only teach because they can’t do? That statement is exactly what Missy MWAC is doing – pointing out the failures/challenges that someone else is facing. Why is it ok for you?
    And yes, I am a teacher, and I teach because I love teaching. Not because I failed at everything else.

  • Manda - Well said Sara, thank you for your thoughtful and kind words to us new “photographers” who doubt ourselves often. Its people like you with your attitude that help us keep our head held high. Thank you.

  • Dlightfoot99 - Great post. I watched the article and thought the women was a babbling idiot. I couldn’t tell if it was suppose to be a serious video or if it was some spoof or SNL skit.

  • Deney - Sorry if I’m the only stuck on this but I saw MWAC’s videos a couple of months ago and have been trying to look for sample of her work. I haven’t been able to see any.

  • Pamela - LOL I’m from London, self taught and a photographer, that is all I am. People can attach the labels they wish to use. To thy own self be true. Happy New Year x

  • Sara - I would love to see her work as well. She’s been pretty good at remaining anonymous. Hmmm…

  • Siouxsan - “We’re awfully hard on people sometimes. Both the people who simply want
    cheap photography and the person willing to provide it. Most people
    don’t look at photography the way we do. The don’t know what they’re
    looking at – they just see their kids smiling.”
    THIS is what it’s all about. You know, everyone views photos different ways. What looks like art to you or me, might not really be obvious to others. Frankly, I grew up with polaroids and crappy pictures (minus some cool photos from my uncle) . I total agree that people should stop tearing others down.

  • Anonymous - There is that saying “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach”. I think there is *some* truth in that, but it is also a blanket statement that doesn’t apply to all. Teaching is not the easiest job in the world.

  • Anonymous - It’s difficult – while I agree that the MWAC videos and the YANAP site can seem a bit like that bitchy little clique you get at school or in the office. And while I do think the YANAP site can be too “fussy” at times, I do think the criticism can be deserved.

    But I will say that when I talk about – or define – “fauxtographers” (the targets of MWAC and YANAP), I don’t mean those who are just starting out but are aware of their limitations, and are willing to learn and improve, but are also earning a bit of money while they do so (we all have to start somewhere!) I mean those who just carry on doing what they do and think they are “good”. People who have no interest in improving or learning. People who continue to provide poor service and to disappoint.

  • Anonymous - He is – I actually bought a workshop he did on creative live earlier this year, and spent ages the other day watching various videos with him in on youtube.

  • Anonymous - That’s the thing about working for yourself as a photographer – you need to know as much (if not more) about business, marketing and sales as you do about photography.

    You may be better at photography, but the studio may be better at the business side of things, hence why they get the amount of work they do.

  • Sara - I absolutely agree with you that everyone needs to be committed to learning and improving.

    But no one deserves to be mocked and criticized against their own will in a public forum.

  • Lisa - I am so thankful for all the amazing & helpful information I have found through your blog! You inspire me to keep going even when I think I should just quit & give it up! Thanks so much! I am just now thinking about starting my business after a year and half of learning, and still contemplate when I should consider myself a professional & charge people, and how much,etc! Let alone Im still overwhelmed at how much theres still to learn that will take me years to consume and perfect my photography…

  • Stephanie J Bennink - Actually, at most fine Art Schools, which is usually where you learn traditional photography (in my day, anyway), they required our fine art professors to take sabbaticals and be involved in their profession. Our photography teachers took a whole year for sabbaticals and were showcased in Galleries and each one worked on their own projects throughout the year, and were featured in magazine work/galleries/blogged about, and in general, you know, DOING. So I highly disagree that teachers failed at “doing”. It is mostly an idiotic statement.

  • tonyadoughty - Being “professional” is like being “generous”: If you think or feel you’re generous, you probably are, but if you have to tell or convince people you’re generous, you probably aren’t. I don’t give a rip how many people call themselves pro, amateur, hobbyist, etc. If they’re taking business away from me then it’s on my shoulders to improve or change, it’s not because there’s “too much competition.” If I lose business to anyone, it’s on me.

  • Jamie Z. - bravo bravo!! way to hit the nail on the head!! 🙂

  • Ally - One of my students wrote, in her artist statement, “I believe anyone who is handed a camera can take pictures. However, if an individual puts thought into the pictures, it becomes photography.” According to your article, I am a teacher because I probably can’t do it myself (which is untrue), however, I think that my student had it right on, in agreement with your message in this post, that the first step in becoming a good photographer, professional or not, is putting thought into your work and learning the trade, regardless of the path you take to learn it. Very thought provoking – thanks for sharing!

  • Meagan - I have to admit I let the MWAC lady get to me.  I bought a camera as a hobby as I love taking pictures of flowers and wildlife.  Tired of the box store pictures I started taking portraits of my own kids.  Soon people were asking me to take their kids pictures and paying me (yes, I pay the taxes on it).  I didn’t advertise in anyway.  I research and read enough to probably be considered a full time college student.  This year I am launching an actual business, registered and all official.  P equals professional, right?  Thanks for putting it all into perspective.  I wont give up on my dream to have my own business doing something I love! 

  • TiredofMSMlies - The irony is that “Missy Mwac” is NOT a photographer!  Her husband is a “(P)rofessional fauxtog” as she likes to call it.  I think she is threatened and trying to get rid of some of the competition through intimidation.  Can not stand her.  I find her obnoxious.

  • Trevor C - I have been taking photos for 59 years now, I first started in 1953 with a Box brownie. It has always puzzled me how the first “Professionals”?? obtained their credentials, and where did they receive their formal training. It just the same as many other things. Some people have worked their way into a good lurk and are trying to stop everyone else from getting in. Let’s not kid ourselves. I took great photos with the old Box brownie (many would equal those taken with my dslr), It is not the camera that takes the photo, it is not the qualifications that take the photo. (I have seen photographer waving their qualifications around that were bloody useless.) It is the ability of a person to be able to see a good photo and take it. Nothing more and nothing less. I have sen people newly into photography take better photos in their first week than people that have been taking photos for years. Just my thoughts. (Now I will wait for the flack) 😉

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