When can you call yourself a “professional” photographer?

Is it when you buy an expensive camera, sell a picture, or get published? No one seems to agree on the qualifications necessary for such a distinction, but I feel I’ve been flirting with that label for awhile now.

I started snapping pictures on my travels because the viewfinder gave me an odd sense of comfort, a lens through which I could make sense of foreign surroundings. It became my favorite hobby on the road, but more importantly, it became a kind of therapy for me.

As with any hobby, my approach evolved as I honed my skills and grew as a person. In addition to finding solace through my viewfinder, I’m now focused on trying to capture the beauty of nature. And even though I’ve sold many of my nature prints to friends and local businesses, I still didn’t know if this classifies me as a “professional.”

Instead of continuing to shoot the occasional sunrise or overlook on weekends, I decided to throw my full efforts into this labor of love with a five-day photo shoot in mountains of West Virginia to see if I had what it takes to call myself a “professional.”

Sunrise at Bear Rocks Preserve (Photograph by Ben Long)

Sunrise at Bear Rocks Preserve (Photograph by Ben Long)

In early October I headed to Dolly Sods Wilderness for my first sunrise shoot at the iconic Bear Rocks Preserve. Arriving late, I decided to sleep in my truck. When my alarm went off at 5:45, I hit the snooze button out of habit but was soon awoken when a set of headlights appeared on the horizon.

I heard a car pull up beside me, and once it was parked, rolled out of my truck to say hello to whomever was behind the wheel. But the guy disappeared into the darkness with his camera equipment slung over his shoulder before I could say a word.

I turned around to see an army of headlights heading my way and quickly realized this was a competition to claim the best spot–first come, first served. I started to panic because I knew my gear wasn’t prepped as the cavalry was rolling in to steal my post. Rookie mistake number one.

I started to scramble, throwing everything out of my truck in a desperate search for my tripod, camera bag, lens cleaner, and anything else I thought I’d need. It was now 6:15 and there were easily a dozen cars full of eager photographers prepping their own gear.

I finally got my kit sorted and set off into the darkness in the same general direction as the other guy. As I made my way into the brush, I could still hear cars pulling into the parking lot behind me. What kind of weird sub-culture is this? I thought. Could this lookout be that great?

It was pitch black, and I had no clue where I was going. I’m not going to lie, wandering through the darkness not knowing when the cliff would appear or if I would fall off it had a certain cachet. I finally found what I thought was a good spot with a unique rock formation and good tree coloring for my foreground. I dropped my pack to claim the space and began setting up.

As the rising sun began to illuminate the valley below, I couldn’t believe my luck. Yesterday’s rain had generated a heavy fog that hung over the mountains, their peaks piercing through in dramatic fashion. It was so breathtaking that I had to remind myself to start taking pictures. My week was off to a great start, and I was ecstatic.

My luck continued over the next couple days, but so did my rookie mistakes. I shook free of the crowds to seek out harder-to-get shots in Blackwater Canyon and Dolly Sods Wilderness while trying to adhere to the cardinal rule of nature photography: Patience.

Rookie mistake number 17 occurred when, having waited for the clouds to break at one lookout for over an hour, I packed up my gear and called it a day. On my way back to the truck, the most beautiful pink sky you’ve ever seen exploded across the horizon. I tried to make it back in time to get a shot. Sadly, I was too late.

But on my last day, a smile crept across my face as I packed up my truck because I knew I had captured fall at its finest. It was like I had been living in a vibrant painting that couldn’t possibly be real–a painting where blueberry bushes mixed with evergreens and the trademark reds and ochres of autumn.

Late-night editing sessions at my computer allowed me to relive the week in all its glory. For me, the ability to capture such a feeling is the real test of a “professional.” And, by that standard at least, I guess I can start calling myself one.

Ben Long is a writer and photographer from Lewisburg, West Virginia, who is currently based in Argentina. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr and follow his story on Twitter @benlongtales.

Comments

  1. Paula
    Germany
    January 16, 4:27 am

    Do you need to have formal qualification in Photography in order to become a ‘professional photographer’? What does everyone think about this?

  2. Susan
    United States
    December 23, 2013, 5:39 pm

    You are a professional photographer when you support yourself entirely by making and selling pictures. Otherwise you are a hobbyist. Either way, if your passion is making pictures, who cares?

  3. Lee
    United Kingdom
    December 13, 2013, 7:18 am

    Defining what a professional photographer is really difficult and so many people have so many differing opinions on it.

    Some say that if you make ANY money whatsoever from photography, then that makes you a professional. But is that too generic? After all, should someone who makes their living exclusively from photography, who is entirely dedicated to it, being in the same bracket as someone who might sell the occasional print?

    It’s not about making mistakes because we all do it, no matter how experienced you are, and besides because photography, like any art, is open to interpretation. Who defines whether the photo you have taken is right or wrong?Turgut mentioned there about straightening the horizon, using ratios etc and has quoted things from Photography 101 because it is drummed into people that that is what makes a good photo – if it strays from the norm then it is classed as inferior and that is totally wrong.

    If you take your photo, which isn’t straight, and sell it does it make you any less of a photographer than someone who sells a photo which is perfectly straight?

    In my eyes no but everyone is different :)

  4. Turgut
    Istanbul, Turkey
    November 30, 2013, 1:27 pm

    Exciting colors, nice tonality; but noting the difficulties experienced, would you please keep the horizon level (visible is some actual tilt plus maybe some barrel distortion) next time with a similar context. And, placing the misty horizon vs. boulder area at 2/3 or even 3/4 ratio would create a more dynamic composition rather than cutting about half. Getting closer to the red bush and thus boulder would be helpful to emphasize textures. “The devil is in the detail.” That makes the difference between an amateur or professional photographer, imo.

  5. Ian Faulds
    Kirkland, Washington, USA
    November 28, 2013, 12:10 am

    Sounds like a great expedition! I’m still trying to find the time to do a similar trip up in the Cascades, but like you said, it takes a lot of (extra) time and commitment which are hard to come by while working another job.

    Ian Faulds
    http://ianfaulds.com

  6. Dave Bouskill
    Canada
    November 26, 2013, 10:55 am

    Great read Ben. I loved “What kind of weird sub-culture is this?” I have been in the same situation and thought the same thing. I think it is commitment, passion and the ability to wait in one place for long periods of time that really make a “professional”.

  7. Julie Tucker
    Baton Rouge
    November 25, 2013, 5:34 pm

    Ben, I’ve been published in the NYT Travel section, but I’m far from being a professional. I do know that since I’ve been traveling with a camera, I now capture and appreciate so much more of nature than I ever did. I admire your talent and your enthusiasm! Enjoy your journey!!!