What Defines an Amateur versus a Professional Photographer?

If you’ve been taking photos for a while, this question will undoubtedly cross your mind at some point: “Am I a professional photographer or an amateur?” The idea of what separates an amateur from a professional sparks many debates, and there are many ways of looking at it.

What the Dictionary says?

Perhaps the most straightforward way of separating amateurs from professionals is looking in the dictionary. By definition, an amateur is “a person who engages in a pursuit or activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit.” On the other hand, the definition of a professional is a little less straightforward. Sources define a professional as simply as “one who earns a living for their occupation,” or as vague as “a person who is expert at his or her work.” Clearly, it’s this vagueness of what a professional is that is at the root of many debates. Still, by using dictionary definitions, we are left with the notion that if you are not pursuing photography for profit, then you are considered an amateur, and the reverse is true for professionals.

What the Government says?

Regardless of how you personally classify yourself as a photographer, it’s more important to understand if the government sees you as a professional or an amateur. Depending on where you live and conduct your photo shoots, there may be certain rules and regulations you need to abide by if you are a professional photographer. For example, American citizens who make money through photography are subject to paying federal and state income taxes on either an annual or quarterly basis, depending on the amount of income earned. There are also state and federal business licenses that must be obtained, and depending on the type of photography you do, you may even need to collect sales tax from your clients.

However, one bright side to being a professional photographer in the government’s eyes is the ability to write-off certain photography expenses to lower your overall tax obligations. These licenses, fees, and taxes will vary according to where you live, but it’s important to do your research and make sure you are operating within the laws to avoid future penalties. I recommend consulting with a local tax professional to make sure you are squared away. Bottom line: most governments say that if you are collecting a paycheck for your photography work, then you are considered a professional, and with this designation comes responsibilities.

As a Professional, Think of Yourself as a Business

Dictionary and government definitions aside, another way to distinguish yourself as a professional is to confidently present yourself as a business, not just a photographer. Think of any small businesses you patronize regularly, and all of the aspects that make them a respectable commercial entity. Everything from customer service and marketing, to accounting and operations are vital pieces that should be part of your own photography business.

One aspect that is particularly important for separating yourself as a professional photographer is the way you handle new client inquiries. Have a comprehensive process in place, such as a form or worksheet, that helps your client thoroughly and efficiently present the scope of work they have in mind. Also have your own rate sheets, contracts and invoices set up and ready to be filled out.

Example work flow:

1. Incorporate inquiry forms on your website’s contact page that allows clients to submit photo project details ahead of time to help qualify them. Also, have a predetermined rate sheet that you can easily refer to if you need to come up with a price on the spot. Remember that confidence is key, especially when asserting your rates.

2. Have a quote and contract for every job. Based on project scope, send the client a proposed photography evaluation form and a contract that outlines the services you can offer and includes details such as usage rights, delivery options, and proposed timelines. Get the contract signed by the client to confirm agreement.

3. After the job is complete, send client an invoice using your accounting software or an invoice template you keep on hand. Also be prepared to send over any tax-related documents such as w-9 if the client requests it.

By making the initial inquiry process easy for your client, you are not only gaining their trust in you, but also making your own work flow easier.

So what do you think? How do you define the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur?

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