"I've taken pictures for years, but only recently did I become a photographer"
Note: most of what I am about to say is coming from a place of annoyance, so please take what I am saying with as much of an open mind as possible.
I guess the validity of my "why you shouldn't be a photographer" argument hinges on your definition of photographer. I know what a photographer is, you know what a photographer is, but have you ever looked up the Merriam-Webster definition? (No need, I've done it for you.) Photographer: noun; a person who takes photographs especially as a job- Merriam-Webster
For whatever reason, we often overlook the whole getting paid thing long before we start proclaiming ourselves as a professional photographer. My guess is that we have come up in an age where some form of camera equipment is about as readily available as McDonald's fries, so true professionals get an eye roll or the ever-popular unimpressed "oooohhhh" during conversation about what field of work they're in. Think about it. At any given moment during your day, how many photo-capable devices are near you? (I'll wait while you count...) Point-and-shoots, DSLRs, webcams, laptops, tablet, and...your phone. They're everywhere. All the time. So, this dismissive attitude towards true professionals may simply be a pseudo-systematic desensitization of all things photography related. Not to mention the aggressively, over-optimistic can-do attitude that has come from it all.
The can-do attitude I am referring to is the idea that every person who picks up a camera is capable of doing equivalent work to that of their professional peers. And, while it is great to be ambitious, there are distinct difference between the two. A person who can make a good meal isn't necessarily a chef; a person who can pluck a few notes of "Iron Man" isn't necessarily a guitar player; someone who can make a very nice stick figure drawing is not an artist. (I think I've made my point.) So, why has it become acceptable to call yourself a photographer based on simply owning a camera and being able to click a button?
There is so much more to being a photographer than setting your camera on "A" (for Auto) and pressing the button. Maybe you get a great photo, maybe not. But, a few lucky photographs is far from what makes a professional. In my humblest opinion, getting paid doesn't necessarily make you a professional either. See, I have taken pictures for years, but only recently did I become a photographer. (What the heck does that mean?) Well, I will explain.
I have been a paid "photographer" since 2010, but I have shied away from the title of photographer for many reasons. I had a lot to learn, a lot of portfolio building to do, and, honestly, there was/is an over saturation of photographers and I wanted to stand out when the time was right. I did not want to claim the title until I felt I have earned it. Earning it, to me, means acquiring the knowledge to perform as a professional and being comfortable recalling knowledge quickly so I don't miss a special moment. And, it is only in the last few years that I truly believe I possess the things that make a professional. (Even still, I have tons of growing and improving to do.)
Here is a nice bullet list of things I truly believe sets the professional photographer apart from all else:
- Knowing what the settings on your camera actually mean
- Having an understanding of camera gear
- Having an understanding of light
- Knowing how to read your environment
- Have a generally-favorable artistic eye
Knowing what the settings on your camera actually mean
This really should be a no-brainer, but all too often I see "photographers" who genuinely have no idea what the buttons and settings on their camera means. You should know the three variables that make up proper exposure, how they relate to each other and how to ignore your camera's readout to achieve your vision. No, "A" is generally not how professionals use their camera.
Having an understanding of camera gear
Aside from knowing your camera's settings and buttons, you should know the hardware itself. What lens is best for my vision? Why would this be the best option? What lens should I buy if I want to be a portrait photographer? F-stop, what is that a dance move?
Having an understanding of light
Light. That's the whole basis of photography. Take the word itself; it is a combination of two root words: phōtos meaning "light" and graphé meaning "drawing." The word literally means "drawing with light." So, you should really understand light temperature, the source size, "good" light, hard versus soft light and how it all relates to achieving your vision.
Knowing how to read your environment
Will that sign in the background detract from my subject, or will it become one with the creamy bokeh and add visual interest? Before you take photos, look around. Is your background adding to or detracting from your subject?
This is so incredibly important. If you know how to shoot in harsh daylight, great. But, what happens when you're inside a poorly lit church? Are you as equally impressive? What happens if you have planned all your bridal portraits outside, yet it starts raining? Can you deliver quality from what/where you have to work with? My advice is to put yourself into challenging situations and work your way through them. A professional can adapt to a situation by dipping into that all-important stored knowledge and experience to produce results that match the client's (and your own) expectations.
Have a generally-favorable artistic eye
Art can be an expression, an outlet. However, if we are claiming ourselves as professionals, the general public should be able to appreciate our work (assuming that's our market). If nobody "gets it" or likes your work, take a step back and figure out who you are trying to appeal to and what they like. This isn't saying you should abandon your uniqueness. Instead, find ways to be unique without sacrificing too many potential clients.
So here is my big closer: you shouldn't be a photographer. If you are unwilling to learn, progress and give your clients a product they love, don't bother. It sounds harsh, but more often than not you are responsible for capturing moments that will NEVER happen again. There have been times when my photographs were the last photographs of that person while they were living. So, if you call yourself a photographer, be ready to hold the weight of knowing that you are potentially capturing last moments. Do not adopt the title because it is trendy. Be a photographer because you love it- because you care about the services you provide. Otherwise, there are plenty of other amazing things you can be doing.