There is so much antagonism in photography: light versus darkness, DSLR versus mirrorless, geek versus artist, Nikon versus Canon. And yes, soon after getting involved in it, one will inevitably face the ultimate dilemma: professional versus amateur. I got my first DSLR, a Nikon 3100, a good few years ago as a birthday present from my wife. At some point during the process of reading an astronomical number of articles, blogs and reviews, shooting thousands of pictures, buying (and then selling) various lenses and other gear, shooting more pictures, getting into post-processing and then shooting even more, an idea popped up in my mind: “I should become a pro!”
Nothing too ambitious planned, just quitting my job so I could spend every day scooting out great locations, waiting hours for the light, to quietly observe the world and play around with my camera, undisturbed, converting my devotion into cash to make up for the quitting part. And, of course, to spend it on the finest gear! I guess I am not the only person on this planet, who has been nurturing this idea.
The problem with this plan though, that I really don’t want to quit my job. I am an emergency vet and I love what I do, so there goes spending every day taking pictures. Furthermore, we have three little boys, so there goes the undisturbed part. A while after the initial shock of facing the stern reality of life, I started thinking about this:
Why people owning a camera want to become professionals?
Could we just pause for a moment and imagine that all the people who drive would try to get the best sports car and become a professional racer?
Having considered what would make people do that, here are just a few of the pretty obvious answers:
- Being a car racer is cool!
- Technology is fascinating and you could play with the best cars!
- Who would not want to get paid for driving around all day?
- You could quit your job (in case it interests you)
I find it easy to draw a parallel here with photography. Still, most of us are perfectly happy to think of a car as a utility tool: to get us from A to B. Even if you love driving, even if you love speeding and even if you are really into the latest and greatest, reading car magazines seldom mesmerizes masses into wanting to pursue racing as a career.
So how photography is different and what makes so many of us budding enthusiasts aim for the stars?
Well, have you ever peaked into forum chats? Or tried to look up your new favorite camera or lens on a review page? I almost always started having doubts about my choice and looking for the next best one. I usually reached the conclusion that I needed the latest full frame camera and a few lenses costing a minimum of a grand each. I nearly even persuaded myself that I would not mind dragging all that gear along a weekend trip with my family, all just to shoot a pigeon in a bush while kicking the ball around with the kids. Practical, eh?
There was another thing I noticed: while ruminating on these life and death questions, I forgot to do something: enjoying photography. I spent hours messing with my photos in Lightroom and got all upset about lighting, composition, blown out pixels, sharpness and so on. This battle with myself helped to confirm, that I should really become a pro, so I bought a new camera and a few more lenses (not talking about hording though!), and of course, spent more time reading stuff online. This is a vicious circle that is simple to get stuck in.
Photography is a unique marriage of art and technology. Ideally there should be a healthy balance between these two ingredients. And in an ideal world a beginner should find balanced resources on both aspects. The catch is that there is no step-by-step guide to becoming an artist. On the other had, there is a plethora of information about the technology, it can be learned and getting the best out there only depends on how deep your pocket is. When I got my first camera, just a few days of googling left me with the perception that pros have pro equipment and they take pro photos, that becoming better and becoming a professional are interlinked and if you are not willing to take it on, you will be stuck at the entry / enthusiast level.
But is it a bad thing, being an amateur?
To answer this question I circled back to the basic question of “What is photography about?”
The official answer is: Capturing the light. A slightly different one: Capturing the moment. Moments I missed while agonizing about the best camera, the best settings, the best lens to use, instead of going out and just shoot. Shoot anything that catches my eye.
Am I suggesting to be an amateur by ignoring the technicalities? Not at all. After all, if you drive a car it is favorable to be able to use the indicator, turn on the head lights, top up the engine oil, or even change a flat tire. But you can make the same trip in an 8-year-old Toyota just like in a brand new Mercedes, and may even find the ride through a scenic landscape equally enjoyable.
Have you ever stumbled into the “pro versus amateur dilemma”? Are you an amateur, whose photo shoots routinely coincide with family events and outings? I can offer you my fully amateur advice, some of the tips and tricks I would have loved to hear when I started out:
While it is true to an extent that gear doesn’t matter, it definitely does when it comes to your own. Most people who get into photography can not escape to adore how good these machines are and what they are capable of. If you are an absolute beginner, I would suggest to get the first decent entry level camera they can afford and use it to learn the manual settings. By the time you will badly want a new camera, you should have a pretty good idea of what your preferences are. If you notice that most of the time you photograph your kids or dogs running around, check out DSLRs with speed and accurate autofocus.
If you are more into travel and don’t want to drag around kilos of stuff, you might want to look into Micro Four Thirds. While you will most probably be okay without a full frame beast, don’t ignore your heart’s desire! I ended up getting a Nikon D7200. Do I utilize all its potential? Of course not. Do I love it? Absolutely! The good thing about being an amateur is that buying gear is an emotional decision rather than a financial one. Try to look at it as choosing a partner, not as an investment. There are loads of great cameras out there offering way more than what an amateur needs. But if it has just one feature that really matters to you or makes your life easier and you can afford it: go for it! Just make sure, that you will feel like a kid at Christmas every time when you take it out of your bag.
What about lenses then? Similarly to cameras, experiment and stick to the ones you use most. If you keep going back to a zoom lens, don’t feel ashamed just because you read somewhere that real photographers only use prime lenses. Do you think your gran will tell you off when looking at your holiday pictures that they would have better resolution if they were taken with a prime? No one is ever going to notice. Having said that, I use primes, but only because it works better for me. If I have a chance to zoom, I mess about with it too much. But again, personal preferences. After going through a fair number of lenses I ended up keeping the 2 lenses I actually used for anything more than gathering dust: a Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S and a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 Macro. The long macro gives a bit of a reach, plus the ability to capture miniature wonders even if we are just out in the garden.
For everything else, there is the 35mm.
The same goes for accessories. Try them and see which ones give you some real benefit. For instance, I would love to use a tripod. Got one. Do you want to guess how many times I used it in the last few years? Exactly, zero. I understand what an essential tool it is, but it is so impractical with our current lifestyle that I just accepted that landscape photography will have to wait a decade or so. If you have kids, your best friends are a camera bag with easy access, a comfortable strap and good quality UV filters to protect your glass. Oh, and kids are a great reason to buy a sturdy camera with magnesium-alloy body.
2) Taking Photos
Landscape photographer, wildlife photographer, sport photographer, photojournalist, street photographer. Seriously? You are going out with kids, ready for destruction! Have dogs too? Even better! Trying to stick to a genre while repeatedly preventing a cataclysm, that’s what I call an overachiever. Why not try just having your camera ready, so you can actually shoot moments that matter for you?
When trying to photograph your own kids, there are a few key points to remember: kids are fast, they don’t pose for photographs, even less so on demand and most of your family members will want loads of pictures of them. And it is a great exercise to get on top of the manual settings and sharpen your eye. Exploring shutter speed and autofocus settings will help tackle the movement involved.
Paying attention is generally good for the well-being of children and particularly useful in capturing decisive moments.
Once you got these covered, try something new, like headshots wide open, and get ready to amaze those aunties!
Do you ever go out with your family during the golden hour? Well, we don’t. Going out and harsh sunlight are often best friends, so it is good to learn how to deal with it. Using a flashlight is a fantastic way to open up those horrible shadows. Feel embarrassed using the built-in flash? Don’t be! If you ever find yourself facing the sun and your flashlight is packed away, it is still your best option to take an acceptable shot of a moment that is never going to happen again.
If there is a stage when things can go wrong and you can end up hating your own photos, is post-processing. Ever took your camera to the playground and went home with 500+ pictures? Ever tried to post-process them? Did it make you feel good? Thought so.
I sense some of you are thinking about the question of shooting JPEG at this point. Fair enough, there is an argument in there to leave things up to the camera and not to worry about Lightroom (no bias, simply that’s the one I use). And to be fair, just because a picture is shot in JPEG and not perfect, it can still look good.
However, shooting RAW opens up a new horizon of possibilities. For starters, if you shoot JPEG, you inevitably end up changing settings in your camera while out there. Shooting RAW saves you tons of time when out and about. Or remember the horrible shadows? Moving a few sliders in the post-processing software can make a world of a difference and leave you with a much more pleasing result.
In my early days I had reservations about post-processing, mainly after reading some opinions about how it jeopardizes the honesty of photography. Then I realized, that no matter what you do, you are never going to see the same in a photo that you saw with your eyes. You have a tool at your disposal to bring what the camera sensor sees closer to what you actually saw. I try not to be pragmatic, after all I want to have photos that I like and there is no harm in playing around a bit with the sliders.
Sitting hours in front of the monitor can be frustrating, so I gradually reduced the time I spend on post-processing. My routine boiled down to this:
- After importing a batch they go on the Map. I remember locations well, so this is the easiest way for me to find photos, much quicker than keywording.
- Cull the absolutely unusable pictures only. I keep the rest of them, even if they are a bit out of focus, have a messed up composition, or I merely don’t like them. It only takes some extra storage place and for example my mum always picks the photos I would otherwise delete.
- Select the best ones, taking both technical and emotional value into account.
- The lucky ones go to the “To Print” collection.
These are the only ones I properly post-process, as I never get around to touch the remainder again, let alone printing… I focus on time saving at this stage too by using a preset consisting of settings I usually apply to most of the photos, like applying camera standard profile, lens correction, judicious amounts of contrast, clarity and vibrance. This drastically reduces the time I have to spend with the fine tuning of individual photos, such as white balance and exposure adjustments, vignetting or cropping if needed. This limited selection of the better shots makes it much more pleasant to experiment with settings and presets.
So is it a bad thing then?
Definitely no! Being an amateur is brilliant! You are not bound by expectations, you are allowed to make any mistake, you can define your own rules and aesthetics and if you remember why are you taking photographs, you might learn to love more of your not totally perfect pictures.
You are not pushed by the devil on your shoulder to achieve something unrealistic or uncomfortable, as you are given the opportunity to embark on a lifelong journey of trial and error and just enjoy the ride. And as a bonus you walk away with a portfolio of the precious, interesting and peculiar moments of your own life.
In the light of these, you might even want to consider a career change:
Become an amateur!
The recipe is simple: get to know your gear, use it for taking pictures and enjoy photography as much as I do!
This guest post was contributed by Dr Gabor Nemes.
One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time !
Well done !!!
Great comments and they reinforce what I’ve thought for decades, especially since digital is so readily available. Everyone with a phone to a Hasselblad believes he or she can do what the pros do. And some can, but if you really want the best from whatever equipment you have, it takes practice and learning from those who are the pros when they are willing to share and be generous with their talent and skill. The technology is easy; the artist part isn’t so easy. Keep shooting from the heart.
I liked the article. This is a family man’ POV and suits my experience too. Well done and thank Photographylife for publishing. My finding is that in this world of overwhelming imagery becoming a pro needs top level skills, practice, fortune and consistent performance. There are amateurs whose photography is just astonishing but they aren’t pro because they don’t earn money from that. Nonetheless their pictures are pro-level.
Matteo, that is precisely one of my points. You infer that “pro-level” is better than “amateur”. That’s not what defines a pro; it’s the fact that he makes a living out of it. I know pro’s whose work is by many criteria sub-standard, the just manage to make a living out of it, and vice versa.
I’ll be nasty here: substandard article, both in content and form. English is not my mother language and even then (or maybe because of it) I see mistakes. I’m not criticising the author, but the publisher. About the content, there are quite a few misconceptions about what it means being a pro vs being an amateur. I have done work and art and the in-betweens, and there are jobs that require your technical know-how and capabilities and give no room for your own discretion (product catalogues, for instance), while others offer more leeway and even your personal touch in what you do (the pre-wedding pictures of the bride and broom, for example). And for the few lucky of us, there are those opportunities in which our art shines through… or fails miserably in terms of sales, but if it is your art, you just don’t care about that.
I see the good intentions of the author (by the way: what’s up with the Dr. title?) but he falls short in delivering something truly contributing. I hesitated about my comments because it’s not kind, but I’m probably used to another level or articles here. For a forum it would have been fine, more than fine, in fact. But here it’s ho-hum and misleading. The pictures are truly beautiful, though.
Excellent article. Something else to be noted is that being a pro can pretty quickly sap your affection, love and enthusiasm for a passion. I was a fan of American football for years and yet when I started working on it and having to watch multiple games a week multiple times I found myself not wanting at all to watch even more games that I normally would have. I do still love the sport, but I am already dealing with so much of it that I can’t simply add more because now it’s my job, not just a hobby or passion.
While there are certainly professionals who deeply love their job and still with the same passion as when they were amateurs, I do think it’s by far a minority and that most people could end up disenchanted once they had rigid timelines, subjects etc. to deal with for years. Just my thoughts though, I could easily be wrong.
Again, many thanks for your input and for the pictures, those kids are quite lovely. Cheers, fellow amateur!
Back in the noughties, I went through an intense few years of prolific photography where I went from being a total noob to having a photoessay published in the UK’s largest daily newspaper. At that point, I considered going ‘pro’. For reasons of income, family, and everything that has happened to debase the currency of photography since, I’m very glad I did not go down that route, even though there was maybe a 50/50 chance I could have made a subsistence living from it. I now have other challenges and bad habits with photography, and need to push myself more, to get out of my comfort zones and achieve new things. But I do photography for pleasure, and for posterity (photos of my family). A lot of people get great joy from seeing my photos, which do bear the mark of someone with ability, but who more importantly has also been learning and applying himself, to make their craft better. When I have a moment of ‘what might have been’ I remind myself of the above, and carry on shooting. It helps enormously that I also get satisfaction from my day-job.
Hear, hear! It”s been much the same for me, Niall – except that I’ve taken over half a century to make that journey, and one thing giving me enormous pleasure now is being able to do my own “colour processing”, now that I’ve switched over completely to digital. I always found it a bit frustrating during the analogue era – and spent the overwhelming majority of it in B&W. The switch has been giving me – and my victims! – enormous pleasure.
Great article and great shots. Thanks for the excellent read!
A very nice and thoughtful reflection on what so many of us go through as amateur photographers. Thank you. You have captured many of the phases and concerns and reminded us that to enjoy photography one must find the joy in photography. It’s all too easy to become enmeshed in too many decisions about gear and technique(s). A hobby should give one pleasure and satisfaction as well as the reward of accomplishment.
Gabor, nice pictures!! Also you wrote this: ‘The catch is that there is no step-by-step guide to becoming an artist.’ Yes, there is NO any guide to become an Artist in the World!!! For ARTISTS ARE SIMPLY BORN!!! My wife can paint, draw whatever she thinks about. No, she has not got any ‘art’ education, she was born like that….. and I? ….Oh, I am a PHOTOGRAPHER, of course!!! Amateur one of course for I did prefer to make real money somewhere else!!!
It is true, the best artists are gifted from birth. But some of us can work hard and apply ourselves and earn the title of artist, too. And some of us even benefit from ‘art’ education along the way!
Very good article! I can see myself in your comments. My first degree was in photography in 1972. I would highly recommend anyone considering that route read your article. In 1979 I went back to school and spent 35 years in a clinical laboratory. During that time I started “collecting” full frame Nikon gear with the idea I might try nature photography on a professional basis when I retired. I have since come to the same realization you suggest. At 68 I began bringing fewer lenses/cameras with me. I currently have totally switched to Micro Four Thirds and have not looked back. Oddly enough, the smaller sensor has not affected my photography all that much other than I currently don’t have a reason not to have what I need with me and I might actually get the image. I met four photographers who specialize in nature work. Three have web sites and all four are very talented. No one in that group is actually making a living with it. One only has to travel to the Western US and count the photography businesses that offer workshops to realize that it really is a tough way to make a living. It also is a great hobby!