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Published July 20th 2006

Definition of a pro

What defines a professionel photographer and is it something you really want to be?

Clear Norwegian mountain lake
[Dynax 7, Vivitar 19-35mm f3.5-4.5, Provia 100]

Once upon a time, back before I started studying biology at the University in Copenhagen, I ran around from studio to studio in this town to try to get a job as a photographer's assistant. I had had a hard time staying interested in my studies, and I thought that photography was my future.

I thought of myself as a skilled and gifted photographer and I owned enough gear to impress most co-photographers. I thought the gear was mighty pro, and I thought that my slides -- most of them shot on Kodachrome 64 -- were better than most pictures I saw. I had darkroom-experience and knew my way around metering, exposure-times and aperture settings. I was sure I was meant to become a professional photographer.

The pros of Copenhagen didn't think so!

I don't think it was my skill level, my experience or my lack of enthusiasm that deterred them. Most of them just didn't need an assistant. My memory is that I was kindly but firmly adviced to seek other career goals than becoming a photographer by several of them. Kind-hearted people indeed!

It was like my father who used to be a musician. He warned us kids never to take up music as a profession.

Boring and technically perfect

Being a professional photographer is not at all as glorious as you might think. Most of us have a vision of creative and wild fashion shoots, action packed formula one pit lanes filled with tanned babes wearing next-to-nothing, death-defying war-photographers crawling on all four to get that cover photo for tomorrow's edition and many, many other fabulous fantasy scenes.

Well, sure enough these guys are out there. They are the ones we read about in the magazines and the ones who get featured on documentaries on tv. But they are the very few amongst photographers.

The few pros I have met or known, who take people photos, hang out in front of theatres and shoot semi-famous people for "I-whish-it-was-me" stories. Or they travel the country to take pictures of unknown people for "I'm-glad-it's-not-me" stories.
Assignments have very little room for creativity, and the pictures are mostly technically perfect, but also perfectly boring.

Most of the other pros I have met or known, spend their days in a studio shooting 3- or 5-picture bracketed series of images of products for brochures, catalogs and magazines. These photos are even more boring and even more technically perfect than the above mentioned. Here is usually no room at all for creativity. Most images will wind up masked on a white background, and even the occasional cover photo is usually very bound by a designer or layouter. The big challenge in this is avoiding fingerprints in shiny surfaces or getting water droplets to form perfectly on something that needs to look fresh.

Rear deck on a ferry
[Dynax 7D, Sigma 15mm f2.8 fisheye]

The filthy few

People who can live off their photography -- including the two groups above -- are really few compared to the vast number of serious photographers out there.
The share of these pros who do what we all dream of doing, the Yann Arthus-Bertrand's, the Steve Bloom's, the Valentine Atkinson's are extremely few.

These guys get to travel and take pictures and are able to live from it -- and then some.
It has probably required persistency, enthusiasm and skill to get where they are. And som luck to boot.

Most of us would like to do what they do -- I would at least -- but the chances that my search for a job as an assistant with a Danish photographer would have led to that, must be said to have been very slim. Since I didn't get the job I never became a professional photographer as such and never got the chance to start climbing that career ladder.

Not professional, but happy

So I just shot on as a happy amateur, continued with my studies and finally started working as a consultant and a freelance journalist specializing in computers. And I only took "professional" pictures occasionally when no assigned photographers were around. Because we used pros for the job whenever we could.

I also took up fishing again after having paused for a long while since I was a kid. And I started fly fishing quite a lot. And I started writing about that online and in magazines and taking pictures for these stories. Luckily there were people who wanted to buy these products, and indirectly I became a pro after all. Not living off my photography, but at least making money off it.

Nowadays I just take pictures of what I want and sell one or a few now and then.