A Note to Marissa Mayer: What’s a Professional Photographer?

A Note to Marissa Mayer: What’s a Professional Photographer?

Instagram (!) photo by Roger Kisby

This appears to be a big week for Yahoo! with their $1 billion Tumblr acquisition announcement followed by a number of changes to their Flickr service. Exciting stuff in the tech world. However, amid the Yahoo! hoopla, CEO Marissa Mayer managed to insult the entire professional photography community with her comments, being widely interpreted as “there’s no such thing as professional photographers” anymore.

Oops. Now, we’ve all been in a position where an off-the-cuff comment doesn’t come out as intended, fair enough. But this one continues to sit poorly with me. Here’s the actual quote, in context:

“…there’s no such thing as Flickr Pro, because today, with cameras as pervasive as they are, there is no such thing really as professional photographers, when there’s everything is professional photographers [sic]. Certainly there is varying levels of skills, but we didn’t want to have a Flickr Pro anymore, we wanted everyone to have professional quality photos, space, and sharing.”

OK, so we are all now “photographers” thanks to the fact that a camera is always with us. Sure, I buy that. I’ve taken more than a handful of good photos with help from my inexpensive DSLR and a few good lenses. And, I’m as guilty as everyone else when it comes to Instagramming my kids and my dinner (only the stuff I cook, mind you). We can all apply lovely filters and share our images via websites, social networks, contests, and even on any number of corporate “communities” where brands may showcase user generated photos. But let’s be very clear…NONE of these tools makes us anything close to “professional” and the role of the real professional photographer is very much alive and in demand.

I’ve had the good fortune of surrounding myself with professional photographers for several years. And from them, I’ve learned that there are more than a handful of traits that define a professional photographer. So, for Marissa Mayer and anyone else who may feel that there’s “no such thing” as a professional photographer anymore, I submit the following list.

13 Traits That Make a Photographer “Professional”

 A professional photographer…

  1. Approaches a project in a manner that shows respect for both the subject and the client’s goal.
  2. Works with a client to achieve that goal under specific budget constraints.
  3. Delivers the end result, as agreed upon, on time and in a manner that shows the client’s most critical needs are understood.
  4. Finds ways to make a client’s life easier from the beginning of a project to the end, including saving them time and making them look like a hero.
  5. Is prepared to face any problem with a creative solution, from the most dire to the off-the-wall.
  6. Takes criticism and adjusts (quickly) in order to get the job done.
  7. Can completely pivot among all kinds of changing circumstances.
  8. Presents, negotiates, agrees, executes, invoices, and follows up with consistency and personal pride.
  9. Knows how to pitch and market oneself with accuracy so the promised service is what’s delivered.
  10. Researches the subject of a story and contributes insights and vision that make the end result better.
  11. Builds rapport with a subject in a way that gains unique access, makes them more comfortable, or exposes their personality.
  12. Keeps one’s composure while dodging bombsborders, and mobs, linebackers and foul balls, sharks, elephants, horses, and bees, roadies, divas, tornadoes, and brides and any other incoming threats or obstacles, and still gets the job done.

And to the final one (#13) I’ll add – there’s nobody I’ve met on this planet who can tell stories like a professional photographer can. Period.

Filters, “likes”, and terabytes of storage don’t make any of us any more “professional”. Being a professional is about how photographers conduct themselves while carrying out their projects and serving their clients. These are skills that are learned and honed, and those who excel at it deserve our respect.

Please don’t hesitate to add to this list, I’m sure I’ve missed more than a few.

UPDATE: As of this afternoon, Marissa Mayer has issued a clarification via Twitter. And, I continue to stand by items 1-13, above.


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This article was written by

PhotoShelter CEO. Follow on Twitter: @awfingerman and Instagram: @awfinger

There are 56 comments for this article
  1. Rachel Juarez-Carr at 3:04 pm

    I know professional photographers exist, because we’re totally different to the unprofessional photographers.

  2. Steve Kean at 3:05 pm

    For all the reasons above, 1-13, I can say that I am not a professional photographer because I get paid. Rather, I am paid BECAUSE I AM A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER. I strive to bring all of my skills and abilities to bear, not just photo skills, to understand and communicate my clients’ vision.

  3. Rick Brown at 3:09 pm

    Love it Andrew. Good photographs are no longer the exclusive purview of “professional photographers,” but there are certainly still things we do that amateurs don’t. Your list does a fantastic job of describing those things.

  4. JC Ruiz at 3:10 pm

    Well said. She can take the easy way out and says her words were taken out of context but I guess that is something someone in her skill level would say. I was excited for the new Flickr but after her comments I’ll just stay over at 500px

  5. Lauren Margolis at 3:19 pm

    Statement of the obvious: Ms. Mayer’s quote lumps everyone with a camera into one group, not acknowledging the points made by Andrew above. “Amateur” photographers might indeed need quality photos, space, and sharing – but professionals need a whole host of other tools to run their businesses. I think something that’s often overlooked is the professional photographer as a sole proprietor.

  6. Jesamin Califf at 3:24 pm

    Another waste of time. Why are you and anyone else making such a big deal about what some stranger has said?!! How do you know that was that person’s intention? More importantly why do you care?? Just like SLR Lounge, I thought this was a site of teaching, learning, and community not making mountains out of mole hills. This is silly. And let’s be bigger than that!

  7. Kristian at 3:29 pm

    Can’t wait to see the results when she hires some random “photographer” for a boudoir session since there’s no such thing as a professional anymore. This lady is just clueless. How’d she get this job again?

  8. Kristine at 3:42 pm

    I get that she is sorry and it was taken out of context and she was referring to the amount of space provided on Flickr, but is she saying that people that take a lot of pictures are professionals? I make a lot of beds, but that doesn’t make me a maid. Oh wait, maybe it does.

  9. Russ Bishop at 3:50 pm

    As Red Adair said “if you think hiring a professional is expensive, just wait ’til you hire an amateur!”

    The bottom line is Flickr never was about anything professional (pro account or otherwise) so it really doesn’t matter what their CEO says.

    Just like Facebook and 500px, it’s free exposure (which never hurts), but for the serious side of photography Photoshelter gives me the tools I need to provide professional service with my professional images to my professional clients.

  10. Isabelle Bouchard at 4:01 pm

    Understanding light as a medium like a painter understands acrylic, oil, watercolour,… Flat light, short light, Rembrandt lighting, butterfly lighting, light that makes shadows harsh or soft light that reduces contrast. Understanding (in the case of portraiture) which light is best for making your subject stand out and look his/her best as well as using light to enhance the mood you are trying to recreate.

  11. John Martin at 4:03 pm

    Gee, no one mentioned that in the eyes of Uncle Sam, a professional (in any professiona pays taxes on their business earnings. THAT is the legal defining interpretation of what a professional is. All of that other mumble jumbo is just gibberish.

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  13. jim harrison at 4:44 pm

    Ms. Mayer missed the mark completely when attempting to justify a product change with her assertion that professional photographers no longer exist as the impetus behind that corporate decision.

    Not all of the Flickr devotees that were paying for “Pro” accounts were professional photographers.

    Clearly, no thought was given to her remarks, beforehand. To me, that’s the larger issue if I’m relying on her to move the company forward. Good grief.

  14. James Hedley at 4:50 pm

    Seems a lot of photographers are being a little over sensitive to what Mayer said. She’s only trying to promote a photo sharing website with the usual marketing guff.

  15. robert at 6:17 pm

    I have seen plenty of great photos, and have aquired alot of ideas from many different photographs on flickr. “Professional” or not, the outcome is what matters to me. Your opinion of what a professional is, is just that, an opinion! If a photographer follows your 13 steps that dos not make them professional. The quality of a photo determines your level of professionalism.

  16. Frank Stjerne at 6:17 pm

    I agree with you, but Yahoo is now a very, very serious competor biting you on pricing and storage. I know the sales part is not a part of Flickr, but it is not necessarerily what a pro need.

  17. Melissa Springer at 6:25 pm

    Funny, no one mentioned that to be a professional photographer, one must take great photographs. It is the eye, not the equipment. It is the soul, not the marketing. It is the ability to “reveal” that is key to all great photographs. It is the decisive moment, not hours of post production, that maybe, just might, make one person think in a different way.

  18. Tony Gay at 7:46 pm

    Just because I have a Quill does not mean I can write like William Shakespeare, I can go more high tech and use a pencil, pen or computer, I still can not write like the Bard.

    I am not going to employ someone to write a script just because they have a pen, or because they write a blog.

    Like wise with a camera, anyone can be in the right place at the right time and get a nice shot, what about when you are not in the right place at the right time, can you get the shot?

  19. cyndy green at 9:17 pm

    OK…so add a few to that list.
    Understands and uses aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and focal length of lens to achieve maximum effectiveness (too many amateurs just go with auto and have no clue).
    Has a website with carefully selected photos/images featuring their best work (too many amateurs post EVERYTHING).
    Has a code of ethics and sticks with it.
    Understands good business practices.

  20. Carl at 9:40 pm

    Marissa is playing to her Board of Directors and Wall St. The stock price is what drives her. The changed at flickr are economics pure and simple.

  21. Gunther Deichmann at 10:43 pm

    What a stupid comment… I guess if she would be married to a Pro Photographer he be out of a Job now. I know times have changed, some for the worst some for the better, Photo Shop has done a lot of damage and now “everybody” calls himself a Master do they really know the real Masters or have we forgotten all about them already. I like to see some out there and shoot Kodachrome… most of them don’t even know about it and it is not so long ago. Now here comes this CEO and makes statements like this…wake up Girl and do your Home work first. You did not only insult the Pro Photographers and Photo Journalists who put their life on the line but Photography as an art form. Here is a nice quote from Edward Weston – “Photography to the amateur is recreation, to the professional it is work, and hard work too, no matter how pleasurable it my be.”

  22. Theger at 1:48 am

    I listened to the announcement and I realize she had been discussing the “pro account” they sold prior to yesterday’s announcement. While I agree with your bakers dozen, I do feel people will continue to berate her comments.

    People’s online reactions have been petty, insulting and demeaning, but would never actually be used in a face to face conversation.

    The nice thing about Flickr has always been that it was your photographs and behaviour which defined your status, how you participated in the community through what you shared and how you became part of he conversations.

    In that sense, when people can only see you for what you say and what you share, there are no “professionals” and “amateurs”… Thee are only pictures and the people who make them.

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  24. Rob Pinney at 6:35 am

    The points in this list that pertain to ethics are not the exclusive remit of a ‘professional’ — and they’re certainly not only to be practiced when working for a client. They’re things that stem from actually thinking about what it is we’re doing, how photographs work — socially and politically, rather than chemically (or digitally) — it’s something that’s missing from a lot of photography, but the divide isn’t between ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’.

  25. Steve Mac at 7:10 am

    Ohhhh! That number 6 is a hard one..yet so important to understand. We photographers are by nature artists..learning to accept constructive criticism is hard..yet vital to our professional success! Can’t get more professional than that!

  26. Rachel J. Chavez at 9:42 am

    So basically a professional photographer is someone who presents, negotiates, makes his client’s life a lot easier and all the other traits mentioned in this post. So therefore i conclude, it doesn’t mean only being paid for the work but giving work beyond what is expected of them.

  27. Emma Mercer at 11:56 am

    There are the paid professionals and the paid unprofessionals. I salute all the paid professionals who do their jobs really well and make all their clients happy not only with the pictures they took but with the kind of service they render.

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  29. Jeff Granbery at 6:59 pm

    Well reading all of this and then going to her twitter account where she has deleted most of her apologies (she left one) how nice. I have to say i wonder who shot her image on her twitter page and PR photo. Must not be a pro, looks way too easy.right (@marissamayer )

    Oh I have a computer, so I must be a CIO right.

    I once was told that professionalism is not a job title but an attitude. I wonder if she is taking notes…

  30. Ryan Wright at 3:49 am

    Reading through the comments, there are many takes on what makes a professional photographer. From the simple, you making living by doing photography to the more complex (like the list you gave us Andrew). I don’t have anything to add to the lists really. Marissa backpedaled and said she was only referencing pro accounts on Flickr, and who knows if that is accurate.

    And the end the day, I cannot imagine myself doing something other than photography for my own reasons. I believe that I’m professional in my presentation, candor, business, and how I carry myself. I also believe that I take professional quality photos. But which of those defines whether or not I’m a professional photographer isn’t a huge concern.

  31. Brian at 9:36 am

    Funny, Marissa, how most of the pictures of YOU which were used to illustrate the Yahoo/Tumblr deal….were mine. They were shot at TechCrunch Disrupt in NYC, where I was the house photographer.

    Why did all the news outlets and magazines not use cell phone pictures? Instagrammer shots? iPad snaps?

    Oh, that’s right, because they SUCKED.

    The reason there are professional photographers is the same reason there are professional CEOs. There is a demand.

    You should try it.

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  33. Peter Ou at 5:06 pm

    A professional photographer is the sort of picture-taking person that Marissa Mayer would hopefully hire if she married again. Or for her child’s wedding.

    Unless, she decides to just find any random person uploading cat pictures onto Flickr.

  34. Lorrie Prothero at 5:11 pm

    i don’t call myself a professional photographer – because I don’t want the emphasis on whether or not I’m paid. I want to be known as an artist with photography because I know how to use light and composition to make a good photograph. Having good quality ONES AND ZEROS does NOT make a photograph good, it just improves the quality of the presentation.

  35. Susie T at 5:26 pm

    I have a desk. Am I a CEO? Oh wait. As a journalist I tend to think prior to putting my foot in my mouth. Guess I can’t be.

  36. Cheryl Pierce at 5:38 pm

    I call myself a photographer and am doing everything on this list to some degree. What I am NOT doing is being paid, not because I’m unprofessional in my approach, but because I have no desire to be a business owner. I know my limitations and never promise something I can’t deliver. I’m constantly learning and stretching my skills. So, am I a professional or not? If being paid is part of the definition, then no.

  37. Marjo at 8:20 pm

    A professional photographer is also someone who has the ability to get the job done, no excuses. This means that they have not only the equipment and a great “eye’, but also such a broad knowledge of technique that whatever the client requires, they know how to implement this. This has little to do with “a great eye” or knowing a few tricks – and everything with having learned the craft and all that goes into it. Also, aprofessional doesn’t show up with one camera, one lens, one light setup, and one whatever. A professional comes prepared with everything they need and then backups for everything. A professional is prepared for every eventuality, from any equipment breaking, any plan being changed, any person tripping over their bag or tripod and suing them. A professional understand that a major part of any project is the meticulous planning, research, and logistics that goes into a project before the camera ever comes out of the bag. A professional is someone who prices their products and services so that they are actually making a living of their work after the CODB has been subtracted and they provide a product/service that justifies this price. There are many amateurs that “have a good eye” and can take great photos and do great personal photo-projects, but none of that has much bearing when it comes to declaring oneself a professional.

  38. Marjo at 8:24 pm

    Bu the way, I have been thinking of starting a company that sells bigger desk, because you know there are really no CEO’s anymore. Everyone can have a big desk now, even with a computer on it, so we don’t need any CEOs anymore!

  39. Frank Dean at 10:34 pm

    I hate to sound so cynical, but I get Marissa’s point. I’ve been a “pro” for over 30 years now and I’ve watched the business slowly deteriorate. Budgets have dropped to ridiculous and I can now count far more great photogs who’ve left the biz than are still left.

    The thing is, we all like to think we are really something special and that our talents are rare, but you only need to peruse sites like this and 500px for a little while to realize there’s a glut of really excellent photographers out there, most of whom are just hobbyists.

    The other problem is that the tools are becoming more and more ubiquitous, and people are becoming more shameless with Photoshop, and the public doesn’t care. It’s almost daily that I see someone post a pic on Facebook, claiming how AWESOME it is when all it is, is a ridiculous PS composite.

    Until the public recognizes and learns to appreciate the value of a really great photograph, we’re toast.

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  41. Lynn Magnuson at 2:46 am

    I don’t think either a skilled photographer with a business license, OR a skilled business person with a fancy camera is a “professional photographer”. It takes both. Not even the most advanced camera can create skill that isn’t there, but a professional can take professional quality photos with a basic adjustable SLR. That was all we had in the years before digital photography, automatic exposure control and so on. But you cannot build into a camera the feel for composition and light, the precise timing, etc. that a professional photographer will have gained through many years of shooting. For someone to suggest that “professional photography no longer exists” is an insult to those people who photograph for a living. It shows an ignorance for the craft of photography, and I’m using the term “craft” in the same sense it’s used within the film industry, to describe something honed to near perfection through years of experience.
    Please … Ms. Mayer, apologize to those of us who hold that degree of skill!

  42. Mike Strong at 4:26 pm

    In some ways I have to agree with the words of her statement. Starting with Number 10 on your list “Researches the subject of a story and contributes insights and vision …” I do extensive research including lots of (dance) rehearsals so that I can shoot from my knowledge. I’ve observed all too many photographer approach their subject only as a matter of framing and fast shooting attempting to capture anything.

    I was brought up short the other week by a couple of writers who wanted me to give them a couple of my best selections from a stage show. They didn’t want to look at shots to select one or more. They didn’t care to really let me in on their angle or approach except than one of them wanted photos of one of the actors. They had no interest in a photo with information to go with their story, or any information on the performances or performers. They just wanted some eye candy to draw attention to their article. Information was incidental.

    Whether writers or editors, this situation is more common than we like to think. Shooters are often no better. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve watched news photographers shoot a dance company I am working with only to turn out pictures which from the reproduction size in the paper says they must be proud of the shot when the shot is normally ignorant of dance, choreography, technique, position and so much more. The companys want the publicity and are glad for it but then come the groans. I’ve watched this for years. It can be disheartening to see someone who doesn’t know a relevé from an elevator get their groan-inducing photo published in their paper.

    Skills alone do not make up for lack of subject knowledge. But the publications seem neither to care nor notice. Send someone out for a few minutes to shoot and go. They don’t seem to care who shoots, pro or someone’s uncle, aunt or a dog with a GoCam mounted. So, in that respect Marissa Mayer is not totally wrong, though I wish she were.

  43. Don Hajicek at 4:42 pm

    May I shorten the list?

    A professional photographer…

    1. Doesn’t care how the CEO of Yahoo! defines what a professional photographer is.

    Problem solved!

  44. Stephan Berglund at 4:22 pm

    I feel sorry for the CEO if that’s what she really believes. I have worked as a photographer for the last ten years and made my income from that. Fed my three kids with money earned from photography. Payed for my apartement with the that same money. Went through years of formal education in arts and photography. Teaches photography for high school students. Have a studio in my garage. Built a dark room in my closet when I was young. Read at least 1000 magazines and 100 books about photography and composition. Shares my knowledge and get knowledge back from people in the business every day. Worked at news magazines covering everything from sports to traumas. Bought equipment for 50.000 USD to be able to provide the best technical quality to my clients. Learned Photoshop from the core and can now use it with ease (heck, what does 13 years of digital editing experience mean when we now have vintage looks through one-click with Instagram, huh !). I also now learn psychology to be able to connect better with clients and make them feel comfortable together with me. And I will never stop improving to be able to always deliver the absolute best for my clients…but hey…go buy a smart phone and you are there already. Right ?

  45. Maggie at 3:50 pm

    I have to weigh in on this because I have been a professional photographer for over 20 years. The fact that Mayer said this shows the mentality of the current market. I shoot Corporate photography. I am probably one of the busiest in my area. Yet, making a living is not consistent. The mentality of people is that they want a photo that THEY like. Look at Linkedin as an example. The majority of people on there have terrible photos. The shots taken by professionals stand out above the crowd. Yet people don’t equate professional photos with their business. It’s idiotic.

    Many people don’t want to pay for a professional anymore. They nickle and dime. Just the other day someone cancelled me because they didn’t expect the cost to be that much. It was a joke how much the cost was. Walmart charges more. When you look at the quality of my work and creative expertise you just can’t believe that people see your work as the equivalent of an iphone photo…but they do.

    Marketing is so much harder because this is the mentality of the majority of the people, including Corporations. They don’t see the benefits of real quality work. Yet my experience tells them they are all incorrect. I have many satisfied clients. They tell me. Yet when their marketing departments are asked for good quality photographers, they don’t even take the time to look at the preferred list. A major bank I have worked with for many years, told their people to go to Walmart, even when a client contacted them to request a session with me.

    The marketing department didn’t care I had scores of satisfied clients with their bank.

    As a professional. I give 100% to each individual I work for. Yet I still struggle to make ends meet. I don’t know if I even want to stay in this business much longer and with 20 years experience, I think I know what I am talking about.

    When I look back at the money I used to make, it is 100% definite that digital killed the world of professional photography, photo shop added a bit to that too. Now people think they can take photos with their Iphone and that is professional enough. Ridiculous. I say it tells a lot about the individual themselves and how they see professionalism.

    Many non professionals take photos that are not technically correct. There are scores of them out there taking our work who don’t even know an f-stop or depth of field. It’s just awful what I see and yet here I am a well schooled professional struggling to stay in the business.

    Eventually, we will all quit. Then people will see what real professional photography WAS.

  46. Roxanne at 1:53 pm

    I realize I am quite late comment about this, but I had not heard anything about this until today.
    There have been several comments here from people saying that those of us who are offended by this enough to comment on it are “over-reacting” or “taking it too seriously”. What they need to realize is that many of us who are professional photographers have worked long and hard to get there, not just learning as a photographer, but also running the business side of things. We often are in markets where we have to compete with amateurs for work, because there are so many people out there that buy a camera & decided to hire themselves out, and the clients often don’t know the difference (at least until they see the photos). While it is true that most of these businesses run by amateurs don’t last long, it is also true that there are constantly new people with the same attitude coming into the market to take their place. This makes things extremely difficult for a true professional trying to run their own small business. Comments like the one Ms Mayer made are very detrimental, because of the fact that so many potential clients can’t see the difference between a true professional and an amateur, and comments like the one she made serve to fuel the belief that their is no difference.

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