What is the DNA of the twenty-first century professional photographer?

I have been asked the question, “What do you think defines a professional photographer?” I have also outlined my response in depth. But my own personal journey to discover an answer has led me to ask the same question of others, who I feel have yet to understand how the answer helps to define their personal expectations of a career as a photographer—in this respect I suppose that I am poacher turned gamekeeper. The answers I receive from aspiring photographers and students seem to be universally similar: “You get paid to take photographs.” “You work for magazines.” “You take the pictures you want and people pay you.” Sometimes I am met with a protracted silence that ends with an awkward admission that the person does not know and has never considered questioning what defines them as a photographer.

From experienced photographers the answer is different, but again there is a universal commonality: “Well, it’s all changed.” “That’s a good question. It’s not like it used to be.” “I don’t know anymore.” “I still do what I used to do, I just don’t shoot as much; but I still describe myself as a professional photographer.” This sense of confusion and loss of direction is most obviously stated in a joke, “What is the difference between a deep dish pizza and a professional photographer? A deep dish pizza can feed a family of four!” This is a realistic situation for many photographers, but it does not have to be the case— however, it will be if professionals continue to see themselves purely as providers of still images for commission.

It is clear that the term “professional photographer” needs to be both questioned and redefined to accurately explain the expectations that the commercial world has and to assess what skill sets and attributes are now required. The DNA of the professional photographer has to be rebuilt just as you would rebuild the motherboard of a computer to allow it to perform new and more challenging functions.

Photographer Alec Soth has embraced the concept of the new global landscape and has established a photographic practice that allows him to connect his work and personal projects directly with his online community. He does this by creating everything from self-published posters and journals to T-shirts and books via his publishing company Little Brown Mushroom.

Today photographers must consider, understand, and be willing to accept that they must also be publishers, marketers, journalists, social media communicators, broadcasters, filmmakers, retouchers, sound recordists, podcasters, bloggers, speakers, post- production artists, typesetters, designers, website builders, distributors, curators, gallerists, promoters, and entrepreneurs. I am not saying that every professional photographer has to adopt all of these roles on a full-time basis alongside their photographic practice. What I am saying is that the new landscape expects photographers to consider all of these roles and will at different times necessitate that they be addressed. Why? Because technology has given photographers the tools not only to create images but also to self-publish, promote, exhibit, and connect their work directly to their chosen audience. It has given them the opportunity to build a community for their work and to communicate with it directly—in short it has put photographers in control and opened up a vast array of creative opportunities that can be used to stand out from the crowd, build a career, and experience creative fulfillment previously available only to those with large budgets and unlimited expertise across all creative fields.

I understand that professional photographers are not necessarily trained journalists, graphic designers, or publishers. However, the moment they decide to create a business card, website, or blog, these are exactly the roles they are adopting. It therefore makes sense to investigate these creative areas and add them to the essential DNA of a professional photographer. The same can be said for all of the other skill sets I have outlined. In addition to curating work on a website, photographers may wish to self-publish their work as a magazine, blog the process, or exhibit their work as a printed show. Photographers may also want to offer clients films for their websites. When you start to see the role of the professional photographer in this context, it becomes clear that the reassessment of your own essential DNA not only needs to be questioned, it needs to be redrawn—no matter what stage of your career you are in.

This redrawing is as relevant to a photographer working within an editorial environment as one working within advertising, from the contemporary art field to the domestic wedding market. All genres of photography require the photographer to understand the fundamental expectation that is being made of them to be able to exist within the new landscape. If you want to earn a living as a photographer in the twenty-first century, you will have to expand your areas of expertise and be open to new areas of learning that you may feel are not connected to your core creative purpose.

We have entered a new century with new possibilities, new challenges, and new expectations. A new global economy and new means of international communication have brought the image to the forefront of multilingual understanding. Photographers should be in the perfect position to place themselves at the center of these developments. However, when everyone is a photographer, it is your responsibility to re-establish your professional credentials. The structure of your photographic DNA is in your hands.

I see this as a golden age for photography and a time full of opportunities. Yet it is also a time of challenges, of which one of the greatest is how to monetize your photographic practice and prevent yourself from becoming a “‘busy fool” who fills their days with action without understanding the need for an outcome. There is much to consider within the new landscape and much to understand.

Excerpted from Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained by Grant Scott © 2015 Taylor and Francis LLC, All Rights Reserved

For more expert advice from Grant Scott, check out Self-Promotion for Professional Photographers, a free ebook brought to you by Focal Press. Download your copy today!

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MasteringPhoto, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for hobbyist photographers through pro image makers. No matter what your passion is—from people and landscapes to postproduction and business practices—MasteringPhoto offers advice and images that will inform and inspire you. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of photography, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.