A BEGINNING PHOTOGRAPHER ASKS: Am I an amateur photographer? The questioner also asks if the quality of his work shows that he is an amateur.
Well, in answering questions of this type, it helps to first define the terms. Usually, we distinguish between amateurs and professionals: some photographers are definitely amateurs, and others are certainly professionals.
The vast number of photographs are taken by ordinary people who have no particular connection with photography other than a desire to capture memories and images of loved ones, and so we can only call them photographers in the loosest sense. On the other hand, there are people who are most definitely photographers. What follows are distinct types of photographers and may not precisely correspond to individuals, rather, they are illustrations of largely mutually exclusive types which may be present in varying degrees in every photographer at any given time.
The English word ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin amator, meaning ‘lover.’ In the best sense, an amateur photographer is one who loves photography, and in older literature this basic aspect of loving the art form is quite clear. If the questioner loves photography, then he is most likely an amateur.
An amateur will spend countless hours learning and refining photographic techniques, often by taking numerous photos of the same subject, even brick walls, and he often spends more time reading about photography and visiting camera stores than actually photographing. The amateur photographer constantly reads camera reviews, is uncertain if his camera is good enough, and thinks that some upgrade or gadget will be the magic bullet that improves his photography. When shooting a scene, the amateur agonizes over his camera settings, and fumbles with the controls, often keeping his human subjects impatiently waiting. While the amateur may reluctantly volunteer to take some important pictures for friends and family, these pictures can end up being disappointments because of the amateur's uncertainty and fear.
But the amateur loves every bit of time he spends on his hobby, even to the point that he pines away in pain when he is not doing it. He may nearly drool over camera reviews on the Internet, and his heart palpitates as he unboxes his new, finely shaped, and aesthetically pleasing camera — for which he paid far too much money. As most lovers know, pursuing the object of love can be seemingly irrational, obsessive, all-consuming, expensive, and even heart-breaking.
I see no reason why an amateur photographer should be expected to produce good photographs, because perhaps the amateur loves photography — the art itself — instead of the final photographs, which are the works of that art. It is a subtle, but significant distinction, enjoying the technique and tools of photography over the fruit of these. But as children are sometimes unexpectedly produced by young lovers, an amateur photographer may occasionally produce a good image.
The English word ‘profession’ comes from the Latin professio, where it means, among other things, ‘a business or profession which one publicly avows,’ and this is the main current sense of the word. So a professional photographer is a photographer who does his work for the public instead of just for himself.
The business of photography is mainly the art of selling and delivering photography and photographic services to the public. There are many professional photographers who consistently deliver the goods in a timely manner at a good price. These seek out clients, and give them what they pay for with no excuses or delays. They tell everyone they meet that they are a professional, and offer a wide variety of services, usually agreeing to give the customer what the customer wants. Working with them tends to be straight-forward or even pleasant. The majority of the professional's time is likely not spent doing photography, but rather doing those things that all businesses do, including marketing and sales.
I see no reason why a professional photographer should necessarily be expected to produce outstanding photographs, for their main job is selling photography. They simply need to produce good enough work at a proportionally reasonably price, and do so in a manner that is convenient and pleasant for the client. As most business is repeat business, or comes from word-of-mouth referrals, social skills tend to be more important than technical skills. A digital image sitting on a computer, no matter how good, won't sell itself, but good marketing can sell a mediocre image. The professional, who may struggle to support himself by working long hours, needs to work quickly and efficiently, and needs tools that are reliable. One way that the professional speeds along his work is by using standard light setups, camera settings, and having a “house style”; these may not be optimal, but they work most of time, and most importantly, they lead to consistency. The professional simply does not have the time to fiddle with his equipment or processing as does the amateur.
Neither of the above definitions directly brings up the idea of image quality, since all we can be sure of is that the amateur loves photography, and the professional sells photography, and I've seen good and bad photos from amateurs and professionals. Instead, let us introduce a third kind of photographer, the photographic artist, who can be relied on to consistently deliver high quality photographs.
With some innate talent perhaps, and by an understanding of theory and lots of practice — and maybe inspiration — the artist has internalized the art and has made it a part of himself. To the artist, making something good is a joy to himself and he greatly fears making junk. When you observe an artist making art, it appears to be effortless on his part, for the artist makes good art as a matter of habit. The artist intimately knows how his gear works: the camera almost seems to be an extension of his body.
But note that the artist may not be pleasant to work with, may be demanding, may not charge reasonable prices for his art, may not show up at the shooting location on time, and might be grouchy and irritable during the shoot. The artist may be a terrible businessman, but he cares far less about the business relationship than about the quality of the final product. He might show up on location, spend at most a few minutes doing his work, and then abruptly leave to everyone's astonishment, or he might put the crew through hours of misery because he expects perfection, but in either case the final product will be outstanding.
Unlike the professional, for whom time is money, the artist may spend an extensive amount of time analyzing the scene, taking measurements, and setting things up carefully — or not. Unlike the amateur, the artist knows how his gear works and what it can deliver under a wide variety of conditions, and so there is very little guesswork or trial-and-error involved. The artist might be highly concerned about his equipment, like the amateur, but will not be devoured by it like the amateur, knowing very well that “all that glisters is not gold.” He likely will make the best of whatever equipment he has at hand.
By analogy, we could say that the artist is not like an awkward young lover, but rather more like an old happily married man who loves his spouse but does not obsess over her, and rather sees her as the better half of himself. The fruit of this union is quality works of art.
I ought to add dilettante to this list, someone who pursues a subject out of curiosity, or for being a well-rounded individual, or even to socially project the appearance of being an expert. A dilettante doesn't do photography for the love of the art, nor to make money doing it, nor for the purpose of making excellent final photographs, but for some other satisfaction. Being a dilettante can be perfectly harmless, or merely a half-hearted hobby. It can also slide into snobbery, which is highly undesirable.
As I mentioned earlier, these are more archetypes than they are stereotypes, more like models that distill the essence of human motivation, and so actual human beings are likely to be a mixture of these, or slide from one to the other over time. An amateur may eventually become an artist — and very many artists started out first as lovers of the art.
A professional might start out as an amateur and may be an artist, but also consider that many people choose professions due to social pressure, or family, or because they appear to be a desirable career, having nothing to do with art or the love of an art. If the professional takes time out from business to really work on their photography, they too may become an artist. Or perhaps, if an artist takes time out from his work to develop business skills, he too might become a decent professional.
I am sure there are many photographers out there who combine the best of all three: they have a love of the art, they are good at business, and they produce exceptional photographs as a matter of course. That is a good target to aim for!