Define the word “PHOTOGRAPHER”

When does a person with a camera, even a person with an expensive camera, become a photographer?

Apologies if this seems to be getting a bit philosophical but it’s a question that someone casually threw at me a week or so ago and I’ve been struggling with it ever since. Let’s get the dictionary stuff out of the way…

Right now we can really get on with the real business of working out what a photographer is. I’ve always been a fan of simple definitions and I like the idea of making a comparison between things, so how about this:

Someone with a camera tries hard to get everything into the picture whilst a photographer does their level best to keep as much out of the picture as they can.

All that means is that there comes a point in your photographic journey where you realise that most pictures are much stronger when you leave absolutely everything out that doesn’t need to be in. In a paraphrase of the old saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (which isn’t necessarily true by the way) we can come up with “what doesn’t add to the composition detracts from it”.

The dictionary definition above, which comes from the English dictionary built into the Apple OSX operating system, steers away from the word professional and I’m really glad that it does because there are an awful lot of superb photographers out there that take pictures for fun and not for a living. Being a good photographer is not the same as being a professional photographer. On balance, MOST professionals are good but there isn’t a direct relationship between earning a living and being proficient.

These days there is a belief that ‘everyone is a photographer’. I wouldn’t argue that almost everyone takes pictures and that almost all of them take two, three, four and even twenty times as many pictures as they would have done when we had to buy film. Someone who I once discussed photography with reminded of another old adage – the one about if you give enough monkeys enough paper, enough typewriters and enough time sooner or later one of them will create the complete works of Shakespeare. It doesn’t hold up here and I told him as much.

People with cameras are largely rational, intelligent and reasoning beings and so most will work out what they do and don’t like and then take better and better pictures over time. Their image making isn’t the random act of monkeys with no comprehension what they are doing – the point here is that when it comes to learning that less (content) is more (better pictures) some will figure it out for themselves , some will need to have it pointed out to them and the rest will remain blissfully ignorant of it.

For some lucky people the knowledge is instinctive. The rest of us have learned through trial and error and/or formal education to know a good picture when we see one. Those that take the next step by learning what makes it a good picture can call themselves “visually aware”. The final (and never ending) stage is to develop the skill to see the picture and make the best of it before and during the pressing of the shutter. Those people can call themselves photographers.



  1. Good post Neil. I’ve looked at it from the other perspective – the edit. (and I see you’ve blogged on it before too, but mines is exploring it from an amateur’s experience). Here:

    It’s really interesting that in some of the night classes I teach, simply adjusting contrast and other minor tweaks in Lightroom plus a judicious crop can make images that the class members had taken, but didn’t rate very highly, into ones they want to make prints off and hang on their walls!


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