The Professional Photographer

Abandon all hope ye who dare enter here
    Welcome to the land of the obsessed. Most amateurs feel the obligation to try their hands at becoming professionals. They (we) generally do this for two reasons. The first is the love of photography, and the romantic notion of being able to make a living at something we love to do. This is an affliction shared by photographers, musicians, actors, artists, and most other people who are involved in what most people consider to be creative or artistic hobbies; though nearly any hobby from gardening to metal working can be turned into an art form by an inspired enthusiast. The second is the realization, generally arrived at while looking at magazine ads, and comparing them to one's own vacation photos, or latest efforts, that "my work is better than what I see most pros doing." The dream tends to pan out into several distinct fantasy scenarios, as can be seen below.
The Dream
For National Geographic:
    The pilot banks the seaplane, one more time around the mountain. He picks out a small river flowing through the jungle, on which to land. I check my gear, paying special attention to my camera bags. I have checked at least a dozen times already, but I am nervous. These landings are never easy, and there are things living in the river. I try to take a cue from the guide, and relax, noting that the biologists are even more nervous than I. After having had me spend months in the Middle east, National Geographic has sent me to the heart of the South American jungle. It is said that there are creatures here that have never been photographed, cataloged, or even seen by man.
As a famous fashion photographer:
      "Come on dear, give me a big smile. That's right, just like that." Click whir. "Okay, now turn the other way, hold your hand out, look right down into the camera, oh beautiful!" Click whir. "Hold it, let's get make up in here, there is a smudge on your lip." I sit down, and reload my cameras, while the makeup, and wardrobe people tend to the model. I recheck the lights, and consider adding a couple of props. In truth, the background is pretty stark. I can always airbrush some details into the scene latter, but that costs money, and takes time. It might be easier to do it the old fashioned way and use some props. The model is ready now, waiting for me. I have worked with her before, but this may be our last shoot together. She will soon be leaving modeling to start an acting career. She smiles, and I nod my head. We are both ready. I motion for her to start to move sideways, and stretch out her arms. She looks into the camera, and I release the shutter.
As a savvy news photographer:
    It is illegal to have a police scanner in a car, but lacking one, I would certainly have missed most of my best photos. I am on my way to one now. According to what I hear on the scanner, four men have tried to rob a local tavern, but botched things, and are now standing off the police by holding several patrons hostage. Tactical units are being dispatched, and I may actually arrive before they do. I see flashing lights ahead of me, and turn, making a big circle around the place so that I might come in opposite the police. I park, grab a camera body loaded with high speed film, and put a long lens on it. There are no other newsmen on the scene, though I know that they must be on the way. One of the robbers makes a break for it, and is wrestled to the ground by several officers. Another, kicks the door open, and raises a shotgun, but he too is overpowered. I capture both incidents on film. The tactical officers now arrive, and their appearance, decked out in military gear, with automatic weapons, is sufficiently intimidating to convince the remaining two members of the group to surrender. I record this event too, just as some other news teams are arriving.

The reality
    I am sitting in the Wal-Mart store, looking at my watch, and seeing that I have three hours to go yet. A child of about eight, sits in front of me, and refuses to look at the camera, no matter what I do. I have tried clapping my hands, making faces, and even sticking a quarter to my head, and asking if anyone has seen the quarter I dropped. All to no avail. The boy's mother is looking at me impatiently. She also glances at her watch, and wants to get home. I do hope to get a good picture, otherwise I have wasted forty five minutes of my time. I am only paid if the customer buys pictures. The more they buy, the more my commission. If no pictures are bought, I have worked for free. The child look sat me, opens his mouth, and begins to scream.
    The bride's uncle keeps on getting in my way as I try to shoot a photo of her first dance with her new husband, and her last with her father. In the meantime, a very unattractive girl has been flirting with me, and seems to think that a wedding photographer is a sort of a special wedding guest, who can spend all night talking and eating with her (unfortunately some wedding photographers seem to agree). The church was very dark, and the pastor did not permit the use of flash during the ceremony. I opened the lens, and manually set the shutter speed, purposely underexposing the film to get the shots. The lab will charge me extra for pushing the film, and some contrast will be lost, but I am pretty sure the pictures will be acceptable. In the meantime, some distant relation of the bride has just ruined my shot of the garter toss by stepping directly in front of me to take his own picture as the bridesmaid caught it. I am glad I brought a lot of film; there will be many ruined shots.
    I have been sitting at this guy's house for fifteen minutes already, waiting for him to show up. He is paying to have an ad placed in order to sell his car, and I have to take the photograph. I am paid $25 for each ad I photograph, and can often get five or six done, on a good day. On a bad day, where the people don't show up, or where they come late, I am lucky if I can do four. Lately there seem to be more bad days than good ones.
The really reality
    "Good evening sir, may I take your order?" That's right, most of us will probably not make a living, even an unsatisfactory one, as photographers. Like musicians, actors, artists, and others who try to make a living out of creative pursuits they love, most photographers will need a day job. There is another route, however, though it does not offer the possibilities of glamor, prestige, and wealth for which some would hope. This is the professional route, involving school, a regular paycheck, and a normal career. This type of photographer does medical photography, some commercial work, portraits, aerial and survey work, and may eventually work up to the traditional news, fashion, and travel photography.
    It's getting to the point where even for the less desirable work in weddings, circulars, and low end portraiture, some sort of training or degree is desired. In large part, this may be because so many professional photographers are only half aware of what their job really is. While so many of us dream of travel to exotic locations, winning awards, photographing beautiful models, or making the front page, we often overlook the two sides of photography as a profession.
    Do you know what an F-Stop is, or what is meant by high contrast and low contrast? Do you know what a fast film is, or what is meant when saying that a lens is fast? Are you aware of the significance of 18% gray, or what is meant by depth of field? The list of questions could go on and on, but the real question is, are you a photographer or just a person who takes pictures? While there is certainly an important artistic and creative side to photography, there is also a technical side. With so many new features and automatic systems being crammed into today's cameras, many people think that there is little reason to be technically astute, or to develop an understanding of the principles of photography. These people are wrong.
    Do you show up for work on time every day? Are you able to interact with people in a professional, buisiness like way? Do you get the job done, even when unforseen events occur? This is by far, the most common cause of failure in professional photography; many photographers are simply not prfoessionals, and do not conduct themselves in a professional manner. They show up late or miss shoots entirely, they bully models, argue with clients, and often do not prepare properly. Rather than viewing photography as a profession, they see it as a way to make a living without having to work. These people are wrong.