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Professional vs. Regular

What makes something “professional”?

I refer to myself as an amateur photographer. I have a good, but more economically priced, digital SLR and I often use fully manual settings. I enjoy photography, but it’s probably not ever going to be my bread and butter. I’m okay with that, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to take the best pictures possible. One area that I’d like to delve into more deeply is portrait photography. Toward that end, I started looking for some reasonably priced studio lights, portable if it all possible. So, I started to search around and found a number of possible kits. But, being the obsessive researcher that I can be, I thought I’d ask my fellow photographers on a mailing list I sometimes participate in what suggestions they had for portable studio lights.
I got a lot of suggestions, but one sort of caught my eye. It happened to be one of the places that I’d been looking to possibly buy from, but that wasn’t what captured my attention. What made me look more closely at the e-mail, and started my little brain thinking, was the admonition that the place recommended was “okay for the hobbyist but far from professional level”. I think it’s important to note that we were talking about light kits starting at several hundred dollars. So, what made them “hobby” quality and not “professional” quality? Did they somehow project fewer lumens? Was the reflector less, well, less reflective? Were the soft boxes less, er, “soft”? Or was it simply that they weren’t priced high enough to be considered a “professional” investment?

I wonder, sometimes, at the largely artificial distinctions we make between grades of quality. How much more than getting the job done simply and cheaply does one have to do to be considered “professional”? If I have a professional credit for work that’s on the back of a book, but I didn’t get paid, does that still make me a professional? What if my work was in an art show in New York? What if that show was in a coffee house in Staten Island? Where is the line? When do I cross it?

I hear all the time, especially in photography, that a particular camera body or lens isn’t “pro quality”.  But, for instance, in my IT day job, no one really says that any particular computer is for hobbyists only or is amateur grade.  And, what about all those things in the hardware store that are marketed to us as “professional grade” solutions to problems like a backed-up sewer?  Because, honestly, I’ve never seen a professional plumber use those professional grade chemicals to clear a clog.

But, the other day, I was having lunch with a friend of mine who’s a professional artist.  And, by “professional artist”, I mean that he makes his entire living producing art.  He has no “day job”, except, of course, making his art.  We got into a discussion about my photography and what I was doing and where it was going and why.  Then he made the most Earth-shattering statement about art that highlighted the difference between an amateur or hobbyist like myself and someone who makes their living at a creative profession.  He said, in a nutshell, that he didn’t know what to tell me about things like my composition or the ideal I was apparently trying to achieve, because when he thinks about art, he thinks about who his audience is going to be.  In short, who will buy the art.

That’s it.
That’s the whole difference, right there, in that short sentence, that simple idea.
What separates the professionals from everybody else?  The professionals think about who’s going to buy what they make.  They think about how they’re going to sell the work, for how much and to whom.  Period.
Everything else is purely academic.

Or, to put it another way, it’s not the brush that makes the painting, but rather, the artist.


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