When to Call Yourself a Pro Photographer

When can you call yourself a “professional” photographer?

Is it when you buy an expensive camera, sell a picture, or get published? No one seems to agree on the qualifications necessary for such a distinction, but I feel I’ve been flirting with that label for awhile now.

I started snapping pictures on my travels because the viewfinder gave me an odd sense of comfort, a lens through which I could make sense of foreign surroundings. It became my favorite hobby on the road, but more importantly, it became a kind of therapy for me.

As with any hobby, my approach evolved as I honed my skills and grew as a person. In addition to finding solace through my viewfinder, I’m now focused on trying to capture the beauty of nature. And even though I’ve sold many of my nature prints to friends and local businesses, I still didn’t know if this classifies me as a “professional.”

Instead of continuing to shoot the occasional sunrise or overlook on weekends, I decided to throw my full efforts into this labor of love with a five-day photo shoot in mountains of West Virginia to see if I had what it takes to call myself a “professional.”

In early October I headed to Dolly Sods Wilderness for my first sunrise shoot at the iconic Bear Rocks Preserve. Arriving late, I decided to sleep in my truck. When my alarm went off at 5:45, I hit the snooze button out of habit but was soon awoken when a set of headlights appeared on the horizon.

I heard a car pull up beside me, and once it was parked, rolled out of my truck to say hello to whomever was behind the wheel. But the guy disappeared into the darkness with his camera equipment slung over his shoulder before I could say a word.

I turned around to see an army of headlights heading my way and quickly realized this was a competition to claim the best spot–first come, first served. I started to panic because I knew my gear wasn’t prepped as the cavalry was rolling in to steal my post. Rookie mistake number one.

I started to scramble, throwing everything out of my truck in a desperate search for my tripod, camera bag, lens cleaner, and anything else I thought I’d need. It was now 6:15 and there were easily a dozen cars full of eager photographers prepping their own gear.

I finally got my kit sorted and set off into the darkness in the same general direction as the other guy. As I made my way into the brush, I could still hear cars pulling into the parking lot behind me. What kind of weird sub-culture is this? I thought. Could this lookout be that great?

It was pitch black, and I had no clue where I was going. I’m not going to lie, wandering through the darkness not knowing when the cliff would appear or if I would fall off it had a certain cachet. I finally found what I thought was a good spot with a unique rock formation and good tree coloring for my foreground. I dropped my pack to claim the space and began setting up.

As the rising sun began to illuminate the valley below, I couldn’t believe my luck. Yesterday’s rain had generated a heavy fog that hung over the mountains, their peaks piercing through in dramatic fashion. It was so breathtaking that I had to remind myself to start taking pictures. My week was off to a great start, and I was ecstatic.

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My luck continued over the next couple days, but so did my rookie mistakes. I shook free of the crowds to seek out harder-to-get shots in Blackwater Canyon and Dolly Sods Wilderness while trying to adhere to the cardinal rule of nature photography: Patience.

Rookie mistake number 17 occurred when, having waited for the clouds to break at one lookout for over an hour, I packed up my gear and called it a day. On my way back to the truck, the most beautiful pink sky you’ve ever seen exploded across the horizon. I tried to make it back in time to get a shot. Sadly, I was too late.

But on my last day, a smile crept across my face as I packed up my truck because I knew I had captured fall at its finest. It was like I had been living in a vibrant painting that couldn’t possibly be real–a painting where blueberry bushes mixed with evergreens and the trademark reds and ochres of autumn.

Late-night editing sessions at my computer allowed me to relive the week in all its glory. For me, the ability to capture such a feeling is the real test of a “professional.” And, by that standard at least, I guess I can start calling myself one.

Ben Long is a writer and photographer from Lewisburg, West Virginia, who is currently based in Argentina. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr and follow his story on Twitter @benlongtales.

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