What Makes a Photographer?


The statement goes “You are Not a Photographer. You just have an overpriced camera” That was the graphic that peeked my interest in the short lived discussion that I was eavesdropping on. The OP or original poster put most of the people that he saw with DSLR cameras into this category. A little irked by this blanket statement that could very well apply to me, I turned to the world’s largest photography forum… Google+

I posted the question to the world and in one afternoon generated about a hundred comments and had even the likes of Jay Patel chimed in on the debate. So what is your take on this? For this post I am going to go into depths of the comments from Google+ and that of my own weary brain to try and answers this over-thought question.

[box] Collins Dictionary defines “Photographer” as: (noun) a person who takes photographs, either as a hobby or a profession[/box]

What Does the Word Photographer Mean?

I think that we get caught up in the titles and their meanings. If you look at the above definition you will see that this is but one interpretation of the word. The important thing to conclude from this is the last bit “either as a hobby or a profession”  I think most of us hear the word “photographer” and immediately think of “working /professional photographers”  but we are adding words to make a new title.  Ian Ference , gave a great response to this with

“You’re a photographer if you take pictures.  Yes, that means that most of America are photographers in the era of mobile phone cameras.

You’re a professional photographer if a good portion of your income comes from photography.

You’re a hobbyist photographer if you do it because you enjoy it, for no other goal.

You’re a good photographer if you generally create works that are well-composed, well-lit, utilize appropriate apertures, etc.  I don’t want to get into an aesthetics debate here; everybody’s opinion on good photography will be a little different.  I think it’s unquestionable that, say, Dorothea Lange and Edward Steichen were good photographers.

You’re a knowledgeable photographer if you can explain the zone system, know what circles of confusion are, and can recognize that good bokeh is largely a result of aperture leaf design.


At the end of the day, though, if you take pictures, you’re a photographer, whether you’re using a cell phone, an Argus A2B, or a Canon 1DX.

You can see that the meaning we ascribe to “photographer” needs another atribute to hold true.  However, the connotations and or stereotypes of those connotations change with the very meaning of the word. A lot of what was mentioned in the comments on my google+ thread pointed to gear. There seemed to be a lot of stereotypes coming from the general public on how good a photographer is and the type of gear they use.

The “Overpriced Camera” Issue

In this day and age, everyone one has a camera of some sort. Most will have a camera on their phone and a lot have purchased a DSLR. Thanks to new technology being more affordable, DSLR cameras are becoming more common place and not just at tourist attractions or birthday parties. Thus, the image of the tourist with the fancy camera that they don’t know how to use transfers and gets dumbed down to any one that has a DSLR that looks “expensive” and is using it in public. You can see this at any social event. Cameras will click away but once a DSLR appears people start making judgements.

The fact of the matter is that most people that have nothing to do with photography will not know the difference between a $600 DSLR and a $6000 high-end one. They just see the camera in terms of size. “Oh that is a big camera! He must be compensating for something!” However, the debate of Camera vs Ability is an old one and these arguments are not confined to just photography either.

The thing that most people don’t understand is that a camera is just a tool. Nothing more, we put value on these cameras because for many years they have been viewed as a luxury item. In the West, we also equate luxury to materialism and materialism to greed. Thus, we need to discredit people who have “expensive” or “big” cameras to justify the fact that maybe we don’t have enough money to buy one or that they could have used (what ever amount of money we think THEIR camera is worth) for something else. However, a camera is just a camera.

[box] Collins Dictionary defines a Camera as “noun 1. an optical device consisting of a lens system set in a light-proof construction inside which a light-sensitive film or plate can be positioned See also cine camera, digital camera 2. (television) the equipment used to convert the optical image of a scene into the corresponding electrical signals”[/box]


Ability vs Camera

Another aspect is that we secretly want to see people fail who have expensive cameras. It is in our nature and we know it. Digital Rev TV has a great series where they give a Pro Photographer a crappy camera to see what they can do. This is the ultimate test in the “Ability vs Camera” arena. We want to see what sort of images a “Professional Photographer” can get with a crappy camera. It’s that age-old adage of “take that ____ away and let’s see what you’re made of” This case being “take that over-priced camera away and let’s see if you’re a real photographer

We all want a level playing field. We also secretly hate those who have natural talent but are still common people. That is why if you take good shots you will inevitably get a comment like “What camera are you using? These shots are great!” Otherwise meaning “it’s not you, it’s your camera” This argument has plagued photography for a long time and bleeds into the “photoshop” debate as well. Again, everyone wants a level playing field and would rather accept a better/more expensive camera than natural talent or ability in order to explain why you mr. or mrs. common person, have sudden taken a great photo.

Jay Patel offered a great link to his blog on the topic of gear and if it really matters. I have to agree with what he mentions in that post. I have JUST upgraded my 30D to a 7D. I have shot for the AFC Champions league, various books and magazines, numerous functions including a recent one with the British Ambassador to Korea and one of my shots will hopefully end up in an upcoming book published by National Geographic, all with my old Canon 30D. As Jay points out “… Magazine and calendar companies are not interested in the equipment that was used to get the shot. They want high-resolution images for printing – they want to know the size of the image, and they want images that are sharp and free of noise.” 

As for my recent up grade? It was a matter  of budget. I was offered an amazing deal and I took it. Yes, a professional would have gone for a full frame 5D MKIII or picked up the newer/cheaper 6D but I knew that I can get great images with this camera without dipping into my savings or taking out a loan to get it. Again, if the image is sharp and the photo looks great, does it matter if it was taken on a point-and-shoot or a Canon 1Dx?

The fact of the matter and one that a lot of comments included was the question “Why should this bother anyone?” Is it jealousy? Perhaps. Or is it a social responsibility to “put people in their place”?  A lot of the issues around the “you are not a photographer” debate are largely based in the social idea that you are THIS and not THAT. Having an expensive camera does not make you a photographer nor does it make you a “professional” or even a “good” photographer, so how can we judge your worth simply by looking at the camera? That being said, why are we giving a person that we don’t even know so much mental power and thought?

Final Thoughts

With the wide range of comments that this topic generated the final conclusion that I could make is that a “Photographer is someone who takes pictures using some level of creative passion” I realized this because you don’t need any other moniker added but if you like taking pictures with what ever camera you have then that is what you are. You can buy a camera as simply a recording device but once you make an effort to improve your shots and/or do so on a regular basis you cross into the realm of a photographer. This means that if a company purchases a high-end camera to shoot an HD video of their product being built and they just switch it on and leave, they are not photographers. Where as an amateur photographer with a Canon 1DX may have an expensive camera but if said amateur is learning how to use it or making images on a regular basis, they are indeed a photographer on some level. They may not be a “good photographer” but who are we to judge, just by looking at someone’s camera.

On the topic of the overpriced camera, my final thoughts are “Who Cares?” does a person having a nice camera impact your photographic style in anyway? NOPE and if it does then it could mean that  your own camera and ability that should be the focus of your concern, not anyone else’s camera.




  1. Pete Reply

    Great post Jason! When I first got in to digital photography, I used a Canon Powershot A610. The file size of that little point and shoot was only 5MP. Years later I’m still selling some of the photos I took with that camera (regardless of the small file size) – from Getty Images to magazines, and even a TV documentary about Mongolia that aired on the BBC.

    ”When people ask me what equipment I use – I tell them my eyes.” ~ Anonymous

  2. Kat Reply

    Second that. When people ask what camera they should get, I’m quick to point out that the photo that got me started and won my first photography competition was on a 3mp point and shoot. There’s a lot of people who think bigger is better… but it’s not true. And I think you’re right on the money buying the camera you can afford with decent lenses. Too many times I’ve seen my well off friends with Canon 5D IIIs and L series lenses who don’t know how to use it out of manual mode.

    Ahh but now you’ve got me looking up circles of confusion…

  3. Steve Miller Reply

    I agree. If you have a camera, you’re a photographer. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have. If you have one and takes pictures with it, you’re a photographer.

    The only thing I dislike on the equipment side of things is when individuals use DSLRs and believe they are superior to those using point-and-shoot or cellphone cameras. The truth is they aren’t. As mentioned by Jay in your post – few really cares what you used to take the picture with. However, all care about the final image.

    • Jason Teale Reply

      Exactly Steve and with point-and-shoots today being so powerful, there is no point (and shoot… lol) in mocking someone because of that. I know that the point-and-shoot that I have is more powerful than my old 30D.

  4. Skyler Reply

    I just went to Zanzibar with only my Fuji x10 got great pics that I’m happy with, their in my portfolio now. People looked at me real strange when I told them I am a photographer. Great pics can be made with anything as long as you can print them I don’t care what the camera is!

  5. The Bobster Reply

    I like how you ended this with the concept of passion. If you love what you are doing you will try to get better at it, whatever that means to you.

    You don’t judge a picture by what kind of camera took it, but rather by the picture itself. When I judge the work of my favorite photographers I’m not concerned about their gear, but rather what they chose to point it at, what they are asking me to see.

  6. David Unwin Reply

    Hey Jason, Great post just thought I’d add my two cents 🙂 Although I agree with everyone on this post in that its not the gear but the photographer who creates the shot, I would also like to balance out the argument with what I have been experiencing lately with my work. I have been lucky enough to be hired by my local newspaper and with that I was given a canon 1D Mk 3 and a whole range of L Series lenses to use. I have noticed that with the more powerful equipment I have been able to push the boundaries further on my work than when I was just shooting with my 30D. For example I have been shooting soccer and rugby games and being able to use a 300ml 2.8 or a 500ml 2.8 together with a 1D at 12 frames per second I have been able to catch action that I could never have with a point and shoot. So although I agree with everyone I would also have to add that a creative photographer with the right tools for the job is ideal but no absolutely necessary for the job.

    ps I miss going out on photo walks with you and Griffin. They were great times. Bit gutted we didn’t do it more. I learn’t a lot of you guys.

  7. Brent Sheffield Reply

    I love this post. I get told I suck at photography all the time and that my pictures are ok because I have en expensive camera.

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