The invention of the internet has been an unparalleled development in its ability to propel creative production forward, serving as a medium for artists of all kinds to display their work. No longer is it the case that the photography world caters to a few individuals with access to the best equipment and the proper following. Thanks to constantly evolving technological capabilities, it has never been easier to get your hands on a high-quality camera; they’re built right into our cell phones, allowing each moment to be captured in a crystal clear image. Further, social media allows one to forge a new, virtual identity—by choosing what to share and who to share it with, you can cultivate your own platform of creative expression. Thus it seems anyone can be a photographer so long as they label themselves as such.

Adam Himber, Executive Producer of Parlay Studios, has been witness to the development of the photography industry and its expansion online, a development which has radically changed the game for amateurs and professionals alike. As he told me, “no one could have predicted how platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat would elevate visual expression and communication to the levels we are seeing today.  It has been an ‘unforeseen organic evolution’ in my opinion and there is no stopping it.” However, because this so-called “organic evolution” of expression through social media allows a plethora of artists to showcase their work to the masses, crossing the line into the realm of “professional” photography has become hazy, leaving what exactly marks a “pro” open to interpretation.

As someone who is well versed in the world of photography and all that encompasses its “professional” aspect, Himber says: “Here is my take. The world we live in is of our own creation. If we participate and are actively engaged for the good of ourselves and those around us, then we can share, create and succeed in ways that honor and respect our humanity and our culture… The role of the ‘professional’ photographer is that of a creator and documentarian. Ultimately, what you are shooting has to have some grounding in ‘reality’.”

In this case, the professional aspect comes from the desire to impact the world through creative

expression, and capturing realities as they come. If this is the goal of your photographic pursuits, then being a “pro” means a dedication to better yourself and your understanding of the world through its documentation. Regardless of social media following, a professional exudes a passion to shed light on the realities of the world.

While this is certainly true, there must be a bit more that goes into “pro” photography in an age where everyone has the opportunity to express themselves through images and label themselves a documentarian. Ian Barin, a photographer relatively new to the professional world, can provide firsthand insight as to what it’s like to be a “pro” in the age of social media. Barin, who travels the world in pursuit of the perfect photo to capture the beauty of the cities he visits, knows what it’s like to start with a low following and gain traction through ambition and dedication to one’s craft. Regarding his own experience crossing that blurry line into professionalism, Ian says, “I’m not quite sure when you officially become a professional photographer. It feels more subjective than anything. Being a ‘professional’ usually includes two main elements; one, your skillset and two, being recognized for it. As I’ve developed my photography, I’ve noticed that exposure is often stronger than talent or ability.”

This is certainly true, as skillset and recognition are two incredibly important elements that set the pros apart from the amateurs. As to how social media plays into this all, Barin continues: “For better or for worse, the power of social media has changed the landscape of what it means to be a professional photographer. 15 years ago, I couldn’t have reached the network of thousands of fans from all around the globe at the tip of my fingers. Sharing my images online has not only increased my exposure, but has provided me with so many incredible opportunities that have contributed to my growth as an artist and as a business.” For Barin, social media serves as a powerful tool to share your work and to grow a following, but there is quite a lot more that goes into professional photography than simply doing it for the sake of artistic expression. “Sometimes it is hard to justify the title, but once you account for all the elements that go into being a professional photographer, there is a clear difference. From the heavy camera gear and expensive price tags, to the location scouting and perfect lighting…it’s a full time job.”

As for our original question, “can you be a pro photographer with a low profile on social media?,” the answer is a resounding yes. While a high profile on social media may signal an artist’s success in the photography industry, it is not their following that actually makes the photographer a pro—that is a result of all of the work they have put in the get where they are and everything they continue to do to elevate their craft.  After all, part of being an artist is diligence and dedication to your practice even if it takes a while to get recognized. Not a single artist started off in their field possessing a following; it takes patience and hard work to make a name for oneself, and once that exposure does come, you may find that your low social media profile begins to grow as your work resonates with the public.

In the era of the internet and cellphone cameras, we are all photographers—but in my eyes, by taking the craft seriously, with the proper ambition and, most importantly, a passion to create and say something to the world, you’ve entered the world of professionalism regardless of your number of followers. If you put in the crucial time and effort in developing your skill set and building a creative platform, like Ian Barin, exposure and recognition is bound to follow.

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  • Joe Pro

    You are confusing professional photographer with professional promoter. The definition of professional is someone who makes their living from something. If you are making your living from social media you are a marketer not a photographer. While you might take pictures it is not the same as making a living from only your pictures. Most of the superstars of photography on social media have never been published other than in self promotion and social media settings. Oh yeah I forgot. If you are living off a trust fund and traveling the world taking pictures you are just a spoiled kid, not a professional anything.

  • Erik Stenbakken

    Followers ≠ Professional.
    Likes ≠ Money (unless intentionally monetized)

    I had always thought of a professional as someone making a living doing ______. 100,000 Instagram “likes” do not pay the rent (unless monetized in some practical way). A boring non-documentarian photo session with un-interesting (un “likeable”) products can absolutely pay the rent if you have the right clients. I guess when Sony, Canon or Nikon starts taking “likes” credit instead of money, I’ll start chasing the social media fame thing.