The term “Photographer” has many connotations.
When spoken by itself, without a qualifying adjective, it’s often interpreted to mean a professional photographer. So, the qualifier “professional” is often just assumed.
Many of us non-professionals still call ourselves a “photographer” though, often leaving out preceding words like “amateur”.
But whether pro or amateur, let’s look at the definition of the word on its own.
What is a “photographer”?
By definition, the term “photographer” simply refers to a person who creates photographs with a camera — someone who practices photography.
I didn’t check on that with the good folks at Webster’s or anything — that’s just how I interpret the word.
Of course, the term “photograph” simply means “drawing with light”. So, adding the “er” at the end would have to mean someone who draws with light.
We could get into what a “photograph” is. I say it’s an image that begins its life in a camera. After that, you can manipulate it to your heart’s content — it’s still a photograph in my opinion. But that’s a subject for another article.
So, what all of this means is that if you create photographs with a camera, you’re a photographer, right?
Is it that simple?
Well, no, I don’t think it is. And I’ll tell you why.
I think a lot has to do with intent. By “intent” I mean the ultimate motivation behind the image-making.
I think you know where I’m going with this — there are cameras everywhere these days. Specifically, they’re in all cell phones. And, since just about everybody has a cell phone, practically everyone is walking around with a camera. Never before in history has there been an era in which so much image-making potential has existed.
But you certainly wouldn’t say that everyone with a cell phone is a “photographer”.
I wouldn’t, anyway.
Ok, so what really makes you a “photographer”?
I’m glad you asked, because that’s the point of this article.
As I mentioned above, I think it’s about intent. But I think it’s also about caring about the results. It’s the two combined that make you a photographer.
Every teenager shoots images constantly. They make images of themselves with funny faces, of their friends doing crazy things, of anything that they feel like. Modern phones have a lot of storage, with cloud backup, so there’s plenty of room to store lots and lots of silly pictures.
And it’s not just teenagers. Adults grab a million pictures of their kids, their pets, their lunch.
Most of these folks don’t care very much about the quality of the images they’re creating. They’re not thinking about lighting, color theory, depth of field, or composition. They just want something that they can share with their friends on Twita-Insta-Chat.
But as Ansel Adams once said:
You don’t take a photograph, you make it.
A true “photographer”, in my humble opinion, is a person who makes photographs with a camera with intent and care, with the goal of creating an image that is…
- well-focused, well-exposed, and well-composed
- or artistic, compelling, and meaningful
- or all of the above
Good luck finding a teenager who’s thinking about any of that when they’re taking a snapshot of their friend falling off their skateboard.
Aren’t you being a little strict?
Maybe so. I don’t mean to imply that everyone should be serious about photography, and make only meaningful, well-thought-out images. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having fun with a camera, making fun images with little pre-thought.
And I also don’t mean to imply that anyone with a “nice camera” is a photographer. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with your gear.
My point is only that the term “photographer” should be reserved for those of us who put more care into the work.
You wouldn’t call someone an “illustrator” because they doodle in their notebook.
You wouldn’t call someone a “musician” because they can play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano.
The term should mean something — it should represent a devotion to the craft.
That’s all I’m saying.
Why does this matter?
To be honest, it doesn’t. But thanks for reading this far.
As I mentioned earlier, the term “photographer” is usually preceded by an adjective, like “professional” or “amateur”. Or sometimes the genre of photography is used as a qualifier, like “portrait”, “wedding”, or “nature”.
Including that extra word usually clears things up, and emphasizes that the person being described is serious about image-making — not just a snapshot-taker.
But when left alone, the term “photographer” is easy to misuse, and can be trickier to define. That didn’t stop me from trying to define it with this article though.
It certainly should not simply refer to anyone with a camera.
Do you agree? Let me know in the comments.