What is a Professional Anymore?

In the blurry world of hobby, freelance, and expert what defines a pro anything?

Shane Paul Neil
5 min readMar 10, 2023

I took up photography about three years ago during the pandemic. Yes, I am the reason the price of film has shot up 3000% and why you had to wait six months to get that new mirrorless you coveted. I was bored. I wanted to make “content.” Fight me. Not surprisingly, I fell in love with the art form. As an added bonus, it fits in perfectly with my love of writing. At times one augmented the other. At other times one filled in when I needed a break from doing both. About a year into my photography journey (Sidenote, we need a word besides “journey.” It is a little too ethereal for my work-a-day sensibility), Ebony Magazine used my photos from the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial. My first paid gig as a photographer was for a national publication. So, did that make me a professional?

I have struggled with the idea of calling myself a journalist for years. I’ve written for news publications, and I have fact-checked and edited for news publications. I won an award for journalism from a legitimate journalism organization. I should have no problem calling myself a professional journalist. So what’s the problem?

I have friends and acquaintances who went to school for journalism. They know the AP stylebook backward and forward. They have been on location investigating major news events as they happened. The breadth and depth of their knowledge and experience dwarf my own. Some would say that the issue is my need to compare myself to others, but I disagree. My issue is that I understand the technical expertise that goes into being considered a professional.

A moment of honesty.

You couldn’t tell me shit after I got this shot.

When I submitted my photos to Ebony, the editor was underwhelmed. In her own words, my photos were “basic.” She wanted me to go out and see if I could get her something of a higher quality. When I got her response, I called my wife, feeling quite indignant. She being the wonderful woman that she is, validated my frustration. I submitted what, at the time, were the best photos I had ever shot. Ultimately, Ebony ran with the photos because they were pressed for time. I know for a fact if they could have gotten another photographer on the gig in time, my photos would have been in the recycle bin. But here’s the rub. As I look at these photos today, she was right.

I didn’t have the optimal gear for the gig. I shot on a Sony A7C and a Sigma 24–70mm Art. And while photographers love to say, “The best camera is the one in your hand”, gear does matter in context. I was on a journalism shoot with a portrait setup. I hadn’t grasped the exposure triangle well enough to work at the pace required for proper journalistic photography. I was still heavy-handed with the lightroom sliders, leaving some shots looking over-processed. Ebony was a great opportunity that came too soon.

So, did the gig make me a professional, or did I just land a professional gig?

Me living my best life in Tulsa.

Last year I co-produced two long-form videos for a client who themselves are content creators. I landed the client mainly because of my journalism background and having produced several multi-media projects (by the way, check out my consultancy if you would like the same help). The scope of what the client imagined would have been an utter failure. I needed someone who knew the ins and outs of everything that would go into shooting and editing this project, so I reached out to Chris Francois, a fantastic videographer and editor. Having Chris on board allowed me to play my natural role and Rick Rubin the project (I’m kidding, but only a little bit).

That experience greatly enhanced my understanding of getting a video project to the finish line. On one end, I am helping manage the creative process and keeping the clients happy. On the other end, I was Chris’ assistant running second or third cams, helping with lighting and sound, and blocking out scenes. Is that enough to count me as a qualified professional? If a similar client popped up right now, could I take over Chris’ role?

No. I will likely always need to work with someone like Chris. His being a professional isn’t about the number of paid gigs he’s gotten. It’s the number of times he’s been on a set. The amount of time he’s edited and color-graded a project. He will likely always be several steps ahead of me in terms of understanding the craft of cinematography to because he has had so many repetitions of doing these technical things. He is also supremely creative. I don’t want to make him sound like a robot.

Writers, photographers, videographers, and podcasters have all gotten lumped into the “content creator” basket. Not to (fully) knock the age of content creation. The accessibility to these modes of creativity is a spectacular thing. I have benefitted from it directly. But being a content creator means we all have to do a bit of everything. The writer has to make videos. The photographer has to write. EVERYBODY has to podcast. This mixed bag blurs the lines between what it means to be proficient; what it means to be a professional. When I was in Tulsa, I didn’t understand that my ability to tell a story meant that I could tell that story with a camera. I didn’t understand that getting the camera to capture the gravity of a scene as I saw it was a skill separate from anything I had done beforehand.

Professionalism isn’t a matter of being able to tick off a job on a resume. It’s about the ability to repeat the quality of that work again and again. It’s about diving headlong into all the boring parts of a craft because that’s where the art lies. Being a professional is knowing all the little things the hoi polloi don’t understand so that you can give them the results they didn’t even know they wanted.

So, am I a professional? Yes, no, and sorta. I do some things excellently, I do some things well, and I just do some things. I am learning to embrace it all and enjoy the journey.

Ugh, I really hate that word.

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Shane Paul Neil

Writer (duh) and photographer. Bylines @levelmag @complex @ebony @huffpo shanepaulneil.com