A few months ago I joined the Professional Photographers Association (PPA). One of the many benefits of this association is a forum called The Loop. The purpose of this forum is to exchange ideas and opinions regarding photography.
There are many topics. Some interest me and some don't. There was one recently regarding what determines a Professional Photographer. This quickly became a hot topic and some fairly heated exchanges (I stayed out of it, thank goodness). The individual that began the topic suggested that there were some fairly determinable standards that can be used to measure this. These standards may include ones ability to understand concepts such as light and how to control it, how Aperture, Exposure, and ISO work together, etc.. Most of them were, by default, qualities required to be a good photographer.
Many opinions began to come into the forum and most were opposed to using such pragmatic standards for determining a professional. Most were trying to indicate the importance of an artistic ability that just can't be measured with a standard. This really caused a passionate reaction from the individual that posted the topic. He just couldn't understand why you could measure some professions, but not the photography profession. He mentioned a certified electrician as an example.
Someone posted that trying to resolve this was like trying to determine which religion is best. I totally agree. Whether you are a professional is a matter of opinion and everybody has one. So should there be specific standards to be reached for this determination? Someone I respect once told me that a successful photographer needs to use both the left brain and the right brain. The left brain is the more pragmatic side while the right brain is the more artistic side. There should be a good balance. Just because you know technically how to use your camera doesn't mean that you can create a good image. Conversely, you may know what you want as an end result, but if you don't know how to create it you'll never get what you envisioned.
If I'm certified does that make me a professional? The certification process and subsequent designation certainly shows you have the qualifications. The written exam can reflect your understanding of the photographic process (technical side). The required submission of images to be judged by other professionals also indicates you have attained important skills (artistic side). This could be a good way for a young photographer (young as far as photography experience) to advertise themselves as professional.
Like I said, everyone has an opinion and here is mine. Professionalism can be reflected in many ways. Just handling yourself in a professional manner can go along way to having others perceive you as a professional. This means treating your customers or clients with the respect they deserve. Make them feel comfortable that you are a professional and that you will provide them with what they need. Second, provide a professional service. This means, from start to finish, provide a professional work flow. It starts with how they find you all the way through the follow up after you have delivered the product. It should be both easy for the customer and profitable for you. If you do this in a professional way you will have many return customers and networking will grow your business. Finally, provide a professional result. By default this requires a mix of the right and left brain as well as a good understanding of all of the standards suggested by the individual in the PPA forum. This seems obvious to me and there doesn't need to be a defined list of what those standards are. If you don't know how to control light you're not going to be a good photographer and your professional image will be diminished.
You don't have to make your living as a photographer in order to be a professional photographer although you probably do if you reflect professionalism the way I describe above. Just because your livelihood comes from doing something different than than a photographer doesn't mean you can't be a professional as well. You also don't have to be certified, although if you are you will possess the foundation to make it happen and it gives customers and clients a measure of your capabilities. These are just tools that help you as a professional. They don't make you a professional.
Finally just because you have a $5,000 camera (no brainer I know), a business license for photography, a website or Instagram page, and sell images on your website, it doesn't mean you are a professional photographer. It's how you are perceived that makes you a professional. These things may contribute, but it is all about perception.
Again, all of this is my opinion. You may totally disagree and I can accept that. Everyone is entitled to see things differently.