We use nouns + photographer to mean that the photographer masters the photography in that noun.

Say -

Wildlife photographer (the photographer masters wildlife photography)

But then, when I try this with other examples, it creates ambiguity.

Baby photographer (ambiguous - a photographer is a baby?)


Nude photographer (the photographer is nude?)

How to convey this clearly that the former one is a photographer master in taking babies' photos and the latter in nudes.

4 Answers 4


This is the sort of ambiguity in language that is often used as the basis of a joke. Indeed one of your examples is very similar to a joke in a book I have on the shelf:

Couple meets at a party. She: "So what do you do?" He: "I'm a painter." She: "Oh really? Do you do any nude painting?" He: "Well, sometimes, but usually I wear a smock."

Similarly, there's the classic joke, "I'm a criminal lawyer." "Isn't that redundant? All lawyers are criminals."


In practice, it's usually obvious what is meant. A "baby photographer" is almost certainly a photographer who takes pictures of babies and not a baby who takes pictures, for the obvious reason that few babies can handle a camera skillfully. Etc.

I suppose I can think of cases where it would really be ambiguous. Is a "female photographer" a female who takes photographs or someone who takes photographs of females? I'd normally assume the first, but either is possible. If you're worried that it's ambiguous, then you simply add extra words to clarify. "The photographer, who was female, received an award", or "The photographer, who takes pictures of females, received an award." Etc.

  • +1 for the criminal example! :) It connects to this question.
    – Maulik V
    Oct 6, 2015 at 7:36
  • Worth noting, this is common in a vast multitude of languages. In Chinese the issues with ambiguity regarding homophones (thus depending on context for explanation) is so great that it it is popular to use it as a source of puns in literary works. Many Chinese works are frustratingly hard to translate because of this. Some of their phases seem almost like non sequiturs when translated to English until you get to the footnotes that explain the pun in the original language.
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 6, 2015 at 15:01
  • I don't think your "female photographer" example is ambiguous in practical terms. Sure, there are probably photographers who mostly photograph women but they're referred to by the purpose of those photos (e.g., "fashion photographer", "glamour photographer", whatever euphemism you want to use for "porn photographer"). If you talk about a "female photographer", everybody will assume you mean "photographer who is female" rather than "photographer who specializes in photographing women." Oct 6, 2015 at 16:26
  • @DavidRicherby I was struggling to think of an example involving photographer that would be ambiguous. I agree, it's not the best example.
    – Jay
    Oct 7, 2015 at 5:07
  • This pleasant ad had the punchline of "Deng Adut Refugee Lawyer", a refugee who became a lawyer.
    – Golden Cuy
    Oct 7, 2015 at 9:46

I think this is a somewhat moot question.
English, like many other languages has no fixed rules about the formation of compound nouns. My favourite example is chocolate biscuits vs. dog biscuits - one is made with, the other made for.

So the only safe way of being absolutely unambiguous is omitting the compound entirely and replacing it with a short clause that expresses the relation that is lost in the compound:

A photographer specialized in [clearly described topic].

But honestly, usually a benevolent reader/listener would infer from the context what is meant. Both babies/animals taking pictures and photographers working in the buff are very, very rare.

  • Photographers working in the buff are quite rare but when I say that I saw a nude photographer, that person was in the buff with a camera! Just playing with the words! :)
    – Maulik V
    Oct 6, 2015 at 7:35
  • @MaulikV Nobody said that homour is bad - a smile a day keeps sadness at bay.
    – Stephie
    Oct 6, 2015 at 7:37

Without venturing into the humorous side of this post, which is well-covered in other answers, I'd like to offer some alternatives, which could be less ambiguous.

Tim is a six-month-old photographer. ​ (= He is six months old.)
Kate is a baby photo photographer. ​ ​ (= She is specialized in baby photo shoots.)

Pete is a nude model photographer. ​ (= His profession is taking photographs of nude models.)
James is a nude female model photographer. ​ ​ (= Same as Pete, but more specific.)
Jake is a naked photographer. ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​(= He doesn't wear any clothes while shooting.)
Jake is a photographer wearing no clothes in shooting. ​ ​ (= Similar, just more mouthful.)

The above examples only demonstrate some possibilities how we can be more specific while still phrasing our idea as a noun phrase. The last example (a photographer wearing no clothes in shooting) is still a noun phrase, but it's similar to Jay's example: The photographer, who takes pictures of females, received an award. Obviously, we can be more specific about our ideas in many ways. Usually, the longer, the more specific.

Language is about communication. In conversation, we talk cooperatively. (Thus writing is harder. According to Stephen King, "Writing is telepathy.") The cooperative principle describes how people interact with one another. Jeffries and McIntyre describe Grice's Maxims as "encapsulating the assumptions that we prototypically hold when we engage in conversation".

One maxim, Maxim of Quantity, says that we should contribute only what is required, not more. In general, your listeners or readers would understand your baby photographer and nude photographer just fine. Why? Because it's the most logical interpretation in most circumstances.

Grice's Maxims allow us to be concise. (In fact, one of the maxims, Maxim of Manner, requires us to do so: be perspicuous; be unobscured, be unambiguous, be brief, and be orderly.)

On the other hand, as noted in Wikipedia, "Many times in conversation, this flouting is manipulated by a speaker to produce a negative pragmatic effect, as with sarcasm or irony. [...] The Gricean Maxims are therefore often purposefully flouted by comedians and writers, who may hide the complete truth and manipulate their words for the effect of the story and the sake of the reader's experience."

Likewise, our listeners or readers can deliberately choose not to cooperate. As you note that baby photographer could be understood as a photographer who is a baby, rather than a photographer who takes photographs of babies. Tim is a six-month-old photographer can be reinterpreted as Tim only acts as if he was a photographer; he just plays with a camera, and never takes a single photo shot. Or in Kate is a baby photo photographer, it could be reinterpreted as Kate is a gynecology doctor who takes gynecologic ultrasonography regularly.

It's true that too few words can result in ambiguity.
It's also true that too many words can result in inefficiency and being less effective.
Thus, it's reasonable to try to strike a balance between using too many and too few words.

  • 1
    I don't think I've ever heard anyone use a phrase like "baby photo photographer" or "nude (female) model photographer". They sound very unnatural to me because, as you say, the alternatives of "baby photographer" and "nude photographer" are unlikely to be misunderstood. Oct 6, 2015 at 16:30
  • @DavidRicherby Very true indeed. Which is why I usually think a lot of things could sound very unnatural even though it's arguable that they're grammatical. Having said that, I think we should be able to find some instances of such uses on the web. Still, it doesn't mean that those examples will sound natural for most people. Oct 6, 2015 at 16:34
  • Also, note that when I tried to come up with one adjective to add to nude photographer, the first few words came to my mind were: photo, model, and art. I haven't checked which one has more actual results on the web or in books. Come to think of it, I think nude art photographer could sound more natural. Oct 6, 2015 at 16:42
  • The usual phrase there would be "art nude photographer", "art nude" being the genre of artistic, rather than pornographic, nude photography. Indeed, if somebody said "nude art photographer" to me, I would wonder if they meant a photographer who specializes in art nudes or if they meant a fine-art photographer who is naked. (+1, btw. This minor quibble aside, I think this is an excellent answer.) Oct 6, 2015 at 18:01
  • Ah, thanks for the note on "note art photographer" (and also the vote). It could sound like that indeed when I think about it! Oct 6, 2015 at 18:30

I do not know how it is in English, but judging from the analogy from Russian, I would use female-photographer for a photographer who is female and female's photographer for a photographer of women. Similarly I would use child-photographer for a photographer who is a child and children's photographer for a photographer who makes photographer who makes photos of children.

  • Those would not be idiomatically correct in English. A feminine photographer would suggest one whose mannerisms were effeminate, regardless of whether they were actually male or female. While childish photographer would imply a photographer who was immature in their behaviour. Oct 7, 2015 at 11:38
  • @GeoffAtkins then, female's ptographer and children's photographer should work.
    – Anixx
    Oct 7, 2015 at 15:18
  • Strictly speaking I suppose that is correct, although to describe it in a possessive sense like that seems inherently wrong for some reason I can't quite put my finger on. I can say that it is not a phrase I could imagine any native speaker using or necessarily immediately understanding without some context. Oct 7, 2015 at 15:22

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .