Well, I have been a photographer for 49 years and I'm still practicing. To become proficient with a camera and consistently produce high quality images will probably involve several years. However, in our world today, anyone with a camera can claim to be a photographer. Being a professional photographer means you have the gear and skills to consistently produce the images your clients require. It means you have a digital portfolio on a website that showcases your ability to produce exceptional photographs for a variety of clients. And, it means you never stop exploring your craft and growing as an artist. I wish you the best in your journey.
Good question! 5 years as a professional freelance photographer I'm still continuing to learn new ways to grow! Always remember that you learn something new everyday!
Good Luck! Hopefully this answers your question
A true master is one that realizes they are only a student, and will always be. Realistically this is true for all professions, technology and styles and tastes are always changing and its all about adapting what you can do to meet the demand as well as how you present yourself while following a path of self enlightenment. But Technically "How many year does it take to be a photographer" is exactly 0, as soon as you have a camera and take your first picture you are a photographer, and as soon as you have a client to buy your photo you are a professional photographer. Wether you are good or proficient at this point is debatable.
If we shift that question to how long does it take to become a photographer that is proficient in the craft with a steady client base, the answer would still be that it all depends on the person and the demand in your area. The world is a grind, and you gotta take gigs where you can when you can just to make ends meet as you start out. Once you develop the ability to sustain yourself work on truly defining your own voice, what mark can you add that defines your style, and your abilities to separate you from everyone else, at this point is when you become a true photographer, for some its days for some its decades, and for some it never comes, but do not let the discourage yourself, follow your passion.
Selling yourself however is more about how you network than how good your photos are (the pinnacle still requires talent and skill, but networking is key getting there) Some people have the ability to pick up new things quickly and draw a following other take years to hone in a single technique and gain their following on mastery of that skill. Which is better? Neither, as each has its niche and it is entirely subjective. But ask which is better for you and you have the right question, and this will be the one that drives and fuels your passion, whatever you can do to make you want to do more and still connect you to others as the goal is to sell your product and be happy while doing it.
And, that other conflicting point I mentioned, Demand, you may take amazing pictures and have an awesome portfolio and be a great photographer, but nobody near you to buy them or even appreciate your work, so make yourself avaliable to the world and get a website up and running, hop on instagram, facebook, deviant art .... whatever is popular and share to direct people to you and build out a network and following to make yourself desirable. Remember it's not just the photo that people like it will be the photographer behind the lens that people are buying, so be likable. And that is really going to be the hardest skill set you could ever learn.
What can you do to become better?
The main thing is to take more pictures, use your phone camera or a point and shoot, or a professional quality DSLR, it does not really matter the platform just take more pictures just to see what works and what does not, what looks good to you and what looks odd or wrong. Play with the settings, the angles, the lighting, the props, etc... have fun and the skills will increase with every day. AND POST THE PICTURES, make them avaliable to others, and make the journey of self discovery and improvement part of your story and leverage it as part of your networking, exe: instagram story "check out these pics i have been experimenting with in this new style" ask for feedback, engage your audience find out what they like.
Next take classes and join workshops if you can afford them, or join a photography club in your area. Being around others that share your passion and are willing to share their knowledge is invaluable to growing in the field and in life. Also being around others in the same area as you will start a network allowing you to find clients. EXE bob who takes pictures of birds, has a friend looking for a wedding photographer and they know bob likes to take pictures, and they let bob know to ask around his group of friends if anyone is interested in the gig, bob lets you know and boom you got a job to start building out that portfolio. Always seek the knowledge and wisdom of others otherwise you will be dismissing a tool that will boost your abilities rapidly by exposing you to others views and techniques, and it give you a massive jump on networking options for clients in the area, the shoe in the door approach.
Watch what others are doing, this is a big one. Take note of what is popular, and try to replicate it, popularity sells. Photography at its core is replication of the moment to cary with you forever, look at what the moment is that drives it to become popular, find the emotion in the picture, discover its meaning, and reproduce that feeling in your work. If you want to sell your pictures and make a living off of it you will have to take photos that appeal to the masses, and mix in your own flair to define your style as you grow. Watch youtube videos, follow other artists, bre it their books or other instagram artists, go to galleries (when they re-open), buy some magazines and look at what others have done and are doing now in the field you want to follow. But still do not give up on you passion, follow the path that makes you happy, replicate the things you see that you like as well. If you only churn to make others happy you will burn out fast.
Hope this helps you on your journey :)