Professionalism in Photography

Addressing the often mis-answered question: "what constitutes a professional photographer"


One commonly asked (and commonly mis-answered) question on the Internet these days is around the definition of what constitutes a ‘professional photographer.’ The usual definition is that it is somebody who is shooting for pay, and deriving the majority of his or her income entirely from photography or photography related activities. I suppose in the strictest sense of the definition, that is true. However, it says nothing about professional conduct or skill.

What I’m going to attempt to do in this article is express my own views on what I believe constitutes professional behavior in photography. It is important to note, however, that this is a very personal opinion, although it is shared by many of my colleagues in all areas of the industry — both primary providers of photographic imaging, as well as supporting services and videography/cinematography.

I think, as with all things, a large amount of the confusion stems from education, or more specifically, the lack of it. If standards are not clear to photographers themselves, it becomes very difficult for the general public to have any idea of what to expect when engaging or working with a photographer. Professions are trades or crafts that have enforced standards, regulatory bodies, certification requirements and generally some sort of formal training or apprenticeship before one is able to practice independently.

Medicine, accounting, law, architecture, surveying etc. are all good examples of this; each of these professions has one or two major internationally-recognized accreditation bodies that uphold standards, ensure members comply to minimum requirements and, more importantly, educate the public/clients about what they should expect. It’s a good thing for both service providers and service consumers; by maintaining standards, it is easier to maintain pricing and margins as well as build consumer confidence and trust. There is commercial benefit for all parties in a transaction for them to go with an accredited professional.

Unfortunately, the photographic industry has very few (if any) such accreditation bodies. Even worse, they are not widely recognized by the general public. This in turn means that most photographers do not bother with certification; the increased costs and requirements do not immediately translate into increased revenue, customers, or profitability. (I freely admit to being one of these people).

There are some exceptions to this — the MPA, Royal Photographic Society, NAPP, NPS, CPS etc. for instance — but even that tends to be rather fragmented with mixed standards and not that much general consumer awareness. Perhaps part of the problem is that, because the nature of our work is so subjective in the first place, it becomes difficult to apply quality control standards to the output itself. This is obviously not the same for, say, accounting.

The next level down from that are agency or brand associations; the public perceives acceptance to these groups as a stamp of quality (or minimum quality). Generally this is reasonable, but once again: just because a photographer does excellent portraits for Agency X, it doesn’t mean that his/her — or that agency’s — standards for portraiture also apply to architecture, or food, or product photography.

Perhaps a better solution to this problem is not to look at the quality of output, but the conduct of the service provider. I firmly believe that, regardless of industry or occupation, there are some minimum standards required of all people who are offering a service; there is a level of trust and commitment given to you by your client on the basis of belief that you will deliver as promised, and it is your duty to ensure that you deliver on that promise. It’s not difficult to see that this pays itself back in future work and creative latitude.

In short, we as professional — billing — photographers need to ensure the following:

  • We deliver on time and to spec as promised and uphold our agreements; if we can’t, we say so in advance, and we try to mutually work towards a solution
  • We do our best and do not accept compromise unless there is no other choice; we inform our clients so there are no misunderstandings
  • We will also do our best to try and work to your needs; for whatever reason, what you think you need may not be the same as what you actually need
  • We will deliver at a self-consistent (or improving) level of quality regardless of external circumstances that may affect us personally
  • It is better to under-promise and over-deliver
  • We uphold basic standards of courtesy; this includes timeliness and professionalism of replies whether in person, on the phone or via email
  • We will respect your time
  • We will respect our subjects — whether this be treating models/talent with courtesy and friendliness or carefully handling product and props
  • We will have integrity and be fully transparent in our pricing and honor quotes, even if we get things wrong; if there are big variances or changes in scope, then we communicate this and reason with the client
  • The scope and deliverables of all assignments are clearly detailed
  • We do our part to educate clients where necessary; whether this be to do with technical or creative choices, licensing or otherwise
  • We respect the creative rights of other photographers and clients, so that they shall respect our own
  • We value our own work and do not fight each other on price alone (This is very bad for the industry long term; once a new price ‘low’ is established, there’s no going back. You certainly can’t work for free, and if inflation means the cost of everything is rising, how can we sustainably charge less?)
  • If failure to deliver is our fault, we rectify it at our cost
  • We have spares and backups

This goes both ways, though. In order for us to deliver, we need some things from our clients:

  • We can make contingency plans for most eventualities, but there will always be things that are outside our control (e.g. weather)
  • Respect the agreed scope and price — you would not do extra work for free, please do not expect us to. When it no longer makes financial sense, there will not be any more photographers
  • Please respect our time and experience; that is why you hired us in the first place
  • Please uphold your end of commitments — whether that be supplying product of a certain finishing level or quality to photograph, or delivery on a certain time and date
  • ‘Fixing it later in Photoshop’ is not acceptable: this compromises quality and integrity
  • Please pay on time; we are running small businesses and do not enjoy the same credit terms as larger businesses. It is impossible for us to serve as credit facilities

I know I do my best with the photographers’ side of the charter, and there are a lot of others who do likewise. There are a lot of amateurs who do better than paid pros! Most clients also honor their end of the deal, and when they don’t, it’s often because they’re not aware of it — some education usually fixes the problem. The troubling thing is that, anecdotally and from the way new clients approach engagement of a photographer, it’s clear the vast majority of photographers are not observing any of these standards.

In turn, the expectations are lower, trust is not there, and the overall lack of confidence in the industry from the client side translates into lower value all around. It’s not a few bad apples spoiling the barrel, but most of the barrel being shortsighted and not seeing that their behavior is affecting the industry — and, of course, themselves — in the long run. Some of the worst (verified stories) I’ve heard include:

  • Photographers not turning up for time-critical engagements, or missing critical bits of equipment (flashes, batteries etc.)
  • Photographers over-committing and being unable to deliver
  • Photographers being slow or rude to reply to emails
  • Famous photographers attempting to sell clients multi-level marketing schemes!
  • Famous photographers not even turning up to engagements and sending their apprentices instead!
  • A photographer dropping a six figure watch, breaking it, and blaming it on somebody else!

I think you can see why we have a bit of a crisis in the industry. It doesn’t help either that a lot of the practicing photographers have no work experience outside of this; it means that they have no idea what’s to be expected in a normal professional workplace. All we can do is ensure that we do our best to adhere to our code of ethics, and make an effort to educate those who are not where possible. In the long run, it’s in everybody’s best interest.

About the author: Ming Thein is a commercial photographer specializing in products (watches, food) and corporate reportage; he also teaches, writes about the philosophical and artistic considerations behind the making of an image and runs a popular photographic site at He is also a member of Getty Images. This article originally appeared here.

  • Tom Waugh

    I personally think that a professional photographer is one who produces what his clients need and is paid for such work.

  • harumph

    “Famous photographers attempting to sell clients multi-level marketing schemes!”

    I don’t know what that means. What’s an example of a multi-level marketing scheme?

  • kodiak xyza

    there is also the issue of “talent above normal = professional”,
    in the minds of the general public, and how asymmetrical this is.
    the internet has abused this equation,
    because of self-anointed professionals with “pages” and “names”.
    all other aspects that apply to other professions should also be applicable,
    and the public are to enforce those aspects — just like with other professionals.

    like with news, people believe what they hear by deferring credibility.
    at some point, this is self-corrected.
    still, is there a term in use such as a “professional painter” or “professional actor”?

    what are their expectations?
    photography, in terms of quality/talent, is very subjective, unlike lawyers/doctors/etc.

  • Michael Robinson

    It’s what people call pyramid schemes these days.

  • Ming = Fraud

    this Ming guy can’t shoot a d800 handheld. he doesn’t understand what 36mp looks like at 100% and instead blames the camera like an amateur.


    there is a distinction that needs to be made, IMO. that’s why I call myself a full time professional photographer. because some kid taking $29 interior shots for part time real estate agents vs. someone like myself shouldn’t be called the same thing.

  • MikeD

    I see that you put a lot of thought into this topic but I don’t
    really see why photographers (as a group) are always looking for
    validation either from others or maybe convincing themselves that their
    choice to be a photographer is just as valid as their cousin the lawyer.Don’t forget batteries….?

  • Peng Tuck Kwok

    Eg, Amway…. Herbalife….

  • Peng Tuck Kwok

    He’s obviously doing something right since he is making a living out of it so I would presume this is largely due to being knowledgeable. So the question is what do you understand ?

  • iowapipe

    Any time we try to compartmentalize a thing, new issues arise for discussion. I’ve had a similar discussion with a dancer in the past, who classified a ‘professional dancer’ as a person who dances that takes money as a fee. (paraphrased greatly) He didn’t speak to the quality of the dance, or the ability of the dancer specifically. In fact, it is quite hard to be a ‘professional’ dancer and make the majority of your income that way. Pursuing a passion in the arts, for many people, does not result in gainful employment directly from that art. I DO think it is hard to be considered a professional without a certain amount of training/experience, and as in all professions… quality can sometimes be questionable. The point of my thoughtful ramble is that this ‘professional’ category is a very wide grey area, and not so easily contained. Accredited professionals are ‘better’ than professionals in other areas that require (or have) no accreditation?

  • MikeD

    I do not know who you are or what work you do but I am sure there are other people who would think the same about the work you do. Calling yourself “a full time professional photographer” just sounds pretentious. You are a photographer, so is the “kid”. When I had a BMW 1150 I would look down on people who were riding scooters or lesser bike, then I realized that we were all riders.

    Photographer worry waaaay too much about this.

  • Chillywilson

    Not to get off topic here but if a 6 figure watch breaks after dropping it then it’s a POS and should never be photographed in any other way.

  • bob cooley

    Sorry, but If you need to define professional, you probably aren’t one. Those of us who run businesses and make a living through the craft are professionals – those who do not are enthusiasts – and there is NOTHING wrong with being an enthusiast, in fact it affords you a lot of freedoms that being a professional doesn’t.

    Just like the example of the Lawyer, Accountant, etc. Those who make a living at it are professionals – those who don’t, aren’t. There are good professionals and bad professionals, and everything in-between. Being a bad lawyer doesn’t make that lawyer not a professional (likely one that will not be a professional for long, once they have lost all their clients) – but its the same with any profession, including photography.

    Photographers who do many of the actions listed at the end of the article will not be professionals for long, as they won’t have clients at some point – they have business practices which will lead to failure, and then they are no longer pros.

    Photographers who try to get you to buy into MLMs, or who make their money teaching seminars aren’t professional photographers, they are professional marketers who use photography as a focus of their marketing profession.

    Photography as profession is not the ethics of the trade – there are ethical and prepared professionals, and there are unethical and unprepared professionals – this is true of ALL professions- the latter tend to find themselves out of work at some point, because of poor practices, either ethically or professionally.

    Learn to run a business, service your clients needs, build and maintain relationships with clients that will sustain you, make a living at the craft and you are a professional. It’s really pretty simple (in theory, not always in action).

  • Click_Mk2

    The only real “certification” that matters is the recommendation from a client, after you’ve proved your worth.

  • Ken Maldonado

    If you’re hiring a photographer, in addition to asking for a portfolio, ask for a resume. It will help you to weed out who is a working professional and who isn’t. It will list their experience of the kind of work they do, how many years they’ve been doing it, and if they have a college degree in photography which I think is a pretty good standard of certification.

  • Melanie Rijkers

    “It’s not a few bad apples spoiling the barrel, but most of the barrel being shortsighted and not seeing that their behavior is affecting the industry…” in Holland we call this #beeldinflatie inflation of the image – over all disease, people can’t SEE (value) anymore … what a shame…

  • Aldo

    Most of these things are common courtesies and good customer service. If you don’t know to do the things you listed, most likely you’re also a poor human being in general. The list you provided, i think, should be common sense!

  • Davor Pavlic

    I read only the first paragraph and don’t think I need to go any further? Why? Because it is true that it is the person who makes a living out of it who is the professional photographer. And by some standards a professional photographer should behave in a certain manner etc. One leads to another. If you make a living out of it and don’t behave acordnigly you will not be a professional photographer for long and that’s it.

  • mr.sidebar-lover

    no sidebar :D ?

  • sherpa

    I know many college grads with a photog degree that suck

  • prophotog

    Similarly, what makes a writer a “professional writer”? Photography is a craft like writing is a craft. It entails other aspects such as marketing, sales, promotion, clients, etc. You’re a professional if you’re also involved in some–or all–of these other aspects. Otherwise, you’re a hobbyist.

  • Michael

    Given what you said in the rest of your post, probably you should have left off the first sentence. :-)

  • bob cooley

    I’d disagree with the “college degree in photography” part – my actual degrees are in Communications Theory, with minors in Physics, Music, and a lot of business courses. My portfolio, client list and publishing credits are a much better barometer for my ability to deliver on assignments than a degree in photo. There are some good photo programs out there, but many are only worth it as a minor – Professional photographers are better served by having a solid business degree in order to know how to run a business and service clients. Also – working photographers don’t have resumes – again, their portfolio, client list, publishing credits, and references are what would serve for a resume.

  • bob cooley

    Fair ‘nuf :)

  • bob cooley

    I have a feeling he is referring to the workshop / seminar ‘photographers’ who spend more time selling their workshops than photography services.

  • MikeD

    Ken, your portfolio is your resume, I have been shooting for 20 years. Only once was I asked for a resume and that was by a totally clueless person who had no idea what she was doing. It was also for a government agency so take that into account.
    OTOH I have seen fine art photographers who list on their resume every time they have shown anything to anyone including the pictures stuck on their grandmas’ refrigerator. College degrees tell people you went to college…useful in the Fine Art, and Academic world but not so much anywhere else. Show me what you can do, don’t tell me.

  • MikeD

    Like Bart Simpson says, if you have to say you’re cool, you aren’t. LOL

  • Patrick Downs

    Ming Thein (who I respect, and who comes from a business background) is correct in many of his points. The other part of the problem is that the bar for entry into the “profession” so to speak, has been lowered technically (though there are examples from back in the pre-digital age too). Now, via the new cameras and digital world, it is much easier to be barely competent, while at the same time garnering “likes” from people who don’t actually know what good or excellent work is, done by true professionals. If all these people are “liking” you, touting you, and you’re saying you are the best thing since sliced bread — well it must be true, huh? Social media has enabled this trend of the loudest, most self-promoting fauxtogs to rise much higher on the food chain that they could have 10, 20 years ago. Then when they start believing their own PR, others do too and it becomes a mutual love-fest. Back in the day (I am old) you actually had to prove your worth, on an assignment by assignment basis, and it was judged by other professionals, not just fans. There are some who are the real deal, like Joe McNally, who can actually walk the walk while maintaining a credible on-line presence and fan base. Then there are the Thomas Hawks and other blowhards. A true pro like McNally can be airdropped into a variety of challenging assignments and do a credible to excellent job consistently, on demand, and on time. Getting lucky once in a while doesn’t count.

  • Bob

    I think a big part of the problem is that the established professionals are reluctant to give useful advice to amateurs who want to start charging because they feel threatened by it all. And as a result people are going in blind and making things far worse for them than if they took the time to educate people on how to do it properly.

    I’m no professional – i’ve just started to get my first few paid jobs after 5 years of photography and 2 years of trying to get paid, but I’m happy working a full time job and doing the odd paid job on recommendation from friends and family. After going on a business course to learn about taxes, overheads, HMRC, writing down expenses, business rates, and all that kind of thing i realised that quitting my job and setting up as a full time photographer was way too risky and i’m guessing there are a lot of people in the same boat as me without the knowledge or advice to know where to go next. The danger is that without peer-to-peer advice the whole thing risks becoming too relaxed which i think is what is being said here. Every single professional photographer on the planet has undercharged at some point in their career to get their foot in the door and anyone who says otherwise is pulling your chain. It’s OK to undercharge as long as you know exactly how to undercharge without hurting yourself and the industry.

    Here are my tips to get in the door, like i said i’m no professional but hopefully this will be useful to somebody:

    – Tell people you are giving them a one-off special offer. Call it what you want – mates rates, introductory rates, summer special…anything to make them think they are getting a one-off special deal and more importantly to stop them going to all their friends and telling them you did a family shoot (etc.) for XXX amount. Otherwise you will never be able to raise your prices. If you charge your friend’s family £100 and they recommend you to someone else, when you quote them 150 they will feel badly done to! What is more they will probably find a “professional” online because they will think the risk associated with hiring you is not worth the difference. And if you don’t have/can’t afford a website yet then it won’t matter if your photos are better than his – he will get the job.

    – Do the research by looking online and phoning round all the local photographers in your area and pretending to be a client. Ask them how much they would charge to do the same shoot that you’re wanting to charge for. Compile a list, select the median average and knock money off accordingly depending on your 1) skill level 2) experience and 3) who you are shooting for. But don’t go too low! Never less that half of what the average pro in your area would charge. Close friends are more than entitled to “mates rates”, friends and family of friends should not get as good a deal. Look at the work of the photographers you phoned and you will notice that it’s not always that good but understand that you will never deliver your best under pressure unless you are a seasoned pro who has done that kind of shoot over and over again.

    – Leave the higher end of the market for the professionals.

    – I can’t agree more with the under-promise over-deliver theory mentioned above. If you tell someone you will have all their photographs post-processed and on a CD by the end of the week and then you have to email them to tell them your dog got sick or that your computer broke (which does happen) then you will look bad. There is nothing more embarrassing than having to explain why you missed a deadline and nothing more annoying than someone constantly nagging you through email or Facebook. You could even, on the day of the shoot, tell the client that you’re going away for a couple of days and won’t be near a computer. Whatever you tell them just be realistic and don’t be scared to lay it out nice and clear for them. If they get them earlier than they expected then you will earn brownie points.

    – Only give clients your best work. It’s better to give 10 great photographs than 10 great ones and a few with blurry eyes because you can bet your life the blurry eyed ones will be the clients favourite and those are the ones that will end up on Facebook.

    – Don’t pander to clients’ wants. Be firm and learn how to say no in a diplomatic way. After all if someone wants the heads swapping round on 4 different photographs it’s going to take you time that you are not getting paid for ( i’m speaking from experience here on the head-swapping thing). Time is money and word spreads about your expert head-swapping photoshop skills and before you know it everyone wants it doing. For your first couple of jobs, it’s important you do a good job even if it means stopping an extra hour or two. Because these first jobs are your most important – your aim is to get as many recommendations as possible and as much exposure through social media as possible from these. If you can’t keep your mouth shut on Facebook then set up a different page for your photography. Nobody wants to see their beautiful newborn photos next to a post about how you can’t stand so-and-so religion.

    What happens after your first job is up to you – if you’re good you’ll get more recommendations and can start increasing your prices accordingly but if you are useless then obviously that’s not going to get you any more work. If you’re taking cash in hand then it’s best not to shout about it because there is always a chance some jealous/spiteful person is going to call HMRC and tell them. The rules on having to pay tax on unearned income are grey here, especially if you’re working for friends & family but having been to a business course and asked lots of questions myself the answer was that if you are just doing the odd paid job (as i am) then there is no need to declare it to HMRC or to register as a business. Once you start doing business on a regular basis then that will be the time to consider calling HMRC and registering yourself as a sole trader which literally only takes a phone call but means from that point on you will have to keep implicit records of all your earnings and expenses. The good news is that unless HMRC have good reason to suspect you owe them some money they will not look into your accounts BUT if they do call up your books and you aren’t keeping records you could be in trouble. More good news though is that you can write off your expenses (cameras, lighting etc) as business expenses (as long as you have the receipts) which means that if you charge £200 for a shoot but needed to buy lighting worth £200 then your net profit is £0 and you won’t have to pay any tax. And also i think you can make around £7000 profit before you have to pay tax anyway.

    So relax, take each job as it comes and keep a smart head on your shoulders and remember- Cash Is King ;)

    Hope that is of help to somebody.

  • Zaidi

    It’s about time someone ‘frame’ this issue in the light of day. The paparazzi are not photographers! They are vultures; purely motivated by getting paid.

  • stevengrosas

    Very well said.

  • stevengrosas

    I agree.

  • stevengrosas

    Who cares about titles anyway? Don’t waste your time trying to be successful or a professional, spend your time creating something of value instead. When you’re valuable to the world around you, you will be successful.

  • parkylondon

    There are two meanings for the word “Professional”. One refers to income source and the other refers to attitude to the job and the distinction is critical.

    I have a day-job which is nothing to do with photography so my primary income is not photography related. Now, although I do get commissions for photography and I have been paid for my work (in cash or in kind), I am not a full time professional photographer. In fact, with the strict definition, I am an amateur.

    HOWEVER, the reason I get commissions and paid work is because of my *attitude* to that work. Each and every “paid” job gets treated with the same level of respect, commitment, preparation, action and delivery. The above is, basically, the checklist I have for each job I do whether I am being paid nothing, £100, £500 or something from my Amazon WishList.

    So, what am I? Professional or Amateur?

  • Tim

    The downside of some of these accredited bodies is that if you google for “FRPS” or similar, you get quite a lot of flawed crap photos… I know it’s said “an amateur can take as good a photo as a professional” – the question is what proportion of the time that occurs.

  • Lukas

    And what about the photographer who do not live out of protography (because the work he does is not sellable on regularly basiss), but exhibits regularly in respected galeries, his work is part of national collections etc.?
    By the way – I do not need to call myself proffessional, it is somehow very strange ranking. But I love to read discussions about that! ;)

  • Carlee Keppler-Carson

    Lol.. I thought the same thing

  • bob

    The papparazzi are a kind of photographer. Remember, It takes all sorts to make a world…

  • djr

    I read an article about the same question year or two ago – What is a Professional Photographer? I feel in my own opinion there is a lot of snobbery in this area in general. Photographers (Professional or Enthusiast) can’t shoot a wedding without being asked “Oh but are you a professional?” Well I would feel let me see his/ her portfolio or past work. Does the client like his/ her work? Yes? Well then am sure he/ she is competent enough to get the photographs they want. I don’t feel you have to have a ‘title’ after your name of college courses. I have done some courses and to be honest you do not learn everything at college. As said in past comments, some enthusiasts are able to reproduce exact quality or better than the classed ‘Professional’. I have done multiple work for people, will be doing more and hope to make it my living and people have been more than happy with the results. I use very good camera equipment, I know how to use it properly and I call myself a Photographer because I love it. I don’t need to engrave the professional part at the beginning of it. Would anyone agree in what am saying or am I way off the mark? :)

  • djr

    “I call myself a Photographer because I love it”

    As in I love the job, not the title. My bad! :)

  • Click_Mk2

    The only “resume” that works is the kinds of work a particular photographer has demonstrated the in application of lighting, (wise is the professional whom puts together a folio that reflects those skills vs. just a collection of pretty pictures).

  • Bruce Wenner

    Sorry, but your definition of “professions” seems more a definition of “certification” or “accreditation”.. There are many self-taught professional photographers that do great work without formal training nor accreditation, but they are still professionals because they make their living as photographers.

    Your particular scenario is also limited to small business photographers doing contract work with stated deliverables and precludes photographers who earn their living in stock photography or art-photographers, etc. who make their living selling beautiful photographs without any need for contracts or customer fulfillment. These are “professional photographers” as well, but don’t fit your rigid definition of the term.

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