What it means to be a professional

Ostensibly, professional photographers are people who make their living – or the majority of it – from photography or related activities. A profession is a vocation: you take pride in your work, and don’t dabble. Clients rely on you to deliver what was agreed in the contract or letter of engagement, and there is always a letter of engagement with clear terms. Bottom line: money changes hands for services rendered.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about skill. This isn’t to say that there is no skill required to be a good professional photographer, but rather than it really doesn’t seem to be the determining factor in whether one gets the job or not – I’ve been learning this the hard way over the last few months. An event photographer who just randomly aims his camera at groups of people and blasts them with flash can be a professional if all he does is that, and pays his rent with the proceeds. Similarly, perhaps one of the members of Magnum might be an investment magnate on the side; clearly he doesn’t need the photojournalism income, and this doesn’t make him a professional.

Do you see something wrong with those sweeping statements? I certainly do. Yet this is the perception of the industry, and the public at large – and most importantly, that of the majority of clients, too. I’ve always thought of honesty as the best policy – there’s no point in pretending you’re a pro if you’re not. I’ve always told my clients (at least until March this year) that I’m not a full time photographer, but I do deliver professional results.

What does this mean? One thing above all else: consistency. Anybody who takes enough photographs can pull together a portfolio of 10 decent ones; or even 10 excellent ones; however, that may be all they’ve gotten out of say 100 or 200 tries*. On the other hand, if you see similar quality across the board, in every shoot, and the portfolio just happens to be full of slightly better images than the rest – you’ve found a true professional. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, or who the client is, or what conditions they’re working under, they deliver the goods every time. This is particularly important for photojournalists, who must be conditioned to react instantly or miss the shot. And the gear doesn’t matter: a pro will use the right tool for the job, but you could give him a box brownie and the image wouldn’t be that fundamentally different: composition, lighting etc should not change. (Image quality is a different matter altogether, of course).

In every every other industry, being a professional implies that there is a minimum standard that you can expect – a professional dentist or doctor would have a degree, and some years of housemanship, for instance; a professional electrician would be able to wire something without electrocuting themselves (or you); a professional accountant would be able to file your taxes without landing you in trouble with the authorities**. I say ‘implies’, because like with all things, there are varying standards of service. But for the most part, the vast majority of people charging money for that service do know what they’re doing.

*One try would be one event, one wedding, one set of watch images, etc. – with several dozen, if not several hundred images per try.
**Taxation is perhaps the only branch of accountancy where creativity is not only encouraged, but rewarded.

The creative sector is a bit more of a minefield, because everything is subjective. Value is relative – if what you want is a reproduction, then shallow depth of field and soft focus isn’t going to cut it for you – similarly, portraits don’t generally flatter if they’re shot so as to optimize for resolution. Although there are general rules as to what constitutes a good image, and what constitutes a bad one, one can push the envelopes so far that there no longer becomes any clear lines – ultimately, it’s up to whoever is paying the bills. And this is the second thing that differentiates a true professional from an amateur: they deliver what the client wants. This implies a few things: they have the technical ability to execute; they may or may not require the creative ability to translate the client’s vision into a frame, and endow with with their own touch; or they may be required to create an execute the entire concept and shoot. I’ve had the whole spectrum; we must be prepared to wear many hats. Even if the client’s idea may not be the best possible solution you can see for that particular problem (e.g. the lighting is boring, or the framing or angle is too conventional) – we still execute as best we can, and try to tweak it to put our mark of individuality on it – after all, the work will eventually become an advertisement for ourselves, so we must put some pride into it. And it’s also for this reason that inevitably professionals will also try a few creative variations that aren’t on the shot list, in the hope that the client goes for them over or in addition to the original images.

The next distinction is choice: for most working professionals, there is no choice: we take all the jobs we can, partially because volume correlates directly to our income, and partially because you never know what contacts or leads an assignment now may open up in the future. In an increasingly tough photographic market, the reality is that most pros cannot afford to turn down jobs; for every well-paying assignment with a good amount of creative freedom, there are plenty of run-of-the-mill ‘shot factory’ type jobs; though we try, standard pack-shot images from these shoots will never be portfolio-grade material; these clients will probably never make our CV or be publicized; but as much as we don’t like these jobs, we still accept them because they pay the bills, and keep us afloat until the next dream assignment comes along. We know how to price jobs to take into account contingencies, equipment, bad weather, things we need to hire for the job. We understand licensing, intellectual property, and how to protect our image rights***. People who do not make their living from photography do not need to do this, and have the luxury to shoot only the subjects that interest them – consequently, this gives risen to a lot of highly skilled amateurs, and a lot of jaded, creatively-stagnated professionals. However, put the amateur outside his comfort zone, and the results will be decidedly mixed. The pro will soldier on and deliver the expected level of quality, but there’s a good chance that he won’t produce anything exceptional, either.

***Using images without permission is theft, people. A jeweler makes rings for a living – you wouldn’t take one without paying for it. A photographer makes photographs for a living – yet plenty of people either expect images for free, or just help themselves…this is not cool.

And that brings me to the final easily quantifiable distinction: being prepared. Even if something outside the normal course of work happens, the pro is prepared and ready to continue; an example could be as simple as having a spare body, extra lighting equipment if the client changes their mind and wants an outdoor shoot, or even being ready to work under pressure with an audience.

So where is the happy medium? If you can make some of your living from photographic assignments, and some of it elsewhere, perhaps. I don’t know because I’m still trying to figure out what the balance is; the months where I’ve got plenty of commercial work tends to end with a very drained, tired, uninspired feeling; but the months where I’ve got time to be creative also tend to be financial black holes.

Above all, though, I believe that ‘being professional’ should mean something beyond just making your living off it – it should be an embodiment of the term when taken out of context, as in “he acted professionally in that situation”. In summary, here’s my opinion of what makes a true professional photographer (and you’re welcome to differ):
– Doesn’t have any other occupations to distract his/her commitment.
– Consistently delivers the same quality shown in his/her portfolio, i.e. the portfolio is representative of the person, not an exceptional set of outliers.
– Accepts assignments out of financial necessity, but gives them 100% effort and commitment regardless of whether they are interesting or not.
– Continually seeks to improve their personal development and skill level
– Is always prepared for any conceivable eventuality, and has the experience to deal with it and still fulfill the contract.
– Should always act with the client’s best interests in mind, in a fair, ethical an honorable manner. What does this mean? Price equally, don’t discriminate. If you make a mistake, fix it. You’ll be surprised how many photographers don’t do this****.

Now to work on increasing the income bit. MT

****The infamous wedding photography fiasco that’s been making the rounds across the Singaporean forums over the last month or so, for instance.


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  1. Luis Castro Solla says:

    Ming, again and again I enjoy your posts. You do give us consistent quality !
    IMHO, consistency is undoubtedly a requirement for pro photographers, yet their output quality always varies. I loved to see Sebastiao Salgado photos on the subject of work, but was amazed when I saw the sheer number of rolls he used to get at a limited number of masterpieces. And you only have to look at a contact sheet of a photojournalist to realize that he or she is getting an excellent picture out of a few tens. What is really consistent, I find, is that none of them are crap.
    All the best, keep on writing

    Lisbon, Portugal

  2. My first comment here. Well, I am beginning to enjoy reading and looking forward for new topics in your blog.
    You are a no-nonsense guy, give honest opinions,…
    The point I like most is about the portfolio thingy,…most people can have good or great portfolio, but may never be able to produce it consistently… Good point.

    And about wedding photographers here in Malaysia, I think I truly agree,…they are pretty bad (I mean mostly).
    My wedding photographer (2010), before I start taking pictures,…is crap. Lack inspiration.
    The photo editors, crap, I think they used blur tool and make me and my wife’s face look fake.
    There is one outdoor shot that I like, but there is a sign board in part of the composition, they told me that they can’t remove that from the image,…they are either too lazy or did not even know how to use healing brush and clone stamp tool.
    And album design,…sucks,…all looks the same,…ended up me directing them step by step what I want,…all their proposal is rejected by me,…no different from their other portfolios.

    • Thanks for your compliments. I have nothing to prove and no sponsors to keep happy, so I tell it like it is: if something is good, I’ll say it’s good. If it stinks, you can be sure I won’t pull a carpet over it…

      For my own wedding, I got a couple of friends and my brother to help out; all good photographers. To make sure the look was consistent, I did the editing and processing myself – I think the after-capture step is just as important. But if you’re a ‘famous’ wedding photographer and don’t have the time (or skill) to do your own editing, this bit will always be missing. It becomes a production line rather than a creative challenge, and that’s the sad part about it.

  3. Your last few posts give me the impression that you’ve been low on contracts lately. If that’s the case — and if not, sorry that I misread you — then you shouldn’t worry too much. It’s the summer, commercial clients are on vacation and projects take longer to be green-lit. Contracts will come back soon 🙂

    I guess that’s one big difference between being freelance vs having a steady job: you must plan your budget to save during the fat months so you have money during the lean months.

    • Yes and no – things are chugging along as normal, but one can always have more work 🙂

      One thing worth remembering is that I run this site like I did the magazine I previously served as editor of; posts are often written a month or two in advance and scheduled; this is one such post. I think I wrote it at the start of July.

  4. Ming, I understand where you are coming from. I work in an art related field, to be more septic, in the movie/feature animation industry here in the US, where a vast number of individuals are creatives in their respective rights. However, in the field we have very specific roles, and often turn out to be less artistic (by certain definitions) and become more technician like, although nothing specifically wrong with that, our titles espress something contrary to the imagination. It’s our job and it pays the bills when we have one!

    Freelance artists, being in photography, graphic design or other, may be striving for artistic goals, however, let’s not forget its about running a business at the end of the day. Sure, some continue the original journey but there’s no denying the financial prize others are better at achieving. Although we as artist, some may become envious of the prize difference, due to human nature, they are ultimately less talented in the process but more talented in the direction of others to achieve the same results or better! A little confusing here, but think soccer coaches, they produce results although they are not doing the skillful work on the field. Hobby or professional, can certainly be grey area these days. Spend less time focused or them!

    Ideally every artist delivers the excellent work and is awarded the from scale of it. I think we all struggle at the of the day that real life, there are different models of this, and the representation isn’t alway fair or ideal. I think it is a matter of time real talent stands out, work out a good business model (it comes slower for those with real artistic talent and then some) and strive. We all need to rant (express it for a better term) somehow, life is stressful, but some do it more eloquently by writing well.

    I enjoyed reading this entry, and can relate. Life is a balancing act at the end of day, and we’re constantly reminded of it.

    • Septic= specific*
      Annoying iPad correction!

    • You’re right – the successful photographers aren’t the skilled ones. They’re the ones who are good at marketing and networking. Especially in a country where the majority of clients are not educated enough to tell the difference between good and bad; the wedding photography market here is a prime example of that.

  5. Ciao Ming, well done for standing up and voicing this opinion, and with reference to the ‘wedding photographer director’ if l had someone telling me what and where and how to shoot, whilst at the same time he was’mingling’ and’ having a good time’ whilst l was working l’d pack it in fast! Sod that for a lark! I could afford to turn down what l considered boring assignments because l also taught photography too on a part-time basis, and l called myself a professional photographer.
    Your blogs are very interesting and l look foreword to them. 🙂

  6. Nicely done. It makes me glad I shoot for a hobby. The definition of a hobbyist: “You only have to please yourself”. I sometimes sell a framed print or two, but I always take pictures that please me as a first priority. Then, if it also pleases someone else that’s great too. The result of that is that sometimes to a co-worker or friend I will sell a framed print or two and that also makes me happy.

    I am also happy that I recently found your blog!

    Peter F.

  7. You write: “professional photographers are people who make their living – or the majority of it – from photography or related activities”.

    I would stop the sentence at “from photography.”

    Is that normal that if you are a photographer, you also have to blog/give courses/organise phototrips? To me no, it is not. Not that there is anything wrong with it! But it clashes with the notion of professional photographer. Since when, for instance, a (professional) greengrocer has to write a blog on growing vegetables? And why would a (professional) mason keep seminars on how it lays bricks?

    I am not saying it is wrong – I am saying it is not normal that the modern perception of a professional photographer is one that takes for granted ancillary activities too.

    • In the past, no. But today’s professionals have to because the market has shifted to the point that either these activities are required to supplement income, or it’s expected that a photographer of a certain level at least maintains a web presence. And when you have to distinguish yourself from the competition – to potentially less educated consumers – then every little bit extra can help, and make the difference between getting the job or not. Who knows, one of those teaching trips might give you invaluable contacts which then lead to another major client. It’s certainly happened to me before.

  8. Interesting take. Here’s another scenario — one which i think you’ll be taking one day in the future. I see you as a future Yuri Arcurs.

    Remember my cousin? the one who started out with two friends shooting weddings (one of whom cheated him and left) and now has his own studio and manages a stable of photographers who work under his direction?

    He obviously started out as a pro, he shot my wedding snaps for an incredibly low price and did a good job of it. But now he hardly shoots for work anymore. I was at a recent wedding recently where he happened to be engaged to provide coverage. I was surprised to see him dressed in baju melayu and enjoying himself. I asked him, where are you cameras? he replied, oh he doesn’t shoot anymore, he just directs.

    And that he does. During the critical moments of the ceremony, he was on hand to make sure the lighting was positioned properly, he was keeping close watch over his people, and telling them where to go and what to look for. The rest of the time he was mingling with the crowd, having a good lunch, and enjoying the festivities.

    What does that make him? A professional photographer or not? Under your definition he isn’t because he doesn’t sell images he took, instead he sells images his staff shoot. Still he is in good demand with jobs every weekend from now till kingdom come (and he doesn’t charge peanuts anymore haha).

    There are many ways to skinning the financial cat as a photographer, imho.

    • Yuri shoots microstock and deliberately looks for these kinds of things to shoot, or sets up scenarios in which he can get those images. I don’t. If I happen to get stock in the course of my travels or professional work, great; if not, no big deal. And I’m not making cents per image.

      Studio photographers of 10-20 years ago used to be just that – and some of the major ones still are – directors. They tell their army of assistants what to do and where to set up what, and they position the camera and hit the button. I don’t think that works anymore, because there are too many critical pieces that are out of your control. In the situation you described, your cousin has zero control over composition. He can pick the angle, but he will never be able to get the precise positioning of subjects or timing that he wants, because he isn’t doing the actual shooting. In a high throughput environment like wedding or event photography, that level of precision is probably not required or even appreciated by your end clients, so it doesn’t matter. But I know for a fact that it would take me longer to explain what I wanted done to an assistant or understudy than to just do it myself – which is onen of the reasons I don’t, and probably never will, have an assistant. Different markets require different things – my clients pay for precision, not quantity, because it isn’t easy to achieve – and certainly not subcontractable.


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