Professionalism in photography

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Photographers at work; from the NYC 2013 workshop.

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 of the income entirely from photography for 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 much personal, though 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*. 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.

*I freely admit to being one of these people.

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. 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 are fully transparent in our pricing and honour 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 costs of everything are 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 our 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 honour 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 that 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 behaviour 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 email
  • 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 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 interests. MT


Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.


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  1. I just came across this article which some of yo may find interesting. I feel it’s a very astute observation on the current state of the photography industry. …

  2. chuckpjones says:

    Ming, great post my friend. Re-blogged here:

  3. Ming, how do you get every image so sharp? I read your blog articles and cannot get over the sharpness of “all” of your imgs. Is there a process you can share? All your imgs you shoot are as sharp as you post? Thanks

    • Shot discipline. Every image is sharp at the 100% pixel level.

      • I just read the article you reference. Don’t you apply sharpening to your imgs? Is there a rule of thumb when post editing or posting to the web?

        • You need to apply some sharpening to the original to counter the Bayer interpolation, unless you’re shooting a Foveon camera.

          Generally I don’t sharpen after downsizing for web because the extender size change tends to enhance microcontrast of fine detail; sharpening further can make this look coarse. It really depends on the input and final output sizes.

  4. Great article, insightful as always. I’d like to add that I really think that photography works out like every other business – the low performers are weeded out by the natural selection of the market. I am sure you might hear the same stories of bad practice, bad quality, or rip-off from plumbers, salesmen, or lawyers. The market knows to fix itself…

  5. I’m quite young, but I enjoy photography. I wanted to ask you your suggestion for a first digital camera. I’ve used film, but I want to see the difference myself. Thanks 🙂

  6. I’m not a professional photographer and, God willing, never will be.

    But that photo is awesome. This is the ending of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”! Who wins! Whose camera is empty!

    Personally, I think that the young lady wins. It looks to me as though she whipped out the camera to take a photo of you taking a photo of the other photographer. What cheek! I love it!

  7. Adam Lokman says:

    You really hit the nail on the head with this article Ming Thein! Cinematography has also been effected in the very same way. Back in the day you would have never hired a videographer to shoot on motion picture film. With DSLR’s now being able to shoot 35mm digital HD it’s all a very different story. Now anyone who shoots motion picture with a DSLR camera can call themselves a cinematographer!

    • That’s what happens when the marketers decide what features go into consumer products and conveniently neglect that education is required to use them to get the output they want…NOT just the tool.

  8. “The usual definition is that it is somebody who is shooting for pay, and deriving the majority of his… income entirely from photography…”

    The uselessness of that sort of definition soon becomes obvious when one applies it to taxi drivers. They derive most of their income from driving, so might be called professional drivers, but they are typically untrained, ill-disciplined, careless, thoughtless and inefficient. Downright dangerous on occasion.

    I prefer your suggestions.

    Thanks for the continued enjoyment your blog and your photos give me.


  9. Digital photography has trashed whatever professionalism existed in photography, and here’s why: the instant viewing of an image allows for the client to look for himself, and in his eyes a picture can be “good enough”…the image is there. The client views this as a success. The concept of a professional image-maker, someone who knows picture standards, no longer counts for very much, certainly not when his services cost a lot of money. The door is then opened for just about anyone to declare himself a professional photographer; thus both client and unqualified photographers settle for whatever comes off the display at the back of the camera.

    In the days of film photography, a client would never dare to hire just about anyone, out of fear that the pictures would come out poorly, or actually blank, the next day. The film workflow worked to keep professional standards.

    It is also true that images viewed on monitors, cell phones and such do not have much resolution compared to print, among other defects, which has hurt the quality standards we once accepted as the sign of a professional in the days of film shooting. This lowering of standards has affected all of graphic design, so you can now see a lot of bad design on websites. Graphic standards are still high at the high end, but graphics, and photography standards have dropped elsewhere. The middle of the business has been devastated, in short.

    • I can’t agree more – the low end is thriving but the turnover is high, and success is solely based on price; you cannot escape it if you go down this route. There are only so many physical hours you can work, and if every job is won by lowering rates – eventually you will be paying to work.

      The high end is difficult to break into, and I feel ‘stretching out’ – the old guard who cannot innovate and diversify will drop out. For those who can, it’s an opportunity to carve a new niche. I personally feel the time will come in the near future when so much of the middle has dropped out that there will once again be a demand for good work; equipment only goes so far. It works both ways, too: an incompetent person will mess up regardless, but a pro can do the job with a cameraphone: it isn’t the technical stuff so much now, it’s a) reliability/ consistency; b) quality, and c) relationships…

      • Technology can change norms in an industry and make it seem as if the old rules no longer apply. For a while, a cheaper way is discovered, and it lives off the quality legacy from the previous technology. Standards drop, and for a while no one seems to care. Then discernment comes back, the customer realizes there is more to it than first thought, quality does exist, and it costs money. Then the standards go back up, and professionalism returns. It becomes a question of waiting out the dark period and surviving.

      • When the economy declined, agency expenses declined, affecting photographers as more work moved in-house. Now it appears that the trend is starting to unwind, as agencies once again consider bringing in photographers as part of the creative process on projects.

        • Unfortunately that’s not what’s happening here: they buy a big camera, give it to somebody who has a passing interest to use, and that’s their ‘in house photography’.

  10. There are six-figure watches? Wow. Or were you speaking of Ringgit instead of Dollars?

    Anyway, I understand that a pro would insist on insurance first and foremost.

  11. From my point of view to be ‘professional’ is to earn your livelihood from photography.
    ‘Professionalism’ – is something slightly different – in that it captures the qualities we might expect from a professional – very much as you suggest in your post.
    Of course, the downside to any aspect of professional working is that it’s almost inevitable that we are likely to spend more time on the business side than we are on making photographs (if we want to be successful).

    • I like your take on it. If anything I think Ming is proof that you can still spend alot of time making photographs. As a pro he’s churning out more and much better photos than I, a semi-pro that still have time to shoot for myself)

      • I do it because I choose to; because I know I went into this business to allow me to spend more time making photographs – if I didn’t do that, I might as well just do something that pays me more so I can be an amateur who shoots purely to please himself…

      • (I guess it’s a question of some have got what it takes while others like me are still looking for it! 😉 :))

    • I think a person earning their living should be if anything, more careful with their behaviour: after all, one slip and it’s gone!

      As for balancing business and creativity: that’s material for another article, comings oon 🙂

  12. Jesse Gross Photography says:

    Reblogged this on Jesse Gross Photography.

  13. Ron Scubadiver says:

    No photography revenue here. If I ever have any it will be from art print sales.

  14. I love the photo that accompanies this article: the young lady is casually handling the camera while clutching a smartphone in her other hand!

  15. I strive to be fair to my clients, while also being fair to myself.

  16. For four years I covered a major international conference for a US company. The marketing team required photos to be available immediately after speeches. We delivered. On the fifth year I was unable to do the photographic work as I was doing other things for the company at the event. They hired a a guy who would not commit to rapid delivery of the photos, in fact he delivered them two weeks after the event.

    The principle problem here is correctly identified above, it is raising the bar on what the customer thinks is acceptable and as delivering value to their business. The best way to do this is through strong creative differentiation and professionalism.

    • We must also try not to promise things that are going to cause us issues later – there is only so much we can deliver without getting into the realms of the impossible…

  17. thanks for this article:)

  18. stellingsma2010 says:

    great article , today everybody that can afford a digital camera call itself photographer, a couple months ago i meet a freshly married couple that found a”photographer online” and where in full blasted tears because there wedding pictures where of such poor quality that these pictures could be used as TP .

    this is just one of the many many examples that happen every day ……

  19. Very interesting, and I think (with changes in wording) these points can be applied to any and all professions. If you want to really drive yourself mad, look at the “photography” section on Yahoo Answers. 15 year olds with a basic bridge camera asking how much to charge to shoot their neighbour’s son’s graduation ceremony and then getting upset when people tell them that they have no idea what they’re talking about. People calling themselves “professional photographers” who exhibit absolutely no knowledge of photography (or business). It’s mind-blowing. There are some working photographers on there who are happy to set them straight (and frequently do, in very blunt terms), but the overall level of ignorance and lack of understanding of even the fundamentals of photography is quite eye-opening.

    • What’s even more eye-opening is that people are paying good money for these ‘professionals’ – and as a result, the whole industry gets a bad reputation when they fail to deliver. Surprise? I’m not. Disappointed? Yes.

  20. Reblogueó esto en LeoAr Photography / Lex Ariasy comentado:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  21. The least you could do if you’re going to plagiarise an entire article piecemeal – ironically on professionalism, of which clearly you have none – is spell my name correctly!


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