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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