In the broadest definition of the words, the difference between a professional and an amateur lies not in the action of doing a thing or performing a service, but rather, whether or not clients are willing to pay for that thing or service. An amateur does something for fun, and they don’t get paid. A professional gets paid. Simple, right?
Not exactly — and especially not in a line of work like photography, where your people skills matter almost as much as your technical ability. Plenty of photographers get paid for their work, and even belong to the many various professional photography associations, though they may behave like anything but professionals.
Writing for PetaPixel, Ming Thein sought to address “the often mis-answered question: ‘what constitutes a professional photographer?'”
While payment and association with accrediting bodies is usually viewed, at least in other industries, as the gold standard of professionalism, in photography, writes Thein, that’s not the best place to look.
“Perhaps a better solution to this problem is not to look at the quality of output, but the conduct of the service provider,” Thein explains. “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.”
To truly be a professional photographer, Thein writes, you have to not only take beautiful photos, but also master the other aspects of a business, like valuing the time of the client, delivering expected materials or services on-time, educating the client when necessary, and taking the fall when something goes wrong.
Which means, that for photographers, professionalism and customer service are essentially the same thing. Aspects like response time to queries, great first impressions, and even day-of attire matter, say photography duo Sal and Taylor Cincotta. Even tiny elements of your business and life reflect on your ability to run a business.
“Voicemail, email signatures…make sure it’s professional,” says Taylor, “I don’t care if it’s your home phone number. Make sure you have a professional recording. It doesn’t matter if it’s personal, because they’re going to get ahold of that number somehow.”
These details matter, say the Cincottas, because they all ladder up to one much larger aspect of your business — your brand.
“Service, reputation, your image,” Sal emphasizes. “Your personal image is part of your brand.”
Professionalism for photographers isn’t just about charging money for photos; it’s about the brand that you build and the service you provide.