In many parts of the world, the photographic market is flooded by people who present themselves as 'professional photographers'. They may even have better camera equipment than you and a more sophisticated website, but you know they are far from professional in their work and their dealings. What is going to set you apart from them? How will your clients know that you are a real professional in a world where the line between professionals and amateurs has become so blurred? The answer is professionalism!


Here are some key elements of professionalism:



The first element of professionalism is competence. You have to be able to do the job and do it well, better than the vast majority. Clients cannot ask for award-winning work all the time, but they can ask for a standard that is significantly better than what they could do themselves, in spite of the fact that they themselves may have better camera equipment than you. You must be able to maintain standards that would be acceptable among your professional photography peers.

A critical element here is not over-promising and under-delivering. It is far better to do the opposite, to under-promise and over-deliver. If you say you are going to do the work in 4 weeks and you deliver in 2, or you promise only certain deliverables and then you deliver those plus a few others, you will very quickly gain recognition as a professional who is a pleasure to deal with.

Figure 1 Nigerian photographer, Andrew Esiebo, getting a shot of Michael Essien at the moment that Ghana qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first African team to do so

A friend in the agricultural world said to me once that to be a successful farmer you only have to do three things well: plant on time, at the right standard, with minimum wastage. That is the same with every photographic job you do. To quickly gain a reputation as a consummate professional simply be on time, do the work at the right standard and with minimum wastage.

Part of doing things at the right standard is to keep up to date with developments in the genres of photography that you have chosen to focus on. You need to know both local and international trends and developments in technology. An important way to do this is to engage with other professional photographers, which brings us to our next point.


Professional bodies such as photographic associations are a key element in reaching and maintaining a professional standard in your work. Being part of such organizations provides you with ongoing inspiration and gives you a standard against which you can measure your work. As mentioned above being part of such communities also helps you to stay abreast of the latest developments in your genre. These professional bodies also help you with expected codes of ethics and help you maintain standards in terms of what you charge for work.

If you live in a large urban centre, you may find that such community is easily available in your local area. In South Africa we have the South Africa Freelancers Association. If you are in a centre like Cape Town, you can attend regular meetings with other members of the association. If you are in a smaller centre or in a rural area, however, such fellowship is not as easy. It is a lot more simple than it was, however, as long as you have an internet connection. Communities such as Lightstalkers and OPEN-i.

Figure 2 Members of the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia in Maputo, Mozambique discuss selections of photographs that are to form part of an exhibition on Maputo food riots. Such associations are vital for maintaining professional standards in a city or region 

 An interesting part of these professional communities is the willingness to share information. Part of being a professional is being willing to help others be professional too, whether it is students coming in to the field or fellow photographers with whom you may even be competing for work. This is because professionalism requires a bigger horizon than just your own career. You need to be able to carry a concern to uphold and promote the photographic industry and along with it the reputation of professional photographers generally within that industry. This is why some professional codes of ethics include a willingness to share what you are learning as well as a willingness to educate the public about the role that professional photographers play in the industry and in society in general.


The third critical characteristic of professionalism is conduct. You can deliver the most brilliant product, but if you have conducted yourself poorly with the client, they will still not treat you as a professional and will not recommend others to use you.

Respect is probably the word that should most define your conduct as a professional. Clients need to feel that you respect them. Right from the start of the relationship it means listening to them and what they want before you speak and offer what you want to offer. It means respecting them enough to be on time for appointments. It means respecting them enough to call them ahead of time if you are going to be late or you are experiencing problems in production or delivery.

Respect also extends to how you dress. A client needs to feel that you are taking them seriously and if you arrive in beach clothes to take photos of their important event, that does not show that you respect them. Respect extends to personal hygiene. Put on deodorant, brush your teeth, comb your hair. If your client wants to avoid you because of your body odour, you can be sure they will not be feeling respected.

Respect also extends to the client feeling both attended to and safe with you. You need to engage your clients or the subjects of your photos in such a way that they know you are attending to them and have a concern for them. But they also need to know that their boundaries will be respected. If you are documentary photographer photographing a person in suffering, honour their boundaries if they wave you away. Avoid exploiting people for the sake of the story. Work with people. If you are a portrait photographer you may be in a very intimate space with your subject or client. They must feel absolutely safe with you.

Figure 3 Kenyan photographer Shravan Vidyarthi on location in Lusaka, Zambia. Engaging with your subject or your clients such that they feel you are safe and reliable is foundational to long term growth of your photography business


In any situation, whether with a client or the subject of your photography, even if intimacy or comradery is invited that is beyond the depth of your relationship outside that immediate circumstance, do not indulge in it. Do not get drunk with your clients. Do not give in to flirtatious advances of subjects. Do not be over familiar. Maintain a professional distance and you will be respected and trusted in the long run.

This is not to say that you may never develop a romantic or a buddy-buddy relationship with a client or subject. Such relationships have been known to happen. It just means that such a relationship needs to be developed outside your work, outside the space where you hold unusual power over your clients or subjects. Being a professional requires that you maintain a clear distinction. Do not blur the lines. It is like beating your wife, you only have to do it once to lose trust forever!

Finally, respecting clients also requires that you are fully aware of the law relating to your photographic work whether those are bylaws in the area that you are shooting, being clear on copyright, use rights and professional contracts, having the necessary insurances in place that you are required to have, or the legal requirements in terms of accounting practices such as invoicing and tax. Clients want to know that you are doing everything in an upright way. They feel respected and safe if they can see that your conduct is absolutely upright and you have taken time to understand your obligations in terms of conforming to statutory requirements.

This does not mean that you never disobey laws. When you are a photojournalist or documentary photographer it may be an important part of being faithful to your calling to not conform to draconian rules and regulations that are seen to be violating people's rights. But as a professional you should at least be aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it.


The final characteristic of professionalism is the ability to communicate professionally. This includes the language you use, how you communicate and the frequency and timing of your communication.

Whatever language you are using to communicate, as a professional you have to employ correct grammar and spelling, particularly in written communication. Not keeping to that standard immediately reflects poorly on you as a professional.

Although swearing and course language may be commonplace in the newsroom or in the field among photojournalists, or in the advertising industry, it is almost never tolerated anywhere else. Do not get into this habit and if you are in it, break it. Most photo entrepreneurs need to be able to move freely between different genres of photography. And even in those sectors, if you can maintain your standards, you will be respected as a professional.

Figure 4 My Facebook account has lots of friends as well as work colleagues and clients linking to it. What you communicate about yourself on such social media platforms does affect how people see you and the risks that clients are prepared to take with you

Also, do not talk incessantly about yourself or communicate inappropriately. That goes for emails and interactions directly with clients, it also goes for social media platforms such as facebook and LinkedIn. What you do on these public platforms, particularly if you have given clients access, very much determines how clients will view you. At Africa Media Online we have refused to interview people for jobs based on what we saw on their facebook profile. Very few businesses or organisations have an inclination to take a risk with someone who has any chance at all of bringing them into disrepute or is likely to need correction in the course of an assignment. They would rather get someone else they are sure will be professional in all that they do.

And finally professionalism in communication involves regularly keeping your clients up to date with what is happening, even if and especially if things are not going according to plan. Telling clients ahead of time that they are going to be disappointed or that something did not work out is never easy, but it is a whole lot better than letting the client bear the full weight of the disappointment when there is no time remaining to make another plan.

As with conducting your whole professional photography practice, communicate at the right standard, at the right time and with minimum wastage.

Codes of Ethics

Here are some links to a number of professional photographic associations' codes of ethics that can give you more insight into what is expected of a professional photographer:

South African Freelancers Association (SAFREA) Code of Conduct

American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) Code of Ethics