Redefine Professionalism

In Freelance and Business, Marketing, Self-Promotion, Pep Talks, VisionMongers by David14 Comments

brieonaeronThis is a picture of my cat, Brie, on my – excuse me, on HER – office chair. Because nothing sets up a discussion of professionalism like a cat on a chair.

Ok, so you know I’ve got my reservations about the word “professional” when it’s set up against the word amateur. But the word “professionalism” where it applies to a high standard of excellence, that I can get on board with. In fact I’m constantly amazed at the lack of professionalism in creative industries. And I know I’m not the only one. I had an editor at a major photography magazine recently bemoan the fact that the photographers she works with can’t get things in on time. I’ve had other editors express total shock when I’ve replied to emails within an hour or two. Still others yet are amazed that I’ve replied to an image request on time and with well-delivered, clearly marked files that were to spec.


Frederick Van Johnson recently asked me why I feel like vocational photography is hard. One of the reasons I gave is that the point where craft and commerce meet is not an easy one to balance. I don’t even recall if I put it this way in VisionMongers or not, but if I didn’t, I should have. So in case I missed it, a recap: being a successful working photographer means far more than making photographs. I’ve barely shot a frame since the end of September – almost two months ago. We have times when it’s more important to stock the shelves, and this is one of those times for me. And then January will come and I’ll be shooting almost everyday for a couple months. But in the in-between times it’s not photography, it’s business. Consider these, among a great many other things, as a place to begin with a self-audit. Do you:

You reply to clients on time every time? If you’re too busy to do that, you’re too busy. If you wait 24 hours to reply to an email you’ve waited too long. If you only answer the “important” ones within 24 hours then you’ve made progress but are making assumptions about which ones are important. I’ve had many a client come from “unimportant” emails. They are all important. This is top of my list because I’m struggling with this now that the books are out. I lose track of the odd bit of fan mail, but even those are important. Don’t neglect your audience, whomever they are.

You meet client needs to the letter, then give them more? Files on time, well delivered, to spec.

You never, ever depart from the core of your brand? Know who you are, what you stand for, and never deviate.

Your outgoing emails, invoices, and every piece of collateral, is well-designed, consistent with each other and with the visual conventions of your brand, not just a logo?

You begin every day assuming your service or product can always be better and you take every opportunity to make it so?

You approach your market with the aim to serve them not exploit them?

That’s a short list. Be the best photographer you can be, and getting better. But you also need to be the best business-person you can be. Don’t like it? That’s one of the benefits of not bringing your craft to the world of commerce.

I’m not even sure who I’m talking to out there. If it’s you, it’s not too late. I do know why I’m telling you this – because it doesn’t take much for me to wow clients. And while that’s good for me, it bodes very badly for those among us who are setting the standard of mediocrity so low. I mean, c’mon, it’s hard enough to do this and keep your head above water, I know it is. I get emails all the time about these challenges. Don’t mulitply it with customer service that makes you look ragged around the edges and drives customers to someone else – who might be “less talented” but is more inclined to serve the customers you don’t have time to serve well.

freshbooksHere’s one more that my manager made me change for this very reason: my invoicing. He literally forced me to sign up for Freshbooks and it’s changed the way I do invoicing. It’s amazing, and it’s very professional in the way it looks, and makes your business look. It’s also easier for your clients. Take one small step today, and everyday. Today, consider cleaning up your invoicing. Next week clean out your inbox – by replying to them or deleting them and starting fresh, but an inbox with 1000 emails, that’s only going to intimidate you and you’ll never, EVER, empty it. Clear it, create some rules to keep it ordered and end every day with it clear. Then standardize your letterheads and all outgoing email signatures – do one thing every day that begins with the assumption that your service needs work. A complete overhaul is intimidating, few of us have time for it, but one action-item a day gets the job done. Set the time aside. Raise the bar.

Last call on the BIG FAT BUSINESS CARD GIVEAWAY THING. I draw a name this evening sometime, so now’s your last time to get in on it.


  1. OK so I am going to go back and actually read the post tomorrow, but I found it funny what your cat an my daughter share their name….

  2. I usually find myself choosing to wait at least 15 minutes to reply to a client as I am nearly always on e-mail unless out on a shoot so that the client doesn’t think I am too anxious!

  3. Yes, this is a definition of “professional” that makes sense, as distinct from doing-it-for-money. The limited attention these details attract from most creates the opportunity for the few who get it right.

  4. David,
    I love how your value that people should be treated with dignity and respect carries over into the way you do business. I thought your point about not making assumptions about who’s important might be especially critical now that more business is being conducted online. I learned early on when I was managing a retail store never to pre-judge which customers would buy, how much they might spend or how often. Now, with the potential of internet businesses, you just never know where connections might lead. Someone who makes a comment or sends an email might be married to the CEO of a major corporation or have connections that might result in a lucrative contract. It would be a shame to miss out on something due to neglect or dismissiveness.

    I hope everyone is taking notes, this is a fantastic summary of how to create a successful business and customers for life.

  5. Would like to add a little something about customer service that makes me cringe. I have been a ‘working’ photographer for 20 some years, but I still assist colleagues occasionally. I always feel embarassed when the photographer is shooting, say, a CEO, or a ‘star’ (or anybody, for that matter) and they remove themselves from the process by taking a cell phone call. I never feel that I, and my life, is more important than the person I am photographing….or that MY time is more valuable. I think it diminishes the ‘subject’ and it would be SO easy to have a message that lets callers know that you are involved in a shoot and will get right back to them. Go ahead and let it ring, if you must, but let your subject know that they are the most important thing, the ONLY thing, going right now. I actually think that whoever is calling will appreciate the fact that you couldn’t answer their call because you were devoting all your attention to the shoot ‘at hand.’

  6. David,

    Well said. Often when I talk to people they think that the quality of their work is the most important factor in their success. The truth is that it depends more on their professionalism and how they interact with people.

    The quality of your relationships matter significantly more than the quality of your work.

  7. As Jamie above said, it is about treating those you interact with in the same way you expect to be treated. If you want to feel important and well-looked after, treat others the same way.

    This is something I feel so strongly about. Lacking professionalism in creative fields so often seems to be excused because we’re “creative” and “artsy-fartsy”. But basically, professional behaviour boils down to being considerate and respectful of others, their time and their needs. It’s not rocket science.

    Before I was allowed to graduate from BCIT as a web designer, I had to complete classes in the ‘business of web design’. They were probably the most useful aspect of my program. But even if you’re not enrolled in a program of that type, there are night school classes galore on learning the basics of running your own business and bookstore shelves are filled with books on the subject, not to mention the internet. Read. Learn. And follow through.

    Ok, now I’ve had my little rant, thanks for your thoughts on Freshbooks – I’ve been considering moving to them the last couple of weeks. Nice to read another opinion.

  8. I keep hearing about Freshbooks – seems like it’s time to get on board – though invoicing I do okay with in a PDF format, it’s not exactly well designed.

    I understand that building a brand (of me) is more than just a logo, but I’ll also note that I’m inconsistent here too. My twitter name is different than my website URL which is different from my blog name. It wouldn’t take much, or long, to make them all the same just as a start. But the thing preventing me from doing that is “what would I choose, and why?”

    It’s the easiest part of your business to ignore, but the one most likely to attract and “catch” new clients.

  9. David,
    I could not agree more about being professional in the way one conducts business. As an owner of an advertising agency for over 40 years I survived this crazy business by complete service to my accounts. We were only as good as our last campaign. As a testament to professionalism we kept our accounts for a long period of time. We worked with one account for over 25 years. In our respective business in takes a long time to land an account and one can loose it very fast by not being attentive to their needs. I have directed photography, commercials and industrial films and now I am shooting. The same principals apply. I hope your readers pay attention to what you are relaying. Thanks for keeping your insights right on target.
    Gary Halby

  10. Great post David! I had mentioned to you how professional it was dealing with you as well. You responded to my email quickly, you delivered your photos to me for your podcast interview on time and in a format and manner that was absolutely painless for me, and you were available and ready for the interview at the appointed time. It made my job a lot easier, and I think, the end product will be better for the folks listening because of your attitude. Thank you! I think people will enjoy what you have to say when it goes live on the 8th of December at

  11. I feel that it is a case of treating others how you wish to be treated. When you deal with a company, you expect to be dealt with in a timely and professional manner. When running your own company, how could you expect your clients to want anything less from you?

    I am looking to get more into offering photography services and want to go about it in the right way. The FreshBooks service looks to be a great way of managing the business side of things. I had a look for a UK version and have found the very similar FreeAgent service (

  12. I believe this problem is typical to all service related industries. I’m in engineering consulting, and each of your bullet points hold true here also. Customer service with the highest professionalism, while maintaining your core values, is the way to operate.

  13. Excellent post. I am presently studying, doing a BA in photography at Blackpool and The Fylde College, uk. I am amazed that now we are in the second year most people I know really have no idea about business or the fact that making pictures really is such a small portion of we will be doing once graduating. We are concentrating so much on the creativity side (believe me it is needed…one of the reasons I study) but are lacking so much in basic business advice. I am so grateful for blogs like this and so many others that bring home the reality of excellence in business. Thanks again. Andy

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