First the soapbox: Few words suffer more misuse than “professional.”

In its strictest sense, it applies to people who perform highly specialized tasks with the public good at risk. They are licensed, regulated, subject to having their privileges removed by their peers, and have the exclusive legal right to practice their occupation. Doctors and lawyers are the classic examples, but the designation also applies to architects, engineers, pharmacists, and a number of other jobs which require certification and oversight. Only athletes drafted or playing in a major league can be termed professionals. The secret to true professionalism is that you cannot simply declare yourself a Major Leaguer, soldier, doctor, or lawyer; you must earn recognition as such.

The abuse of this term began when the managerial class needed a way to distinguish themselves from other white collar workers, as the strict division between manual (blue collar) and non-manual labor (white collar) began to diminish. Anxious to have the prestige that their high salaried brethren in the actual professions enjoyed, business executives began to call themselves “professionals,” with the egregious moniker of “young professional” assigned to inexperienced fledgling businesspeople. A degree of dubious utility (over half of CEOs and upper level managers do not possess it), the MBA, was created to further the illusion that being a businessperson requires special training or knowledge not obtained on the job.

Nowadays, the term “professional” refers popularly to anyone who can make a living doing something. The humor in the term “second oldest profession” is no longer fully appreciated. Many people cite the fact that the IRS has you declare as your profession any activity that provides more than 50% of your income. I don’t hear of many people declaring themselves “professional cashiers” based on this, however. Some people even say that if someone will pay you to do something, you are a professional.

In an age when billions of photos have been posted to Flickr and over 260,000 Americans say they are professional photographers, shooters with solid businesses, high ethical standards, extensive training and skills, durable equipment, distinguished portfolios, and honed vision face new pressure from a horde of folks who lack some or all of those attributes. Opportunists like Sandy Puc seized this opportunity to market an ersatz professional certification like the MBA. Fortunately, “Certify with Sandy Puc” rests in the graveyard of absurd ideas, though the PPCC still will sell you the opportunity to certify for $200. I checked their site, and not one Philadelphia photographer and only 10 from the entire metropolitan area of 5 million residents has paid for this certificate, which I have never heard anyone ask for or invoke.

Given the lack of any available recognized distinction, a photographer should strive to stand out in the minds of their clients as “professional” by adopting the highest standards of conduct and performance:

1. Equipment capable of performing the task at hand even in unforeseen circumstances. The right lenses, the right cameras, the right lights. This also means redundant gear and the knowledge needed to finish the task when the original concept fails, i.e. a Plan B. And C.

2. Access to qualified assistants, makeup artists, and second shooters when the job requires them.

3. Legal forms to protect both parties and spell out the contractual relationship with no misunderstandings. A commitment to safeguarding the images from improper use or publication.

4. A guarantee policy. A good photographer rarely has it invoked, and it keeps your reputation intact.

5. Adequate insurance for liability and failure.

6. Proper business licensing and tax collection. Software legally purchased and licensed.

7. Clearly defined services and products. Obviously you can negotiate, but the cost and level of your services should be apparent before discussions begin. Truthful, non-deceptive marketing and advertising. Pros don’t make it up as they go along.

8. A habit of paying models when shooting for artistic development and being paid by subjects when shooting for their use. Advertising or answering ads for TFP is not professional behavior. When inexperienced models shoot with inexperienced photographers, no one learns anything, and everyone lowers their market value and standards. Only give away work when you want to (charity, family), not to “gain exposure.” You will only gain exposure as a no cost photographer that way.

9. Respectful personal behavior. No insensitive racial, ethnic or gender related remarks, prurient jokes, unwanted touching, leering, or other intrusions into another person’s physical or emotional space unless the subject indicates explicitly they are allowed. Sexual relations during, immediately after, or in appreciation of a shoot should be avoided. Drugs and alcohol should play no part in a professional photo shoot.

In short,what distinguishes those photographers thought of as professional from the rest is a dedication to artistic growth, a well developed sense of what their time is worth and how they present themselves to clients, integrity with respect to legal, moral and ethical issues, and the dedication to complete the job and stand behind it. If you show up unprepared, unsupported, unpolished, and/or fail to complete the job, you will be tagged unprofessional and have harmed your clients.

It also helps to take good pictures, but plenty of people can manage that on a good day, and it’s only the starting point.