Photography Clients - Recognizing the worst, and some Tips on how to handle them...

Our Co-Founder, Peter Buckingham, shares his perspective on how to deal with photography clients - from the Good via the Bad, to the hideously Ugly.

"It’s strange to think of a client as being a bad client. After all, isn’t anyone paying you do to what you a love a good client by default? On the surface you might say ‘yes’, but in reality there are many things that could lead you to either fire a current client, or refuse a job in the future. Based on my 20+ years experience shooting professionally, I wanted to share my insights...

The Eye of Guy Bourdin, Vogue Paris, 1970 by Guy Bourdin

The Eye of Guy Bourdin, Vogue Paris, 1970 by Guy Bourdin

The Good:

We all know about those dream clients: they come in with a great budget, the negotiation and scheduling are straight-forward and the job is fun and easy. These are the times you find yourself saying “I can’t believe I am being paid to do this”. These clients are why you became a professional photographer in the first place.

But sometimes we work with clients that make us question why we ever decided to go pro. From my experience, I think there are ways to figure out if a client is going to be a good one, or not. And if they do prove to be less-than-ideal, there are things you can do to improve the situation, so you don’t have to turn down good money. One of the most important skills you can have as a professional photographer is being to able to manage client expectations; but so too is knowing when to turn the job down…

The Bad

The Client who doesn’t pay.

For me, the very worst client is one that doesn’t pay their photographers. It only has to happen to you once for you to share this feeling. Many photographers start-out with an almost irrational fear of messing up an opportunity, and will do anything to get the job - and the closer a job gets to being booked, the more these photographers will bend over backwards to get it over the finish line. But what’s the point if you bankrupt yourself in the process? If you’re working for a client for the first time and you find yourself paying for expenses upfront, then it’s a good idea to ask the client for an advance to cover these costs. If they react to this request like its crazy, then chances are you are going to have difficulty when it comes time for final payment as well - and you might end up footing the bill.  

Always have your client sign an estimate and contract before the job begins. It is a legally-binding document and will protect you. You might feel awkward insisting, but not only will you (theoretically) guarantee your payment; but the client might also respect your professionalism.

As a sidebar, I would mention the cheap client along with the no-pay client. These are the people who think they are spending too much money from the outset, will grumble about the results and will no doubt resist paying too. I once had a client tell me that they didn’t want to pay me because the company closed its doors - and since they didn’t get to use the pictures they shouldn’t have to pay.  It blew my mind!  I explained to them that I still gave up multiple days of my time and spent x amount of out-of-pocket dollars for the shoot, etc. In the end, they paid me in full. But there were also many times in the beginning that I just did not get paid, and when you are starting out that can be a very painful lesson to learn.

The Inexperienced client.

These clients usually have little to no experience dealing with shoots, pre, post-production, etc. It is very important that when a photographer comes up against a client like this that they level-set expectations immediately. The photographer needs to show confidence in knowing what they “do” & “don’t do”, and make sure the client understands what they can expect from the shoot. The photographer should also be very clear about what the costs will be, and what things are not included.  Don’t take anything for granted - just because it’s obvious to you, it doesn’t mean it will be for them.

Don’t promise the client the stars. A good mantra for the client services game is “under-promise, over-deliver”. The worst you can do is the reverse! There are always going to be realistic limitations to what is possible on a shoot given time, budget, etc. Back when I was assisting a photographer I worked with gave me a great rule-of-thumb for promising clients: “Fast, Cheap, Good….pick two.”  The point is you can have fast and cheap but the quality won’t be there, or you can have good and fast but it won’t be cheap; or finally, good and cheap but it will take forever!  And in a real world situation that means that you won’t be able to get that many shots covered in a day.  

Other bad clients are those who give no direction - or worse, bad direction - about what they want from the shoot. They don’t know the difference between good lighting and bad lighting or good photography and bad photography for that matter! They might even think that photographers are all interchangeable, asking a Landscape Photographer to come and shoot their wedding.  

It's like going to a restaurant with only a vague sense of what you want to eat. After a long and torturous conversation with the waiter, you figure out that what you're after is spaghetti bolognese. But you're in a Thai restaurant - and either they figure out how to cook it, or you have to go somewhere else.

Now some photographers can handle multiple genres, or could even muddle through a different photography type - but “muddle through” is never something you want to face as a professional. Unlike the clients who don’t pay, these clients just require education. It can be a little frustrating, but usually the ignorance is innocent.

The Ugly

These next two types of clients require additional skills not normally taught in photography school.

The Client who is also the subject.

Next is the client who is going to be in front of the camera. These clients can be particularly tough because their opinions are so personal. And to get through these jobs the photographer may have to become part-shooter, part-psychologist. This is probably one of the most important times for a photographer to discuss expectations, as well as get a feel for the client’s self-esteem. Ask them how they feel about being photographed, and try to prepare them mentally for the shots that will be delivered. You will need to be very positive from behind the camera - never agree with them if they say they look bad, just keep it all reassuring and uplifting. If you think they should consider a different outfit or hairstyle then coax them into trying it. The success of the shoot relies on you making the subject feel good about themselves.

The Client that doesn't communicate.

This client knows what they want, has plenty experience on photo shoots, but gives very little input or direction. They expect you to get the information you need telepathically. Usually, these clients work at large corporations in an environment where nobody wants to take responsibility. Having strong opinions is too risky, so they defer whenever possible. Meetings take hours and email-chains are an infinite scroll. In the absence of any leadership, the photographer often ends up being the one who makes the decision; which means that they will get the blame if things don’t turn out as expected (not that expectations were ever explained to the photographer). These clients are particularly tricky because they’re usually the ones involved with the big money commercial jobs we all strive for, and if they blame you then they move onto another photographer next time. The only way to protect yourself is to make sure all deliverables are clearly approved ahead of time, and even then photographers are often the fall-guy.

Finally, manage your own expectations.  Not every job is going to go exactly as expected and what separates a newbie from a seasoned professional  is not only technical knowledge but more importantly how a photographer deals with a given situation. At the end of the day great photographs are what everyone is looking for and having alignment with your team and client are what should get you there."