I've Screwed Up Many, Many Times… But It's Okay!

I've Screwed Up Many, Many Times… But It's Okay!

I've been shooting professionally for just over four years now – “professional” as in starting a legitimate business where I charge money to take photographs of my clients. We could wax poetic on the distinctions between “amateur” and “professional” that don’t involve the exchange of money, but the area that I want to focus on has to do with the responsibilities and perceptions that come along with people hiring you as a business. Whether it’s a case of total incompetence or something as little as a slip of the tongue, there are going to be times when you completely fail in front of your client.

Seriously. You’re going to mess up at some point no matter how proactive you are – it’s inevitable. So with that in mind, I checked my ego for a moment and decided to share with you a handful of embarrassing times that I’ve personally screwed up to help you learn from and avoid the mistakes that I made early on, but eventually survived and learned a lot from.

(Deep breath, deep breath...)

Okay, here we go!

I Wasn't Prepared

I’m starting easy with this particular example. It’s a situation most of us have already experienced: you totally forgot to charge batteries the night before; you only brought one memory card with you to a shoot four hours away from home; your softbox is in your friend’s trunk from the last impromptu model shoot you did at the local abandoned factory. Preparation isn’t just related to gear, though. I once arrived at a twelve-hour wedding shoot having had nothing but eight ounces of an Austrian energy drink in my system. It might not seem like a big deal, but it was a completely stupid and irresponsible move on my part. I ended up crashing very hard from what was once an amazing sugar and caffeine high right around the ceremony time. I had to actually send my assistant out to get me fast food before I completely fainted and ruined my client’s wedding day. Something as simple as a good meal before a long day is an essential part of the preparation process along with the obvious gear-check that you should make before each and every shoot.

I Completely Forgot About a Client Meeting

Right along the same idea of preparation is organization. They both essentially go hand in hand. When you start out a small business on your own, you play the role of many other job titles – from accountant, to tax specialist, and from secretary to marketing guru, the percentage of time actually spent taking photos becomes very small. If you don’t have a solid system of organizing all the tasks ahead of you, you just might just find yourself in the middle of finally sitting down to watch some TV with your significant other when you’re supposed to be meeting with a client to sign a contract to finalize their wedding. That’s where I once found myself. I profusely apologized after receiving a voice-mail message from a client telling me they waited over two hours for me to show up to our meeting, but the damage was far beyond repair. If I couldn't make it to a simple meeting where I was about to be paid thousands of dollars as incentive, why should my clients trust me to make it to their wedding? They shouldn't, they didn't, and I lost more than money that day. I lost business from every single person they shared their story with in a butterfly effect chain reaction.

Also the movie I ended up watching wasn't so great either – though, to be fair, nobody enjoyed the Arthur remake. Nobody.

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I Inserted Both Feet Into My Big, Dumb Mouth

Long story short, I asked grandma to come over for family portraits and stand next to her granddaughter. Turns out, grandma wasn’t grandma. Grandma was mom. Mom – as in mother of the bride! That wasn't the worst thing in the world and we got past it… for a little while, at least.

I Hired an Assistant Who Never Showed up… Until Way Too Late - Drunk

Don’t hire your college drinking buddies. Ever.

Not unless you want them to drop your expensive gear, and later inappropriately grind against the bride’s mom on the dance floor – the same bride’s mom that you already called “grandma” earlier in the day.

Yeah, that was not a banner day for Aaron Brown Photography.

I Chose Money Over my Gut Instinct

Starting out as an ultra-small photography business, you may take every job that comes your way – even the really crappy “you’ll get a lot of great exposure” non-paying jobs. It’s really not a terrible way to start out as you’ll be building experience and portfolio along with being exposed to all sorts of different types of photography. Along the way though, there will come a time that you figure out what you really enjoy taking photos of, and if it happens to include people in some way, like say weddings or portraits, you’ll also be figuring out the types of people you enjoy working with and perhaps becoming selective of the opportunities that come your way.

Everyone has different business goals. I eventually decided to try and work exclusively with good-natured people who had similar sensibilities in life as I do. You know, the easy-going kind of people who aren't offended by my potty mouth and who enjoy a nice cold beer once in a while – people I could later call my friends. Let's face it, they didn't make 10 seasons of Bridezillas for nothing - and that's what I was trying to avoid. Whether it was due to an eccentric “about me” section of my website, or because of word-of-mouth referrals from my past clients, I've been extremely fortunate that the majority of my weddings and portrait shoots over the years have been with amazing people. This might be a bit controversial to say, but money (even in business) really isn’t everything. I learned that the hard way when I decided the money was more important than the bad vibes my Spidey-Sense tingled my way during a couple of meetings. Those shoots were nothing short of uncomfortable resulting in images I resented as well as a barrage of inarticulate criticism from clients I should have just avoided in the first place. I failed myself on this one… twice!

(I also want to clarify that I don’t condone photographers discriminating against clients based on what they perceive are tenants of their religion – specifically the refusal to photograph a wedding because it was between a same-sex couple. That’s not what I’m saying here. Avoiding people who are basically just pain-in-the-ass clients is one thing. Passing off bigotry in a thin veil of “artistic integrity” is quite another, but I have digressed.)

I Booked Way More Than I Should Have Booked

How’s that Ace Hood song go? “Hustle, hustle, hustle hard! Closed mouths don’t get fed on this boulevard.” I kind of take back what I just said above in my previous point. You might be tenacious enough to book every job that comes along your way, and then some, but that’s not necessarily the best thing for you and your clients at the end of the day. Case in point, I booked way too many weddings two years ago – so many, in fact, that I was often triple booked with back-to-back-to-back weddings on the weekends. Let me tell you, my Friday weddings got a completely different photographer than my Sunday clients received.

That’s not to say I didn’t get the shots I needed to get on Sunday, but my clients sure didn’t get the super energetic, crazy-fun-loving guy that Friday's wedding couple saw. Saturday Aaron was a little winded but got back into the groove of things and made a pretty good night of it. Sunday Aaron did a lot of yawning, stretching, and looking at his watch throughout the day. That's totally not cool, so I stopped booking triple wedding weekends. I also significantly cut down on back-to-back weddings too. My clients all deserve the same level of professionalism, so I've decided to focus on taking fewer weddings to focus on quality rather than trying to cram my schedule full of them. This is partly due to selecting the sorts of clients I really enjoy being around and party because I'm just... old.

You know who else appreciates it? My friends and loved ones. I also no longer book holidays and I make sure to take at least one day off a week to do nothing business related. It may seem counter intuitive, but I have way less headaches and stress because I have less clients. Outsourcing all that extra work I mentioned up top is the next step in my master plan will surely help too, but that's a topic for another day.

Wrap Up

These are just a selected few of the stupid moves I've made along the way. You're going to make your own, and that's okay so long as you learn from them and figure out a way not repeat the same mistakes over and over. I've heard horror stories from some of my friends - some of who aren't photographers anymore because of it - so I feel pretty lucky. Some of our very own Fstoppers Staff Writers even admitted their worst mistakes. It's part of the game, but as long as you try to avoid the big goofs and grow from the others, you'll be okay too.

The photos used in this article are actually NOT from a shoot I made any of these mistakes on. I just wanted to clear that up a bit. They're from one of my favorite portrait shoots with an amazing tattoo studio from which I built many lasting friendships. [adorable smile emoji goes here]

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21 Comments

Chris Blair's picture

I remember flying across the country with 3 light stands and forgot all my modifiers back at the house. Also brought my tripod on my last shoot and realized that I had removed my quick-plate from my camera the day before. Mistakes make us better. Great article and thanks for putting yourself out there.

Aaron Brown's picture

Thanks Chris! I've done the exact same thing with my tripod many times. :D

Jaron Schneider's picture

Yes to that tripod plate part. I've done that too...

I need about ten of those. Each, in a different part of my world.

These are great! haha "Hey Gramma, c'mere and lemme get your picture with your Granddaughter!". Classic!

Aaron Brown's picture

It was bad, man. Real bad. :D

I'm one year into my business full-time and everything in this post resonates with me and the lessons I'm learning. Very well written. Thank you!

One time I asked a young man to take a step forward in a family photo only to realize young man was a young woman. I quickly played it off and continued to refer to "grandpa" as "young man" the rest of the shoot just to make it seem like I was being cheeky. Luckily the young lady didn't realize I had thought she was a boy lol

Thanks.
* I managed to take an out-of-focus group picture at 11mm f/4 on DX. It's actually pretty hard :D But it was on manual focus, and I somehow turned the focus ring to 0.3m when preparing the shot. I had to take the same group shot 20 minutes later, because "the light was better".
* I prepared a small strobist portrait with 2 voice-activated-lightstands. I was happy with the result because of a nice "edgy unusual on-camera feel". It turns out only my on-camera flash was firing, and the strobes were on the wrong channel. The VALs waited 10 minutes after the shot to ask me why they had to hold the strobes.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Fortunately not my mistake...

But when shooting a set of 3 large scale national advertising shoots for a multi-national pharma company, we shot everything in landscape rather than portrait format (turned out they were for full page print).

This was after a set of style images (in landscape), were sent to me as demo style guides, and the client and art director were there at the shoot - both viewing a tethered display and signing off every shot, and then selecting the best for each of the 3 ad campaigns - before asking for full post production and signing off on all the re-touching work...!

I think it physically hurt me when we had to crop my images to portrait. Not sure the "creative" in charge of that shoot is still working there... oops...!

Mind, I did manage to drive halfway to a shoot before realising I'd packed everything - except the cameras.

I turned up to a multi-location shoot at the wrong location because I'd got the pages of the call sheet mixed up...

Oh, and the time I called the director by the wrong name for the whole day, before he corrected me just as we were departing.

After drinking a cappuccino on the morning of the shoot I managed to get a blob of chocolate on my nose. My (ex) assistant thought it funny not to tell me for the whole day as I worked with a big brown blob on the tip of my nose for 10 hrs...!

I've got better at things since, I should add...!

Aaron, this was very well written. It's a great narrative explaining how sometimes things may not go according to plan, but to "roll with the punches". The best thing to take from it all is learn from our mistakes and experiences. But I wanted to comment to let everyone know that Aaron Brown just shot my wedding last week and he did an amazing job! Our friends and families had nothing but great words to say about Aaron and we couldn't agree more! After reading about these fails/mistakes it's important to note how one bounces back. Aaron, you made it easy for my bride and I to feel comfortable and enjoy our photographs. We couldn't have picked a more reliable and professional photographer :)

Aaron Brown's picture

Aw man! Thanks so much, Robbie! John and I had a blast with your friends and family. Cheers! :)

loved the article but telling photographers they should be picky when selecting clients then saying they are bigots if they decline to service certain clients if they have a religious objection is where you lost me. Sorry, I just disagree with the premise that you can decline certain clients and not others. Can't have it both ways.

Aaron Brown's picture

I glad you at least took something positive away from it, Jason. You can decline all the clients you want, but you have to do it within the law (which usually protects race, religion, sex, national origin and sexual orientation) - the last of which was a recent example I linked to. I'm atheist but I happily shoot weddings based in assortments of faiths every year. Why? Because those people were super awesome and I was happy to be a part of their special day. Cheers man!

Aaron, thanks for the feedback. Again, the article was great, I just didn't see the need to incorporate the idea the that people who have strong religious objections are somehow misguided. I try my best not judge anyone and think the inference that those who have an objection to a lifestyle are automatically wrong and discriminatory. I think this topic didn't need to be raised in this otherwise fantastic article. Best

Typical religious speach.

Declining clients because you don't finds you fit well together IS NOT DISCRIMINATION.

Declining a client because he doesn't fit your religious views, THAT'S DISCRIMINATION.

Knows the difference..... jeez.

As you said to me recently "I heard that man". Now, if I can only get back that potential client who showed up here and was greeted by me in bare feet and lounging shorts because I spun my iPhone calendar dial to July instead of June. I was here at least, but man was that an uncomfortable meeting!! lol Well, actually it was extremely comfortable because those are rockin' shorts, but not 'hire me' kind of shorts. Anyway… :)

Aaron Brown's picture

We've had some good conversations in the past about these sorts of things! You live and learn, right? Cheers Steve!

David Vaughn's picture

What if you just have an off day, where nothing is really and truly going wrong but the photos just aren't coming together the way you thought they would/should? :P

Richard Lee's picture

I hand my card to women and tell them I do maternity and they tell me unpleasantly that they are not pregnant.

On the weekend I had my first gig for corporate head shots. I spent the evening prior setting up and testing my lighting, all responsible-like. Once I was done I carefully packed everything away for the next day's shoot. Well, I got to the shoot and realized I left one tiny box at home... the bulbs for my lights. Luckily, a nice bright window and my white foam core boards saved the day... but man, did I feel stupid.