The Best Thing I've Learned After Seven Years as a Professional Photographer

The Best Thing I've Learned After Seven Years as a Professional Photographer

This will be short, because it has no reason not to be. If I've learned one thing in business over the past seven years of being a full-time professional photographer, it's that you should always, whenever possible, grant your clients some grace.

Today was a day where I needed to show some grace. I had a shoot scheduled at a local bar to do some bartender portraits. This was a free shoot for them, and they would get to use the images for their marketing. The owner of the bar set it up so that two or three people would be there to have portraits taken, but none of them showed up. My assistant and I waited 45 minutes, outside, on a chilly, gloomy day, and no one ever came.


After giving up and going home, I got a frantic message from the owner saying that when reminding the bartenders about the shoot today, she had inadvertently left off the "1" in "12," so the bartenders thought they were supposed to show up at 2. She was extremely apologetic. 

I had two options. I could have been annoyed and frustrated, and told her she had wasted hours of my time between prep, running to my studio for some gear, and waiting at the location (after scarfing down a too-quick lunch and rushing my puppy outside to pee). It was about two hours gone out of my day. I could have said I wouldn't work with her again. But that would have been pointless, and wouldn't have helped anyone or anything.

Why make someone feel worse when they already feel bad enough for wasting your time? Why be negative when you could be positive? Why potentially ruin a relationship when you could just forgive them and reschedule? That's just bad business practice, not to mention bad human practice. 

In business, just as in life, it pays to be friendly. It pays to be compassionate. It pays to grant people the grace they need to carry on with their day. A no-show client is not the worst thing in the world, but I hope this makes a point.

If you follow this small, though sometimes difficult, piece of advice, I guarantee that you'll win over more people than you'll lose and your professional (and personal) life will flourish. Be gracious, be forgiving, be understanding, and the rest will come.

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Andrew Smith's picture

I couldn't agree more. I try to live by the philosophy of "don't worry about what you can't change." What good does it do for you by worrying or getting angry about something that you can't change.

Very good business practice no matter what your trade is.

However, your time and your talent is the product you sell as a professional, I question giving it away for free. You would be hard pressed to find any other business that dose not charge fellow business owners for there product.

I agree -- but this one was more of a "I want to do some photos in a bar for another project, hopefully they'll let me shoot there and use their bartenders!" situation. The exchange for their time and location and people was for image use.

Michael Holst's picture

I think the compensation you're getting out of this should be explained in this article. While I don't doubt you implied that you were aiming to get something out of this relationship, without putting in some detail it's not hard to assume that you're hoping they'll just start to pay you for future photo shoots. In a case such as this I find it much easier to accept your advice once I can agree with your business logic (free work).

Though I don't think this is so much business advice. It's more just being a decent and understanding human.

Marc DeGeorge's picture

This was an honest mistake by the client, and I think it deserves some leniency. Getting angry at them would have not solved anything, and would most likely not make that client want to work with you again. She might even tell some of her friends and acquaintances (i.e. your potential future clients...) what a jerk you were from a simple mistake.

Of course there are nightmare clients that would have purposely blown you off, especially if there was no investment on their part. Every photographer has to judge what value providing a non-monetary service is to them. However, that said, if you are ever concerned about the flakiness of a client, then have them sign a contract making them financially responsible for your time if they don't show. While you may never get that money, you might at least get them to commit to showing up.

Ian Meyers's picture

Getting upset accomplishes nothing for anyone...shit happens and getting bothered about it is always more stressful than the actual shit that happened.

You use the words 'bad business' but in what sense is it a business and are you a professional if you do a free shoot that can be used for marketing purposes?

Of course you can show some grace and don't charge extra if this was a normal paid shoot and in this case I can see why you show up again without being angry.... but really... charge for your work and time and gear and what the photos are worth

I should have been more specific in the article -- this situation was more of a "I want to do some photos in a bar for another project, hopefully they'll let me shoot there and use their bartenders!" The exchange for their time and location and people was for image use. I approached them and offered. Some times, you give image use for free in exchange for favors.

William Howell's picture

My view is all that matters was that it was worth it to you and it is difficult to build your bar environment from scratch. Locations like you’re describing are hard to come by, so do a few favors and then you have a kick-ass set and a new networking contact.

alejandro martinez's picture

Though I greatly appreciate your insight of allowing 'grace' to blur the lines behind business and life, I would like recommend that people adopt a practice that I have incorporated recently in these situations.

For me, I shoot primarily in the marketing lifestyle space which means producers with well organized teams and detailed call-sheets sent out days in advance. With smaller shoots and even favors that I do for my neighborhood's businesses; salons, restaurants etc, I take on the roll of the producer by creating the treatment, shoot-list and a call sheet.

The point is that no matter the scale of shoot, I approach the pre-production stuff it as if I were shooting for the cover of Vogue. Though it takes a bit of time on the front end, giving the smaller client a professional call-sheet and shot list will save hours on the back end. Smaller shoots means no producer so as the photographer you become the de-facto driver, not the passenger, so its up to you to get everyone on the same page logistically and artistically. It also sets a tone leading into the shoot that makes sure that everyone is respecting each other's time. That's it, my two cents.

Dennis Murphy's picture

This ^^

Really insightful and can be applied to all areas of life.


Today my life's been blessed by having "discovered" you. The title of your essay in the FSoppers weekly recap caught my eye: The Best Thing I've Learned After Seven Years as a Professional Photographer. It promised enlightenment, and it delivered what it promised

As I read your words--grace, compassion, forgiveness, understanding--my soul lit up as with the feeling one gets when recognizing a dear friend amidst a crowd of strangers. They are words I hold as holy in my heart, and hearing them embraced by another has provided soul-sustenance to a fellow sentient being this Sunday morning. Greetings, kindred spirit, I am now a follower.