Choose Your Clients Wisely

Choose Your Clients Wisely

When this post is published I will be on my way to Moscow, Russia somewhere above the North Atlantic Ocean. I have a couple of shoots booked with my regular clients there, and my relationships with those clients are so great and long-lasting that they inspired me to write this article.

I visit my family in Russia every year and I usually book some client shoots while I'm there. One time I booked and shot 15 shoots in 21 days, and only got to spend a little time with family and friends briefly in between those shoots. My rates were very low, and I was booking just about anyone who wanted to shoot with me. Some of those clients were great, and some of them were demanding an unreasonable amount of my time and resources before, during and after the shoots.

Most of my memories about those short rare trips, which were supposed to be all about the family, are blighted by the hassles of serving clients who not only compensated my time with little pay, but also managed to suck all the pleasure out of what I normally love doing - shooting with people.

I promised myself to intentionally work towards transforming my business so that I can shoot less often, and only with people I enjoy working with while increasing my income, or at least keeping it on the same level. Sure enough, there are many things that go into it: your skill level, your experience, your portfolio, your marketing and communication skills. But there's something else that you have to keep in mind - it's the quality of your clients. No matter how much you have to offer, it won't do you any good if you offer it to the wrong people.

I had to learn it the hard way over the years, and even though I thought I figured it all out, I still sometimes find myself wasting time on clients I should be avoiding. But I definitely minimized those occasions.

And while I don't have a shortcut for you as to how you personally can find your best clients, keeping this information in mind will help you to make right decisions. Yes, it is possible to run a business where you deal with happy clients, you are paid better, and have more time to spend with your family.


Offer Your Services To Those Who Will Appreciate Them

In a service-oriented business the degree of happiness of your clients after they received what they paid you for, not only affects your bottom line, but also can make or break it. Anyone who runs such a business needs to know and recognize the following 5 types of clients:

1. Low maintenance / High profit - those who pay well and ask for little. They love your work, they appreciate your time and they can afford it. It's your #1 most favorite and most desirable type of client. If we could only have such clients, we would all be happy photographers running successful businesses.

My current Moscow clients are exactly that: they love my work and they are happy to pay what I believe I am worth. Thanks to these wonderful clients instead of running around and shooting a dozen of cheap client shoots, I can book only two and spend the rest of my time with my family and friends. Needless to say, I will go to great lengths to keep them happy.

2. High maintenance / High profit - those who pay well, but make you jump through hoops. Depending on your current financial situation, you might be okay with constantly pleasing them. If you need more income, they are probably still your favorite type of client. If you've got a lot of work coming your way, or are too tired of wasting your time on never-ending requests or complaints - you probably don't love them all that much any more, and who can blame you?! They are taking up the time you could spend on serving your more appreciative and low maintenance clients.

3. Low maintenance / Low profit - those who pay little, but ask very little as well. They are not spoiled, they like what you do and can afford some of your services. Some of us may find ourselves working for this type of client quite often. They are not bad at all, they help you build a steady income flow. But replacing some of them with the Type 1 clients every chance you get would sure serve you better in the long run.

In the real world it means that when you can devote your time to a client who pays more, than you might want to say "no" to a client who wants cheaper services. Spend the free time on turning your better paying client into your regular - meaning over-deliver, please them, make them love you!

4. High maintenance / Low profit - it is in your best interest to be able to recognize this type of client and stay away from them as much as possible. They will waste your time, and they will have unreasonable expectations of you and your company. They will make you feel bad about yourself and your work, they will easily ruin your day by their passive-aggressive emails and text messages, and at the end of the day they will pay you very little. Very often, these clients will not be happy with the work you do for them no matter how well it is done. That's why it's important to recognize the red flags (keep reading) before you commit to such a client.

5. Time-wasters - these are not your clients, they only put on the guise of becoming one in the future. They will waste your time, send you millions of emails and text messages, ask you millions of questions, and make you invest time into planning their photo shoot. They may even ask you to book a makeup artist and hairstylist for the day, and then cancel on you a couple of days before the shoot. Needless to say, you should steer clear from this type of pseudo-client as soon as you recognize the signs.

Having your clients book and pre-pay in advance is a good way to protect yourself from resource-sucking time-wasters, but I realize that it's easier said than done in some areas of visual arts, and even so in some types of photography such as wedding and bridal. But my point is when you are mindful of this, you can figure out ways to avoid being abused by such "clients" and wasting your time on fruitless relationships. It happened to me too many times to ignore.


Recognize High Maintenance Clients Early

Here are some signs of a high maintenance client and potential problems that you can catch early and act accordingly:

1. Asking way too many questions than your average client, making you believe that they are really interested, but they just want to know all the details before they commit.

To protect yourself from falling for this, put up as much pre-sale information about your services as possible on your website. Send them kindly to that page and if they come back to you with post-sale questions (such as "what looks should we do during the shoot", "what makeup and clothing do you envision me in for beautiful pictures", etc.) explain that you will together clarify and take care of all the details after the photo shoot is booked. Don't waste your time on something that may never happen.

Again, I understand that it may not work in some types of photography, but it has been working for me with Beauty, Fashion, Family, Senior, and Boudoir photography clients after I figured it out, and I hope it helps you out in some way as well.

2. After-hour calls and text messages. This may mean nothing, but in my personal experience if a client calls or texts you in the middle of the night or unacceptably early in the morning - they do not respect you or your time, and they don't take you seriously. Most likely, there will be more problems that you will have to deal with should you commit to this client.

3. Trying to negotiate you down on the price or ask for more services that they didn't initially quote. This used to be a tough one for me, but I now realize that I was in the mindset "if I insist on my initial quote they will leave me." That's a suicidal mindset for a full-time creative professional.

Remember, if they want YOUR services, they will pay you what you deserve. If they want whatever services and want them cheap - let them go, you don't want them either. Respect yourself, your time, and think what's good for your business and for your own self-esteem. It's very easy to spiral down serving people who don't care for you and don't appreciate your talents, and when you hit the ground you may want to quit photography altogether.

4. Unrealistic response times and unpunctuality. They get back to your emails or calls once a week, or make you wait for them running significantly late for your meetings. They may send you a dozen of messages with ridiculous excuses, or may not even bother to let you know they are running late. Either way, they do not respect your time and don't take you seriously - expect more problems.

5. Aggressive (passive-aggressive) correspondence and lack of trust. This is a huge red flag. They may pay you well, but if your sanity is important to you, stay away from doing business with bullies and paranoiacs.

6. Too many special requests, too many emails, calls, revisions, complaints. If you are already working with them, just suck it up and finish the job with the best possible results you can deliver, but make sure to never get involved in this or a similar relationship again.

And, unfortunately, you will figure out other red flags and tendencies from your personal experiences. The main point is to learn from them and not allow unpleasant business situations and relationships happen to you again.


More Helpful Tips

"Some people are just high maintenance. You are never going to please them, only deplete yourself trying" says one of my favorite intentional leadership authors Michael Hyatt in his Three Reasons You Can’t Afford That High Maintenance Client. Michael also suggests that high maintenance clients are a distraction and they keep you from serving others. You're better off saying "no" and spend the time searching for low maintenance clients: "I have learned that these are clients that you simply cannot afford to have, no matter how great the opportunity appears to be."

Of course you will find other types of advice on how to increase your income by letting customers have it their way. Some will recommend pleasing your clients no matter what, and that's totally your choice. At the end of the day, you will choose how to run your own business based on your personal beliefs and philosophies. I personally don't like seeing fellow artists being pushed over and abused, and that's the reason why I am sharing what I've learned from smart business people and my own experiences in this article.

"The unfortunate reality is that there are only so many clients out there, and some of those clients aren't worth dealing with… The decision to keep working with them is yours. Your fate is in your own hands, as is your sanity" says Jack Wallen in his Five tips for dealing with high maintenance clients article.

Listen to Michael Hyatt's podcast where he talks about dealing with high maintenance clients:


And lastly, make sure to check out Speculative Work, What It Is and Why You Should Wary - a great guest post by New York Film Academy on my blog. It is especially recommended to those of you who are just starting out as a full-time photographer or planning to become one soon.


If you have more tips on how to recognize and deal with high maintenance clients, please feel free to share them in the comments below, so we can learn too!

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Michael Miller's picture

Well done

John Corotis's picture

I once had a client that wanted me to shoot 60 pairs of boots for her Ebay page. We agreed on $6 per pair, with 3 looks per boot. I was just starting with some of my paid photography work and didn't recognize the signs listed above that this client was bad news. Long story short, I didn't collect money up front, nor did I get any form of contract. I spent over 10 hours shooting these product shots and editing them. Not to toot my own horn, but they were done really well. Sharp, nice lighting, beautiful model, and a perfect white seamless back drop. Exactly what the client had asked for. I showed her the images and she said they were blurry and not up to the quality she had desired, and didn't want to pay me. I ended up talking right out of my ass with some legal jargon and got her to pay me, but it was still a nightmare for a while.
I was so stupid to not recognize the signs that Julia has so nicely pointed out, and to not collect money upfront. Oh well, I learned from it, and hopefully you guys can as well.

Nick Fancher's picture

Most commercial clients don't pay until 30 days after the shoot.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

But that's not the point John was trying to make, the client didn't want to pay at all.

Nick Fancher's picture

He mentioned collecting money up front next time. Hence my response.

John Corotis's picture

I also didn't have any form of contract holding her to paying me at any time. Next time, I would either collect a deposit upfront, or have some sort of legal contract in place. Preferably both!
But like Julia said, that's not the point.

John Corotis's picture

Thank you for the information about the 30 days, Nick. I really enjoyed your BTS video you did with Jack Threads a while back. Keep up the good work!

Nez's picture

Most commercial clients are under contract.

Ron Rosenzweig's picture

Hi Nick,
With over 30 years in the business, all of my commercial clients pay me upon delivery of the finished product. It is how you manage the client, not the other way around. Those that want to string you along are the ones discussed in this article!
Best Regards,

Kevin Patrick Robbins's picture

I'm a commercial photographer and I always insist on either expenses or 50% of the total quote, including taxes, to be paid in order to initiate production. Finished images are not delivered until the fee has been paid in full.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Oh John, I've been there too :) I think many of us had such experiences, some maybe even more than once. I think it's particularly difficult to deal with such clients and situation when you're new at this. We just don't know for sure what's normal, what common practices are and unknowingly let our clients manipulate and abuse us.

I believe if we speak about these things amongst ourselves and share our mistakes and experiences with the newer generation of photographers, the whole industry will actually benefit from it.

Sorry to hear that it happened to you! And thank you for sharing your story!

~ Julia

Oliver Oettli's picture

Your story sounds like many I've heard before. Just one little comment about it from my side.. 6$ a pair with 3 looks a pair? I know ebay shops dont ask for high end photos but you're seriously asking 2$ per picture including editing?
And we're wondering why photographers rates are dropping like flies...

John Corotis's picture

Like I said, I was just starting out with some of my photography work, so I definitely undercharged. I just didn't know what a solid price would be for that shoot. Somewhat understandable for a high school student. Now I know, right?

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Yeah anytime someone is offering you $2 per finished image, or $10 per finished image or even $25, you're getting screwed.

You're either going to do a super rushed, crappy job or you're going to end up working for like $1 an hour when you add up all your time.

Friday Wedding Photography's picture

If the photographer is just starting out and their work isn't the same quality (or the same professional gear / studio as a more experienced "professional" photographer), shooting hundreds of images and batch editing at $2 per image might be more than adequate.

The real question to determine a price that you don't get "screwed" at is your hourly rate. If the photographer had all of the lighting setup for all of the boots, and could do the entire shoot - edit - upload - invoice in 1 day (6 minutes per pair = not impossible if you're shooting tethered and running actions) then it's not bad. Especially if you're starting out.

If you're new to volume work Antonio, it's a completely different ballgame than more freestyle product shoots or portraits / weddings / etc.

Just saying.


Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Yes, those prices are way way way too low, but just like John I, for example, did have to go through that too when I was starting out, so I get it. More experience and work in his portfolio and he won't charge that low.

John_Skinner's picture

Or to simplify. Work is work, family is family. If you make that choice to combine the 2, one can't very well say it didn't work out on the 'family' side... Instead of " Choose Your Clients Wisely" this might have been more aptly named " Don't try and mix business with pleasure.

Nick Fancher's picture

This is ON POINT. Trust your instincts.

RUSS T.'s picture

you ever notice, the ones you help the most/ give the best deal to, treat ya the worst?

DeathNTexas's picture

So right. Now, I find that I have fairly strict rules of how things will get done and I will only bend (or even break) those rules for clients I have a history with. New clients can either let me work my way, or find a photographer that better suits them.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Very well said!

Linus Pettersson's picture

Great article as always Julia! =)

Dav Anmed's picture

As usual with julia, dry clear and helpful!

Jason's picture

Any tips for saying "No" to these kinds of clients?

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Your busy schedule is the go-to reason :) Nobody knows how busy you are, so nobody will get offended.

Ihab Mokayed's picture

Once again, I actually read it all, I love your articles Julia!

And I've actually had a hilarious experience with a law firm in Dubai who called me to do corporate portraits and this type of things, and when he asked for the total price, he was like "but that's too expensive, I don't get you photographers, all you do is get your camera and click click and charge all that!!", and I told him to do the shoot himself then if it's so easy!

Another one was actually shooting an Advertisement for events company, and after we agreed on the rate and everything, and I actually shot one whole day, and I was supposed to shoot many events.. etc. I was waiting for their response about their schedule of events and all that, and they literally answered me like 2 months later, telling me "ohh sorry we were on vacation! Let's shoot next week!", and obviously I stepped back, apologised and canceled the whole thing!

I can totally relate to what you wrote, and I definitely learned a lot reading that, so thank you!!

bebekashmir's picture

I just went through this with a "client." A bunch of meetings with no start dates in sight. Fluctuating details and tail chasing. Total sketchyness about paying my already below market value rates while acknowledging that my work was dead on what they wanted. I went ahead and started a little work up front just to get something on the board and get working. After receiving no payment and still no confirmation to work I fired the client.

No regrets and I'm going to hone the skill of refining my filters and red lines.

Ryan Cooper's picture

This is fantastic advice but I think one thing many photographers face is that we don't have the luxury of choosing our clients. As you become more experienced and well known this luxury does arise but if when turning down bad clients means you may not eat next week it becomes rather difficult to do. ;)

mananetwork's picture

Slipping this in my back pocket!

Janelle Ryan's picture

Great idea!

Nguyen D. Nguyen's picture

It's really hard to charge good prices when you're a high school student going up against local pro studios. :/

Dylan Goldby's picture

I'm working with a client just like this right now... 4am phone calls, text messages to confirm I got an email they sent 30 seconds prior, demanding extra deliverables. This has been a great read, and some of the tactics for working with clients like this will be invaluable in finalising this job with smiles all round. Thanks!

Janelle Ryan's picture

thank you! I really needed this.

Tracy's picture

I need it too.

Andrew Sible's picture

I would love to hear some kind, respectful ways/wordings for declining clients, especially ways avoiding the simple use of "I can't fit that into my schedule".

I know I will run into it but I want to be prepared for what to say and then how to answer if a client asks "but why are you turning me down?"

I don't want to get sued, naturally, lol

Marty Bru's picture

i love the reference to JZ's rap song, I got 99 problems and a BITCH ain't one of them, lol

Mary Hurlbut's picture

A month ago I made the decision to let go of what looked like a profitable family portrait session. I was getting, lengthy emails from 3 of the members with lots of requests. Plus the location they wanted would be very crowded on weekend. I declined with a huge sigh of relief.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

I know the feeling, Mary! :)

Mel's picture

Thanks! It's all so true!

malikmlwilliams's picture

Thanks so much for this. I need to add it to my "business bible."

Paul Hance's picture

Great post. Thanks Julia.

Joseph Kondody's picture

Dear Julia,
First let me thank you for all the articles! It is definitely an eye opener for an upcoming photographer like me. I have a feeling you had a great relief while writing this one. ( I felt good reading!! ) Anyway its the same exact scene i face (Most of them worst types) and i struggle to get hold of a good client and sometime u just want to quit and get back into simpler job where u don't need to worry about weighing u for your services. but articles like yours are a great inspiration to stick on to the same track and deal with it everyday. thank you again!
Btw i am hoping you come down to India soon and conduct a few workshops on Retouching. If not please add that to your next schedule, i am sure there are a lot of people here looking for that bit of learning from you.
May you have a wonderful time with your family!
- joseph

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Thank you for your kind words, Joseph!
I know what you mean, I've been there, and I promise you most of us photographers, or any creative professionals for that matter, go through such phases. It never hurts to arrange other income streams for yourself while keeping getting better and marketing your services. Good luck! Stay inspired!

Joseph Kondody's picture

(OMG! wooo u replied yipeee!!) i am trying to generate some money on the side Julia!

Mariana Feely's picture

This was crazy accurate to one client I had..and yes --- I let them go bye bye. I want to know now, is how to get Low maintenance / High profit clients.

Irene Liebler's picture

Great post! Very timely. I just met with a potential client who needs help finding good clients! He values good imagery and is will to pay for good design and photos. Guess he qualifies as a keeper! Thanks for making it so clear.

Pedro Schmitt's picture

How many times I faced the nº 4 ! Vampiresque people, indeed, and what called my atention in this type of undesirable client is that, besides the process of let you down, they have the habit to, in the other side, promise a hole new world of assignments, making your eyes sparkle with perspectives that will never come true. Thanks for the article by keep our eyes more opened!

Lorenzo P's picture

"To protect yourself from falling for this, put up as much pre-sale information about your services as possible on your website. Send them kindly to that page and if they come back to you with post-sale questions (such as “what looks should we do during the shoot”, “what makeup and clothing do you envision me in for beautiful pictures”, etc.) explain that you will together clarify and take care of all the details after the photo shoot is booked. Don’t waste your time on something that may never happen."
Julia this is very valuable stuff I always fall victim to these type of clients trying to be friendly and approachable, but I now know what the help of you how to handle this situation in a professional manner!!!! Thank you dearly!!