Do You Value Your Art Over Customer Service?

Do You Value Your Art Over Customer Service?

If you’ve run a photography business for any amount of time, I can almost guarantee that you’ve come across clients who make requests you don’t want to fill.

“Can we see all the outtakes?”

“Can we have the raw files?’

“I want to share this photo on Instagram, can I put filters on it?”

“Can we print this at Walmart for my grandma?”

"I'd like to edit the portraits myself."

And so on. Photographers share these requests in online forums, uncertain of how to handle the situation, and this is the kind of advice I see most often:

“Hell no, that’s your art, those clients are crazy!”

“Never show raws to clients!”

“Tell them no, Walmart prints will make your work look terrible!”

I can understand where these responses come from; photographers work hard to cultivate a recognizable style and they want the work that goes out into the world to represent that style. What I don’t understand is why photographers who want to make a living as service providers value the style of the images they create over the happiness of the people they’re creating them for. Shouldn't the main goal of running a business be happy customers? After all, it's not your client's job to advertise your work, it's your job to do that; clients are not walking billboards. That doesn't mean you shouldn't hand over the kind of images you want to get hired to create or incentivize referrals, but aren't you likely to get more referrals if you're willing to be flexible with requests that don't hurt you and, in some cases, might even make you more money? Ones that make your clients feel like you're doing your best to meet their needs? I don't think anyone should let clients walk all over them, but I also think it's important to remember that photographers are in the service industry, providing goods and services, and that customer service is equally as important as the goods provided because, let's be real, there are a lot of wonderful photographers out there willing to take your place. 

Many of these questions can be avoided by taking the time to sit down with your customer and set expectations, explaining to them what you do and do not provide, what you will and will not allow. But, if your initial reaction is to feel insulted when your clients asks these kinds of questions, you might want to ask yourself why. Maybe you're valuing what you create more than you value the people you're creating it for. That's backwards to how business works. If all that matters to you is the work you create, then you might really be a fine artist masquerading as a service provider. But if you're serious about making work for clients, then a happy client should be your number one priority, and that sometimes means putting their needs above your pride.

Model: Mia Felicia MUA: Kimberly Clay

Compromise is the name of the game, here. They want to see the outtakes? Sure, that will be a fee of however much money makes the effort worth your time. They want to buy all the raw files? Sure, that will cost this much extra. They want to edit their own photos? They can do that, but there will be an extra fee because you'll lose control over how the image is displayed. They want to put a filter on one of your photos for Instagram? If it really makes them happy they can do that, because you already have the original on your website and social media feeds in all it's carefully edited glory. If you think your way through it, there is almost always a way to make situations like these worth your while, while also making your client deliriously happy that you understood their needs and met them.

Try to remember that your clients aren't photographers and, more often than not, their favorite photos will be the ones they feel the strongest emotional connection to, not necessarily the ones that are the most technically perfect. How many times have you had a client whose favorite image is one you'd rather throw away? That makes us crazy because we expect them to share our artistic preferences when the reason they chose the image has nothing to do with composition and everything to do with their own emotional responses. I've noticed that when I feel offended or insulted that a client chose a certain image or wanted a certain edit, it's generally because I'm expecting my client to understand things about art or the photography business they have no business understanding. I have to remind myself that they hired me to create something for them, not something for my portfolio. 

I read somewhere that the average person can tell the difference between a bad photograph and a good photograph, but that most people cannot tell the difference between a good photograph and great one. Why? Because the average person doesn't have a career that requires training their eye to see the subtleties that separate a good photograph from a great one. And if they're happy with a photo that isn't your favorite, and they want to make a print for grandma from Walmart, and they tell everyone that they love their photos and their photographer was the best ever, then how is that a loss?

Model: Mia Felicia MUA: Kimberly Clay

Personally, the companies that I am the most loyal to are the ones who have treated me well, the ones who have gone out of their way to meet my needs. If you're in business, then good work is the lowest bar you can hit: it's expected that you'll do good work. What will make you stand out is your voice, and how you treat your customers. When you're working for a client, value them and the service you're providing them, because they're the entire reason you're in business in the first place. Save your artistic integrity for your portfolio work, and the only expectations you'll have to meet are your own.

Of course you should structure your business in a way that works for you and represents the kind of work you want to create. You should set customer expectations early, ask questions about what they want, and explain the reason you have certain terms and conditions. You should have contracts that spell out what you will and will not provide. But, after all that, you should also remember that you're in business to provide a product to a client, and that the most important part of your job is to send that person away happy they spent their well earned money with you, and not some other photographer.

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12 Comments

If someone prints photos at Walmart or edits themselves or whatever, they (the photos) are obviously not in the category of art! Art is delivered as a print, ready to be framed and displayed. Period!

Michael Jin's picture

I disagree with this. Period?

Well, we can't all be right! Exclamation point! ;-)

Christian Santiago's picture

“Maybe you're valuing what you create more than you value the people you're creating it for.”

That’s me. Long is the list of things I value more than people. Hence why I shoot buildings. 😅

Nicole York's picture

Haha, that's fair enough!

John Dawson's picture

Like most everything sold, art (photography) is not about selling the product, it's selling the feeling that the art evokes in the client. If you can get paid to evoke a great feeling for your customer, in whatever form that takes, everybody wins.

Mark Harris's picture

If clients only want jpegs, I always include an A4 print 'as a bonus' so they can see what a good print looks like, and know that it's not my fault when their Walmart prints look crappy.

Lee Stirling's picture

This article basically lays out the rationale for any photographer to have a standard contract that clearly states what the final product of the "job" will be, how much it will cost, and what's required to meet special requests on the part of the client.

If you're hired by a client to make images in exchange for payment, it's your job to set the terms and client expectations BEFORE you make the art/hand it off to the client.

Dwight Smalls's picture

Great read as usual Nicole.

Tim Gallo's picture

Sorry for my english.

I think art and business are absolutely different things; and there are different type of work in photography, probably in any creative business... one is where you are hired for your "sense/taste/creative vision" first of all and that creative vision fits your clients, and another is when you hired for your "skill" to bring great results that fits clients vision, not yours.

You cant ask Peter Lindbergh to over-retouch their pictures :) Or try Annie Leibovitz to use different kind of lighting than one she used to. You cant expect Jurgen Teller to use octa and create beautiful moody light :)
You get them for their personal creative vision.

And then there are almighty types... they can do whatever you ask them to do and still make time for their art, like FWO3 for example. Most of the successful commercial photographers are good at second thing - bringing good results.

I heard that Javier Vallhonrat and Nick Knight used to fight about this, even had like a real fight. Nick Knight believes that the creators personal vision does not matter - the client goes first. And Javier`s position is "i create what i want, you dont like it - dont use it". Both were amazing in their primes in Vogue.

This is an interesting one. I think morality comes into the same equation. I've had a few clients over the years that are prepared to stretch the boundaries that go beyond what I would deem acceptable. In a group of images there will be one that they would like cropped or altered beyond the reality of the situation. My solution is to provide them with usual images and a 2nd image that they can alter to their content. I always provide what the client wants BUT if the client does not meet what I deem is acceptable I usually refer them to another photog when they call again.