Great Photos but Unhappy Clients? Don't Sacrifice Your Signature

Great Photos but Unhappy Clients? Don't Sacrifice Your Signature

I stepped into photography world over 10 years ago and was lucky enough to have a wide variety of clients from different parts of the world. This made it essential for me to be flexible while negotiating or taking jobs despite cultural differences, from Armenia to U.S., from Mauritius to South Africa, Singapore, various European countries, and more. Usually you will get hired based on your portfolio, but sometimes there are clients who don’t understand much about photography. This is where the danger is. Everyone wants to get top results for the money they spend by hiring you, but what is considered the best for such clients?

With my experience I came to a conclusion that I have to pay more attention to my intuition before taking any job, even if it is a really well paid one. There is a niche of clients who aim to get professional photos but have no clue what that means. You might try to have a visual agreement with them based on some mood boards, but that’s not a reference for them. The truth is that they might be absolutely happy with amateur snapshots or selfies, but it won’t be with you no matter what you do and how hard you try. Why is this?

Reference Story 1

A couple of months ago I was contacted via social media for a model portfolio shoot. I had no particular details and offered several packages to choose from. The most expensive package was selected and we arranged the two-day shoot. My intuition already warned me of possible troubles when I saw a few photos on Instagram where no face of the client was visible. I love challenges and decided to do my best despite any circumstances. The girl came to the studio, she was fine looking and I wanted to bring the best in her as I usually do. My intuition spoke again when I learned she didn’t bring anything with her (outfits, accessories, etc.). I supported every possible way by providing my own outfits, makeup, and all as this was basically her first shoot. A free consultation was also provided as a bonus to help her get into this industry more knowledgeable. I put myself in a positive state and wanted to be as helpful as possible. The situation repeated on the second day when she arrived with absolutely nothing again. We had to shoot three different styles. Again I did my best. This might sound strange, and bring a logical question as why I didn’t send her back. Totally right, but things don’t work like that in Armenia, where I live. I went ahead and did all I could in that situation.

One of my old works. For the sake of privacy I am not sharing photos of that actual unhappy model shoot.

Then I took the payment and sent the photos as agreed. As a thank you to my efforts I received a message that all the photos are bad and she wants a full refund. This was unpleasant, but I took it with a cold head. I knew I did much more than enough and the final photos were just like the photos in my portfolio with the same quality and approach. I decided to show the pictures to some of my colleagues and friends before replying to her, to be sure I am not judging the photos from a subjective point of view. Every one of them confirmed those were my signature kind of photos, basically for what I was initially hired. After having opinions from several people I replied to her and declined her request. Top of the case was accidently meeting her outside, wearing an outfit I styled for the shoot. Point? Be aware of people who don’t like themselves and if something inside buzzes you, save yourself and avoid talking that order.

Reference Story 2

I used to live on a magical island called Mauritius several years ago. It is considered a top wedding destination and I used to do a lot of wedding shoots back then. At some point I was requested to shoot fake wedding scenes as an advertisement campaign for the Singapore wedding market. I involved my local photographer colleague to work with me so I didn’t miss showcasing any of the beautiful locations on the island. Prior to the shoot we did a casting for the fake bride and the groom, fixed the locations all over the island, and got a complete confirmation from the client. In addition, we worked on a mood board and aimed to get that kind of results and atmosphere. We had all planned, organized, and confirmed. The shoot went as planned. We traveled the whole island featuring the best locations with the best models, and all this only to see unhappy clients who would take depth of field in the photos as low quality, unfocused photos. This was crazy.

Photo 1: Real wedding booked based on the Fake Wedding album. Photo 2: Couple on jetty concept with dramatic sky and clouds as a a natural backdrop. The later one also won an award.

At the moment my colleague and I were the top requested photographers in Mauritius and they were unhappy. Unhappy, as they wanted mobile-quality pictures, all in focus, with no mood and value. Basically anything you can snapshot with any camera and nothing like the mood board we created. We had a long conversation with the client trying to give understandable information about good quality, but it didn’t help. We canceled our agreement and maintained the rights for our pictures.

Photo 1: Another booked order based on the Fake Wedding album. Photo 2: Same location, similar accessories, but with a real couple who were extremely happy with their wedding album.

The final photographs served as perfect advertisement for our wedding services on the island. It would have been a shame losing them. This was some five years ago and I was not going to lower my skills standards just to be paid. Eventually people would know I shot those average requested images and I would lose the clients I aim to work with.

Photography is very subjective and everyone has their own vision and expectations. What is good quality for one is considered as an out of focus photo for another. What is perfectly color graded photo for one is a great starter to apply a heavy Instagram filter for another.

Look at the situation straight. Most of the time you will get hired for what you can produce. Make sure you produce your best at all times. Don’t lie to yourself and your art. Being authentic to yourself will result in a unique signature. This will serve as a solid ground to get clients who value, understand, and are ready to pay well for your art. You will grow as an artist and be happy for what you create.

Money is good, but sometimes we win by losing. Eliminating wrong clients on your list might be the best thing you can do for your career. Have you had unpleasant situations with your clients? How have you responded to them? Share your experience in the comments.

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19 Comments

Rafal Wegiel's picture

Great article... Dealing with those situations all the time ... the good thing is after many years being in this industry we can easy sense those clients... the worse part is that sometimes we don't listen to our gut and then the problems kicked in... Great read Thank You!

Emma Grigoryan's picture

totally ! I guess the worst part is convincing yourself, that doing your best will work

Rafal Wegiel's picture

Absolutely! Well I don't know any photographer who is purposely doing bad work... I think and You have mention that in your article that some of those clients simply don't know what they want plus already have unrealistic image in their mind... I had client who wants me to remove all the wrinkles flat out from her face and showed me a picture with some kind of over retouch Alien form planet X and when I refused to do that she got so upset she started going after me on Social Media saying how bad photographer I am... the funny thing is I knew from the moment I met her its going to be trouble... didn't listen to my gut and I pay quite high price ...

Dave McDermott's picture

I've often wondered what pro photographers do in this situation. I did a TFP shoot with a model a few months ago and she was unhappy with the photos I sent her. She demanded I give her all the photos. I declined and she eventually stopped contacting me. I'd imagine its a bit more difficult to deal with if you've received payment though, as opposed to a TFP arrangement.

Emma Grigoryan's picture

Well in this case all depends on your agreement I guess. If you agreed on x amount of photos and you gave her what was initially fixed, then all is fine.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I've found this sort of problem especially comes up often with local acting clients where I live who are looking for headshots. Often they come into a shoot wanting something completely different than their agents so whoever I please the other is unhappy. The agent usually wants realistic shots of the actor looking their best while the actors themselves prefer a more glamorous headshot that is more of a beauty image that is a false representation of them. Its crazy how often the two desires clash and I end up with an angry client blaming me.

Emma Grigoryan's picture

All this issues double in local markets I believe. I found that offering template kind of photos shot by myself work as a good reference. Don't you think offering an in between kind of portrait style photos would work for them? Like doing several template portraits with your say friends and presenting those as a reference. I think you can really kill it but mix-matching ;) I do beauty kind of portraits for a lot of clients. They want that beauty feel, but I know they are not ready or ABLE to pose for beauty. Just similar lighting, light styling and guidance. I also go light with the retouching, bust still on the side of beauty.

Ryan Cooper's picture

In theory, yes, but it would drive up the price of the shoot and unfortunately starving actors are also bargain hunters. ;) Ultimately, though, if the headshot is not true to the appearance of the person who is going to walk into the casting room it does a dis-service to the actor. The agents know this and they try to convince their clients of it but you always have swarms of 30+ year old actresses expecting to look 18 again in their headshots. If come to expect a certain degree of diva drama from acting headshots at this point which is why I've mostly stopped marketing them. ;) Low revenue, high stress.

Right! Or the bride who is mad she doesn't look like a super model, when in the particular case would have taken super powers.

People are crazy. Sometimes it's really difficult to know until after your project is complete.

I have shot CEO and Board of Director head shots that were 10,000 times better than what they had before. They'd show me the previous photographer's shots which made the board look like hoodlums: horrible light, severe yellow cast, awful expression, etc. For our shots we'd bring in makeup, a hair person, steaming out wrinkles in jackets, lots of attention to making them look fantastic. Everyone very pleased except this one lady who told me I "made her look like a fool". She went into a tirade about how she HATES how she looks in any picture and I made her look like a Match.com photo. We actually made her look tastefully superb and BAM, she HATED my shot. I actually carry the before and after shot on my phone as an example of a client with NO CLUE and who just hates herself. I was so thrown by this considering how sick and bizarre she looked from the previous photographer before me, that I called one of the very big names in the biz and asked him what he does in this situation. He told me even he still meets clients like this. "A CEO absolutely hated my shots just a couple of months ago", he told me on the phone. When I asked what did he do about it, he told me he said "Were going to have to agree to disagree, here Is my bill." He explained that this isn't as cold as you'd first believe. The shots were terrific, he could tell this guy would hate anything, that this guy didn't want a reshoot and he knew this guy would never hire him again. So he just made sure the bill was delivered.

Here's another example. When we shoot an industrial video for a high end client's website we work hard to tell a story, make them look amazing and edit it to about a minute or two, tops. Client complained it's too short and we need to make it 15 minutes long to show their very basic non-complicated product. You have to then explain to them that with short attention spans today people will not sit through a 15 minute video when two minutes is over explaining it already. I always tell them that they are far more familiar and in love with their own product then the viewer is. Usually that makes sense to them and fortunately I have smart client. But others are not-sophisticated buyers and it is their money. For those who don't agree and demand an overly long drawn out video, I pass on the job.

Arun Hegden's picture

"With my experience I came to a conclusion that I have to pay more attention to my intuition before taking any job, even if it is a really well paid one."
Me too..:)

Lee Christiansen's picture

Yep... clients... Wish we could shoot without them sometimes.

I've just had a (successful) shoot with a client who made me nervous beforehand. He'd shown me portraits done recently by 4 other photographers who hadn't made him look like he looks. "that's not me, that's not me..." he said.

To be honest, these were all great portraits. Beautifully lit, natural poses - and yes, they looked very much like the client. Very good likenesses and I'd have been happy to put my name to any of them.

Like a crazy person I took on the job. Our first set of shots are just quick lighting tests and then on to the shoot proper. I find shooting tethered in the studio helps a lot. It offers interaction and helps with trust. True enough the first response was that "they don't look like me." (Of course they did, it just a camera and a lens, I'm not performing magic tricks here).

It became very apparent that reality and self perception can be the trigger with how people react to shots. This was a lovely person and they just needed to feel comfortable with how they were being perceived.

It's not the lighting. It's not the pose. It's not even the face shape. It's often in the eyes. This is where I concentrate.

People look at themselves in the mirror with different eyes than when they look at a lens. It is a tiny difference, but that's all it takes. Get them to love their eyes and they'll love the picture.

And it's all about the detail. I aim for 3 great portraits in a 2 hr session. If I get more then I'm working with a model or I am blessed. We'll have lots of of other good images of course, but I'm aiming for 3 that make us go wow. Little changes, lots of reviews, lots of tea... We take our time.

And build a rapport with the client. I had this one laughing so much because he couldn't open his eyes too much, (which of course made it worse...) If they trust you, they'll trust you when you say you have a great image.

A lovely client and great portraits. "These look like me," he said.

That said, I've had clients tell me I make them look miserable when they've refused to smile or even look friendly. ("I don't smile" said one grim person who pronounced that I'd make her look miserable).

Or one who said it was the worst portrait she'd ever had, when everyone she worked with were almost falling over themselves - gushing over the image, (which hangs in my house and sits in my portfolio as a testament to great pose/lighting/retouching).

And there was the top management lady who arrived like she'd been dragged through a hedge backwards, (nope, no budget for hair and makeup on this corporate shoot), and didn't like how she looked.

The one who arrived with a hangover and I'd made her look "tired"

Or the one who said she didn't like the images - BEFORE she'd looked at them.

I think it's usually a line of defence. It's not them looking bad - it's our fault for making them look bad, even when we've made them look sooo much better.

Heck. Photographers have feelings too... We should get a little love back from our clients.

Thom Spierenburg's picture

Your images are stunning.
But if I may ask: Why don't you agree on a downpayment? Since you are one of the most asked photographer at your location, you most certainly are entitled to at least half of the price upfront. Look at all the preparations you put in your shoots beforehand!

Goodluck!

Emma Grigoryan's picture

thanks, that's a very pleasing feedback to read. I don't advocate working for free ;) The wedding template was ages ago and I charged half the amount we wanted for the full work, and that covered all the expenses we had to do of course. That was a lesson learned. I charged full amount from the model, and as I mentioned I declined the request of the refund. Usually with new clients I would charge at least half the amount on the shooting day. The old clients are fine to pay when they find it convenient, as we have a big trust relationships, they don't even look at the pictures while I am shooting. So yes, free is not an option.

Thom Spierenburg's picture

Indeed you wrote that, I might have been a bit hasty with my comment :-). Still many thanks for your reply. Sometimes I wonder if clients even understand what they are buying when they hire a photographer for a specific project. Too bad stories like yours and other stories confirm this. Only thing we can do is keep on shooting, working and inform our clients over and over again. ;)

Emma Grigoryan's picture

I found it helpful to walk them through the whole process before we have even agreed to work together. This way they know my workflow and know they got to pay in any case. It also makes them understand the process and our efforts step by step.

Jonathan Dade's picture

Great article Emma. Thank you.
In my experience most people don't understand photography and need help. So, I explain, among many other things, the sorts of things they might feel through the shoot and when they see the final images. In doing so I overcome their objections before they even become objections. Using images to explain my points helps too.
Also, I never release images to the client until I have received full payment.
I do, very rarely, work for free; charity and great clients. For example if a great client needs a couple of headshots for a promotion, and, this is not the sort of work I do for them normally, then I will not charge. This is a good way to show you appreciate their business and encourages their loyalty.

Emma Grigoryan's picture

Jonathan, thanks for the valuable feedback. I agree with you, although even detailed explanation of the workflow and all won't always help, but this scenario works most of the time. I will consider your last suggestion.