I worked hard when I first started in photography to become competent both behind the camera and when interfacing with clients, but a subtle error I was making worked against me for a long time until I realized how to fix it. Here is why learning how to think more like a client can improve your work.
When It First Started
It started back when I did a portrait shoot early in my career. The shoot went very well: the client was kind and we worked well together, and he was quite satisfied when we finished the session. I loaded the shots on my computer and began my normal post-shoot process. This meant culling the photos, then loading them into a web collection, giving the client the password, and letting them make their selections.
The client emailed me a bit upset because he felt like all of his favorite shots he had seen on the back of my camera were missing from the collection I sent him. Luckily, I still had all of the files, so I put them back in the web collection, he selected them, I edited them, and all was good. The reason I had not put some of those images in the collection was because they were slightly out of focus. He had wanted the very shallow depth of field look, and so, a fair proportion of the shots were the type where the tip of the eyelash was in focus instead of the iris. They were not badly out of focus, but definitely enough for someone with a photographic eye to notice. With a little extra Photoshop work and down-sizing to 2,000 pixels on the long side, I was able to reduce the focus issues enough to produce reasonable results — certainly reasonable enough for my client. He was quite happy, gave me a great review, and brought me lots of referral clients. It was a very valuable lesson for me.
What We Look For
So, what was the lesson? It was that what a photographer looks for in a photo is often vastly different from what a client looks for, and it is important for a photographer to be aware of the difference. We photographers are very technically and creatively oriented. To us, a keeper image consists of lots of things. First, it is in focus — critically in focus. Its composition is sound. There are not any extraneous elements in the frame. The pose and expression are spot-on.
We tend to look at photos with a very objective eye based on various rules and preferences we have that dictate an image's quality and how compelling it is. And for our purposes, that helps to keep our portfolios of a high quality and consistency. However, the people who give us money, our clients, often have different preferences.
What the Client Looks For
On the other hand, what a client looks for is often different. Going back to that client I was talking about earlier, he loved the photos in a series where he had his biggest smile. I personally thought the smile was a bit too much because it pushed his eyes shut on top of it being a little out of focus. However, this particular client was a stage performer known for his effervescent on-stage presence. Of course he wanted the photos with the biggest smile. I am not saying that he had bad taste. I am saying that I failed to understand him as a client.
Clients often look a photos more from a standpoint of emotional connection, especially in genres that involve people — portraits, family photos, weddings, etc. An obvious example is a wedding photo that shows an emotional moment between the family. Their personal connection to that memory is going to far outweigh the image being slightly out of focus or a messy composition. Even as a photographer, if I scroll through my favorites album on my phone, it is all random snapshots of my family, dogs, and horse. I do not care about their technical quality, only my connection to them and how it evokes those memories.
You can see this even in genres that do not deal with people. I have talked before about how photographing your local area can set you apart in that your photos may not be of epic locations, but will have a deeper connection with local clients. Successful salespeople will tell you that a lot of their success can be attributed to understanding what a buyer wants. The best headshot photographers will tell you that their job is 10% photography and 90% psychology, as they know how to get photos that people feel are the best and most honest representations of themselves.
Look for Both
I am not advising you to abandon everything you have learned about what makes a good photo. Of course, you should not do that. Your technical skills and creative vision are probably why your clients hire you in the first place. But that does not mean there is not also room for their specific wishes and preferences.
This is why a lot of the best photographers spend a lot of time getting to know their clients before a shoot. While that sort of conversation can help build a rapport that makes the client(s) more comfortable in front of the camera, it also serves to help the photographer understand who they are and what they are looking for, then to tailor the experience and their creative choices to best suit that. This applies to both your work behind the camera and the shots you present for selection after the shoot.
Of course, I am not saying to put horrendously out-of-focus photos or images with other major issues in the selection pool for your client. But when you are making your selections to show the client, try to think not only as a photographer selecting images based on technical merit and creative quality, but also as the person who often has an emotional connection to them and who will likely see past (or perhaps not even notice) smaller errors.