I've been shooting professionally for just over four years now – “professional” as in starting a legitimate business where I charge money to take photographs of my clients. We could wax poetic on the distinctions between “amateur” and “professional” that don’t involve the exchange of money, but the area that I want to focus on has to do with the responsibilities and perceptions that come along with people hiring you as a business. Whether it’s a case of total incompetence or something as little as a slip of the tongue, there are going to be times when you completely fail in front of your client.
Seriously. You’re going to mess up at some point no matter how proactive you are – it’s inevitable. So with that in mind, I checked my ego for a moment and decided to share with you a handful of embarrassing times that I’ve personally screwed up to help you learn from and avoid the mistakes that I made early on, but eventually survived and learned a lot from.
(Deep breath, deep breath...)
Okay, here we go!
I Wasn't Prepared
I’m starting easy with this particular example. It’s a situation most of us have already experienced: you totally forgot to charge batteries the night before; you only brought one memory card with you to a shoot four hours away from home; your softbox is in your friend’s trunk from the last impromptu model shoot you did at the local abandoned factory. Preparation isn’t just related to gear, though. I once arrived at a twelve-hour wedding shoot having had nothing but eight ounces of an Austrian energy drink in my system. It might not seem like a big deal, but it was a completely stupid and irresponsible move on my part. I ended up crashing very hard from what was once an amazing sugar and caffeine high right around the ceremony time. I had to actually send my assistant out to get me fast food before I completely fainted and ruined my client’s wedding day. Something as simple as a good meal before a long day is an essential part of the preparation process along with the obvious gear-check that you should make before each and every shoot.
I Completely Forgot About a Client Meeting
Right along the same idea of preparation is organization. They both essentially go hand in hand. When you start out a small business on your own, you play the role of many other job titles – from accountant, to tax specialist, and from secretary to marketing guru, the percentage of time actually spent taking photos becomes very small. If you don’t have a solid system of organizing all the tasks ahead of you, you just might just find yourself in the middle of finally sitting down to watch some TV with your significant other when you’re supposed to be meeting with a client to sign a contract to finalize their wedding. That’s where I once found myself. I profusely apologized after receiving a voice-mail message from a client telling me they waited over two hours for me to show up to our meeting, but the damage was far beyond repair. If I couldn't make it to a simple meeting where I was about to be paid thousands of dollars as incentive, why should my clients trust me to make it to their wedding? They shouldn't, they didn't, and I lost more than money that day. I lost business from every single person they shared their story with in a butterfly effect chain reaction.
Also the movie I ended up watching wasn't so great either – though, to be fair, nobody enjoyed the Arthur remake. Nobody.
I Inserted Both Feet Into My Big, Dumb Mouth
Long story short, I asked grandma to come over for family portraits and stand next to her granddaughter. Turns out, grandma wasn’t grandma. Grandma was mom. Mom – as in mother of the bride! That wasn't the worst thing in the world and we got past it… for a little while, at least.
I Hired an Assistant Who Never Showed up… Until Way Too Late - Drunk
Don’t hire your college drinking buddies. Ever.
Not unless you want them to drop your expensive gear, and later inappropriately grind against the bride’s mom on the dance floor – the same bride’s mom that you already called “grandma” earlier in the day.
Yeah, that was not a banner day for Aaron Brown Photography.
I Chose Money Over my Gut Instinct
Starting out as an ultra-small photography business, you may take every job that comes your way – even the really crappy “you’ll get a lot of great exposure” non-paying jobs. It’s really not a terrible way to start out as you’ll be building experience and portfolio along with being exposed to all sorts of different types of photography. Along the way though, there will come a time that you figure out what you really enjoy taking photos of, and if it happens to include people in some way, like say weddings or portraits, you’ll also be figuring out the types of people you enjoy working with and perhaps becoming selective of the opportunities that come your way.
Everyone has different business goals. I eventually decided to try and work exclusively with good-natured people who had similar sensibilities in life as I do. You know, the easy-going kind of people who aren't offended by my potty mouth and who enjoy a nice cold beer once in a while – people I could later call my friends. Let's face it, they didn't make 10 seasons of Bridezillas for nothing - and that's what I was trying to avoid. Whether it was due to an eccentric “about me” section of my website, or because of word-of-mouth referrals from my past clients, I've been extremely fortunate that the majority of my weddings and portrait shoots over the years have been with amazing people. This might be a bit controversial to say, but money (even in business) really isn’t everything. I learned that the hard way when I decided the money was more important than the bad vibes my Spidey-Sense tingled my way during a couple of meetings. Those shoots were nothing short of uncomfortable resulting in images I resented as well as a barrage of inarticulate criticism from clients I should have just avoided in the first place. I failed myself on this one… twice!
(I also want to clarify that I don’t condone photographers discriminating against clients based on what they perceive are tenants of their religion – specifically the refusal to photograph a wedding because it was between a same-sex couple. That’s not what I’m saying here. Avoiding people who are basically just pain-in-the-ass clients is one thing. Passing off bigotry in a thin veil of “artistic integrity” is quite another, but I have digressed.)
I Booked Way More Than I Should Have Booked
How’s that Ace Hood song go? “Hustle, hustle, hustle hard! Closed mouths don’t get fed on this boulevard.” I kind of take back what I just said above in my previous point. You might be tenacious enough to book every job that comes along your way, and then some, but that’s not necessarily the best thing for you and your clients at the end of the day. Case in point, I booked way too many weddings two years ago – so many, in fact, that I was often triple booked with back-to-back-to-back weddings on the weekends. Let me tell you, my Friday weddings got a completely different photographer than my Sunday clients received.
That’s not to say I didn’t get the shots I needed to get on Sunday, but my clients sure didn’t get the super energetic, crazy-fun-loving guy that Friday's wedding couple saw. Saturday Aaron was a little winded but got back into the groove of things and made a pretty good night of it. Sunday Aaron did a lot of yawning, stretching, and looking at his watch throughout the day. That's totally not cool, so I stopped booking triple wedding weekends. I also significantly cut down on back-to-back weddings too. My clients all deserve the same level of professionalism, so I've decided to focus on taking fewer weddings to focus on quality rather than trying to cram my schedule full of them. This is partly due to selecting the sorts of clients I really enjoy being around and party because I'm just... old.
You know who else appreciates it? My friends and loved ones. I also no longer book holidays and I make sure to take at least one day off a week to do nothing business related. It may seem counter intuitive, but I have way less headaches and stress because I have less clients. Outsourcing all that extra work I mentioned up top is the next step in my master plan will surely help too, but that's a topic for another day.
These are just a selected few of the stupid moves I've made along the way. You're going to make your own, and that's okay so long as you learn from them and figure out a way not repeat the same mistakes over and over. I've heard horror stories from some of my friends - some of who aren't photographers anymore because of it - so I feel pretty lucky. Some of our very own Fstoppers Staff Writers even admitted their worst mistakes. It's part of the game, but as long as you try to avoid the big goofs and grow from the others, you'll be okay too.
The photos used in this article are actually NOT from a shoot I made any of these mistakes on. I just wanted to clear that up a bit. They're from one of my favorite portrait shoots with an amazing tattoo studio from which I built many lasting friendships. [adorable smile emoji goes here]