So this is an article I have wanted to write for a while, as it would be a good resource to have on my website for a minority of assignment requests I receive from time to time. The subject matter is also something aspiring photographers should take to heart. I wish I had come across a similar text early in my own career. Anyway, here we go: How clients can kill their own commercial photoshoot, and how to help them not to.
First of all, the process of becoming a professional fashion and/or advertising photographer is done in different stages. In the beginning you are transitioning into getting paid at all, most often by private clients. In my experience these clients are often humble and flexible, and they will take your advice. Undertaking a photoshoot is a rare occasion for them, and it is exciting. Shooting for them is a very low pressure situation most of the time. The reason they come to you is because they don’t have a lot of experience, or a big budget.
After getting paid to shoot, you transition into shooting for commercial clients. In stead of shooting “portraits”, (the people in front of you) you slowly re-calibrate your way of seeing into shooting products and making that look good (in those cases an advertising shoot is not done in a group or single portrait style). You need to connect with model agencies, create a team around you with makeup artists, stylists, et cetera. In the beginning of this stage, you will meet a variety of different clients with varying degrees of experience and expectations. Odds are, the more established, accomplished and experienced you are yourself, the more professional and experienced your clients will be as well. They can afford you, and they understand the difference. At this latter stage, you will also turn down clients from time to time.
Before you arrive at the last stage, where you are confident enough and willing to turn down commercial work from clients, unless certain terms are met, there is a period where you are vulnerable to setting both yourself and your client up for disaster.
It usually starts with the negotiations with an inexperienced commercial client before the shoot. The goal for the client seems to be to put as many looks/changes/products into the production time as possible. Perhaps a price has already has been agreed upon, and then the client starts to inflate the scope in various ways thereafter. It is not an uncommon strategy for an inexperienced client to downplay the expectations of a shoot before the price is set, and then shift gear and start inflating, moving the boundaries gradually thereafter. An inexperienced photographer will often cave in, scared to make the client unhappy.
The inexperienced client can also engage in another negotiating strategy, namely avoiding clarity on deliverables to push the photographer on extra service: “Ah, I thought editing was included in the price”. Again, an inexperienced photographer will allow this to happen, so it is not entirely the clients fault. It just destroys the good relationship you are trying to build with your client.
Sometimes the inexperienced client will openly want to put too much work into the time available from the beginning. They know the price they want to pay, and they know how much they want to shoot, even before talking to the photographer. If the client can get the photographer shoot 30 garments in a day on location in stead of 15, for the same price, the client thinks this is a “win”. The client will even offer production advice and solutions to the photographer, as to how the work load can be met in the very limited time. Perhaps it even sounds doable from a purely theoretical standpoint. The inexperienced photographer will perhaps even get convinced by the client and agree to the terms, or simply cave in in fear of losing the client. In such cases, it is the photographers responsibility to protect the client from him or her self. But it can be very difficult, and take more guts than you have.
The difference between an inexperienced client, and an experienced client, is that the former does not understand the difference between negotiating and buying iPads and a campaign photoshoot. The inexperienced client thinks: “I just negotiated 30 iPads in stead of 15 iPads for the same price”. Believing that a photoshoot is a standardized object, that the product quality will remain static, it’s just a question of getting the price down. Both inexperienced and experienced photographers knows that the quality of the images will be vastly affected by the time and resource restrictions that is being put on a given production. If a client wants to shoot 30 looks on location, in a day, he or she might think that they will get campaign quality images, but the truth is it will be more like a catalogue shoot. In some cases the clients will even fly to a different country with their garments, hire a professional photographer that can give them something amazing, but then sabotage it because they insist on shooting their whole clothing line in a day, for example, or to save a thousand dollars. The production becomes too greedy, and get’s killed.
The fact is that the extra special quality that a professional photographer can deliver, is extremely vulnerable, and the first thing that goes down the toilet when you don’t allow for sufficient time and resources to be put into the production. The inexperienced client is actually better off buying a camera and shooting themselves at home. What is the point?
The experienced client knows this, and will engage in a dialogue with a professional photographer and listen to what is being said, what is needed, and how the client can achieve the kind of images he or she wants, or how the photographer can deliver the type of images the client has seen on the photographers portfolio. The experienced client knows that the photographer is mainly concerned with creating something amazing and beautiful to be proud of. Not screwing the client over by over charging.
If an inexperienced photographer encounters an inexperienced client, that perhaps comes from a haggling culture as well, the stage is truly set for a shitty production that will make both the client and photographer unhappy. The client will not remember how little was paid, only the bad quality of the photos in the end (The iPads does not work!). The photographer get’s underpaid for something not even suitable for Instagram.
It is not fair to criticize clients for being inexperienced. It is not their job to know the difference between buying a iPad and buying a campaign photoshoot. It is difficult to understand everything that goes in to making images that looks like the ones on billboards and magazines. Unfortunately they will always find photographers that will agree to unrealistic terms, because these are not confident enough to educate and override the client, or turn them down. Some photographers will accept anything because they don’t get enough work, and need the business.
In short, an experienced client is able to balance their own financial pressures with their quality needs, and they understand the difference between buying a campaign shoot and a shipment of iPads. Less is more. Handle the photographer with care, or you risk forcing him to lie to you. Or maybe you are just fooling yourself.
An experienced photographer is confident enough to guide and educate an inexperienced client so that he or she may have realistic expectations, and if this is not possible, have the guts to turn them down. Accepting all kinds of work will only take you so far. To go beyond that, you need to be ready to turn down work, even if you could use the money. At least, this is what I think. Have a great day!