Some weeks back, I had a little Monty Python moment – specifically bringing to mind the sketch mentioning “shrubbery”. A potential client called:
“Hello, is this Ming Thein, the photographer?”
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“How much do you charge for…a photography?”
“Sorry, but you’ll have to be a bit more specific before I can quote you – different types of photography require different amounts of work, so the cost will vary. What type of images do you need exactly?”
This last line was said in a semi-whispered voice, as though commercial photography is a dirty word. Needless to say, I did not get any more details than that; on pressing them they said they would email me.
Clients like this worry me, not because they don’t know what they want, but because their expectations are probably so different from reality that you will never be able to satisfy them. Past experience makes my alarm bells trigger. It’s not because I’m not confident of doing the job; the problem is that in not having dealt with professional photographers before and being influenced solely by popular preconceptions, such clients typically expect the impossible for next to nothing, and that photoshop fixes all flaws. Typically, what happens is neither photographer nor client gets what they want out of the engagement and both parties go away harbouring a little unhealthy resentment.
I normally write for the photographers; this time, I’m aiming the article specifically at those of you who might need to engage professional photographers (or creatives of any discipline, for that matter) in future. I’m writing for the photographers and the creatives: we want to do the best job possible for you – we would probably be doing something more lucrative if that wasn’t the case – but in order to do that, the working relationship has to take the form of a partnership, not a hired gun. There are some things that we are responsible for, some things that you are responsible for, and some things that fall into a grey area which should be discussed and agreed upon.
Communication is key.
Neither party can read minds, and there’s often a lot at stake, so it’s important that there’s as little ambiguity as possible. Photography is a different, visual language: if something doesn’t look right to you, jump in; we may not always be experts in the subject matter we’re photographing, so if the model is holding a specialised tool upside down, please say so as soon as you notice. Ensure all critical decisions – deliverables, schedule, price – are documented and signed off on. This is important for both parties to protect their interests later on. Like every partnership, both sides want to ensure a good outcome – in this case, images that represent your brand and the quality of our work.
Have some idea of the kind of images you need, or at least what you want to use them for.
Examples always help! And whilst our egos might bruise slightly at being told to shoot in the style of another photographer, at least it gives us a starting point to make suggestions from. However, if you can’t find examples of what you need, having a clear end goal is usually sufficient for us to recommend something from – after all, creativity and visualisation are core skills for every photographer. The kind of photographer that really adds value is not the person who can execute perfect copies; it’s the person who can understand what you’re trying to communicate and translate that into an image.
Be clear on the nitty gritty.
By this, I mean deliverables (Number of images? Resolution? Level of retouching?), deadlines and budgets. If we can’t fill any of those, it’s our responsibility to say so, as soon as it’s clear that’s the case. Sound familiar? Communication again.
Talk budget up front.
This might sound mercenary, but it’s important that we clear up financial matters before getting to work. The simple reason for this is that if we don’t know what budgets we’re working with, we don’t know what we can do and what we can’t; the photographer should provide a clear breakdown of fees and expenses, and it’s up to the client to approve or amend as required. Just remember, we work towards the same common goal: production of the images you need and that we are professionally happy with. However – in order for us to provide you with an accurate quote, you need to be as precise as possible in your requirements; we accept that it might not be possible to provide an accurate estimate until after a discussion or two. “One image of a watch” can incur vastly different fees depending on whether it’s a straight low-resolution catalog shot in a studio, or a heavily styled image of a supermodel parachuting out of a helicopter onto a yacht whilst simultaneously drinking champagne. Any photographer who quotes you a blind rate without asking what you need first should be treated with caution: if they quote blindly with no idea of what’s required, how can you be confident they can deliver the output you require?
You don’t need to have the answers to everything, but please listen to what we have to say.
The reason why people hire photographers is precisely because they do not have the in-house expertise to produce the images they need themselves. There’s nothing wrong with not being sure if you want your products shot on white or black backgrounds; but please understand that if you ask for both, it isn’t a simple photoshop job to change them over: the different backgrounds reflect light differently and thus will require the appropriate alterations to setup. Don’t be surprised when we say this will incur extra costs, because it requires considerably more work. We are here to help you make creative decisions and recommend the right visual choices if you don’t know the answer to what you need; however, please trust our expertise in this. This is what we do for a living, and in the interests of long term working relationships and professional ethics, we’re honest about it – if it’s going to cost more, you’re fully in your rights to ask why – and we’ll tell you.
On creative matters, there are no right or wrong answers
Artistic choices are subjective and therefore down to the preferences of the entity or individual engaging us. We are here to help guide you through the process, in conjunction with whichever other creative parties you might be working with. The more information you can give us, the easier it is for us to tailor the images to what you need. However, on matters of technical execution – we request that you respect our judgement here, because this is our domain of expertise, and there are right and wrong ways to do it – and they do affect the outcome.
Please do not give us conflicting instructions.
I had a client once who hired me because she liked the images in my portfolio and wanted her product shot in a similar style. Then her creative director complained after the first couple of images that things looked good, but “there’s not enough room to crop!”. I explained to both of them that the framing is very much part of how the final image looks, but the CD was insistent that I should “leave extra room around the outside”. I could not convince them that framing differently – either by leaving extra space, or by the CD doing the cropping (and by extension, framing) herself would affect the way the image looked. I apologised, returned their deposit and packed up. If you ask for something we cannot physically deliver, and still don’t want to believe us when we explain why, then I’m afraid we cannot help you. It is in the interests of both parties to discontinue the relationship and part ways professionally. Allowing unfinished or questionable quality work into the public domain affects our reputation, too.
Be realistic about expectations.
There are some things which are simply impossible to do without the physical object (not everything can be ‘fixed in photoshop’) or budget – we encourage you to speak to many photographers to get an idea of what can realistically be achieved with the given limitations of budget and resources, and the working process. If what you need is impossible, we will tell you.
As usual, I think a lot of the issues can be boiled down to education. Photographers are just as responsible for educating their clients on the creative process as the clients are for educating the photographers on their business – the more we understand, the better the images we can produce. The most important thing a client needs to have is either some idea of what they want – or at very least, what they want to use the images for. It is our responsibility as creatives to help you through that process; it’s fine if you don’t know exactly what you need – in fact, probably better – so we can suggest something that allows us to fulfil your requirements as well as bring in our own individual style to give you a unique product. After all, that’s why you hired us, right? MT
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
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