Clients from hell (or, some light partial humor)

I think a lot of working pros will be able to relate to this list, see the satire in it, and then commiserate with me that I was only partially joking…

Without further ado, in no particular order:

– Those who ask for endless retouching revisions, all of which creep increasingly outside scope – masking out figures to place from a location shot to garnish a text page in a brochure

– Those who haggle price with you til the last cent, then pay late (big companies are notorious for this; it’s as though there’s an internal KPI for creditor days – the higher the better)

– Those who haggle price with you til the last cent, and don’t pay at all

– Those who haggle price with you til the last cent, agree, then question every item on the bill again at payment date whilst of course contesting half of them

– Those who after agreeing price and scope, sneak something in under the pretense of ‘oh, can you also help me out with something small?’ (which is of course neither small nor easy)

– Those who pay for a fixed number of shots but ask for all of the raw files or expect at least 50% more final delivery shots, knowing you’ll produce far more than agreed to ensure the scope is completely met

– Those who ask for uncompressed maximum resolution 16bit CMYK TIFF files, then complain they can’t open them because their computers have ‘insufficient system resources’

– Those who don’t actually pay your work more than a cursory glance before finding one shot they didn’t like in the 200 you delivered, then demanding a discount even though they loved everything else

– Those who specifically look for one image they don’t like, so they can complain to you non-stop about it afterwards so they can get a discount

– Those who think their problems with other unrelated contractors are your fault, and either use that as an excuse as to why they can’t pay, or why they expect more from you

– Those who ask for your style, then hand you a book/ magazine/ menu and say ‘copy this’

– Those who approve every single shot on the camera review screen, then complain that you didn’t give them what they asked for afterwards

– Those who don’t supply any of the agreed props or items

– Those who supply you with objects or food to be photographed that are obviously unpresentable – they may be scratched, dented, cracked, partially eaten, or generally used

– Those who complain that your make the food look overcooked, when in fact that was the way it came out of the kitchen – identifiable by the fact that only the roast looks too dark, but every other object on the plate looks fine

– Those who don’t supply any of the agreed equipment/ props/ garnishes/ sauces/ spare parts

– Those who aren’t on time, and worse still, don’t tell you that they’re running late

– Those who want fully processed and retouched images the day after the shoot

– Those who expect you to reschedule all of your other shoots to accommodate them

– Those who leave all decisions to their creative agency, whose vision is substantially different to their own…you can imagine what happens after that

I’ve just realized that this list isn’t that funny after all, I’ve had some clients who qualify for almost every single item…MT


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  1. Guy Pyetan says:

    Every business in every industry has these problems. IT, the rag trade, you name it.

    Basically people want
    A Rolls Royce service
    Their minds read
    They don’t want to pay for it.

    Or to use the more normal phrase or the one I use when faced with a difficult client.
    I offer the following services:

    Fast, Cheap, Good.

    If you want it fast and cheap it wont be good..
    Fast and good it wont be cheap.
    and good and cheap it wont be fast.

    If anyone tells you they can achieve all three then I wish you the best of luck because in my experience it never happens and I usually end up picking up the pieces of jobs that went horribly wrong because some idiot thought that just this once things would be different only at that point I can charge a lot more because I’m fixing problems in an emergency!!!

    Anybody who can’t grasp the truism and thinking behind this philosophy I wont do business with because they’re clearly too stupid to own/use a computer or to be in business and seemingly they still believe in father XMAS which is touching but sad.

    Sadly these three things hold for any industry and any service.

  2. John Joyce says:

    International market rates? A point to consider is the variation tolerated. In nature, as I am sure you know, a standard deviation tends to be in the order of 30 per cent of the mean. An independent professional can achieve that, i.e. one s.d above the mean. The challenge in getting it is to able to point to the effectiveness of your product. Do ads with your photos sell more watches? Hard to know; but senior executives may make unguarded comments. Always stick around for drinks.

    The duds? Don’t laugh. I was thinking more of a Hermes or Armani (black label) jacket, consistent with the creative image!

    Incompetent people always get more traffic, and business for that matter. In a remarkably short time, however, you are getting mentioned in very respectable and established circles on the web.

    • I’m still relatively new to this business, so I don’t think it’d be right to go in with all guns blazing. Give me a season or two – I’m definitely aiming to be at the top of my game, so if I make it, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be charging appropriately. And that’ll give me enough money to pass the Hermes store entrance…maybe.

      As with everything, partnerships with the right people help – so I have to thank Leica, Nikon, Olympus and our local Carl Zeiss distributor for that.

  3. John Joyce says:

    As others have remarked, yours is the consultant’s dilemma.

    It is worth reflecting on the psychology. I would argue that it essentially based on envy: you can do something the client cannot; but he is reluctant to accept this. And being petty and tight-fisted is an effective way of displaying his anger.

    One response to this is to appear more authoritative. They may say they don’t care about the cameral you use, but they do. I suspect this is one (unspoken) reason some pros use a technical camera or a Hasselblad.

    It is also clear that you are not charging enough: the higher the price, the more the respect (mostly). Cultivate a more studied elitism, and become less friendly. Have a list of competitors you offer very readily to prospects who question your charges and practices (like getting at least 50 per cent up front).

    Facilitate projection. You want the client to see himself in you. So speak less. Grey and black are colours that facilitate projection. It is no accident that Catholic and Orthodox clergy wear black. And of course there is the simple black robe of the Taoist priest. Dress more expensively.

    Now look at the bright side. Already you have achieved something quite remarkable, a presence on the web that others would give their right hand for. Your marketing is superb. So charge for it, through your fees.

    You can write. In fact you write very unusually well. Few can, as you must know. So when thinking about other irons in the fire, don’t forget that one. I suspect your talents there are far from narrow.

    • I think your second paragraph encapsulates it neatly. But fortunately not all clients are like this; I find the ones who are creatives in their own right – the watchmakers, architects and Michelin chefs for instance – tend to have more respect for a fellow creative especially if you’re doing something in a field that isn’t their own. It’s mutual, I suppose.

      I charge at international market levels to the international clients, and nobody complains (or acts like an a**). It’s only the local clients – whom I suppose are far less educated/ experienced in engaging photographers – that tend to raise all sorts of silly issues. And my pricing is actually high enough that most of my work comes from overseas, which is fine by me. As for the technical camera…I’m looking into a Horseman LD, but that’s for better focal plane control; large formats do not work well for high magnification.

      Fees would have to go up to pay for the new duds, no? Time to go see my tailor for another three-piece, then.

      Not sure the site is anything remarkable, but thanks for the compliment; I see far more incompetent people getting more traffic (rather inexplicably) – and seeing their poorly-written and often factually incorrect words taken as gospel is one thing that drives me nuts. Ah well, c’est la vie. Thanks for the thoughts, John!

  4. Shoibal Datta says:

    Interesting read from the perspective of someone who doesn’t make a living off his photography. The one constant I see here is that this tends to be a one-person shop, likely because resources are limiting to accomodate more overhead in terms of staff. That being said, this is in no way different than the consulting business, but in that business the work is no longer done on only a handshake. There is a contract or “Statement of Work” which can take care of practically the entire list. Team yourself with a good accountant and lawyer and you will not deal with this (you might have fewer clients, too!). It seems to me that the business model needs to evolve to this to survive and in the interim Vlad’s suggestion is a good compromise.

    The alternative is not pretty and is pure market economics. There are far too many suppliers (I am not debating their capabilities). This can only drive prices lower through competition. If you feel that the above model will never work, then there is likely no viable commercial enterprise here except for those who can stand above the marketplace and command their prices despite the competition.

    Art (and the overwhelming majority of pros consider themselves artists first) has very rarely been a lucrative business for millennia. If you are really good and really unlucky, your fame and lucre come to you after you have departed this earth. Why is this time different?

    • It used to be more than a one-man shop for most people, but these days shrinking budgets have forced people to go lean, and often do many other things besides photography.

      Yes, there’s a contract, much like consulting (I worked for the Boston Consulting Group for a number of years) and again, much like consulting, the clients treat you like crap and expect the moon, yesterday. The only difference is that you do have some tangible output as a photographer!

      The only viable way I can see to make this business work is a) pick a niche or two and strive to be the best at what you do; b) seek clients who can tell the difference; c) don’t compromise. And for the leaner times, have other irons in the fire.

      Appreciation of artists is market demand, too – once the supply is limited (or gone, when the artist is dead) then of course the price must increase…

  5. Sounds like just about any client I’ve ever had, and I’m not a professional photographer.

  6. I mean crash happy with the Eye-Fi.

  7. Well sometimes its hard to tell from the back of the camera screen what the images would look like on a real life monitor. This is where an Eye-Fi with iPad is extremely handy. Just wish my OM-D wasn’t so crash happy with the OM-D.

    • Ah, I didn’t realize it worked with the iPad – that’s an interesting solution. Too bad we can’t get the Eye-Fi cards in Malaysia, something about not being locally certified by our FCC equivalent…

  8. Ming, THANK YOU for making this post. I was beginning to think it was just me! You must be looking inside my mind at the moment. A couple not the list – clients who give heavy demands on their deadline with no adjustment of the budget (I don’t do this one anymore), which you accommodate, practically not sleeping for days but then the files aren’t downloaded from the ftp for 3 weeks. Also, idea theft seems to becoming worse and worse too. You turn up to a meeting, give your ideas which they love, you quote and then they don’t want to pay that much and get someone else to do the job cheaper and still use your idea verbatim. Then there are those who openly, blatantly tell the world and media that your ideas and hard work were theirs and take all the credit.

    I seem to be surrounded by clients who live on another planet and think they are the only one living thing on (or visiting) this one. These people actually think that if they hire you they own you. I’m so so so tired of these people and I stand up to them now, I’ve had enough. I don’t need it in my life.

    There is a general group of people – These people want the very best work on limited budget and have incredibly unrealistic demands on time and resource. They want endless free retouching of the craziest and most ridiculous things – two examples – it was raining for 3 day shoot, you need to retouch 30 pics sunny – I want it for free and I want it tomorrow. OR…believe it or not… We shot with a set but I’ve changed my mind can you retouch the set build out? These people also regularly are the types of people who want the images finished tomorrow, they want discounts and they always pay late, they expect you to be available 24/7 and don’t think you should have any other jobs on at the time and lastly these people almost always don’t like you to tell them it’s not possible. These are the people I am no longer available for. I’ve learned to sniff them out but unfortunately the numbers are very high!

    I always give 200% of my self, I work 120 hour weeks and I treat my clients as if they are friends. I’m done with the rude, arrogant, selfish clients who just take take take. The ones who treat me like a human being continue to get looked after very well.

    Every job I have now I tie down the budget, the deadline (I often have to adjust this to make it even remotely realistic) I don’t give ideas in full unless I’ve worked with the person and trust them. What ideas I do give out I make it very clear to them if that if they do not book me they can not use my idea what so ever or they will face a full pre production fee.

    It’s a jungle out there!

    • Fishnose says:

      … and your list is just as scary!!

    • I’m wondering if the reason clients like this exist is because we as creatives allow them to – if we collectively said no, would it still happen? Could we still get enough work to pay the bills? When I look at the accounting, they don’t seem to represent that much of my client base, fortunately.

      Can’t agree more with the 200% paragraph. I have great relationships with some of my clients, others frankly I don’t want to see again…

      We can bill for ideas, but the bills never get paid. Sigh.

      • Yes you are right, it happens because we allow it to. I somehow attract these people too. Either way I’ve taken a stand so we’ll see how it goes. I intend to bury my head in my work, make it the very best I can, shoot and push my personal work and continue to build. It’s really very important to push the personal work more than anything and make time for it. Something Ive not done in a year for being too busy. Advance. Just advance, advance, advance and move on quickly when I get clients from hell.

        Makes it much easier to work by your own rules, not the clients, when your work is strong. So work hard and sit tight.

        • Good advice. The tough part is sticking to it when you need to make up the numbers for the month…the temptation to give in to small budgets is too strong sometimes.

      • Just one more thing I wanted to add. When I get a call for a job now one the first things I ask, doing so without being rude – what is the budget? What is the deadline? It sorts a lot of problems out right there and then. If either aren’t worth it then I’m not available.

      • Yes. it is tough. I know that feeling and those are tricky decisions but I can’t go on like this or I will go mad, go to an early grave or worse lose my artistic motivations and dreams because these people suck the life out of you. I really believe that if you stay true to the dream then the dream will stay true to you. If you accept these things then you are only inviting more of it into your life. You have to believe in yourself and your work and step on up.

  9. Fishnose says:

    Oh man, that’s one SCARY list……

  10. Hi Ming, Don’t feel too bad, I work for a mining consultancy and what you describe is par for the course. Occasionally we get a client who is reasonable but what you describe is easily 80% of what we see. Interestingly I don’t see too much of a cultural bias in this, business is international it seems:)

    I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for presenting this wonderful site. It is greatly appreciated. Your energy is remarkable and your images beautiful. You must love what you do and it shows, keep doing it.

    • Thanks for your support, Bob! Unfortunately love takes you only so far (and doesn’t pay the bills) which is why I still do commercial work…hence the list.

  11. If only pro photogs would adopt the “prostitution” business model. Hand the client a bill the minute they signed the contract. Get to work AFTER you get payed. Photogs are being treated accordingly why souldn`t they charge the same way?

    Now … that`s just utter utopia, but think about it! Just might work. (for pros that respect themselves, that is)

    Unfortunately the market is so saturated with newcomers that it`s actually hard to give the boot to ALL the annoying clients so most of those who want to make a buck, learn to work around the problems mentioned by you.

    My advice to all the people that start freelancing: hire yourself a person that talks about money with the client. It worked wonders for me. If the client has something to say about outrageous pricing, just tell him “dude, I don`t make the rules … talk to my secretary / agent / “insert occupation here”. Then if they want more stuff done tell them to check with your planner and schedule something for a later date. It won`t be always easy but at least you keep your dignity intact. You can refuse everyone and still not carry the blame. The client / customer won`t ever be offended by this because … you don`t make the rules.

    And one can always fish for some good graces by saying “I`ll talk to my planner, there`s a chance I can squeeze this “small” thing in my schedule for tomorrow, no charge. I`ll keep you posted.”

  12. The first ten or so items describe the predatory nature that characterizes so many (not all, just many . . .) of the wealthy, who live only to take, and by their actions leave the world worse off than if they had not lived. I am sorry to read that you have encountered so many of them.

  13. Have you noticed in your travels for these items to be universal or are some cultures more prone to some but not others?

    • Prevalence is usually proportional to client savvy and education. Let’s just say there’s a reason why most of my commercial clients are international…


  1. […] to have that opportunity happen at least half a dozen times. Aside from the (mostly) fictional clients from hell, a lot of assignment work is mostly routine and repetitive. You might be shooting hundreds of […]

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