Dear Client: a little advice from your photographer

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?”
commercial photography.”
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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  1. Good article, Ming. I wrote a couple articles in a similar vein just this week on my modest blog concerning a couple recent experiences I’ve had in which a neighbor of mine has asked for free shoots and photos. I messed up primarily by not having that communication you speak of. I didn’t take time to understand what she really wanted nor did I communicate my expectations. For example, when she said she just wanted an informal holiday family photo I thought she just wanted an informal holiday family photo. No big deal. Wrong! I’m not a pro, nor do I pretend to be but this experience has made me aware, even as an amateur, to not take for granted what is being asked of us as well as not taking for granted my worth in the process. I suspect all pros know this or they wouldn’t last very long.

    Anyway, writing the articles (part 1, part 2) made me think about several things not the least of which is the financial costs and time involved and how that what we provide is of value and not to be taken for granted or expected to be performed for free. When we cheapen our own value and worth, all photographers are hurt and feel the pain in some way. As a result of my recent education at the school of hard knocks, I am one amateur that has learned a lesson and do not care to repeat my mistakes.

    • There are costs involved in acquiring that skill and knowledge. Now, if you choose not to charge for that, it’s fine, but the recipient should at least have some idea of the value involved…

  2. Wow, Ming. This is an article we could have written at Wojahn Bros Music! My brother and I “get our antennae up” when hearing from clients who have no prior experience developing music. They don’t know to ask for what they want, they don’t have realistic expectations about what things cost and they often want something totally different from what you specialize in creatively. This is a wonderfully true piece for all creative disciplines!

  3. Well said. Reminds me of a favorite quote: ” A pessimist is an optimist…with experience”.

  4. The story is almost funny, but I agree that such a phone call is worrying.

    • I’m laughing now, but I certainly wasn’t laughing at the time! The really worrying thing is that this attitude is becoming increasingly common amongst the clients I’m dealing with…

  5. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Businesses often spend a lot to be able to receive clients in proper or even impressive environments.
    The photographs they ask for become an extension of that environment, so they should reflect the same quality…

    If this article could be condensed to fit on a business card…

  6. Tom Liles says:

    I must’ve bumped my head as I’m only seeing in italics 🙂

    I’m not a self-sufficient creative pro and my work is nowhere near the level talked about here, but I can relate and am thankful you’ve written this post, MT. There is definite crossover here with other fields; maybe even anyone in business for themselves. I’m not on your level, MT, but on my pedestrian plane [in a quasi-creative field] I’ve learnt to be careful on the expectations game…

    Some customers want to feel like they’ve bossed you and wrung the best out of you where no-one else could’ve done it. Of course they haven’t, don’t and won’t; but you have to let them think they have. I do what I call “the Scotty” for these guys—if it’ll take you a day, tell them a week. Then let them get their shot-caller on, and shave you down to a couple of days, etc. Likewise, if you think you can do it easily, um and ah and make out that it’s tough and a reach [but you can’t over cook and make yourself look incompetent]. Output a weak draft or two, take the drumming down then give them the real thing that you actually wrote [made] first time round. Act. Use your imagination. Practice the role. Hone, refine, master. The more bull in a China shop they come across, usually the more you want to push their buttons [you can because you’ve honed, refined and mastered the role, and know where their line is].

    Some customers are genuinely unsure about anything and are looking for a steady hand, someone who knows what they’re doing, that they can just defer everything to and trust the result will come. These guys sound great because they leave you to it; but they’re horrid on the other hand because it’s real pressure, you get one swing, more or less, and it has to be out of the park. The previous type of customer likes to think they are like this, “one miss and you’re toast!” but they aren’t. It’s the quiet, retiring ones we’ve to be careful of. Some of them are just totally inexperienced; but some of them are actually seasoned pros [at what they do], but playing their cards close and making sure the responsibility for the result rests firmly all on you. They’re George Smiley from the John LeCarre novels. After hearing their brief, even if inside you’re thinking “oh God, can I do this?” you keep that locked the f— in, and give them the calm, composure, easy like Sunday morning, avuncular — and a cool Uncle at that — routine. But temper it with real talk, plainly honest talk about what’s possible and what’s not. You can’t do that with the first type because they don’t listen. But with this second type, you do that — as you so rightly say MT — the first meeting or early on, and get it all out in the open and decided on then. No phone calls to check stuff, change stuff after the fact, or play by play reports, status updates, etc. Once it’s a go just black-box “input/output” style approach. The first work they see is the finished work—and when you deliver it, it needs a vigorous and confident talk up. But short and snappy. I think of opening a door, announcing “I’m putting a present down,” setting a present down, and closing the door. In, out. Done deal. Fingers crossed for repeat business.

    Generally speaking, the more professional — in my mind — customers are always the second type. They are outsourcing to you, and are going to let you do what you do—but if you make a mistake there are no second chances. It’s probably the law of psychological opposites: the guy acting all super-manager, bull in a China shop is the guy who’s probably not really sure or experienced; the guy who doesn’t care to get to involved or micromanage, that’s the guy who is either quite probably experienced [and not easily fooled] or inexperienced but smart. I’m not sure, but in my limited experience, with few exceptions, most customers fall in either camp.

    The hard bit is sizing them up, because obviously real live human beings are not as black and white as above. I’ve made the wrong conclusion about a customer a couple of times. And we, my company, paid the price for it. That wasn’t comfortable. But you can’t not have a system like this, and I have tried—it was just too stressful and frustrating, and we lost more prospects at the interview stage because the feeling must have been mutual. I think of it as being like dancing: you have to do a ying-yang style “click” [and it’s on you to find that yang to their ying] otherwise the chance is gone. So I just go with what works for me and the customers, and put them in conceptual boxes and play the game: I’m getting more money and happy results that way.

    [though I’d love to pack it all in and run a camera shop instead 🙂 ]
    [[that’s in the imaginary universe where you can make a decent amount of money running a camera shop]]

  7. Stewart James says:

    Owing to the ubiquity of cameras and their good-picture taking potential (at relatively low cost) I believe a disconnect has formed in the minds of some whom now question the entire ‘legitimacy of photography’ as a vocation, a profession, an art form.

    For example; upon observing a civil engineer using a theodolite to check on the progress of a construction project the majority of us associate ‘professional’ in our minds. Lets face it, nobody in their right mind would purchase a theodolite and all of the associated paraphernalia to use for a hobby, to pursue art – yet very few of us will baulk at the civil engineers $160 hourly rate when his invoice arrives.

    The engineer is perceived as legitimate.

    Frustratingly, as photographers, we understand only too well, that the level of technical knowledge required to properly operate a Nikon D800E with various lenses equals – if not exceeds the familiarity to operate a theodolite. And we aren’t even factoring in the creative process that good photographer (like yourself Ming) throw in for free.

    So; how as dedicated photographers do we shake off the ‘low-rent’ legacy bestowed upon us by cheap mass production techniques and the plethora of micro-stock sites offering to pay as little as $0.30 per use of an image?

    I guess the only effective defence we have as photographers is to apply ourselves even harder to the creative process and routinely
    showcase our copyrighted work that far and away exceeds that of the average camera owner – all 5 billion of them!


    • You’ve given me a much better idea. I’m going to buy a theodolite and hide a camera inside it!

      • Tom Liles says:

        I walked passed a bloke with a Nikon branded theodolite, I had a Nikon D3 in my hands… he saw me, I saw him, so I sauntered over gesturing to my camera and doing a we are brothers my friend! “eh 🙂 ” style thing and he just looked at me like the loony I am. To make it clearer to him, I says: “your theodolite mate, Nikon!” and he answered: “Oh, Is it?”

        I just melted back into the scenery and out of his way again.
        /a note to self was written that day!

        • Leica makes them, too…but I don’t think the user of one of those (or their microscopes) is likely to appreciate the cameras.

          • Tom Liles says:

            Let my experience be the empirical proof and my lesson the hard way be for all of us.

          • Joel Venable says:

            Both Leica and Olympus are quite prolific in the medical industry as well!

            • Yes, they are – in fact, I think Olympus makes more money from the medical business than cameras…which actually isn’t difficult, seeing as it makes no money from cameras at all…

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Writing, photography etc. were long regarded (at least by the Swedish working class) as not being proper professions. Perhaps that lies behind some of these misconceptions.

      • Don’t worry. It’s the same in Asia. If you sit behind a desk all day and do nothing but write emails and order people around, occasionally complaining about things – then society thinks you are a big man. In reality, you’re just middle management that neither creates nor contributes anything of value to society.

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          A friend of my father’s who ran a business once told him that the administration always complained that their premises were to small.
          He always refused to expand, they would only grow in numbers, he said.

        • Strangely enough, in modern society people who contribute directly to society (artists, nurses, teachers, artisans…) get paid very little, while people who don’t do anything of value to individuals (middle managers, PR representatives, corporate lawyers, investment bankers…) are rewarded well.

          It’s frustrating. I had my city balk at the idea of having to pay something to get to use a prize-winning photograph of mine to promote the city worldwide for tourism. I hadn’t even quoted a price, they thought getting me to sign the rights over in perpetuity for free was a mere formality. A jeweler was also looking for photos of his pieces for a catalog at less than $25 each. How much more sales better photos would bring him was not a concern at all for him. I’m guessing he’ll get badly lit pictures of dusty jewels on not-quite-white backgrounds.

          • Sorry to hear that. We have to collectively walk away from clients like this. Because in serving them on their terms, we’re only further undermining our own value.

            • subroto mukerji says:

              I had a similar moment recently when, as a freelance editor / writer I responded to a newspaper advertisement for people willing to write biographies (in a racy style !) after researching the Net and other library=based materials. I submitted a short bio-sketch I’d written on Carl Sagan, and soon thereafter received a telephone message asking me to present myself at the publisher’s offices the next day.
              After sitting through an hour-long monologue on ‘how to write a biography’, I was told by the publisher that the 220-page page job needed to done in three months. . . for a total payment of Rs. 35,000 (with a small retainer up front after the formal Deed of Agreement was signed.
              Since this worked out to less than a rickshaw puller earns on a per-day basis, I had to politely decline.
              The publisher gave me a look as if to say “the poor sap, he doesn’t know his market value !’. This after nearly 40 years of experience after a Master’s Degree in History and all the rest of it. I may be retired and into photography as a hobby, but that doesn’t mean I can be exploited. I took the rest of the day off and roamed the streets with my trusty RX100 and the E-PL5 / 45mm f 1.8 combo to drown my sorrows …
              All over the world, it’s the same story — flair, dedication, education, the willingness to go the extra mile — skills learnt over a lifetime are expected to be bartered for a pittance.
              Thank you for avenging people like me, Ming.

              • Perhaps part of the problem we face is that those commissioning us – doing so because they lack the skills to do it themselves – have no idea how difficult it is, or how much experience is required to do something properly; it’s an unfortunate circle…

  8. roblowephoto says:

    Ming, this is a wonderfully poignant article thank you! I had a recent experience as the photographer where such conflicts presented themselves, some of which you allude to here. Amicable resolution was reached but yes, such events do leave a nasty taste in the mouth afterwards. I’m a lot more careful with clients now and this article makes the process even more of a necessity. Great stuff. Rob.

    • Some of those things photographers don’t realize until it happens to them…

      • roblowephoto says:

        Agreed, Ming. If only you’d written this article 2 months ago. It’s a very real issue and your post outlines it perfectly. I wonder how many potential clients will read it. As far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier… R.

  9. Wonderful Article Ming! If I had a company I would have you on speed dial for photography needs…

  10. Harris U. says:

    Great advice all round, Ming! Clients that are entering the market for the first time can definitely be challenging. We usually have to climb them through an education curve, too, after they get past the sticker shock of working with an agency. Even those that have worked with other agencies, ours operates at a premium due to our thought leadership position—which can be challenging to those who have lower-price expectations.

    Funny story, today I had a prospect who called for an urgent need practically hang up on me after getting irate from sticker shock. In a short five minute conversation, he concluded after hearing our pricing by saying, “I wish we talked price first! It would’ve saved us time.” The way I told the story later is like having a customer come into a BMW dealership looking for a Alpina and getting angry at the poor sales guy because it costs more than expected. Then tell the poor guy that he’s worked in the industry for almost 20 years and never have paid more than $20K for a car!

    In truth, I’m sympathetic. He has a pending need on a short timeline, so is probably in a rush to secure a resource. I think that’s another thing I’ve learned over the years—have patience. You’re right that it’s on us service providers to educate by trying to understand the prospect coming in, what their needs are, and what the contextual drivers are, so we offer good counsel and prescribe the right solutions for them. In the end, if they walk away, that they walk away with the best possible of impressions of us.

    I’d also add that for prospective clients, it’s usually much smoother when they come in prepared to listen and learn about how the agency (or individual works), what the process of engagement is, and where that process can flex. Those clients that come in wanting to have a conversation to learn often have the best experiences because it sets up the engagement for mutual collaboration. Those are the best clients—and they can come from newbies to veterans—though most often from veterans.

    • Sometimes I find turning the price question around helps – ask them if they’d be willing to work the weekend for half their normal weekly pay, and do a better job than normal because you’re giving them something to do to prevent them from getting bored. They usually see the light here 🙂

      In any case, it’s our responsibility to both educate our clients and protect prices: we can’t keep doing more work for less money in an inflationary price environment: eventually you’ll land up fixing the moon away for free, which is clearly the end of business for all concerned. Nobody wins there.

      Sure, there are people who’ve worked in an industry and never paid over 20k for a car, but I bet they never got the new Alpina, either. One can’t fault them for trying – if you never ask you’ll never get a yes – but at the same time, I suspect they may not be able to tell the difference between a basic Toyota and the Alpina anyway…and then our efforts would probably be wasted.

      I recently had a prospective client who wanted to work with me at any cost – ‘don’t worry about the money’, they said on several occasions – only to back out with a million excuses after I requested a creative planning meeting for the shoot and gave them a rough quote. The irony: the job was less than a thousand dollars and would take less than half a day…

      • Just a cynical comment – “don’t worry about money” bit… red herring. just steer clear. When the invoice goes in prepare to hear “but it cost you nothing to take an extra shot!”.

  11. Reblogueó esto en LeoAr Photography / Lex Ariasy comentado:
    Buena lectura…

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