Why Picky Clients are a Good Thing


A new client walked into my studio with her three little children, the eldest of which had a session. The little girl was all dressed-up, but very traditionally, so after conferring with mom, we began the session. And it was one of those sessions where everything went right. Happy child, great expressions, and yet, mom was hovering, straightening an already straight bow, smoothing invisible wrinkles in her daughter’s tights, “fixing” tiny details, some of which weren’t even in the frame.

She came back a few days later to look at the images, and, after reviewing them, she sat back in her chair and said, with a pained expression,”I don’t like them.” As a photographer, the words, “I don’t like them” strike terror in the heart, don’t they? It feels like you swallowed a cup of ice. I think an arrow in the chest would hurt less.

So, I pursued the matter. Did she like the smiles? Yes. Did she like the background? Yes. Did she like the poses? Yes. After a round of questioning, I was confused and said, “I don’t understand what it is you don’t like.”

“The shadows,” she said. “I don’t like the shadows.”

Traditional Rembrandt lighting

Traditional Rembrandt lighting seen in “The Knitting Girl” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

And by shadows, she meant the gentle shadows on the face caused by traditional Rembrandt lighting: the little triangle of light under the eye, the shadows that hugged the left side of the face creating a delicate play of light and dark. It was beautiful. It was executed properly. It mimicked other images I had hanging in the studio. It was done well, but none of that mattered, because she didn’t like it. Not one little bit. And if she didn’t like it, she wasn’t going to buy it.

So, I thought to myself, who’s the artist here? How dare she not like my work! Other people like it just fine. I can not change who I am just to meet her needs. So, I said to her, “Listen. I am what I am. If you don’t like it, then I’m afraid I can’t work with you.”


Forgive me. It was hard for me even to type those words, I actually feel a little queasy right now, but I had to, because in today’s photographic climate, this is the advice that I hear given to many new photographers. From workshop stages and the pages of blogs, the advice is the same: if a client is picky or overbearing or critical, then give them their marching orders. And don’t let the door hit them on the way out.

sendpackingWe hear all the time that we must learn to say “no” to our clients when their vision does not match ours, when they are difficult to worth with. We must, essentially, fire them and then turn our attention to those that like what we do without the fuss. We simply can not be expected to change who we are or what we do.

I could not disagree more.

When it comes to portrait photography, it’s not about US, it’s about THEM, which is why I love picky clients.

And not just a little—a lot.

No, I’m not a masochist. I don’t enjoy making extra work for myself, nor do I have a burning desire to feel needed by clients. I don’t revel in martyrdom or seek drama like a character from “Downton Abbey.” (Speaking of which—spoiler alert—what was with that final episode of Season 3? Somebody get the writers on the phone. Can we not be happy for 2 seconds without disaster striking?)

But, I do love picky clients. Why? Because if it weren’t for picky people, people who know what they want and will not settle for anything less and are willing to pay top dollar for it, I would have no clients.

Sound strange? Let me ‘splain.

You might not have heard yet, but with the advances in digital photography, everyone today is a photographer. (And in other breaking news, grass is green and water is wet.)

drillWith a photographer on every corner, establishing and cementing client loyalty is paramount to success. And if you can please a picky, discerning client, you could very well have a client for life, which is why I want those clients that no one else can work with; the clients who roll their eyes at “good enough;” the clients who demand more.

I want them; I market toward them. These are the clients for whom photography is very important. They don’t want to do it themselves. They don’t want a mini-session. They want uncompromising quality; they want to be 100% satisfied. They want to know that if one little thing is wrong with their image, they can speak up and it will be taken care of with a smile.

And I know it can be difficult. We’re human and those tiny picky client complaints can be as annoying as a piece of corn stuck in your teeth that no amount of flossing will dislodge:

“She’s making a big deal about one little piece of hair.”

“I can’t believe he’s concerned about the Nike swish on his sock showing; you can barely see it.”

“There is a tiny rock the size of a peanut in the background which nobody else will ever notice, but it’s bothering them and they want it reprinted.”

Sound familiar? Nobody likes hearing that. In fact, I have been known to leave the room when my eye starts twitching. But giving a client what they want is part of what being a portrait photographer is all about, isn’t it? Assuring a client leaves happy is good business, and I would sooner lose money on an order than lose a client.

studioAs for the client I mentioned at the beginning of the story, I rescheduled her session, not once, but twice. That’s right, two times. Upon her third visit, I thought to myself, “Alright then, you don’t want shadows? You’re not going to have any,” and shot the session with lighting as flat as a pancake. I mean, I could have served it with maple syrup and butter.

And, of course—you guessed it—she loved them. She thanked me for working with her to give her what she wanted and she has been a loyal client for the past twenty years—a client for whom photography is priority. She has been one of my best clients. I know what she wants and I am happy to give it to her.

Of course, you may certainly disagree with my love of picky clients. You might not consider them worth the time and effort. So, if you find you have clients you just don’t want to work with, feel free to send them my way.

I’ll take care of them for you.

Image credit: resist by chuckychoi, school bus photo by Joedamadman, studio photo by Jacquelinehari

  • Mark

    “masochist” is the word you’re looking for, not “sadist.”

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for pointing that out Mark :)

  • Joe

    Great advice! If you’re working for yourself, fine. When you’re getting paid, the customer is *almost* always right.

  • Sandra Armenteros

    You’ve had a client for twenty years?
    That’s more time than most of today’s “teachers” have spent shooting… Added up. As in “teacher A’s experience + teacher B’s experience + teacher C’s experience + ….”

  • Mark The Photog

    And not one of your photos were shown in this post… TRUE STORY

  • Arnal Photography

    I’m with you on loving picky clients. It’s not just portrait photographers, but any photographer who should feel that way. It keeps us sharp. It keeps us looking for ways to excel and work harder to not only satisfy our clients but get them to refer us to other picky clients.

    As an architectural photographer I get all sorts of pickiness from the colour isn’t a perfect match (and by that I mean a photoshop adjustment of +4blue, midtone only to get it the way they like it) to perspective concerns and everything and anything in between. It’s a pleasure to make those clients happy! They’re the ones who can strike fear, but at the same time bring true feelings of satisfaction with my efforts when I make them happy without need for additional adjustments or tweaks.

  • Joey Miller

    This is ONE method. Find the pickiest clients who don’t care about your personal style and instead just want you to bend to them. Or you can market your particular style and find the clients that want that style and not have to compromise to the degree that you do. So what is your style, then? Whatever someone else tells you they want? Anyone can take a well lit, well posed picture. What sets you apart? Simply your willingness to do what ever the client bids you do? Doesn’t sound very fulfilling to me, so that’s why I don’t do what you do.

  • Dom

    I think you have many good points – For a client who will take the product and keep it for themselves I think the client IS ALWAYS RIGHT.

    I am in the Advertising (TVC) Industry and the amount of times we change to what the client asks for is huge! Some clients are obviously more picky than others but allot of the time after the change it goes to air and they get no response from their television commercial. They then come back and complain.

    If you are producing work for others to enjoy and not just the client you should listen to what the client asks but explain why you made the choices you did.

    This is why movies have test screenings – So the public and people who are not close to the project can take a look at projects with fresh eyes.

  • Happy_Tinfoil_Cat

    When I had my first business, I learned about difficult clients. A tiny percentage of my clients soaked up the vast majority of my time. They were very, very picky. I’d explain why they shouldn’t go a certain route but they’d demand it. Then they’d get buyer’s remorse. Unless I’d swallow hundreds of dollars in materials and do it over, the way I originally told them, they’d bad-mouth my work. Some of these clients would bad-mouth my work no matter how far I bent over backwards. I finally learned to detect and direct these type of clients to my competition, “ACME down the street can do that, but we don’t”. You can specialize in fickle clients, or you can have the time to satisfy several times as many normal customers. Either way works, it’s trying to do both types that will sink you.

  • lidocaineus

    From what I understand, Cheri Frost isn’t actually a business photographer, let alone long enough to have a client for twenty years, which would throw this article into a completely different light. Please correct me if I’m wrong (I very well might be).

  • Igor Ken

    Clients from hell?
    This is why I’m having doubts on pursuing the photographic career.

  • johneve

    One easy way to avoid these reshoots is to improve your communication towards your clients. Tell them what you do, how you do it and why you do it. Then they can choose if they hire you or not. What i find even stranger is that the client was there at the shoot, but only after the fact decided not to like the pictures. That is not picky that is being annoying. If they dont like it they should say it during the shoot.

    It’s like hiring a house painter and tell him/her: do what you want, and then complain about the colour and demand him/her to repaint the house.

    Not the best bussiness advice i’ve heard lately

    quote from article: “she has been a loyal client for the past twenty years—a client for whom photography is priority. She has been one of my best clients. I know what she wants and I am happy to give it to her.”

    Why the two reshoots then?

  • KevinNewsome

    And PetaPixel, not the blogger, selects all the images shown in this, and many other posts… TRUE STORY

  • Michael Zhang

    Yeup, it’s true :) A number of our columnists only focus on writing

  • Chris Pickrell

    Yes, having a laundry list of clients who are unsatisfied with your technical execution sounds like an excellent business strategy, and a great way to get referrals.

  • Nick Bedford

    In other words, “Why’d you hire me when you didn’t want what my skills and techniques produce?”

    Excessive rework due to client indecision and perfectionism should be paid for.

  • Oumsker

    I don’t love picky clients, but I do value them…a lot.
    Why? Because they are the reason I stretch myself every single way to obtain what’s best for them. They are the reason I and my team work around the limitations we created for ourselves. They are the reason creativity and every other hard-earned skills are being put to work.
    So this article is a happy ending when the client is actually thankful for giving her what she needs…but in life, some are not very thankful even if you have gone beyond extra miles. Hahaha…but then again, that’s just a reminder to self how important gratitude is…and I make sure I’m always conscious about giving gratitude where it’s due.