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.”
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.
We 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.)
With 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.
As 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.