Dear Appy: Nightmare Clients, Taking Control, and Simple Billing

Dear Appy: Nightmare Clients, Taking Control, and Simple Billing

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MW asks: Have you ever had a client that micromanages to the point where they say “take the photo from exactly right here and make sure you get everything I took in this iPhone picture for reference”? If so, how have you dealt with working in that situation?

Ugh, yes, we all have. There is collaborating and there is micromanagement. I have no problem collaborating all day. It works like this:

“Hey Mike, what do you think of the shot from over here, I love how the cantilever frames the door”

And then we can spend ten minutes finding the best shot in that area – working together, pushing and pulling. Art through adversity. A beautiful thing. It doesn’t work like this:

“Stand here and get this, oh and let me adjust your camera to get it the way I want it, and let me put this obnoxious planter right in the way, and even though it’s the wrong time of day, I don’t care, take the photo!”

You get the point. It does happen, and these are the kinds of clients that usually have a complete disaster of a website or portfolio with work from 15 different photographers because they can’t get anyone to stick with them for more than one shoot. My solution? Be as polite as possible on location, grin and bear it, get the paycheck. It’s only one day of torture – I get that we have to protect our artistic integrity and all that, but I don’t need or want drama on my shoots so I’m just going to accept it and suffer for one shoot. You then don’t ever have to work with that client ever again.

If it’s absolutely unbearable and the shoot is sinking like the Titanic, you may need to draw a line right then and there. I have had to do this before and it sucks – but a line my assistant actually used one day when we were getting screwed was “nothing in Mike’s portfolio looks like this – he just doesn’t take that kind of picture, so why would you hire him to do that?” Blunt, and I couldn’t believe it, but it worked perfectly – client backed off for the rest of the shoot. I do like this approach, but you can soften it a little bit for your own situation.

Another very important thing to keep in mind is that these situations are dramatically reduced in frequency when you have a portfolio that is consistent in style and subject matter. If your portfolio is super tight and well-curated, there won’t be any questions as to what you’re good at, and when you deliver exactly that, there won’t be any surprises. The roles actually started to reverse a few years ago in my career as my portfolio became more consistent and, uh, legit, for lack of a better word. Clients often look to me for support or confirmation of their ideas before getting pushy – it’s very rare nowadays.

Part of being a great architectural photographer is knowing when to collaborate, knowing when to take charge, and knowing when to take instruction. I think every healthy shoot has all three of these things going on. It can suck pretty bad being turned loose on a location with literally no direction, and it can really suck being on a shoot where you’re not allowed any creative liberty – our role being reduced to glorified button pusher. It’s important to find clients that respect this; so I will only really work with someone I don’t get along with once – but the great clients? I’ll stick with them for years, and I think it goes both ways.

And it’s always fun when you say “this is going to look amazing, look out and let me take the shot!” instead of being all wishy-washy. Just make sure you don’t screw those up!

SA asks: Very often when I come to a location, nothing is prepared. And I mean big things: construction waste lying all around, palettes with stones in the middle of the front yard, dirty windows, indoors in a mess… I always mention the need for preparations in advance, but I get the impression that they just do not take it seriously enough. If I am booked for 4 hours I can’t spend 2 of those hours cleaning…I have to rush with the photographs… (Of course I do all the normal adjustments needed to make it a better photo, moving furniture, etc.) My question is: Do you mention things like that in advance (and how)? How do you react if things are unprepared (what exactly do you help to do and at which point do you just say no?). Maybe in high-end architectural photography that problem does not exist?

I can promise you that this problem never goes away, but it does get better. I’ve literally been flown halfway around the world to arrive at a location that isn’t even near done. And the best thing I can do is just take photographs of what’s in front of me – maybe we get 4 photographs instead of 20 on that day, but hey, that’s not really my problem. I think what is happening in architectural photography right now is that there are so many business entities that need photographs that have never needed them before, and while that’s great for business, many of them need educating on how best to prepare for having those photographs made. It’s not like some other genres of photography where we can just show up and shoot; sometimes hours or even days of prep work go into getting the best shots.

I’d suggest 1) preparing a PDF of shoot-prep guidelines (space should be clean, homeowners gone, no personal items, etc) and 2) stipulating in your contract that you will not clean or remove any objects from the scene if it is becoming such a serious issue. I don’t mind moving small things, but if I have to really spend two hours of a four hour shoot cleaning, it’s a waste of my time and the client’s money.

AF Asks: When shooting a home, is the budget you give closed? For example, “€x” for “n” photos, you have several packages with “n” photos per package to “x” or, on the contrary, you have a price per photo and the customer chooses which ones he wants from the ones you have taken? In this case, how do you show those photos to the customer to choose, by contact sheet or already to final size? How do you deliver the final photos, size, resolution…?

I charge a flat day rate (for example, $3,000) and then a per-shot retouching fee depending on job type. This means I get $3000 for the day, and then another $100 (or whatever) for the post production of each image. So if we make 20 pictures in a day, it’s another $2000 for processing on top of the $3000 day rate.

If we “make” a photo on location – set the camera up, style the scene, and light it – the client is ‘buying’ the photo. I don’t give choices with proofing because it opens a can of worms. Raw files are always ugly, the client makes up their mind based on un-retouched images, they get mixed up with final shots in file systems we can’t control, etc. Just don’t do it. Everything I shoot gets retouched and delivered.

I deliver a 2000px jpeg ‘web’ folder and a full size JPEG or TIFF folder with the uncompressed files.

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About Mike Kelley
Mike Kelley is an architecture and interiors photographer who has photographed projects all over the world. He is a self proclaimed airplane food enthusiast and the founder of the Architectural Photography Almanac.