It is a simple equation; I work, I earn. And vice versa; I do not work, I do not earn. So in absolute terms, the more I work, the more I earn and the better my quality of life. However… this assumes all clients are equal and the effort put into a project is rewarded with a reciprocated return. This is unfortunately not the case as some clients are oxygen thieves and suck up all the air you breath and time you have. Frequently these monsters aren’t apparent until it is too late. In these instances you wish you’d never said yes as once the relationship has turned toxic it’s nigh on impossible to turn the ship around and it starts to cost you time and money. Here are some issues that trigger the warning lights in my head and help me spot a bad client:
The more a brief changes, the more concerned I become. Changes happen, be they a date clash, or extra shots required, but be very alert when it comes to usage. Personally I find a change in the licence comes at the last minute and when there’s no budget for this extra use. This puts the photographer under large amounts of pressure to agree as they don’t want to be responsible for cancelling a shoot when everything and everyone else is in place and ready to go. If the brief changes, don’t be scared to change the quote. Be clear how and why the quote is changing; do not put pressure on yourself because a client is starting to behave unreasonably. Additionally, the more a brief changes, the more time needs to be spent updating quotes. Should you have to resort to legal advice all of these changes will need to be tracked and the more changes requested, the more time you’ll spend documenting the changes and the more complicated it becomes. Thus multiple changes are actually a client strategy to deliberately complicate matters and waste your (and potentially your lawyer’s) time.
What is your price and what does it consist of? Is your price your hourly or day rate? Does it include lighting, equipment, travel costs… Face it, even a ‘free’ job will cost you something. Clients often expect standards based on your previous work, blissfully unaware of the cost it took to produce them. Another big red flag to me are clients who are, often, overly flattering about my work who in the next breath then claim poverty. This frequently ties into the next point…
It’s good for your portfolio/ It’s being put in front of perfect future clients
Classic phrases from clients who are chancers and time wasters. I was once asked to take birthday party photographs and the client’s pitch included the fact a well known British actor would be attending. They suggested the photograph would be good for my portfolio… No. A thoughtful, properly lit, considered portrait would be good for my portfolio, not a two second paparazzi style snap. One pitch offered to me, for images destined for a brochure, included the suggestion those being sent the brochure would themselves commission photography. No, from experience, the chances of their clients looking at their brochure and subsequently asking me for work are zero.
Never, never, never trust a client’s own time frame. The client is not a photographer, so they do not understand how long it takes to plan, prep and execute a shot or project. By extension, do not offer a quote based on their assumption of how long a job will take. Do your own time analysis and offer a quote accordingly. If you do agree a time rate and stay longer than the allocated period, back yourself and charge for it.
I was once asked to shoot 6 restaurants which my client believed would take half a day in total. They had assumed, in very simplistic terms, that it would take half a day to travel from the first to the last with minimal time spent at each for the photographs. I reached out to each restaurant myself and while they all agreed to be photo’d, they all requested different times and dates in order to ensure their restaurants were open, properly set up and photogenic. What my client assumed would take 4 hours in reality took me over 2 days.
Working via an agent
It is not uncommon to deal with an agent; it’s virtually inescapable in the modelling industry. However make sure the agent you’re dealing with is a key decision maker and can be held accountable for their client. You are entering a world of hurt if the agent turns out to be the middleman for a client who has their own, potentially wildly different, opinion in regards to a brief. If the agent can’t or won’t take responsibility for their client’s actions, walk away. That agent is now actively running interference for their client and you’re at risk of being left with the dirty dishwater.
You should have your own policies in place, be they your rate, payment terms, handing over RAW files, cancellation fee etc etc… Never forget your policies are in place for a reason; to protect you (and also offer your client piece of mind). A client who asks you to change your policies is doing so because it suits them, which risks exposing you.
Promises of work
Another classic. I’ve often been lured with a promise of work, if I agree to a low rate or if I change my T&Cs to benefit the client. The phrase itself ‘future work’ sounds enticing however the vaguer the promise, generally, the worse the client. Check what the client is actually offering; without a guarantee or details, a promise of future work is worthless. The risk in believing the promise can be purchasing equipment based on future earnings. You may find yourself out of pocket as the lack of anything concrete means you could find yourself jettisoned at any time.
Foot in the door
It is assumed that in order to rise in the ranks, it is necessary to get a foot in the door as a foot soldier. Once the client sees your potential, you’ll be promoted faster than a speeding bullet and rose petals will be spread at your feet. Poppycock. The chances are you’re being used as cannon fodder and you’re going to be pigeonholed into the role you’ve accepted; if so, you’re going to be stuck in the mud and will never escape the trenches.
Individually these aren’t enough for me to turn down work. However, from experience, these never appear by themselves, they always come in various combinations. You need to assess the value of each client or opportunity in turn. If upside will be worth it to you, go for it. However be aware of what you’re potentially walking into, otherwise you’ll find yourself sleepwalking to a nightmare. Personally, the instances that stand out most to me are when I’ve compromised my principles and accepted work under conditions mentioned above; the painter wanting portraits for their catalog, but pleaded poverty… whose works recently sold at auction for £40k. The client who assumed copyright of my work the day before the campaign shoot. The agent making excuses for their client who then went on to abuse the licence to the tune of over £25k. Doing a shoot for free under the guise of future work and never hearing back. Trusting a gallery who indicated a Monet painting would take only 15mins to photo and be perfectly lit, only to find the owner expected the photograph to be taken on the floor of an internal room with no natural light.
As a creative, I find myself emotionally invested in my work and it is hard to be dispassionate about the business of photography. However to be a successful business, being able to spot a bad client is a must.