One thing I really like about this business is the fact that it’s subjective. There is no one right way to do things. Of course that can be a double-edged sword. An image you’ve poured your heart and soul into can elicit a reaction of, “meh” from a client. That’s ok because it can go the other way too. An image you considered a throw away can get a “wow!”
Hopefully, more times than not, you and your clients are on the same visual and aesthetic wavelength. The fact that they’ve hired you to do a job should be a big indicator to you that they like your work. Again, most times things should work out well, but if you do this long enough, at some point you’re going to get push-back from a client. In fact, if you’re not getting any push-back from your clients, it’s possible you’re not pushing the envelope as often as you should be. When things aren’t perfect it’s important to realize that you’re not being attacked personally. At least usually not.
No one responds well to ridicule or abuse, nor should they. I’m not talking about the anonymous online comments of ‘”You suck.” But often clients will give us the “I don’t like it and I don’t know why,” response. This can be incredibly frustrating to hear since you think the shot is great (if it wasn’t you wouldn’t have shown it to them). In these situations having a good demeanor can go a long way towards figuring things out. Using the right vocabulary is very helpful. Prompting them along, using terms like flow, dynamics, feel, situation, purpose, etc. can begin to move the discussion into positive territory. Ideally many of these themes have been discussed ahead of time, but that’s not always possible. I always try to convey an attitude of partnership with my clients. An understanding that we’re working together to solve a common problem. The problem may be as direct as “How do we get this overweight middle aged white guy in a suit to look interesting in a nondescript office,” or as abstract as “How do we visually place our product in the upper echelon of choices?”
You’re the expert
Another common response is “You’re the expert,” or it’s cousin, “I’ll leave that to you.” Both of which can be flattering and terrifying at the same time. When I hear those, I immediately begin to try and pull as much information from my clients about their expectations. Yes, I’m a expert, in photography. I know lighting and composition and texture and contrast and focus. I know a lot about food and architecture and marketing and branding as well. But I’m not a chef, an architect, a marketing director or a brand manager. My clients are. (Or, at the least, they have someone working for them that is.) In almost every case in my career where there have been aesthetic concerns after a job is delivered, I can trace the problem back to the beginning and to my not having gotten all of the information. I could try and say, “nobody told me.” But I’m the business owner, the buck stops here.
The customer’s always right
Well maybe not always, but the sentiment is solid. You’re being paid for your talent and expertise, but the point to many clients is you’re being paid. If they want you to shoot their product upside down, out of focus and full of mud–try and talk them out of it. If they persist, shoot it how they want it, collect the check and say thanks.* Artistic integrity is great, but it don’t pay the bills.
*One big exception to this is when it’s your reputation on the line also. I’ve had to tell clients “no” before on certain shoots where I would be held responsible for crappy images because the client was unable or unwilling to cooperate.
Criticism allows us to grow as artists and business owners. Without feedback from our clients we’d never get better. Just remember it’s not personal. Even if the client is not particularly good at being tactful about making their point, it’s not personal. Let them make their point, they’ve paid for that right.