Bad Clients and How to Spot Them

I remember the excitement of wanting to start and have a thriving wedding photography business. I remember how my heart would skip a beat whenever I’d get a new photography inquiry regarding my services, and I remember how desperate I was for any type of wedding photography gig. I also remember not knowing how to price myself, being scared that if I charged too much, clients wouldn’t want to book me. Or if I told a client no to a request, they’d find another photographer. I look back on the first few years of my business very fondly, but I also remember a few times that being a wedding photographer made me want to crawl into a hole and hide from the world forever.

Those few instances that made me cringe and rethink my decision to pursue professional wedding photography happened because I wasn’t working with my ideal client. This was before I intentionally sat down to decide who my ideal client was, and way before I’d decided on a specific brand. Although some of the experiences I had made me second-guess my role as a photographer, I’m still thankful because I’ve been able to learn what worked and what didn’t. Now I’m able to identify who is and isn’t an ideal client, and how to approach each potential client differently. I’ve become comfortable telling clients no and declining unrealistic requests. If you’re just starting out in the photography world, the idea of narrowing down your potential client pool can be scary, but I’m here to tell you if you don’t do it, you’ll end up dreading your job as a photographer. Here are a few ways to tell if someone is not an ideal client.

They Question Your Pricing

Having someone question your pricing is probably one of the most intimidating experiences when starting out in business. You’re already unsure of yourself and if you’re valuing yourself properly, then a potential client comes along and asks you to discount yourself, or worse, give your services and products away for free. If a client is asking for a discount, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t your ideal client. It's up to us as the professionals to educate potential clients on our value. However, if after educating clients on our value the client still insists on a discount or free services, this might mean they aren’t your ideal client, and it may be time to walk away.

They Undervalue Your Time

During my first year in business, I had a bride hire me for six hours of photography coverage. In the weeks leading up to her wedding, I was working with her on a day-of wedding timeline, and I realized that the bride was piecing apart my coverage time. Although she only paid for 6 hours worth of photo coverage, she scheduled me to be at the venue for 12 hours with several-hour breaks in-between the times she wanted me to take photos. I didn’t know how to say no to her, and as a result I allowed her to take total advantage of me. While I was shooting the wedding, I learned that she’d done the same thing to the videographers. I completely resented the bride after this experience, but it wasn’t her fault. It was mine. I was too scared to let the bride know that my policy for photo coverage was consecutive, and in the end, I really ended up hating the wedding day. Had I had any more weddings like that, and I would have quickly given up. 

After that experience, I promised myself that I’d stick to my own policies. I learned that clients may inquire with unrealistic expectations, and it was up to me to reset those expectations so that everyone, including myself, ended up happy with the arrangement.

They Don't Trust You

While interviewing clients (yes, you should be interviewing clients as much as they’re interviewing you), it's important to pay attention to any red flags the clients may be sending up. If you’re feeling hesitant during your initial meeting with a client, they may not be your ideal client. One huge red flag is a client who micromanages. Micromanaging is awful all around, but something huge that it implies is that the client doesn’t fully trust you. If you’re having trouble gaining control of the time that you’re providing your photo services, it can adversely affect the final outcome of your photos. Whether you have a client who wants a specific list of photos from Pinterest, or is requesting a style of photography that you’re not familiar with, they are probably not your ideal client.

If you’re having trouble booking your ideal clients, it may be time to sit down and create a detailed ideal client avatar. Having an ideal client avatar helps you identify who your ideal client is, and how to speak directly to that client within your branding. It also helps you be more comfortable as yourself within your brand which is so important to connecting with clients.

If you find yourself dreading an upcoming photo session, it's probably time to sit down and reevaluate who your brand speaks to. Take time away from learning the technical side of photography and focus on the business side, nailing down perfected pricing, and an ideal client avatar. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.

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Marcos Santana's picture

I needed to read an article on this subject. thank you.

Dumb Ttt's picture

You need to earn your client's trust and justify your asking price by the quality of your work. Unless you have demonstrated these, it's perfectly reasonable for a client to doubt you.

Graham Marley's picture

This is false: Some people assume photographers are black boxes that they can enter commands into and pull out whatever they think they want, and that's not even necessarily the malicious clients. I recently had a wedding at a venue, which was a stunning property as a piece of real estate, but had some geographical and logistical problems that made much of the photography very difficult. Their assumption was "Oh, I like his work, this place is pretty, I can just tell him to do anything and the work will be good." This is, at best, naive. Good work doesn't just happen because of some magic, a photographer has to impose their will on a situation, and that's not taken for granted by many, many people.

Michael Kormos's picture

Great points! Like you, most of our clients are retail. We have learned long ago to simply say no to clients when certain red flags are raised before their session. A good example would be asking us to change our policies (i.e. wanting the raw files, wanting to see how they're edited, asking to pay a lower price because they don't want the print credit included in our sessions). A product is a product, and policies are in place for a reason too. Neither is negotiable. The moment you agree to change them (especially for new clients), you're no longer a legitimate business in their eyes. You're a prop, and they feel they can do with you as they wish (and believe me - they will). They wouldn't walk into a clothing store and ask that the color of a hat be changed, or negotiate a lower price. No store would say yes. Stand firm by your principles and established policies. If it means losing a client here and there, so be it. If they're not comfortable with them, they have the freedom of going elsewhere. Believe me, NYC has no shortage of photographers.

By standing firm, you'll learn that many clients are just testing for weaknesses, and will happily commission you, with respect.

Drew Altizer's picture

I am all for standing by pricing that is profitable, but my company has been very successful in negotiating pricing with clients. Unlike stores selling hats purchased at a fixed price from a manufacturer whose production they can not control, a photographer has the ability to reduce costs on on end by excluding part of a service. It seems reasonable that that kind of approach may allow for discounted pricing to clients. In your case, perhaps the print credit is structured in a way that its removal would not lower your costs significantly enough to discount, but the idea of negotiation should not generally be out the window necessarily. That said, everyone in business does have to fully understand their costs and have some boundaries around maintaining a profit.

Michael Kormos's picture

It sounds like you do commercial work, where negotiating is common. We are a retail studio with hundreds of clients each year.

Drew Altizer's picture

In my experience, the #1 red flag is someone who is slow or avoidant about signing the contract. I have, I think, never had a problem with any client whose contract was signed.