Managing Client Expectations For Photographers

Managing Client Expectations for Photographers

Managing Client Expectations” is a phrase that people really like the throw around. It makes you sound like you went to business school or read really heavy leather bound books. But it’s a really important concept that every business owner should get comfy with.

Basically what we’re talking about here is making sure your clients know what to expect in all their dealings with you in order to have a smooth experience and hopefully prevent any issues. But “managing expectations” doesn’t have to be stiff and formal. This is simply about helping clients prepare for their photos, and taking great care of them! Big idea: you want to make your clients happy, and this is a big part of it!!

Managing Client Expectations

There are a few critical areas to manage so you can make sure you and your clients are on the same page.

Communication

I think the biggest cause of disappointment when it comes to expectations results from a lack of communication or miscommunication. Learning how to communicate well is a vital skill. I’ll be honest that we are NOT fans of the telephone, largely for this reason. We much prefer emailing with clients because it gives us time to respond clearly and there is also a record of all communication. When communicating with your clients take great care to be clear and complete. Double read any important messages. Bold important text. Whatever it takes to make sure you’re getting your message across!

Contracts

If you’re doing work for someone make sure to get it in writing! Contracts should clearly state what you’ll be providing to the client and at what price, and include any important details of your process (turnaround times, studio policies, etc.). We email our contracts to our clients so they have plenty of time to read through it, instead of trying to rush through it in person. We also have no fine print and have tried to keep the contract as short as possible to make sure they can easily read the whole thing.

Money

Dealing with money can be another point of friction if expectations aren’t aligned. You should always make sure this is discussed well up front. The details of price and payment should be handled in the contract but you should also make sure that the client clearly understands your policies. Make sure your client knows what happens with their deposit if they cancel. You should also be clear about how much the deposit is, when the balance is due, methods of payment and any other nitty gritty details you might have.

Timeline

Outlining the process from booking to delivery of finished products can be really helpful for clients. They’ll know when they need to get you a deposit and balance payment, what needs to happen before a shoot, and also when they can expect to see the finished images. At the end of a shoot we always mention when the client can expect to see the images and what the next step is so they aren’t left wondering “What now?”.

Tips for Photographers

We have learned a lot about managing client expectations from trial and painful error. Here are some areas to make sure to focus on to prevent disappointing your clients.

Portfolio

Show the work that you want to shoot more of. If what you have in your portfolio is dramatically different in style than what you end up creating for a client they may be disappointed. And make sure to show the quality of work that you’re capable of producing consistently!

Booking

Make sure to be clear about how your clients can securely book their date, especially when it comes to weddings where dates are very limited. We required a signed contract and deposit to book a wedding, and were very strict about that. See, we ran into the problem of a client assuming we would let them know if someone else was interested in their day. It resulted in some unhappiness and just was not a fun situation for anyone. Make sure you’re explicitly clear that you can’t hold the day without a deposit, and that you can’t let them know if someone else is interested because of how quickly a booking can happen. If you do want to give clients a heads up when there is additional interest be very careful to do it well. It’s very easy to upset someone in that situation.

Pre-wedding meeting

Meeting with clients before the wedding is a fantastic way to iron out the details and make sure everyone is on the same page going in to the big day. You can ensure that you know where you’re supposed to be on the day of the wedding, how much time you have for photos and where you’re going to take them. And the client will know all of this too!

You can also let them know any special requests you have for the day, and put together a list of family shots. Make sure to have a list!! It gives the bride and groom (and usually their parents) a chance to clearly determine who will be in the photos, and prevents the last minute “Did we get so-and-so?” panic. It also helps get the family photos over with as efficiently as possible so you have the more time to shoot the bride and the groom. These pre-wedding meetings go a loooong way in terms of aligning expectations.

Rehearsals

Wedding rehearsals are a great time to align expectations with the priest or officiant. If they have any special photography rules (or if the venue has any rules) this is the perfect time to learn about them instead of minutes before the ceremony starts! There are also a ton of other good reasons to attend the wedding rehearsal.

Overtime

At the pre-wedding meeting we always confirmed our start and end times, and discussed our overtime policy so there would be no surprises the day of the wedding. TIP: We also had a policy where overtime could be pre-purchased at a lower price than requesting overtime on the day of the wedding. This was useful if the client’s timeline looked like it would extend beyond their packages hours.

Final approval of products

Getting your clients to sign off on the final design of products (albums, cards, prints) is a great way to make sure there will be no surprises. Your clients will know exactly what photos are going into the album and where. We also like to get final approval of large prints, just in case our client sees something that needs to be retouched or edited that we might have missed.

Help Your Clients

One of the best things you can do overall is to help your clients. Be there for them at every stage of the process, and make sure that they know that they can always come to you with questions. One of the most effective ways we’ve helped our clients is by creating resources for them (usually as PDFs), from how to get ready for their session, to taking care of their digital files. This is an area that we’re always trying to work harder on. We really feel like the more we can help our clients, the better their experience will be!

Manage your own expectations

Make sure that you are clear with yourself when it comes to what you can deliver to your clients. Don’t tell them you’ll have it ready in 2 weeks when you know that’s cutting it close. T
he more honest you are with yourself, and your clients, the stronger your business will be.

What To Do If Things Go Wrong

Even when you have the best of intentions you can still find yourself with misaligned expectations, and a disappointed client. If you find yourself in such a position don’t just huddle up into the fetal position and rock back and forth. Try to see at it as an opportunity! Seriously!

Look, this is the time to put your pride aside. Regardless of whether you were right or wrong an unhappy client is not a good thing for you. Great customer service can go a long way in turning an unhappy customer into someone who refers you to their friends and family. And it’s not hard! Often it simply involves acknowledging the issue, reviewing what went wrong and figuring out how the situation could be fixed. If you’ve made a mistake then you should try do everything possible to correct it. If the client has made an error, don’t rub it in, but do point it out. It’s important to be honest. But most of all, work hard to find a solution that makes everyone happy. Compromise isn’t just for marriages.

See, clients are much more likely to forgive you or overlook prickly situations if they like you. In his book, Blink, Malcom Gladwell points out that nice doctors get sued less for malpractice. If your client feels like they’ve been carelessly harmed by you they’re much more likely to become aggressive and difficult to deal with. And honestly, that’s pretty fair. As a photographer your main goal is to take care of your clients, and if you mistreat them you’ll run into trouble. Pick up a copy of How To Win Friends & Influence People and start studying (you can read our review of it here)!!

Big Idea

The big idea here is simple. Think through your entire process, and find places you could be more clear, and help your clients understand your process better. Managing client expectations might sound complicated, but it’s really as simple as genuinely caring about them!

Your Turn!

Have you faced a situation where expectations didn’t line up? Any tips on better managing expectations? Share your experience in the comments below!

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

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Comments

15 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. I had a recent experience when shooting a wedding. In the meeting leading up to the big day I was a little nervous and the bride-to-be's communication was slow & vague. When we eventually had the meeting I ran down the usual checklist, times, relevant family members/friends shots, locations and amount of time I had for the shots.
    The amount of time I was given was going to be less than 10 minutes for all the 'usual' photographs after the ceremony. They names a few family shots they wanted on the stairs in the venue.
    I immedietely advised they make more time for these type of shots, but against my advice they said they only wanted candid shots so these few would suffice for what they wanted.
    I did not feel happy about their choice which they knew, but as the couple were friends of a friend, I put my own feelings aside and did what they asked.
    I worked an 11 hour day, extra than I had originally told them I would do.
    The day felt like a nightmare from beginning to end, after the ceremony the bride said she 'couldn't be bothered' with any of the family photos or photographs of just the couple. In fact when I tried to get candid shots she made an awkward face and rolled her eyes at me. When we had got to the venue where the party was held (a small pub in north London) I proceeded to ask to take photographs of the couple together away from the rest of the party. Within in minutes of us starting this, she pulled faces and said she was bored and she'd had enough. I continued to politely make a point that she would regret not having these photographs. I managed to get two print worthy shots of them.
    I continued to take photographs throughout the evening. When I went to take my seat for dinner & speeches (which they had told me I had) I noticed I didn't have one and was quickly shifted away from the tables by the waiters & waitresses. The venue was tiny, so I found the only small place I could fit in and took the shots from there. When I left and said goodbye I didn't get so much as a thank you.
    2 weeks later I sent a link for them to download the images I had taken, after not hearing back from them, I sent another message to check they had been able to download their images.
    The reply I got was they loved the photos… however I had missed key shots of certain family members and friends, I was then asked to print all of the photographs (which certainly wasn't agreed, but she couldn't remember whether I had).
    Two weeks later I had emails from her parents asking me why they hadn't seen their daughters photographs yet and how long I would take to produce them. I had to go back and tell them I had already given the images to the couple, after looking through them they then asked if I had more photographs.
    I've never felt so disrespected as I did on that day. I was trying to do my job and they chose not to
    co-operate at all. The missing key people wouldn't have been missed if they had given me the information I asked for in the beginning and given me time to take the shots.
    Unfortunately this experience could damage my reputation, not only that it has knocked my confidence and I have lost motivation to proceed with wedding photography.
    My one & only regret is taking on a wedding I didn't feel comfortable with in the first place.

  2. HGK, your story sounds very similar to what happened at one of my first weddings! It was horrible and it makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about that day and following 2 weeks…

    A client of my husbands called me up one day asking if I would shoot their wedding, I was thrilled and super excited! They were the kind of couple that had been together for 15 years and decided to finally tie the knot in a small mountain village. The agreed to pay for my stay as well as my wedding package. I had talked to the groom about what, he said, THEY had wanted for their photos (mistake number 1) He said they weren't getting all dressed up, super casual ceremony at the hotel. They are both bikers and wanted to have some grungy, black and white, shots for their formals, which I was totally happy to do, I'm a lifestyle photographer so those were right up my alley. (I did talk to the bride briefly on the phone and she said, whatever the groom wanted she was fine with) I found an abandoned gas station a few kilometers from where the town was and thought that would be a perfect backdrop, I even went out and bought $40 worth of spray paint for them to tag the walls. Wedding day came and I was fully prepared, got the shots I needed from the ceremony (it was at 1pm outside in the blazing sun so the shadows were a bit harsh but I managed to pull off some great shots (this was at the beginning of my career, so then they were great hahaha). After the ceremony we headed out to gas station. Towards the end of shooting I was bombarded by one of the brides maids about doing a pin up shot for her, I had done a calendar that year and was kind of over it, so I let her know I would get back to her and we could talk about it later. I managed to get some beautiful shots of the bride and grooms daughter (i'm still a fan of these ones today) I dont normally show clients photo sneak peaks during the sessions but I was taken back by this 10 year old beauty, the bride was over joyed. After all the photos were done we headed back to the hotel where I immediately started editing some teasers and put them up on my blog (5-8 photos I believe) I brought my computer over to their room and showed the entire party, everyone was tearing up and very happy, including the bride and groom…..

    Fast forward 2 weeks when their proofs were all edited and their cd was completed (I put a few up on facebook and the bride was beyond generous with her comments expressing how happy she was and how beautiful the photos turned out, which made me happy) I met up with them and gave them their disc. I got a call a few days later saying she LOVED every photo on their and she would like to order some prints…..the next day she called me pissed off, saying I had given her low res files and she couldn't print any at walmart (yes, walmart) like she wanted to. I looked over her folder from which I made the disc and notcied that they were definitely high res files. But just started out, I thought I had made a mistake and just wanted to keep her happy….I was then bullied by her for the next week saying she wanted her money back and that all the photos were horrible and there were not enough of her, that her day was ruined and that she wanted colour photos instead of black and white…..which confused me since after she had seen all of her photos she exclaimed how thrilled she was. I then made the mistake, that still bothers me today, of giving her PDF files of her images….so I spent about an 2 hours converting all her images to pdf because back then I thought that maybe that was the right thing to do….

    Her package came with prints, which i had ordered and when I received them I was quite happy with the turn out….I gave them their prints when I had their new disc ready and met up with them to hand deliver, she was very happy, looked through them and said "wow, these are beautiful, thank you so much"…. 20 minutes after she met with me she called and said they were horrible and would not be ordering any more prints from me…….Now to be honest I'm not sure if this women was bi-polar or just trying to be a bitch, but it still makes me very upset that I was bullied to that extent.

    I now have contracts and multiple consultations with clients for any portrait or wedding session….I have taken a lot from that wedding and learned that even if they are friends, they still are clients and need to be treated as such, filling out paperwork, talking with every party that is to be involved.

    wow that felt good to get that off my chest lol

  3. I saw the title of this post and immediately was compelled to read it.

    Just like HKG, I too have recently gone through a very very similar situation. In this case; with very good friends of mine. After working with portrait shooting and event photography for a few years I decided take on a few weddings to get my feet wet in that aspect of the business. I already had a few weddings under my belt when a close friend asked me to shoot her wedding (after loving the portraits I did for them) I agreed. They were pretty tight financially, so I said I would shoot for them as their wedding gift, for free. They were thrilled. We also thought a make shift photobooth guest book would have been fun to do since they didn’t want any photos of the reception after speeches. It was supposed to be a low key, small family and friends type of wedding; right up my alley. We had set up meetings, talked over expectations but never really got anything in writing (big mistake). I had repeatedly asked for detailed lists and timelines months leading up to the wedding and they assured me I would get them in writing the night of the rehearsal dinner. And when that came, they still had no clue what was going on.

    The second I set foot at the venue for the rehearsal dinner, I knew I was in for trouble. The wedding guest count had jumped from a small 70 person wedding, to 200 people; the bridal party from 4 to 12. I was definitely not prepared for that. It pretty much set the tone for the day of the wedding, it was a freaking nightmare. No one was there to coordinate these 200 people, the bridal party ended up being a huge pain in the ass as they would not sit still for 5 seconds and did not cooperate in the least for the formal shots. This made it extremely frustrating for me as the ceremony had been 45 minutes behind which cut into our session time huge. I only ended up having 20 minutes with everyone and I was told I “had to make the best of it”.

    At the reception, I tried my best to get everything I could and I even gave my spare camera to my husband so he could run around and get more candid shots and follow the bride and groom around while I manned the ridiculously busy photobooth later in the evening.

    After that nightmare, their shots turned out really beautifully. I gave them about 1200 usable shots and about the same amount from the photobooth; I was thrilled with the outcome. Unbeknownst my knowledge, the bride and grooms expectations completely changed from our initial meeting and last meeting leading up to the wedding. I thought I would have heard from them right away when they picked up the disks, but I did not. 1 whole week had gone by and I heard nothing. It was later in the second week I found out through another good friend that they had trashed my work and complained about the shots they did not receive to their families and our mutual friends. I was crushed. They were unthankful, really unappreciative about their photographs that I worked my ass off to get them (FOR FREE) and it still wasn’t good enough.. I even tried to make it up to them by taking them out for a ‘day after shoot’ for 3 hours to make them happy and still I got no thankyous; not even a peep.

    Because of this experience, I have been completely turned off by wedding photography and also with shooting for friends (for now). I think I will take your advice from this post and just make sure everything is a little more clear and concise. I would hate to have to go through something like this ever again.

  4. I guess I've been lucky so far – I haven't had to experience what's been described in the comments above yet (knock on wood). The one time when I had an issue was when I lost some of the images of one session (due to overwriting on the card before downloading). They still got great images, but not from all the locations we went to. I've worked hard to avoid that, but certain weekends I can have 5 or 6 photo sessions on location which can make things a bit hectic.
    For weddings, I make it very clear what is included and not included, when payment is due, etc. Being an engineer, it's quite easy to get caught up explaining the details, timelines, etc. I try to lowball the amount of images they'll receive for all sessions.
    One thing I can certainly relate to from the above is not getting a thank you or even any form of appreciation (or communication period!) after providing the images. I guess it shouldn't be expected, especially since they are the ones paying, but sometimes I wonder if I didn't meet their expectations, or they didn't love them, or what.

  5. It's nice to be in a position where you can pick and choose your bookings. I've learnt now that if something doesn't quite feel right when meeting with the couple, to trust my instincts! I've gone into weddings before thinking, this is going to be a nightmare and it normally is. If they make requests that I feel uncomfortable with or I get the feeling that there will be trouble afterward I make the call that perhaps we aren't the right suit for each other, and they might be better suited to another photographer. I just don't photograph weddings anymore that don't feel right in the first instance with me. I've found it's just not worth the stress and grief it can cause you in the long run.

  6. It's nice to be in a position where you can pick and choose your bookings. I've learnt now that if something doesn't quite feel right when meeting with the couple, to trust my instincts! I've gone into weddings before thinking, this is going to be a nightmare and it normally is. If they make requests that I feel uncomfortable with or I get the feeling that there will be trouble afterward I make the call that perhaps we aren't the right suit for each other, and they might be better suited to another photographer. I just don't photograph weddings anymore that don't feel right in the first instance with me. I've found it's just not worth the stress and grief it can cause you in the long run.

  7. VMP~ I'm glad you got that off your chest too, my comment was meant to be a short one but before I knew it I'd gone off on a tangent (and boy did it feel good!)
    The bride sounds definitely a little unstable. I don't know how you kept your cool!
    DDG~ Your story is unreal. I cannot believe the behaviour & cheek of these people after doing something for them for free.
    Most photographers are in it because they are passionate & LOVE taking photographs and more than anything LOVE to make people happy with their photographs. There would surely be no up side to having any other attitude?
    I want to go above & beyond for anyone I photograph, it's natural to want to do so. So when that's thrown in your face when you've worked your A$$ off both on the day & post processing it's a real kick in the teeth.
    Pardon me for perhaps getting too deep here… let's think of Facebook profile photos for instance. Do you ever look through some of your 'friends' photographs and think to yourself 'that looks absolutely nothing like them'
    I feel it's a common trend now, people like to be perceived at their best / or how they wish they looked (often they position themselves in a certain way and boost the contrast and brightness to a point they're hardly recognisable)
    It's the photographers job to capture your subject in the most attractive way, but also to catch 'real' moments (especially during wedding photography) I do believe a lot of people are so warped by this false persona/look they have created they find it hard to accept that is them in their images.
    Of course I take time to do a certain amount of airbrushing, making eyes pop, removing blemishes & spots etc but we can't change who the person is, editing the photographs to the point they look like a different person defeats the object entirely!
    That is where their expectations are completely unrealistic.
    This particular client complained she had put on weight beforehand which had made her hate the way she looked. So whether the photographs had great composition great colours and captured a real moment was irrelevant. There's no pleasing a person with this type of attitude.
    I feel it's now really important to be choosy, about who you photograph. I have had so many people who are over the moon with their final images, but I also notice the difference in these types of people. They are not a confident supermodel, they're in fact a little nervous about their shoot, BUT they accept who they are and what they look like. Therefore are expecting to see themselves when they receive their images..Not somebody else!

  8. HKG, you are totally right, I have had clients ask me to "edit out my double chin and thin me out a bit" that is not what I do, I am an honest photographer, I will not make you look like someone you are not, if you are unhappy with the way you look, you are the only one that can change that. May sound a bit harsh but its the truth. I am now very choosy with who I shoot, I do a pre-booking interview to make sure we are all on the same page. I explain that I do not over edit my images and I keep them as true to real life as I can. I will edit out blemishes and brighten eyes etc but I will not spend hours trying to turn them into a distorted version of themselves, it looks too obvious I think.

  9. *@HGK:* I'm so sorry to hear you had such a bad experience. It sounds really difficult. It sounds like you did a great job trying to set expectations, but it still didn't work out. That's the tricky part of working with people, sometimes thing go really off course. I think most wedding photographers have had a situation like yours, and didn't feel comfortable from the get go. I'm sure you learned a lot though, and know now what you can do to prevent it happening again!

    *@VMP:* Gosh, that sounds like such a tough day. But it sounds like you learned a lot from it, and had things set up to really prevent it in the future. I definitely agree that even friends need to do the paperwork just to make sure everyone is on the same page! Thanks so much for sharing.

    *@DDG:* Oh no, that's such a terrible situation. I'm so sorry to hear it. Mixing friendship and business can be really tricky, and have some disastrous outcomes. I understand that this would turn you off shooting weddings and for friends, but hopefully only for a little while. Both are really fantastic experiences, but just need to be prepared for. You are totally right that everything needs to be clear up front, and in writing. It seems like a small thing, but can be the biggest factor in having a smooth interaction.

    *@Evan:* The clearer the better when it comes to business, especially big things like weddings! That's awesome that you are doing good getting that all settled up front. And yeah, I definitely can relate to the lack of thank you being tough to handle. I think our clients don't always know just how much that means to us though. Just have to keep on doing what we do, and not let it bug us too much!

    *@EK:* Agreed, if something doesn't feel right, it is great to be able to pass. Tricky to do, but often worth it in the long run.

    *@HKG and VMP:* Very interesting point! Something to really think about, how personal image affects the client/photographer relationship, and their satisfaction with the final product. The amount of retouching done is another area to make sure to set expectations!

  10. Gosh! I knew I was not alone, the world is full of such clients in every part of the world! :)
    After reading all the stories above I'd say bring it on!!! We as photographers have a hell lot of responsibility to preserve their Big Day, if they don't cooperate who will? I wont be sharing a story here but yes I'd had similar bad situations where clients tend to act smart but thanks to email communications from day one, I've managed to walk away in peace.
    niazaliphotography.blogspot.com/

  11. Great post, as always R+L!

    What a fantastic topic for us creative types. Client expectations is a huge part of any business, photography included.

    I am a contracts manager by day (I negotiate contracts for a Calgary based oil and gas company) and wedding photographer in the evenings and weekends. My day job has taught me that everything must be in writing … and sometimes even when you capture everything in painstaking detail things can still go awry.

    Having a clear, solid contract template to work from (either from hiring a lawyer or by doing your own research) is a great starting point. After that, communication with your client in written form is the only way of keeping a record of what you have discussed and agreed to (great point Rob!). When my partner and I have client meetings face to face, I always follow up with an email summarizing what was discussed ( even in point form format, if I have to!). I always give my clients a chance to respond or edit the summary if I have missed something or mis-communicated their expectations.

    Let’s also consider that pride and emotions can cause misalignment with expectations as well. Our clients are spending tens of thousands of dollars on a day they’ve been looking forward to for a very long time. Of course they have set the bar very high, even if they haven’t communicated all the details to you beforehand. Any bride and groom have a list a mile long of details they must finalize before their wedding. More often than not, photography is a very small portion of that list.

    When its all said and done, how you handle yourself professionally can go a long way. If you weren’t given enough time because of delays, politely mention it and acknowledge that you didn’t get the shots. If you weren’t given a family formals shot list, politely mention it and acknowledge that you didn’t get the shot. Your kind and courteous professionalism can go a long way.

    As a last resort, if you have documented your client’s expectations in written format (contract and emails), there is something to be said about sticking to your business policies (in a professional way, of course). Your clients should not dictate your policies for you – they are there for a reason and should serve as best business practice guidelines. Standing ground and having confidence in your performance given the circumstances (whatever they may be) is sometimes the best defense for a less than ideal situation.

    Thanks again R+L for another quality post :)

    • Wow, fantastic points Erin! I really liked the idea of sending a summary email of what was discussed during in-person meetings. You’re right, when it comes to weddings there are so many details, it really is essential to make sure everyone is on the same page! Thank you so much for sharing!

  12. My partner and I are starting our own photography business right now and this post was so so helpful! Thanks for the heads up on contracting and and communicating, hopefully this will help us to minimise those hiccups as we get off the ground :) ill be doing a lot of client liason with my partner shooting and we will be working with babies and mums to be to begin with so we are a bit nervous but keen as to learn as much as we can and to share our love of beautiful photography with others :)

  13. Great article Rob! Couldn’t agree with it more. That ‘s why I build ShootZilla. To help photographers stay at ease with all those details that you want to communicate at just the right time.
    It also comes with a visual overview where you can track all your clients from inquiry to completion. Check it out at http://www.shootzilla.com

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