If there’s one way to characterize my experience as a fledgling full-time photographer this year, it would be “boot camp.” Or maybe “growing pains.” Or “on-the-job-training.” Or “trial-by-fire…”
You get the idea. The process of creating a sustainable business can be overwhelming and demoralizing. But the only way to do it, is to DO IT.
This year, that meant lots of dusting-myself-off-after-mistakes and soldiering on, believing that tomorrow will be a better day. It’s been such a fruitful year in terms of my growth as a business owner and photographer, so I thought I’d kick off my annual “year-in-review” blog post series by sharing some of my mistakes with you, so you can spare yourself the trouble.
Lesson #1: Adequately Test New Gear.
When I shot the Cox Employee Portrait job, I had about 36 hours notice, during which time I bought an additional SB900 Speedlight, light stands, and speedlight softboxes. I needed those items anyway, so this job provided the motivation to purchase them. My plan was to use the speedlights with my D700 in Commander Mode (i.e. sans radio poppers) for a basic two-light studio portrait setup. Although I tested the system the night before the shoot in my garage, it failed completely on location the next day; neither speedlight fired a single time. My assistant and I tried everything we could think of – switching flash locations, moving the camera position, changing batteries, etc. The failure was most likely due to an ambient light problem, but we never did figure it out.
Fortunately, I arrived on set about 1.5 hours before the shoot began, so I had time to tinker around. However, once my client and models began to arrive, there was no more time for troubleshooting. I had to start working and make the most of the situation. Since the room had a large window and the day was mostly sunny, I decided to abandon the speedlights entirely. I moved my white backdrop directly in front of the window, and shot with +3 exposure compensation, which helped wash out the white background and allowed me to keep the ISO low and the shutter speed high.
What I Learned
- Using new gear once before a job is not adequate testing. I won’t make that mistake again – particularly with wireless systems for which performance can vary in different ambient environments.
- When in doubt, use wireless triggers. Why trust Commander mode if I don’t have to? If I were using Radio Poppers the system would have worked just fine. Even when using Commander mode, bring along backup triggers.
- Don’t panic in front of a client. When my client arrived, the first words out of my mouth were something along the lines of “we are having technical difficulties” accompanied by wild-eyed panic. Obviously, this rattled my client and made me look like I wasn’t in control of the situation, which ultimately, I was.
Lesson #2: Stay on Top of Your Receivables.
Commercial photography can challenge a photographer’s ability to manage cash flow, due to payment cycles up to net-60 days, and/or the relative difficulty of obtaining a retainer since so many clients call at the last-minute. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the size of a company and the speed with which they pay their bills.
In most cases, clients will utilize the entirety of what ever grace period a photographer offers; payments usually arrive almost exactly on the invoice due date. And, of course, things don’t always go according to plan.
Examples of sticky situations this year:
- Lost or Stalled Invoice. It took Cox over 100 days after the date of service to pay me, (which is ironic, since I’ve been a Cox customer for years without ever missing a payment). The process by which they pay vendors changed right about the time I delivered my invoice, and unfortunately, that meant my invoice got snared in their new system.
- Stalemate on Contract Negotiations. For my behind-the-scenes/architectural shoot for EBSPRO/HGTV on the set of Showhouse Showdown, I was contacted by the EBSPRO producer only 1 week prior to the shoot. While he and I quickly agreed on a project rate, I had more difficulty reaching a contractual agreement with their attorney. 12 hours before the shoot, I still hadn’t yet received the redlined contract. I decided to show up the next morning anyway, because I didn’t want to leave them in a lurch at the last-minute. It took another 2 months to get the final contract from their attorney, and without a contract, they couldn’t pay me, so their payment was 30 days late.
- My Own Impatience. I once got a little over-eager about a big job, and sent a payment reminder 7 days before the due date to R2W, which probably (understandably) irritated them a little.
The challenge in managing receivables is allowing clients a reasonable amount of time to pay their bills according to their internal procedures, while also taking steps to prevent late payments and then enforcing contracts when payments are late.
After countless emails and lots of confusion involving lots of well-intentioned Cox employees, the main Accounting office finally deleted my invoice from their automatic ACH payment system and my local contact paid me via credit card over the phone. I had to repeatedly follow-up with them; left to their own devices, my invoice would be lost in India somewhere. Literally. Similarly, with EBSPRO, I followed up with them once their payment was 30 days late, to remind them that they didn’t have permission to use my images yet because we still didn’t have a contract. About a week before their first show aired and their publicity push ramped up, we finally got the contract in place and I was paid.
What I Learned
- Be Your Own Advocate. No one else will make sure you get paid but you!
- Send Your W-9 Automatically. Send it along with the initial invoice, before it’s requested. Additionally, ask for a contact in accounting, and offer to communicate directly with them if possible, rather than going through the art buyer.
- Request [Partial] Payment Before You Shoot. For portrait clients, require a non-refundable Creative (i.e. Session) Fee. For commercial jobs, at minimum require a retainer (50%), as recommended by Steve Whittaker.
- Offer, and Encourage, Credit Card Payments. I use Square, and love it. You’ll get paid faster and avoid spending hours and hours chasing down a check later, which is more than worth the small fees associated with credit cards. Fast payments = more predictable cash flow. Treat Credit Card fees as part of your cost of doing business. Build the expense into your business plan.
- Follow-Up. Be a squeaky, but polite, wheel. Paperwork gets inadvertently lost, staff turnover, procedures change, etc. Stay on top of your receivables, and have a system in place for communicating with clients about balances owed (i.e. phone call at 30 days, email and phone call at 60 days, certified mail at 90 days).
- Maintain a Financial Cushion. In other words, don’t count your chickens before they hatch; don’t go buy a bunch of new gear as soon as you book a big job. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. This means doing all of the above to encourage early payments, but actually planning to receive payments no earlier than for 30-60 days from the date of service, regardless of the due date on your invoice. Payment delays from time to time are an inevitable part of owning a business.
- Never Shoot Without a Contract in Place. I did that with EBSPRO, and learned the hard way not to do it again. If I had called the producer the night before the shoot and said “I can’t come to the set tomorrow because we still don’t have a contract” I am certain the attorney would have sent one within minutes. Sometimes, you have to draw a firm line, even if it feels like you are risking losing the job.
Lesson #3: As My Business Grows, My Client Base Must Evolve.
To launch a business, most people first turn to their family and friends, who are generally happy to support the new ventures of their loved ones. In turn, the new business owner provides special deals to their inner circle. This works for a time, but in the long run is problematic because 1) it’s not financially sustainable and 2) it’s hard to ever move such “clients” towards your “real” prices.
I’ve experienced this myself. Many of my earliest clients are friends that have been very loyal to me over the years, and therefore, I to them. But, in 2011, my entire portrait photography business model changed – quite dramatically.
- I separated project costs from product costs.
- I began charging a non-refundable Creative (Session) Fee.
- I wrote a business plan.
- I increased my product prices according to my cost of business, the cost of production, and desired profit margin. This process was painstakingly deliberate, and took me about a week of intense work, lots of Excel charts, and resources from the experts at PPA.
- My products, both digital and print, are now all a la carte.
- Clients have 90 days to place their orders. (School families only 30.)
As a result of all of these changes, I’ve struggled with how to continue doing business with my early supporters, who were comfortable with my previous methods, and some of whom are not able or willing to pay higher rates. I offered incentives and custom packages to retain some of these old clients, but then regretted it because my profit margin was so low. In other some cases, offering concessions made clients feel uncomfortable because they felt like I was doing them too many favors or taking pity.
In 2012, I’ll approach things differently. I’ll continue offering a 10% discount to former clients on my Creative Fee and Products; repeat customers deserve special treatment. However, I will no longer offer custom packages for old clients. If I lose some of them as a result, that’s okay. For my business to grow, my client base has to evolve.
What I Learned
- Fewer Shoots at My Full Rate are Better Than More Shoots With Little to No Profit. My rates are based on a business plan; they aren’t arbitrary. In the long-term, I can’t afford to collect less than what my business plan calls for on each shoot. Further, my time is valuable; I’d rather not be shooting unless I am getting paid adequately. I am not a volunteer; I am not a photographer because I need a hobby. Lastly, I don’t want to add wear and tear to my expensive equipment unless I am recouping my full rate.
- There is a Time to Let Go of Old Clients. My sense of loyalty to the people who believed in me early in photography career is very strong. I feel guilty about not accommodating all of their requests. But, this year I learned that when I overextend myself, it frustrates me and sometimes, the client as well. If we agree that it’s no longer a good fit, that’s okay. We can still be friends – I know this, because it’s happening!
- When Trust is Gone, Clients Will Walk Away. By pushing certain clients too much to stick with me, I break the trust they feel with me. They feel manipulated or coerced, rather than invited, to do business with me. This ruins the pleasant relationship we experienced previously.
- Saying No is Empowering. If someone really wants to hire me, they will find the money. This is true for both portrait and commercial clients. In one case, a portrait client balked at my rates, but when I stuck to my guns, they eventually booked anyway. In contrast, I was contacted by Groupon Getaways for an architectural shoot; they wanted 50 images of a local hotel (interiors, exteriors, surrounding neighborhood) in 72 hours, with copyright transfer, for $200. I said no (and good riddance!) and never felt better doing so.
Lesson #4: It’s Better to Re-Shoot and Cut Your Losses Than Leave a Client Unhappy.
When I first shot the Gilling Legal Group portraits, several things went wrong.
- It was August in Phoenix. It was too hot, and they wanted shots outside the AZ Capital Dome. They were uncomfortable in their suits, and we were too rushed as a result.
- I didn’t properly consult with them in their clothing choices, and therefore, the resulting images weren’t as flattering as they could have been.
- I had major white balance issues inside the Capital Dome, which has orange walls, orange ceiling, etc. It was awful and attempting to correct the balance in post made their skin tones look pasty.
- They had some scheduling issues that morning, which caused Kelly to arrive late, feeling rushed and stressed out.
Overall, it was one of the worst shoots I’ve ever had; while I was shooting, I knew it wasn’t going well, and my doubts were later confirmed. Usually, when I deliver proofs, clients rave about how much they love them, but when I delivered the images this time, Kelly made a tentative statement about how she had a bad hair day, and asked me not to publish any of them. I knew immediately that she wasn’t happy.
I called Kelly right away, and probed a little to identify the depth of her concerns. They were happy with Mark’s individual portraits, but not Kelly’s or the ones of them together. I offered to either:
- Refund, or
- Re-shoot at no cost the next time I was in Phoenix.
They decided to re-shoot, so we met again at the Capital in October, and the re-shoot was a success, due to several improvements.
- I gave Kelly specific pointers on clothing, hair, and makeup.
- The weather was much cooler.
- We shot completely outside to avoid the color issues inside the dome.
- They had family in town to take their kids to school so they could focus on getting ready for the shoot and be relaxed and on time.
In the end, they licensed 3 files from the first shoot, and 4 from the second. After receiving payment for those 7 files, I licensed all of the images from both shoots to them as a conciliatory gesture and to compensate for the inconvenience of a re-shoot.
What I Learned
- Never Shoot in Bad Weather. It was wishful thinking to conduct an outdoor shoot in Phoenix in August. I won’t do that again! No one has fun! Same thing for winter shoots elsewhere; when the forecast is bad, it’s better to reschedule.
- Clothing Consults Matter. I point clients to my clothing tips in advance, and when on-location, make sure they bring choices and that I advise them when something isn’t working well.
- Pay Attention to Clues Suggesting Clients are Unhappy. I could have easily dismissed Kelly’s comment about having a bad hair day as a result of her own insecurity, but I sensed it was indicative of a bigger problem. It’s human nature to avoid conflict – like when a restaurant manager stops by your table to ask how everything tastes, and you say “great” even though you think it’s average (or awful). Sometimes, you have to prod clients a little to get an honest response.
- When a Client’s Unhappy, Respond Immediately. If I hadn’t immediately offered to re-shoot for Mark and Kelly, I don’t think they would have used the images, and would be unlikely to work with me (or trust me) again. As they say…if a client is happy, they might tell one person, but if they are unhappy, they will tell ten. Keeping clients happy is paramount, even when one or more of the reasons they are unhappy isn’t your fault (i.e. bad hair day).
- Go Above and Beyond Expectations to Compensate for Mistakes. In the end, I think Mark and Kelly were not only satisfied with their images, but pleasantly surprised and grateful for how things turned out. My goal was to leave them with a happy memory of getting more than they expected, erasing any lingering frustrations.
Lesson #5: Someone Should Scout the Location. If It’s You, Get Paid For It.
When I shot for R2W in Tulsa and Dallas, due to their budget constraints, I only had one day to shoot in each location, and no opportunity to scout. This isn’t inherently a problem, except when the product you are hired to shoot isn’t working, and you don’t know that until you arrive.
- Inside the lounge in the Hard Rock, the lighting system malfunctioned, and we wasted an hour waiting for the techs to try to get it working, to no avail.
- In Dallas, one of the R2W’s key products inside the Media Bar and Grill wasn’t working, which my local host knew, but failed to communicate to the art buyer in Phoenix before we arrived.
I delivered the proofs to the art buyer without explanation (assuming he knew about the malfunctions from his co-workers), and he was startled by the absence of images of those two products.
For Walton Signage, I was able to scout in advance because the site was so close to my house. However, it wasn’t until I was editing the images that I noticed that two of the letters on the main sign had visible flaws. I reported the flaws to my contact in San Antonio, who was unaware of the damage because they hadn’t scouted the site prior to hiring me.
- R2W: Unfortunately, in this case, since the job required travel and my client didn’t have the budget to send me a second time to re-shoot, there was nothing I could do to deliver images of those products. My mistake was not calling the art buyer from the location immediately to report the malfunctions, to at least give them the opportunity to troubleshoot on the spot.
- Walton Signage: I knew that the company wouldn’t want images featuring their product if the product was flawed. When I delivered the proofs from my first night shooting, I provided an image cropped in close enough for them to examine the flaws. They sent someone to the location that week to repair the problems, after which I re-shot for them.
What I Learned
- Scouting is Paramount. Prior to shooting and during the negotiating stage, find out if the client has already scouted themselves for possible problems. Specifically, verify that the client has personally ensured that all of their products are functioning properly before you travel to the location.
- Build Scouting into Your Project Rate. In early discussions, educate your client about this issue and why it’s an important component of planning an effective shoot, both in terms of confirming a shot list and anticipating on-location challenges. Calculate how much time you’ll need to scout effectively and how much mileage is involved, and include that in your estimate in addition to the actual shoot.
- Notify Clients ASAP of On-Location Problems or Malfunctions. Clients usually don’t like unhappy surprises – especially if you’ve already received any payment. Regardless of whether it’s your fault, if you don’t deliver the images that the client is expecting, it will make you look bad. In contrast, if the client becomes aware of the problems you encounter immediately, they have the opportunity to ponder solutions and alternatives while you are still working. Or, worst case scenario, cancel or postpone the shoot until the problems are resolved, which prevents you from wasting a day on location.
Lesson #6: Communicate Directly With the Person That Will Approve Your Work.
Often, the person that contacts the photographer is a subordinate (i.e. Executive Assistant, entry-level marketing staff, etc.) of the person (i.e. VP of Marketing) that will approve your images. This can cause delays both on the front end during contract negotiations, and later during the image selection process. Both your terms and the client’s expectations go through a “middle man,” which can breed miscommunications.
For example, on the Walton Signage job, my contact was an assistant, who told me that her boss needed up to 8 images of “the” sign on the new Whole Foods store in OKC. Since I hadn’t spoken directly to her boss, I diligently scanned the company website to see what types of product imagery they used. Based on the images I saw there, I shot tighter shots of the main sign, and a couple of the smaller sign on the west sign, just in case, even though the assistant hadn’t specifically mentioned it.
Once I delivered the proofs, I learned – via the assistant again – that the boss actually wanted wide-angle shots, showing the sign and the whole width of the building, which varied significantly from what was on their website already. Further, she needed shots of all three signs – there was another third sign on the north side that I didn’t even know about!
I returned to the location a second time at no additional cost to my client, to create additional proofs of all three signs, including some at a wide-angle to show the building in its entirety. After that 2nd shoot, they made additional shot requests (not reflective of the quality of my work), at which point I put my foot down, and insisted that I speak with the art buyer, further explaining that more time on-location would require additional payment. I never did speak directly with the “boss,” but they approved the existing images and declined additional work.
What I Learned
- Talk to the “Right” Person. The “right” person is the person that will decide if you did your job and deserve to get paid. If that’s not possible, ask to speak with him or her on the phone during the project-planning process, and make sure your written records reflect this request.
- Encourage Client Representation On-Location. Ideally, the art buyer will be on-location with you. Regardless, your contracts should include a statement such as “The Client is responsible for the presence of an authorized representative at the shoot to approve the Photographer’s interpretation of the assignment. If a Client representative is not present, the Photographer’s interpretation shall be deemed acceptable.” (All of my contracts include this exact statement.)
- Agree With the Art Buyer On a Detailed Shot List. Write down a plan, including specific shots, and ask for the client’s approval of your list prior to arriving on location. There are many different ways to interpret any particular assignment, even something as seemingly straightforward as product shots of a sign on a grocery store building. (Wide Angle or narrow? Sign lit or not? One sign or all three? Shoppers in the frame or not? Day or night? Horizontal or vertical? etc.) Once your client approves your shot list, you can then add your own creative shots while on location after you’ve met their minimum expectations.
- Don’t Make Assumptions. In this case, I assumed a) they only needed the main sign (the others are boring, right? Wrong. Not to the manufacturer!) and b) they wanted tight shots showing the sign details because that’s what they mostly had on their website. In reality, a company may hire you specifically because they need images that vary from what they already have.
- Confirm the Feasibility of the Shot List via a Scouting Trip. Do this prior to shooting and Delivering Images. See Lesson #5.
What did you learn in 2011? I’d love to learn from you, as well. And I’d love to hear your thoughts about the lessons above…do you disagree with anything? Do you have any other related suggestions in these areas? I hope we will keep learning together.
Much success in 2012!