Sit back and let me tell you a story. One that is a bit too open, but I am going to tell it because it is the elephant in the room and must be discussed, regardless of whether or not past and potential clients can read this blog.
I met the couple downtown in a coffee shop / book shop. I had only ever spoken to the bride and she seemed very nice on the phone. She was so cute and so very nice, and he was a bit full of himself. As I spoke with the clients, I got an uneasy feeling, but I enjoyed the bride to be well enough and they (meaning she) seemed to like my work. So I gave them my pricing information, and told them to call me when they were ready to book.
When I arrived home, I told my wife I didn’t think that I should take that wedding (even if they wanted to book me). We were not booked solid and the money was needed, so saying that was a bit courageous of me. But two weeks later, when a check for 50% of the total package price arrived in the mail, I was unable to maintain that courageous position and I accepted the commission and cashed the check. I didn’t listen to my gut instincts and I took an assignment that didn’t feel like a good match.
Fast forward to the engagement session. We met for a morning photo session to which the clients were both late. She was sweet as could be and he was as mean and aloof as he could be. He wouldn’t touch her, nor did he have any interest in smiling. In fact, he seemed to want to throw me the Zoolander Magnum or Blue Steel look. Not sure which. Every time she spoke, he would shush her down, he called her names and belittled her as we shot and was simply awful to her the entire time we shot. I felt awful. She must have as well, but she maintained a pleasant attitude. “Why didn’t I listen to the warning sirens so many months ago?” I asked myself.
I got home and went to editing a series of very beautiful images of a mismatched couple that had no physical chemistry, a moody groom with no smile and a horrific attitude and who would not touch his bride, and a bride who through it all kept a smile on her face. Believe it or not, there were a couple great shots where the Blue Steel look played well off of her warm and gentle smile. They were very insistent that we turn the photos around quickly because they wanted to send them out soon in the save the dates. So, I posted them on Pictage and sent out a slideshow and waited to hear back from them.
Fast forward two months. I waited. I emailed and I called, but no reply. No email. No phone call. Nothing. I started to wonder if they had called off the wedding. It made perfect sense: I must have caught the tail end or the beginning of the fight that ended the relationship. Bless her heart, she walked away from a very bad relationship. Or at least that was my first thought. I emailed her again and asked her to respond and let me know what she would like to do.
“We decided to use a snap shot from a vacation for the save the dates,” she explained. “We were not very happy with the photos. We thought you would have taken more photos of [the groom] smiling.” She also complained of not having enough images of the two of them cuddling, close together, holding hands, etc. I was flabbergasted, and befuddled.
I emailed her a very simple explanation. “I am a documentary photographer. I watch your natural expressions, emotions and interactions and play off of those. I don’t manufacture moments or emotions. I think perhaps you may be much happier with a portrait photographer who will pose you both and direct you as to when to smile and when to embrace,” etc… I wanted to warn her. “You’re a nice girl, he’s not a nice guy. Get out while you can.” But I thought better. I then explained that they still had a good six months until their wedding and that I would be more than happy to refund their entire deposit if they would like to find a photographer who is more suitable to their style. They confirmed that they would like to do this, so I wrote a check and washed my hands. To this day, I do not know if they were actually married or not. I hope not.
The money was still needed. The photographs were still quite good. But I failed. I failed my family, I failed myself and I failed the client. I knew that the client was not a match for me on our first meeting. I knew there would be problems. I felt it instinctually, so much so, that I told my wife I didn’t want to take the job. But I took it anyway because of the money. I needed the money. But the money was not worth the potential hazards.
I was fortunate and so were my clients that I came to my senses early enough to avoid a disaster for us both. Had I selfishly clung to the contract, I would have hated the job and they would have hated their photography. They would have complained about their photography and I would have moaned about them. No good could come of it. But I recognized the danger when the second warning bells rang and I solved the problem. Did it hurt financially? Yes. But in the end, I was better off and so were the clients. They had a chance to get another photographer and had learned a bit about what they did and did not like and I avoided complaints, bad word of mouth and potential legal issues.
I swore after that experience that I would never again take a client who didn’t feel like a good fit. So I am very upfront and honest with my clients. I sometimes loose a client, but bending and changing for each new client wouldn’t be fair to them or to me. I have a style, I am good at it and the people who hire truly trust my eye. They trust me and they know what they are getting when they commission my services. I cannot be everything to everyone. I know what I want to do, and I know which clients want what I have to offer.
It is your job to know where you fit into a wedding and where you do not and to graciously bow out when you don’t fit. But this all requires that you get to know your potential client. When they are interviewing you, you must be interviewing them. Find out what they want from their photographer. Be open with them. Talk about your philosophies and ask them about their expectations. Tell them how you operate. Don’t just tell them what you do or can do. Tell them why you do it and why you won’t do what you do not do. When they leave, you should know whether or not they will love your work. You should know this before they do. And then be honorable enough to let them know when they should be looking somewhere else.
Don’t be afraid to let one go here and there. I let that one go, and I have let many others go since then, and I am still around. I made up the difference somewhere else. There is a client for every photographer. Know who your client is and let the others go.