…but that’s a true statement about any service business.
There’s always going to be that occasional mooch looking for a free ride. You’re going to lovingly shoot them with no session fee, ask no minimum order, you’re going to begrudgingly post their photos to an online album because they desperately <insert weak excuse here>, then they’re gonna straight jack your proofs (watermark and all – maybe they’ll even cut it off in MS Paint!) and never spend a penny with you.
You know what?
Let it go.
One of the most common questions I get from new photographers is:
“How do I protect my photos from being stolen?”
This leads to discussions on proofing, watermarking, tracking, right-click disabling, copyright infringement, intellectual property law, and the real beneficiaries of such debate…lawyers.
The question is certainly valid, but the overwhelming concern – and the resultant long-winded opining from other photographers – is decidedly inverse to the real life problem and what it means to a portrait photographer.
Commercial photogs have something worth worrying about. Their images are carefully crafted, hugely expensive to produce, and they make their money through exclusivity and licensing. God bless’em, Copyright 101 is a required course for them.
But for us portrait photogs? You’ve got to get over yourself if you think you’re going to end up taking Jane Doe and her family to court for right-clicking on the proofs you posted online from y’alls photo shoot.
It’s fun to discuss the topic of copyright, to fantasize out loud to a frothing audience of fellow photogs about cease and desist letters, law suits, and reparations. We get to throw around words like infringement and punitive damages! You will even hear precious, rare stories from other photogs of successful copyright lawsuits. But for your everyday real life portrait photog, for example a part-timer like you or I, it’s just blustery self-important power-tripping horsesh*t.
Marketing guru Chris Garrett goes so far as to describe this mentality as exactly “How to Kill Your Brand in One Easy Step.” Popular Digger rsm33 sums it up nicely in reference to the RIAA’s attitude toward music lovers: “When you treat your customers like thieves, don’t be surprised if they stop buying things from you.”
Here’s what you really need to know:
Educate your client
Education (proactive) trumps persecution (reactive) every time.
Don’t stress out seeking every possible safeguard to put in place for protecting yourself from being taken advantage of.
It’s going to happen either way – you stand to lose more by wasting your time and treating clients like criminals than from any nefarious deed your occasional bad-seed clients come up with.
Most folks steal copyrighted digital works – MP3s, movies, your photos – A) because they can, and B) because they don’t liken it to stealing something In Real Life.
A good friend of mine, an educated, mature professional, asked me a few months ago where she could go online to “download movies.” I said iTunes. She said she wasn’t going to pay to download something from the Internet – the very idea was preposterous to her. I said that’s against the law. She didn’t believe me, so I showed her.
She had no idea.
Mates, if this woman didn’t “know better,” there’s a billion folks out there just like her.
Netizens like you and I are more wise to these truths than Mr. and Mrs. John Doe out there in the real world. Don’t let the curse of knowledge make you think otherwise. And don’t write your market off as slobbering boobs either, barbarians from which to protect your art – there are plenty of clients out there ready and able to drop hundreds to thousands of dollars on portrait photography who know little more about the Internet than where to find their e-mail and that skateboarding dog.
Here are some tips:
- The unequaled best way to prevent portraiture clients from stealing your proofs is to not put them online. You’re more likely to attract bargain hunters and right-click-savers at the entry-level end of the market, so if at all possible, do in-person proofing in your home, studio, or on a laptop at the cafe. You’ll retain complete control of your images at all times.
- If you must or prefer to do online proofing, get a retainer. I like to ask about half of my per-client average sale. This will ward off the worst clients, those who have no intention of spending money with you at all.
- Educate your client. When you’re talking about your digital file offerings, chat them up about how the files come with an “unlimited license for personal use” so they can legally share or print the files anywhere and any way they want. Telling them what they can do should clue them in to what they can’t do.
- If they ask about online proofs, let them know your retainer policy. “I’ve had problems with some folks stealing the online proofs and never buying anything at all. I know you guys wouldn’t do something like that, but instead of not doing online proofs at all for anyone, the retainer lets folks get online proofs if they want them. You get the full amount of the retainer in print and file credits, so it doesn’t actually cost anything.” It takes about 15 seconds to clearly explain this to a client, likely better than I’ve written it here – commit the line to memory and practice it until it flows as casually as regular conversation.
- If they scoff at paying a retainer, remind them they’re welcome to do an in-person proofing session, which of course requires no retainer. This is yet another advantage and tool in-person proofing gives you if you can do it.
- If they press the issue, listen to your gut. If you feel the client would still make a worthwhile buy if you put the photos online without a retainer, hey, you’re the business owner – exercise flexibility where you want. But if you feel the client may be trying to game you, don’t hesitate to say “No.” If they walk away, as I’ve said here before, you probably didn’t want them as a client anyway. Never be afraid to refuse a client or refer them out.
I’ve been doing professional photography here in Bandera County for over a decade. Between this and my position with the newspaper, most folks know me and I enjoy a solid reputation in the community. Also, being in a rural Texas market, most of the clients I deal with are right honest folk.
My market and my position within that market allow me to be casual with my business policies. I charge no session fee, have no minimum order, and if I feel good about a client, I’ll even break down and do online proofs without a retainer – but only if I feel very confident.
A few years ago I discovered that no session fee + no minimum order + automatic, ‘free’ online proofs = dismal sales, even in my normally friendly market.
Even I have to admit you can only be so casual about your policies before you’re not doing business anymore. Unless this part time photography business is just fun and games for you, there should be a gentleman’s understanding between you and your client that money will indeed exchange hands at some point.
You don’t have to be blatant, like forcing a minimum order, but subtle cues can build expectations with your client.
- During your very first chat with a client, as you’re discussing their needs, be sure to ask questions that touch on the end product they want to walk away with. “Were you looking to end up with some digital files to print from and share on Facebook?” “What about a wall hanging, something to add a conversational centerpiece for your home?” “Wallets are a great choice for high school seniors because they can share them with all their friends, write little personal notes on the back, that sort of thing – and they come eight to a sheet!” You don’t have to be pushy about this; in fact, they don’t even have to know what they want. Having a casual chat on the topic at least plants the seed in their mind that an end product of some kind is the goal of the shoot.
- While you’re shooting, talk about potential end products for certain images while you’re making them. If I’m doing a full-length shot of a posed family, I’m going to comment that that image would make a nice portrait for the wall. If I’m doing goofy headshots of a high school senior, I’ll say something like “That’s hilarious, your friends are going to love these. They’d be perfect as wallet prints or digital files for posting on your Facebook!” Get the buzz started long before the sales session. As always, you’re not trying to manipulate them into buying something they don’t want; as their professional photographer, you’re guiding their buying experience and helping expose them to good uses for the photos they might not have otherwise considered. You should always be working to maximize the value your clients get from their experience and purchase with you.
- Chimp away during your shoot, and show your clients what you’re getting together. Here and there, mention a good use for a given image. Digital file, wall portrait, Facebook slideshow, collage, 8×10’s for grandparents, whatever would truly be a good end product for what you’re showing them.
- If you can subtly chat clients up about potential end products during the shoot, you’ll have an easier time during the sales session. You’ll have given them some ideas to think about, and when they sit down with you and you’re proofing the images with them, you can refer back to the suggestions you made during the shoot. “Here’s that group shot I said would be great for a wall portrait. Great expressions on this one, everyone looks sharp. You may like a different one out of the set, but that’s my favorite.” You’re not being arrogant or forceful, you’re guiding their experience. Again, you’re the professional – your client will appreciate your opinion and enthusiasm.
- If you’re proofing online, you have to build expectations and offer your sales advice by e-mail. When you send the gallery link to your client, include some comments about what images or sets of images you like for certain products, expose your client to interesting alternative products (like groupings, gallery wraps, collages, digital slideshows, whatever creative offerings you may have), and continue to create the expectation of a sale. I like to remind my client of the prices of my offerings, and let them know exactly how they can go about placing their order and the timeline for delivery of prints or a CD.
It can take some time and practice to become perfectly comfortable interlacing sales talk like this with casual conversation, but I guarantee you it does get easier the more you do it. It’s also very effective. I am blessed with great clients, but it’s no accident that certain expectations are made clear from the very first conversation or e-mail. Any potential mooches know I mean business from the start. And I’ve never had to be an ass about it to create that clarity.
Scaling your safeguards to fit your market
Chris Garrett views the issue this way:
1. Most people are honest, and your customers should not be treated otherwise unless there is a good reason.
2. When mitigating risks you should use appropriate, reasonable measures that do not put extra burden on brand new customers. This is a poor first impression.
3. A potential loss of a missed payment could be a better option than a severely disappointed potential advocate telling anyone who will listen their story.
Especially at the entry level, you may face some real challenges while you try to break into a target market that will both respect your work and have the innate expectation of spending money with you.
Triple these challenges if you’re doing business in a big city. I’m not trying to stereotype, but consistently I hear from photogs in the big cities who get overrun with cheap, pushy, needy bargain hunters at the first mention of having no session fee.
I suggest you start off as flexible and customer-friendly as you can, and introduce more stringent safeguards as absolutely necessary to protect your time investment. A flood of cheap clients early on does give you good practice at both your art and business, but you always deserve fair compensation for your time. As your client base grows, and as you start to earn buzz in better circles of clients, the bargain hunters will find someone else to haggle with.
Let’s play a little ‘if-then’ here:
- If you’re completely unknown as a photographer, have no paying clients, and no exposure in your market…then leave yourself wide open to being taken advantage of. No session fees, no minimum orders, no retainers, no ordering deadlines, and prices that err on the side of budget-friendly. Continue to guide your clients’ expectations, but chalk up the bad clients to portfolio building. The good clients? Shower them with love, get them on your newsletter e-mail list, get them on your Facebook friends list, and earn referrals to their friends. Focus your time this way and you’ll eventually be booked solid with only the best referrals of your best clients (file this under ‘Real Secrets of Success as a Part Time Photographer’.).
- If you’re getting lots of requests for online albums, and sales are dismal or non-existent after the shoot…then introduce a retainer for posting online proofs. Make it about half your per-client average sale. If you have no sales yet, make it something affordable but not Wal-Mart cheap – say, $40 or $50. If you’re keeping your per-client time investment down around four hours (pre-shoot, shoot, post processing, sales and follow-up), you’re at least guaranteeing yourself paperboy money. Don’t worry – keep shooting, improving your art, and growing your customer base, and you’ll step up to a better market and better averages in time.
- If you’re having problems with no-show clients (as in a one-in-two problem, not a one-in-10 problem)…then ask for a credit card number to reserve the booking. Let them know you won’t charge anything to the card – unless they don’t show up, in which case a cancellation fee will be charged. Even 10 or 20 bucks is enough to ward off the truly appointment-averse. You can even tell them they’ll get the cancellation fee back in print credits when they reschedule. I have luckily never needed a policy like this, but if I was getting stood up by half my clients, I wouldn’t hesitate to take steps to protect my time.
- If clients are avoiding a commitment to buy, saying they need to consult with their significant other, asking how long you keep the images on file so they can “buy a few now and get the rest later,” or any similar wavering…then introduce a deadline to purchase. When I set up an in-person viewing, I let the client know that after that viewing, I don’t guarantee to keep the images on file because of having to make room for current shoots. With online proofs, I like to give clients a week – certainly no less time than I asked for to process and post the images after the shoot. A gentler version of this is to introduce an archival fee to pull the images off DVD after a certain period.
- If your per-client sales averages are disappointing…then keep shooting. Only the very blessed fall bass ackwards into their ideal client base as an unknown photographer. If you can create luck like this, don’t let my words stop you. However, just about everything I write about here on PartTimePhoto.com assumes you’re starting from the beginning and working your way up the food chain. Exceptional art and exceptional marketing can catapult you right into a lucrative market, but both are skills learned over time. If you’ve already got either, you’re not waiting for my permission to get rich.
- If you’re in a brutal market that eats generous, customer-friendly photographers for breakfast…then go ahead and start charging a session fee. Have a minimum required order. You’re not running a charity, so if you’re straight up getting screwed by your market, take the necessary measures to ensure you aren’t donating your time to the benefit of unscrupulous clients. This is a worst-case scenario, a last stand against a barbaric enemy; you’re going to have to quickly and greatly step up your art and marketing to attract the kinds of clients who have no fear of session fees or minimum orders. Make no mistake, though: you can do it. It won’t be easy, but thousands of other photographers have done it this way, and so can you. Once you do break into that market and secure a foothold, you can again relax your policies and pack your schedule with good, profitable clients.
Nothing personal…but it could just be you
Don’t take this the wrong way…but if you’re consistently getting crappy clients, the problem may be that you’re marketing to the wrong people…or marketing the wrong things.
I had a horrible run on MySpace around 2006. This was when I was doing online proofing with no retainer, no session fee, no minimum order. Hell, I even threw my wife’s make-up artist services in for free!
Oh, I was busy as hell – I was downright popular, with my proofs adorning dozens of people’s MySpace profiles – but I wasn’t even making milk money.
This is when I learned my lesson about setting expectations with clients. This is when I learned that, when everything you do and say and market screams “I’M CHEAP AND DESPERATE,” you’re actively marketing yourself to the worst possible clients.
When you’re starting out, you really have to take your chances and take whatever clients you can get. Warm bodies in front of your camera at least give you the chance of making a sale and earning good repeat customers.
But if you’re overwhelmed with bad clients, start being more choosy in who you market to and how. This is tricky, but the idea is to gradually shift the focus of your proposition (what you have to offer as a photographer) away from your no-risk policies (no session fee, no minimum order, low prices) and toward the value of your art and experience.
If your web site design and content, for example, screams no session fee/no minimum order/no risk, but whispers about the quality of your art, you’re actively marketing to folks who are the least likely to have the expectation of spending good money with you. Makes sense, right?
As your client base grows and you get a good number of shoots under your belt, as your portfolio grows and your artistic talents develop, you can start tipping the scales of your marketing more in favor of the value of your art rather than the attractiveness of your policies. Less we-finance-anyone used car lot, more Mercedes dealership. Both business models work, but you’ll likely have to start at one end of the scale and work your way across to the other.
Trust your gut; trust your numbers as you compare per-client average sales to per-client time invested; trust your intuition as you judge your busy-ness versus your business… Adjust your marketing – its content, its voice, its target, its unique selling proposition – when you feel the time is right. Make small, gradual changes, and take time to measure the results. Then change again, measure again. Rinse and repeat.
You’ll know you’re top drawer when your marketing says, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford me,” and you’re still booked solid.
Until then, be flexible, show respect and love for your clients, but always maintain your self respect and self worth. If you don’t, you’ll burn out of the photography business before you have the chance to bring your art to the folks who would most appreciate and enjoy it.
- Get yourself a little text file going, or if you’re that kind, an Excel spreadsheet. Start keeping track of your clients and a few simple details: who are they, where did they find out about you, why did they choose you for their photos, how much did you profit from their purchase, how much time did you personally dedicate to that client from first contact to sale/delivery/follow-up. As this database grows, you’ll start to have enough information to see trends: maybe you’re getting your worst clients from MySpace, but your best clients from Facebook; maybe your most profitable per-hour-invested clients are coming from Craigslist of all places. This simple act of measurement will give you all the data you need to make intelligent, effective decisions about who your best clients are, where you’re getting them from, and how. Now go out there and get more just like them.
- Think of your Top 3 best clients this month. They can be your best because you had fun with them, or because they spent good money with you (it doesn’t always have to be about profit, ya know). Open up your e-mail and send them a heartfelt thank-you note right this moment. Just let them know how much you truly appreciate their business. Let them know you’re always happy to serve their photography needs; let them know you welcome the business of their friends and family, also, if any are in the market for good photos. Plant the referral seed and watch it grow.
- Are those Top 3 recent clients on your e-mail newsletter list? Are they fans of your Facebook page? If not, get them there. Ask permission to add them to your list. Invite them to visit your Facebook page and become a fan. Are your photos posted to their Facebook album? If not, send them watermarked proofs of their favorite images to share on Facebook if they like.
- Brainstorm session: Take a deep breath, clear your mind, and try to forgive the wrongs your bad clients may have done to you. Relax. Let go. With this calm clarity, really evaluate: How have you been wronged by clients in the past? Stolen proofs? Pitiful purchases? Wasted time? How many of these bad clients have you had versus how many good clients? What’s the ratio? Are you dealing with so many of these bad clients as to hurt your enjoyment overall of being a part time photographer? Are they notably hurting your per-client average sales? What of the above-discussed safeguards and marketing changes could you gradually implement to ward off these bad clients? File this in your Brainstorms folder (and if you feel ready, make a change today!).
- I’ll be honest with you: I do not have an exceptional knowledge of copyright law, at least beyond the basics as it relates to independent photographers, and even that I don’t make use of unless I’m calling out a client for blatantly stealing from me when I know they know better (or if I’m licensing images to a commercial client, which is just a small part of my business). I’m all about education however, so if you want to know more about copyright law as it applies to photographers part time and otherwise, just Google it. Some great resources can be found from Kodak, Editorial Photographers, and PhotoLaw.net.
- My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to click the free “Subscribe” link at the top of any page of this site.
- What’s the most egregious act of thievery a client has committed against you? What actions have you taken to keep bad clients from getting in front of your camera in the first place? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.
- How to watermark your photography proofs for the web
- Your first photo proofing and sales session – Your First Customer Series, Part 9
- What should I charge for my part time photography? – Your First Customer Series, Part 3
- Culling and post-processing your first photo shoot – Your First Customer Series, Part 8
- Response time and turnaround – how to beat the competition for free