What You Can’t See Matters

A talented photographer I know recently shared with me a blow-by-blow account of how tough he was with a client who was over-noodling his vision for an advertising shoot. “In the middle of the shoot I told them where to put it,” he said, proudly. “I’m an artist and they hired me for my vision, so that’s what I was giving them. Period.”

Period? He was bragging. I didn’t get it. Seemed like he’d been watching too much TV.

Fast forward to this week. I’m swapping stories with an Art Director friend of mine over a beer. He confessed something to me that, on reflection I knew inherently, but hadn’t really thought about since the photographer I mentioned above championed how he’d “stood up to” the client and refused collaboration. What my AD friend said is a little truth that’s not often publicly voiced in and around the world of professional photography, but that everyone who’s in our world knows… [click the ‘continue reading’ link below]

And it goes something like this:

What you can’t see matters.

Obviously, as professional photographers, we’re most commonly and justifiably measured by our visual output. What do our pictures look like? Do our images achieve the desired effect? Who hires us? Do they make people want to buy a new pair of Nikes or do they stop someone in their tracks at a gallery or do they arrest someone flipping through the pages of a magazine? Common knowledge.

Our pictures have to cut the mustard to even be considered for the ball game.

But ask any AD, CD, or PE – you name it – hiring us also depends in part on the intangibles, the total package we bring to the table. Whether that package includes experience, vigor, passion, wisdom, naivete, intensity, technical knowledge, whatever – we know not. Certain things in that list above (it’s obviously much longer in reality that what I just scribbled down…) are not in our control. Experience for example. At any given time, the sum of one’s experience is just that. But on the other hand – so laments my AD buddy – there are a large number of fundamentals that we can and should remember since they, in part, determine who gets hired.

Picture this: an Art Director has to spend 10 days on set with a great photographer in Aruba. Think they want to hang out with a jerk? Nope. The other guy gets the gig. Your pictures are great, but you can’t deliver them on time. You get hired again? Nope. Let’s try a new photographer.

I’ve had more ADs and CDs tell me this in private than I can count on all my fingers and all my toes, and it finally, over that beer with my buddy, occurred to me how rare this topic is in our community’s online discourse. Us photogs ramble on about exposures, and lights, and creative vision, yet we often forget to think about the basics that are important to those who hire us. Are we hard working and enjoyable? Are we on time? Do we foster confidence and exude integrity?

Call it the basics, or call it the X factor – whatever. Remember, like all human interactions, there is a threshold in play for those who hire us – they’re willing to take a risk here, work with a jerk there, but in the long run, when business is at hand, they’re covering their asses. Sure they want to hire a great talent, but usually not at the expense of good business and the basic building blocks of any healthy relationship.

39 Responses to What You Can’t See Matters

  1. Ben Brunt September 9, 2008 at 7:09 am #

    I think a great photographer can adapt there styles to please the client and still feel great about the work.

  2. David September 9, 2008 at 7:26 am #

    Ain’t that the triple-truth, Chase. Thanks for the reminder. Funny how marketing books consistently miss this relational stuff.

    David duChemin

  3. Jonathan September 9, 2008 at 7:41 am #

    It’s not just photography, that’s anything you do in life.

    I run a pawn shop and we crush all our competition because my employees are trained to be curteous and respect every customer. We are all very easy to work with.

  4. Reflections by the Hill September 9, 2008 at 8:08 am #

    Good Article. This is not just in the commercial world. This year I have started out building a photography business. As I move more into the business, I am finding the same complaints from regular people. What happens is they hear about this awesome Photographer, hire him/her for a session. During the session, they experience the “jerk”. They get the pictures back and they look good. But each time they view that picture(s) they are reminded how that session went. They don’t even want to display it.

    I know I am not perfect but I hope I can learn from all the others out there. I am thankful for the clients that want to take the risk with me.

    Does anyone do session surveys to determine how there clients feel about the experience?

  5. Edward Maurer September 9, 2008 at 8:23 am #

    Customer service is key. Thanks for sharing this story with us Chase.

  6. Stephen Hunton September 9, 2008 at 8:24 am #

    I’m an account guy at a large Agency working on a huge brand… that does photography part-time (just trying to learn about the biz at this point).

    You’re so right about not working with jerks. We’ve had guys that took amazing pictures for our Clients, but were just unreasonable, arrogant, etc etc. They won’t ever be hired again.

    PHotography is art. I get that…but Advertising is somewhere in the middle..and suffering for your art (especially when it’s in front of a huge client with massive budgets that will never again call or recommend you)…just isn’t good for your business…and in the long run…your art.

  7. reg gordon September 9, 2008 at 8:30 am #

    great comment chase and if anything my career is based on that ethic. When I started out I didnt know much but busted my hump to learn and move ahead. But from the start I was getting phone calls from clients who were sick of the usual BS that most of the others would give.
    Thing is this isnt commercial or advertising, this is basic PR grip and grin which any monkey with a camera can do.
    Ive lost count of the amount of times Ive been told by other photographers how they put a client in their place during a shoot and I smile because I know that next time I’ll be getting the call.
    Now I have the PR side down I have the cushion to start working on the commercial side

  8. Alan B. September 9, 2008 at 8:31 am #

    I’ve found it quite instructive that comments we get back from customers after a shoot often have more to do with how easy we are to work with than the quality of the resulting pictures. Not that they aren’t also thrilled with our work, but they seem genuinely surprised at how painless the experience was!

  9. Andy Hagedon September 9, 2008 at 8:56 am #

    All great comments. Lemme try to summarize another way: people make buying decisions (e.g., hiring us) on emotion. Every decision. Say what they might about criteria, the final choice comes down to how they *feel* or want to feel – and our attitude, rapport, ability to bend over backward (sometimes litterally) to make the clients happy all play a much larger long-term role than money, #years of experience, tear sheets, etc. There’s great value, too, in helping your clients realize they might not want what they think they want :) or showing them there’s a better way, but it’s all about balance and really listening your client.

  10. jimmyd September 9, 2008 at 9:12 am #

    Certainly, there are those who can rise to the highest levels of the jerkosphere and still work– work frequently, in fact. We see this quite often with celebrities: actors, musicians, etc.

    But those of us involved in more Earthly pursuits (like snapping pictures) are less likely to remain “consistently working” photographers while, at the same time, being total jerks.

    Sure, a few shooters might achieve “consistently working” jerk status. Annie L. comes to mind. (I’m not saying Ms. L. is a jerk, I’ve never met her, but if she happens to be one or becomes one she’ll still work.)

    It’s not just about producing quality work. The work-producing experience should be of the same quality as the work itself.

  11. Anonymous September 9, 2008 at 9:38 am #

    All good guys,

    Nice comments, important.

    However, remember that focus should be quality of content, or you’ll be competing with guys that’s more about service, and that’s usually where price competition is fierce. Being nice is the easy part (so everybody should do it), but if I was an AD (I work as both AD and photographer in my company) I’d still pick content over delivery, every time. It’s a duty I have for my clients.

    Also, how come every answer to blogs seem to repeat what the blogger says? What about discussion?

    /Nice guy (with no blog)

  12. Josh September 9, 2008 at 10:27 am #

    One thing that matters to me is how a photographer treats his assistants. I have worked with photographers that yell at their assistants and I would never hire them if I could help it. It makes me uncomfortable standing there as an art director when someone one set is not being treated as an important member of the team. Everyone has their place and no one deserves to be yelled at. Its an important aspect of the total package for me.

  13. garyallard September 9, 2008 at 10:39 am #

    I think the key is in understanding we are commercial photographers. A hired gun. Ultimately it is in our best interest to serve the client. Period. If you are hired for your creative talents and don’t deliver them on time, with a smile, you’re not doing your entire job.

    Fine artist, on the other hand, can live by a completely different set of rules (“Don’t like my work? Piss off!”).

  14. Jason September 9, 2008 at 10:42 am #

    Great post, Chase. My business partner and I are in a market filled with “old hat” photographers. Pay a premium price… Get bargain basement service, just because they are “established”. I hope they know what’s coming…

    That’s why I always stick to that rule my dad taught me years ago, to always under-promise and over-deliver.

  15. Chase Jarvis September 9, 2008 at 12:32 pm #

    Hagedon gets it…

  16. Stephen September 9, 2008 at 1:16 pm #

    I think a lot of us fight against this concept when it comes to our business practices. We all have the mistaken belief that we can become so good people will come for us no matter what we are like.

    I hate to say this, but no matter how good you are you will never escape a sour personality. We always talk about the great artists who were total pricks, but managed to be great. I hate to break it to you all, but there work wasn’t important until well after they were gone. Even actors who can’t be worked with eventually fade away, especially if they have one movie tank. Einstein himself was ignored for a great portion of his life because no one would work with him.

    In marketing we call it brand power. I just glanced at a bottle of coke cola siting on my counter. When I see it I didn’t even read coke cola. The text was just so familiar, I knew what it was. We need to create the same aesthetic with our names. No I don’t mean creating a brand, but an emotional connection with our name.

    When your customers/clients see your work, or name, what do they think of? Do they remember something positive. Even if you are professional, or cordial, or even funny, if they don’t remember it you have probably lost a customer. My goal when working with my clients is to have them remember something very positive. Weather it was the lunch I took them to, some incredibly hilarious thing that happened on the shoot, or Chases case, hearing a bunch of classic musicians jam around in a circle. It’s those poignant memories that will have them coming back for more.

    Is it easy? No. Can it be done every time? No. But, if you keep that focus in mind, you can find opportunities.

    Keeping clients and increasing referrals are always worth the extra work.

  17. Charles Silverman September 9, 2008 at 7:50 pm #

    It’s pretty simple… people hire/rehire the people they like(d) working with.

  18. Adam September 9, 2008 at 10:46 pm #

    Good stuff, yes when I hired photography, I never hired a bad photographer, but I never hired a bad team player twice. There is no “I” in team, and everyone on the team has to respect the other players and the importance of what they are adding to the end product.

  19. Anonymous September 9, 2008 at 11:15 pm #

    @ josh: i’ve personally been on set with Chase – hired him before (I’m posting anonymously so it does not affect our relationship), and can personally confirm that he treats EVERYONE on set (and all his employees) far better than any photographer I’ve ever met, by a wide margin.

  20. Matthew Plummer September 10, 2008 at 12:27 am #

    Chase – this is the first time I’ve posted on your blog. As a commercial photographer starting out you’re hugely helpful with your advice – and in turn I hope I do my bit to encourage friends and strangers with their photography!

    This post really struck a chord with me though. I do a lot of work with small companies – typically less than 5 people (and so probably quite different to your work!) Thing is a lot of them don’t have the legions of people to run/oversee the creative process. Which is where I come in. See, for me being a photographer isn’t just about taking good photos, it is also about sorting out the process.

    For example, I’ve just done a campaign for a client. Despite a fairly large language barrier the shooting part of the job was completed with the client able to feel part of the working process. The production part of the job was very simple, so I offered to drop in logos and text. The printer they wanted to use was crap, and after diplomatically pointing them in the right direction I delivered proofs to their office late the same day, in time for things to be approved before the client left for a trip.

    The point of which isn’t to say I’m some kind of superstar photog / customer relations guru – just that my client saw that I was working hard to make the job happen, they were delighted with the images, and so on. The plus sides: ongoing work and exceptionally fast payment of invoices!

  21. photodesignproductions.com September 10, 2008 at 2:06 am #

    Well put and right on the dot. It’s a people’s business and positive interactions are very valuable in this business. So, the limited room for outspoken ego’s is very limited and shrinking more to my opinion.

    Good statement Chase, this should open some people’s eyes… some others won’t be bothered, but they’ll have to face the truth at the end of the line somewhere/sometime.

    Customer satisfaction over the whole line from working method, on-time delivery to even social interaction is part of the whole thing. And it’s nothing new. It’s there in almost any business, whether creative or not.

  22. Gregoire September 10, 2008 at 5:23 am #

    That’s a great blog entry!

    And while I’m not a professional photographer (yet), it’s true in all fields of work that the relationship factor is intangible AND critical!

  23. Juha Sompinmäki September 10, 2008 at 6:50 am #

    I’ve been reading lately this book by Dan Heller “Profitable photography in the digital age” and i think he touched somewhere on the book about this issue as well. It really is not about producing the ultimate shot if you are the kind of person with whom nobody wants to work with. You would be out of business fast :) Also it is and advice that beginning photographers really should take seriously, as they probably are not that well know and experienced yet.

  24. Ed Taylor September 10, 2008 at 7:21 am #

    Had to laugh/cry when reading this. When I started out as a commercial photographer 28 years ago, I assisted a fairly well-known photographer. Every shoot, around 3 in the afternoon he would go into a hissy fit, throwing foam core around, etc. One day I asked him if he wasn’t concerned that he might alienate his clients with this. He replied that the clients expected it, he was an artist. Never understood that. Maybe that paradigm worked once. It sure doesn’t now. Me, I always understood that my client’s put their reputations out there every time they hired me. Never made any sense to me that you couldn’t make great images and create a situation where everyone, (including the crew), enjoyed the process.

  25. IAN AITKEN September 10, 2008 at 8:22 am #

    I used to assist a big name commercial shooter who was demanding, exacting, went to extreem lengths to get great location shots (helicopters/yachts/climbing mountains, swimming in the Amazon with a 4×5 camera to get a dawn shot etc ) he strived for perfection and expected everyone in the team too aswell.
    He also liked big production eg why shoot from a ladder when you can hire a crane and a full lighting crew.
    Eventually his work started falling off partially because he became oversaturated with the commercial side of photography and disillusioned so he wasn’t chasing the work but also I later found out, when I was showing my book round agencies, that they thought he was too much of a character and would always go for the BIG PRODUCTION and they found it easier to go with the safe guy.
    This photographer produced some of the most iconic advertising images within the last 20 years and he pushed himself to the limit to achieve them for himself and his clients.
    When he was an assistant he was put through the washing machine (18 hour days etc, developingB/W film in a portable darkroom in the desert after the days shoot, while everyone else is kicking back)

    I worked for him for 3 years on and off.
    He was demanding, talented,eccentric,tiresome, overbearing, yet great fun, produced exceptional results and I learnt a great deal from him.

    It just goes to show ad’s like the easy option:-)

  26. Will September 10, 2008 at 11:41 am #

    Great post Chase, so true!

  27. Anonymous September 10, 2008 at 12:35 pm #

    Herein lies the problem with Passion v. Business. There are people that are so passionate about what they do they do it for a living. However, as is often the case the blind following of that passion leaves them to forget as you put it the fundamentals. Marketing, Customer Service, Advocacy, Effectiveness, and Profitability all the many things that make an effective business or product (photographer + result) are not necessarily aligned with that Passion. Your passion is a component of your product NOT the product.

    I would challenge the community for a response as this in my humble opinion is probably in the top 3 reasons why photographers fail in the business world. Call it right-brained/left-brained artist/business imbalance whatever you must build yourself equally on both to be effective.

    I heard a saying (im paraphrasing because i forget the quotation exactly) “It takes 10 sales calls and 500$ on average to close a deal, it takes the jaw of one ass to undo the whole thing” or something to that effect..

  28. Victor Winklaar September 10, 2008 at 1:01 pm #


    Hey I am from Aruba. Please let me know when you come. I promise I will only watch and learn :)

    Great topic! Thanks for all the insight you give us.

    Victor Winklaar

  29. Dave Good September 10, 2008 at 1:37 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more. I came to photography through freelance writing. Over the years have seen many, many writers who were blazing talents and far better writers than I simply blaze out of the picture (and work) for similar acts of attitude and arrogance directed towards editors . Yeah, you gotta deliver above and beyond in the quality and originality department but any editor appreciates work that is dependable, on budget, and on deadline, minus the attitude. In a word, professionalism. Thanks for the reminder -

  30. Vince Penman September 10, 2008 at 6:08 pm #

    Wow, I couldn’t agree more with that simple fact. People like to work with people they like to work with. I am both an art director and a photographer, (I know, I always fight myself) and I can think of two very talented photographers whom our agency won’t touch, because, to put it simply, they are jerks. They have egos the size of small planets. One got into a fist fight in public with an art director. We have photographers who come into the office to pitch themselves and the ones we think about calling are the ones who have great work AND who we got along with. I was doing a shoot a few weeks ago where I had the flu. Somehow the client found out and loved me even more because I was still working with a smile on my face. It made them feel important. I’m guaranteed more work from them in the future.

    Never be a jerk.

  31. K Brown September 10, 2008 at 9:54 pm #

    Hmm…let’s see here.

    They pay me to do work for them.

    They get everything they asked for, plus.

    I’m paid money to play.

    Gotta love the system.

  32. Antoine September 11, 2008 at 12:32 am #

    This is definitely the unecessary necessary article! Like: we all know it but…

    Most of the works I got assigned to are definitely those where I appeared to be a nice person, even though I can be pretty mean uh oh.

    (nice insider blog, by the way)

  33. Jacob September 11, 2008 at 8:11 am #

    When I shoot for a client, I tend to leave my “art” hat at home. Yes, I’ll offer suggestions of what to do, or what to try, but in the end I tend to follow their direction, deliver what they were looking for, and be a joy to work with.

    Whether I like it or not, art photography is something I do on my own time, as it surely doesn’t pay the bills. I’ve had that mental struggle, and I’m perfectly okay being a hired gun to shoot. I still enjoy it, even if I’m not out exercising my ultimate artistic vision.

  34. Jeremy Earl Mayhew September 13, 2008 at 12:09 pm #

    I know this first hand. I do alot of all day white seemless shoots for clients. We are all in a room toghether shooting 10 people througout the day and it has the potential to get boring, so I make it a point to be the “entertainment” for the day, to not only keep the talent happy, but to also keep the client happy and engaged and even amused. Thats what makes the difference, and why they remember me. Their are other photographers around that are better, but they choose me becuase i am always alive and “on” plus i always get great photos. Some of them say the actually look forward to working with me becuase its the most fun they have all week.

  35. Anonymous September 15, 2008 at 7:25 am #

    You sound like bean counters or corporate lap dogs.You’re not photographers.

  36. filmography September 16, 2008 at 2:34 pm #

    @ anon: I don’t know what planet you live on, mr/s anon, but photographers and artists with their heads completely in the sky are by and large out of business or irrelevant these days. If by bean counters, you mean have a clue about the big picture of business, you’re really out of touch. The most elegant and successful artists of our times (graffiti, painters, photographers, filmmakers – you name it) are more tuned into this than ever before.

  37. Danie Nel September 18, 2008 at 9:49 pm #

    @ filmography: amen.

    I agree, most of my retain business (I still have my very first client after almonst 10 years) is due to soft skills, not necessarily photographic skills. I employ the same thinking when I approach stylists and other suppliers. Attitute gets you fired.

  38. Chris Bishow Photography September 23, 2008 at 6:53 am #

    To quote my friend David Jay, “People dont pay you for how good you are at what you do, people pay you for how good you are at who you are.”

    I am in the surf industry, and nothing could be more true. I wish there were more blogs/sites about this stuff. Thanks Chase.

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