Pro Studio Basics

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Pro Studio Basics

14. What To Do When Something Goes Wrong?

The following advice is specific to Australia. Most Western countries have similar structures and the broad principles are similar. However, you should consult your own advisers for specific information. 

No matter how good your intentions, during your career things will go wrong. You will miss a shot, some important images will be blurred or poorly exposed, you'll miss a deadline, you'll forget to call back a client, you'll send the images to the wrong email address...

What should you do? Do you admit to the problem or just pretend it didn't happen?

The easiest way to deal with problems when something goes wrong is to admit the issue up front and do whatever you can to make it right.

The worst thing you can do is to try to ignore it because, while you might be able to forget about it, chances are your clients cannot.

Does it matter if your clients are unhappy? Research indicates that when you do something properly, one in tweny people might tell someone else. On the other hand, mess it up and 17 out of 20 people are likely to spread the word about how poorly they were treated. If you work in a small market or industry sector, it won't take long for your reputation - and your business - to be in ruins.

The Big Picture

Running a photography business isn't just about taking good photographs. It's also about building a reputation as being reliable, trustworthy, reasonable, approachable, friendly, helpful... Note, none of these adjectives describe the quality of your photography, rather they are about the relationships you build with your clients.

And good relationships will get you out of trouble when things go wrong.

When things go wrong between family members or close friends, what happens? While occasionally the issues lead to a major confrontation, normally a simple apology is all that's required to fix things up. This is why having a good relationship is so important. If your clients perceive you as being honest and reasonable, then when problems occur you're very likely to be able to salvage the situation - indeed, you may even be able to strengthen it.

However, to get this good reputation you have to do more than talk the talk, you have to walk the walk as well.

Let's say you've finished a job and there's a problem. Some of the images are out of focus, so do you just send the files over to the client and hope they don't notice, or do you separate the files so they know which ones are problematic?

Let's say you just sent the photos over to the client and said nothing. The client picks a soft image and has it published in an advertisement or turned into a wall mural and, suddenly, it's very clear that the photo is not sharp. So now one mistake has turned into two mistakes. How do you think your client perceives you?

Some photographers might think they couldn't own up to the mistake because they might lose the client. Well, if that's what happens, so be it. There will be other clients and the lesson learnt will surely mean you'll never make the same mistake twice.

However, although there's a chance the client will drop you, this depends a lot on how you deal with the mistake - and how you build the relationship from here.

Okay, so saying nothing is not a good idea. What about blaming the problem on the camera? Generally speaking, clients are not interested in excuses, they want solutions. Telling the client that the camera was malfunctioning is not providing a solution, but they may question your ability to keep your cameras in good condition or to have a spare camera available when problems arise. A white lie could be just as bad as a black one.

Saying nothing or making feeble excuses are not long term solutions if you want to build solid relationships that are based on trust. Even if you get away with it once or twice, eventually you'll be found out.

So what about telling the truth - and then making a suggestion as to how you and they can correct the situation? Tell the client that you messed up (and by all means say it's a very rare occurrence), then offer to re-shoot the job, or to discount your fee, or to offer some suggestions, such as using the soft photos down small and some of the other images up big.

Is this an inconvenience for you? Yes, but you made the mistake, so who should be fixing it - you or the client? You, obviously.

This is when you need to look at the big picture. You will only get a reputation for being honest and reasonable when things go wrong and you deal with the situation positively.

Making a mistake and then fixing it shows clients that you are someone who is trustworthy and helpful.


It's not a good idea to make mistakes on purpose just so you can prove yourself, but when mistakes do happen, there can be a positive side if you tackle it properly.

Prevention Better Than Cure

Having made a mistake, how can you prevent it from happening again?

Unfortunately, while you mightn't make the same mistake twice, there's no guarantee you won't invent a new one.

One thing that helps many photographers is a list or a checklist. Some studios have lots of checklists and, with experiene, this checklist becomes second nature.

So, in the case of a blurred image you may start shooting extra frames or checking the images on your LCD screen before moving onto the next shot. You might also invest in a second camera body so you'll never lose a shoot due to faulty equipment. It's best for a back up camera to be the same as the working camera, but even purchasing an entry level DSLR for $1000 is good insurance.

When you take a brief from a client, it's good to produce a shoot list - literally a list of the photos they require. The list might have some ‘extra' shots as well if you have time. Then, as the shoot progresses, you tick the images off one by one until completion. Whether you're shooting a wedding, a family portrait or a commercial job, lists can be very useful for some clients.

Photographer Glen Gibson (interviewed in this newsletter nearly 15 years ago) used to keep a list of all the equipment that should be in each of his camera and equipment bags. Then, at the end of each shoot, either he or his assistant would check that all their equipment and supplies were in place so that whenever they picked up the case to go on a shoot, they knew it was fully packed.

Your camera bag should also hold a kit of useful tools and accessories to solve problem situations that arise while you're out on a job, such as make-up for sweaty faces, extra batteries and memory cards, gaffer tape and Bluetac etc.

Insurance & Budgeting

Unfortunately, mistakes will still happen. Consider taking out insurance to cover unforeseen events when a client may sue you for non-performance. Most of us should have public liability insurance, but other insurances are available that can be specific to a job (but can come at a price).

Another approach is to do your annual budgets and plans on the assumption that you will have to re-shoot at least one or two jobs. While no one wants to do a re-shoot, if you have built it into your subconscious as a possibility, then when it happens you won't be as concerned about the money side. Far more important than having to spend a few thousand dollars to fix up a job is the reputation you're building as a photographer.

Building a profitable studio isn't a matter of getting just one or two things right, it's putting hundreds and hundreds of little things into place. Dealing with mistakes is one of them. 

The information in this article is general in nature and should not replace personal advice given by your own legal and financial advisers.

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