Last year I quit wedding photography.
I didn’t quit because I wasn’t good at it, or because I was tired of it. I didn’t quit because I didn’t enjoy it, or because I was burned out. I quit wedding photography because I couldn’t bear to have another horrible, demeaning, and agonizing experience as the one I will finish telling today.
On my last blog post, I wrote about how I took a set of clients for someone I loved. Though I did not have a good feeling about them, I took them anyway. Two weeks before the wedding I received notification that the wedding was earlier than what I had on the contract. Rather than say “sorry Charlie”, I went ahead and did everything in my own power to get there and photograph the wedding.
On my long 17 hour drive home, I had the groom email me a statement, acknowledging that there would be no wedding for the contracted date. By that time I felt the need to cover my bases, and was relieved that the groom was considerate enough to accommodate. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is also a detail that I believe saved me from additional unpleasantness in the future.
With tickets already purchased on the original wedding date, I decided to go ahead and use the expense to take a vacation. With the previous fiasco, we did not do an after-wedding shoot as intended. Instead we would do the shoot when I returned to the area in two weeks for the originally contracted date.
I didn’t have many friends in the area so I mostly went around and saw sights, visited with family members. Sunday morning rolled around for our after shoot. It was a night and day difference being rested and ready to tackle this shoot - and I was ecstatic by the results. I had never been able to shoot a bride and groom in their own special photoshoot, so I was stoked to have this opportunity! The shoot started almost 2 hours late, but I wasn’t too bothered. I scouted out locations and napped a little bit before my clients arrived. The photos from this shoot were some of my most favorite shots of all time.
As in typical fashion, I went through my wedding processing and finalized all the edits in 4-6 weeks. That’s when I hit a little bump.
I found out that the individual who hired me for gifting the photography had recently lost their job. When I sent notification that the photos were ready, I was told that it would take some time for them to pay me the remaining 25%. I was left at a loss as to how to move forward. As an entrepreneur with ranging income from month to month, I completely understood when “the money just ain’t there.” But in the same token, I was also relying on that payment for my own bills. I did a l.o.t. of praying to try and figure out how to resolve the situation; If I wasn’t paid, I wasn’t going to give the clients the photos. It was as simple as that.
1. Don’t allow someone to give wedding photography as a “gift”. I know I may sound like a mean person by saying this, but there can be major complications with this. If the bride and groom aren’t paying for your services, they may not appreciate your value and worth. This is dangerous, because it may give them the feeling that they can walk all over you. Additionally, if the bride and groom aren’t the individuals paying, suddenly they have a binding contract with you when they actually aren’t the ones who are committed to paying you. I could go on but you should just take my word for it. Do. Not. Let. This. Happen. Unless you are paid up front entirely.
Weeks went by and I did not see payment. At this point I felt terrible about even asking for the remaining amount; but I also had to give my clients the photos someday. That was when I brought in the bride and groom.
I spoke with the bride and let her know the situation. She was so chagrined to hear that her close friend was in such a tough spot, but in her husbands words, he “knew something like this would happen.” They told me that they would confer and come to a solution to pay me promptly and receive their photos.
A minor detail to be mentioned here: As the wedding photography was a gift, purchased by someone I loved, I gave the clients my usual "Friends and Family” discount of 25%. So rather than paying $5200 for the selected package, this package was going to cost around $3900. Between the holiday weekend and the loss of two dates out of the wedding season, I should have had the client sign a new contract for the full amount. This would have been completely equitable and fair. But I was trying to be a “nice person” so at the end of the day, I simply had them pay for my expenses. By then I just wanted to have the experience over with and everyone happy.
It would take almost another year for this to happen.
When I was contacted again, they had a solution. They had split the remaining portion between the two individual parties. However, they also asked for an additional $300 cut from what they owed. Their reasoning: They did not have as many photos from the reception as they wanted. And since the wedding date, we had found where the date discrepancy came from.
It had taken these clients 7 months to actually “book”. When I had sent them the contract originally, it was for the date requested. When they decided to book me those 7 months later, I let them know the contract was still in their inbox and they could return it to me posthaste. What I did not realize was that in that 7 month time frame, they actually changed the date. And though these clients had the eye for detail enough to find policies in the contract that they wanted to change, they did not see that the original date was in the contract I had sent. It wasn’t until I dug through all my emails that I found a follow up email, just a few lines was all. It had been missed in the email thread. And it gave me a new date for their wedding.
The clients said I had responsibility for the date fiasco. That fired me up - I was livid. I had already lost around $1500 in my time and they wanted to blame shift. I really could not believe it - after the efforts I had made to fulfill my commitment to them, they still wanted more. I caved, hoping that soon enough I would be done with them. I received payment. They received their photos. Life went back to balance.
A couple of weeks later I heard from them again. They didn’t like some of the edits, and asked if I would be willing to adjust the photos. I took a deep breath, let them know that I charged for re-edits, but in good faith would make those adjustments without charge.
2. Have a minimum number of photos you will re-edit without charging, but hold firm to charge when that number is passed - it adds up. I will be entirely up front here when I say that I usually don’t mind making these adjustments at all. I want my clients to like their photos. But, when I offered to make the re-edits complimentary, I didn’t realize that they meant a good 10% of their wedding images. Needless to say, my hulu account and my irritation kept me company during that time.
In good time I created their little companion book and sent it off to them. I received word that they loved it. Some weeks later I also sent them the enlargements that came with their package. I received an email that they had been delivered, but that the prints had been damaged in route. I was suspicious. I have never had any enlargements damaged in the mail, and I had inspected them myself before shipment. I acknowledge it could happen, and let them know they could send me the photos back and I would get reprints for them. I will humbly say that I did forget about this incident.
In June I sent an email requesting their selections for the album. They were happy to oblige - or so I thought. But several months went by and I received no word. Finally I sent an email in November and December, asking for a time they would select the photos. We all know how the winter season goes: It’s album time because we actually have the time to create them. I had a ton of time then, and with my jobs and mentoring could afford to be full time in photography. That would change when I moved to downtown Denver in February.
Our rent was quite high, and between coaching and photography I wasn’t making enough to sustain breathing room. I took a job at a coffee shop not too far from where I lived. I wanted to put some money in savings and also meet people in Denver. Between photography, coaching, and the coffee shop I was working 60-70 hours per week. My time was gone.
And of course, you guessed it, February was the month that these clients finally gave me their wedding photos for the album. In no uncertain terms I let them know that I did not have the availability that I previously had, and it would be some time before I could finish their album. In my previous experience (thank God for my gracious and reasonable clients), people generally know that you will fulfill your word. That was when, 6 weeks later, I was shocked and appalled by an email I received from these clients. This email was my complete breaking point.
3. Do not let any client take advantage of you, bully you, or treat you with less respect than you are worth. For some reason, there are a number of individuals who feel that artists are the ones they can walk on - that we are the passive and generous individuals who will lay down and take whatever they give. We see this all the time from the lives of creatives. There is an epidemic within the industry to let people steal your photos, use them without permission, print them without rights, short you for less than you are worth. Unless we all take steps to protect ourselves, these will be common issues and they will continue to affect us all in a vicious cycle.
I would share with you the exact words that these clients used, but I have made it a point to not look back on those dialogues for the anger and anxiety it brings up in me still. But, the main idea was that, in the clients minds, it was almost a year to the day of their wedding. As the contract stated that the album would follow about a year after the wedding, they would be “reasonable” in giving me a deadline of 3 weeks to complete it and have it on their doorstep. If they did not have it, they would begin to pursue legal action.
Nevermind that it had taken them 9 months to simply select the photos. They expected me to compile, design, produce, and deliver a fully completed album in less than 9 weeks.
Truly I’m not sure if I can adequately describe in words how I felt by these people. Almost every single interaction with them had caused irritation or anxiety, but to come to this point was more than I could deal with. I did not respond to the email. I seethed for a week or so, trying to decide my course of action. In actuality, the client had no contract to work from. In my mind everything that I had done to appease them as clients had been out of my own good nature. But this bullying put a compete stop to that sense. I was done.
And then, if that is even possible, the situation got worse.
I received a phone call from my dad. He said that the person who had originally hired me felt freedom to contact him and tell him everything that was going on. Apparently, my clients had been on that individuals back as well, causing rifts in their friendship with my “lack of accommodating” their request. My dad asked for the details, and I was only happy to give him every detail of the agonizing experience from start to finish. That was when my dad made me an offer that I will remember for the rest of my life. He asked me if I wanted to hire him to be a mediator.
There are no words to tell you the relief I felt from that moment. I felt like someone had just given me the keys to my prison, so I could walk away free. I didn’t even have to think about it. My dad had been in business critical accounts for over 20 years. If there was someone I knew who would be fair, conscience, firm, and in my best interest, it was my dad. I know not everyone can say this, but God really sent my dad to be my advocate in this awful experience. You need someone like that too.
The days that followed that conversation, I sent my dad every piece of documentation I had with this client. Emails. Receipts. The old contract. He reached out to the clients and let them know that he would be handling the situation and was confident that we could come to a happy resolution for everyone involved. As you can imagine, the client was less than excited about this prospect: In fact, the groom had said that he would not speak with my dad at all; in his mind, since I was their service provider, he had a right to talk to me.
My dad is awesome. He can be tough on some things, but at the end of the day, he is someone I always will be grateful to have in my corner. In very kind and clear words, my dad told the groom that he was more than welcome to not speak directly to him, but it was in his best interest to do so. He then relayed the fact that they actually had no contract to base any of their demands from, and unless they spoke to him, they would not receive any album or service from me from that point forward. They were also welcome to take legal action; My dad and I both knew that after listing all the additional things I had done above and beyond the contract to service them, it was not likely that a judge would rule in their favor. By this time, I was almost hoping they would take me to court - I would not hesitate to counter sue for the full amount of what it cost me to service them.
It took some further dialogue, but my Dad finally was able to make arrangements. If I gave them the full image rights and resend the enlargements that were damaged, he believed our interactions would finally be included. But he also admonished me: If I could afford to send them the album, he would encourage me to do so. He advised this not out of obligation, but out of protecting my brand. A good name is truly hard to build, and that may be worth the cost of an album.
I already had the album almost entirely designed - in fact it had been almost done by the time they emailed me with the ultimatum. I took my dad’s advice and scheduled it for production coming from Italy; Most likely it would be ready in 6-8 weeks. I let my dad know this, and he conveyed that to the client. I will absolutely never forget their response: “We hope to conclude this in as quickly a time as possible, as we even have our church praying for all the pain and suffering this situation has caused us.”
I know. I could go on a looooongg time about that statement, but I will keep my thoughts to myself. You’ll probably agree with me.
In the meantime, I sent them the DVD of the full size images. The first DVD their computer couldn’t read. The second DVD did not burn correctly and had nothing on it. I know. These things happen from time to time, but n.e.v.e.r. could we imagine these happenings occurring for the same individual client. I speak from the bottom of my heart when I tell you that it was hands down the most awful experiences I’ve ever had in business.
I know this has been long, and if you are still reading your nerves are probably as frayed as mine were going through the situation. At the time of this writing the album has long since been delivered by UPS, but neither my dad nor myself received a thank you or acknowledgement of receipt. I know after speaking with other wedding photographers that this client circumstance was certainly not the norm - that even those 10 years in the business have not had such a harrowing experience as what I went through with those clients. The possibility remains there. And I will wrap up with one last point.
4. Always charge what you are worth. You see, charging what you are worth often weeds out the normal clients from the crazy ones. People who are willing to pay what you are worth will always treat you with respect. When you charge what you are worth, it’s ok to go through a little drama - you’re being paid for it. And if you really, really like a client who genuinely can’t find the money to afford you, serve those clients for yourself. There is joy that will come from working with those who admire you. These are the individuals who will always recommend and refer you, who will always rave about you to their friends. No, it can’t be you’re normal mode of operation; but those times that you can give this gift for someone, it will feel really special.
My goal with this post is not to make you feel sorry for me; Truth be told, I know I did not manage or handle the situation as best as I could have - and that is a very humbling admission. But it’s the Gods honest truth that I believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t know if I will ever formally return to wedding photography other than once a year for a dear friend. But I do know that the lessons I have learned, will hopefully protect other photographers from the same experiences. Trust me. Wedding photography is an incredible industry, and if you are willing to put in the work, you will want to stay in for a very long time.
I hope my story will help facilitate that for you.
[If you enjoyed this article, please share with a photographer friend who may need ta little push to protect themselves too!]