Don’t Let Self-Doubt Hold Back Your Photography Business


If you are a new professional photographer or new to a different photographic genre, you most likely have some doubts about your ability. It’s not only a common feeling, but quite worthwhile in personal development.

As you read about other photographers on the Internet, each one invariably sounds confident and quite assured. It’s difficult for most of us to undress our emotions in public view, so you won’t often come across others expressing their fear, confusion and doubt in online venues. But these feelings exist nonetheless.

And even when you think you have worked your way through your insecurities internally, speaking to prospects, clients and your peers can quickly bring them back to the surface.

The Birthday Party

Many years ago, when film was king and I was just starting out, I photographed weddings and events. On one such occasion, I acquired a new client wanting pictures of her daughter’s 13th birthday party. Mrs. Customer’s husband was a major real estate developer in Florida, and when I visited her home to sign the contract, I stepped into a palatial house and met the “queen.”

We seemed to hit it off fairly well, and she liked my wedding portfolio. By this time in my career, I had about 20 weddings under my belt, mostly middle income, small events. Mrs. Customer’s party was going to be the largest I had ever done.

A week after the event, I met with Mrs. Customer and showed her the proofs, so she could pick her album images and additional enlargements. Up to this point, everything had gone well.

She examined the proofs. Then, she looked me right in the eye and said they were unacceptable and she wasn’t going to pay for anything further.

“In fact,” she said, “I’m considering asking for the money I’ve already paid you.”

I must admit, at that time in my life, I wasn’t doing well financially. Sitting in front of Mrs. Customer at that moment, my first thoughts were of making the rent and paying my bills.

I also felt some doubt about the quality of the images. I was paralyzed as to what to say or do.

When you’re young and starting out, a little doubt, as I said, can be helpful in examining your images and furthering your craft. However, once you’ve gained some experience — even if you are switching to a new genre, such as from sports to portraits — you should have a basic confidence in your ability to get the shot. Self-doubt remains a natural response to new challenges, but usually only until you’ve planned the project and created shot lists.

Of course, at any point in your career, there is no better litmus test of your self-confidence than in how you deal with recalcitrant customers.

Turning the Tables

Sitting across from Mrs. Customer, in her palace, I thought I was at a disadvantage. I needed the money, and somehow I had to salvage the situation. My mind quick-fired thoughts, while my hands sweated and, for a minute or two, I didn’t say anything — because I couldn’t think of anything.

Mrs. Customer sat back in her chair — we were sitting at her kitchen table — and stared at me.

What I hadn’t considered, until that second, was how well my previous work had been accepted by others, and the praise I’d received from clients and friends. That one thought gave me the direction I needed.

Silently, I gathered the proofs together, put them into their envelope, slid the envelope into my briefcase and got to my feet. With a firm voice, I thanked Mrs. Customer for her candor and turned to leave.

Before I got to the front door, she asked me what I was going to do with the proofs.

I turned in her direction and, in a non-threatening manner, I told her I was sorry she didn’t like them and that I was taking them back to my office. If I didn’t hear from her within 10 days, I would destroy them.

I had remembered my father telling me, many years ago, to always negotiate as if your wallet were full. Mrs. Customer was attempting to get a substantial discount by denigrating my work, even though she had contracted to pay for everything. When I realized all my other clients had been satisfied with my photography, I knew at that second that Mrs. Customer was trying to “play” me.

Although she and I had some further discussion along the lines of her offering me a low-ball figure, I was in the moment, not worrying about my financial situation or the future. I had negotiated at the beginning and Mrs. Customer had accepted.

Realizing the current discussion wasn’t productive, I thanked her for her time and left.

A day later, Mr. Customer called me, and we were able to resolve the situation. I met with him and his wife at a local restaurant to select the images we needed to finish. There were no discounts, and Mrs. Customer was quite nice (she even offered to pick up the check for dinner).

Inside all of us are dynamic thoughts and emotional processes, including those attempting to cast doubts. If you are aware of your work and know that it is good, that should be your guide. The tides of human emotion always change, but your body of work should sustain perspective.


42 Responses to “Don’t Let Self-Doubt Hold Back Your Photography Business”

  1. Thanks Dennis for the friendly reminder when we have those "bad" days.

  2. Oh yeah, and we all need to be reminded, not everyone will like our work.

    One must take the "water off a duck's back" attitude and don't let things like this bother them.

  3. Great post to put things into perspective when dealing with self-doubt. All you can do is try to stay artistic while keeping a business mindset. Work with your heart, and cash in your art.

    Thanks.

  4. thanks for sharing, this article means alot for me. I just starting my business, and yess sometime self-doubt weaken me when negotiating w/ client.
    Million thanks!

  5. Great story. I like how you handled the "queen."

  6. What a great article, your father had very wise words, which I'll carry with me now "always negotiate as if your wallet were full". Outstanding! Thanks for taking the time to share.

  7. Thank you! An inspirational story.

  8. Thanks for that, Dennis. I'm just considering a move from photography journalism into commercial photography and I know the issues you've described will be a concern for me. Your story makes me realise I'm not alone, and it puts things in perspective!

  9. Wonderful article, Dennis. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  10. Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing this. Great to read this morning.

  11. Great post! This helps in all walks of life! thank you!

  12. Always refreshing to remind us that we all go through it and nothing is better then self confidence.

  13. Dennis, Great story sometimes it is our own self dobut taht keeps us on our toes and forces us to work as hard as we can to get the shots! oh I am going to use your fathers words amazing
    "always negotiate as if your wallet were full"
    Love it!!

  14. Nice story, but that was then and now it is a whole different ballgame ! I am pretty confident about myself and my work and yet it stays very difficult. I only do editorial work, so I have to deal with publishers and photo editors. Now, there are a mot of good photographers out there, who are willing to work for free, if only they can get their work published, in the hope that this will force a breakthrough for them. Photo editors know this and take advantage of it all the time.. They ask me over and over again if I will do the job for free. My answer is always a question to them: " do you work for free?". And they manage to find someone else who does the job! Lucky for me, most of the times the quality does not match up to my quality standards, and I don't hesitate to send them a email to point out what is wrong with the images.
    Yes, they consider me a difficult guy :) I am not, I just don't let them take advantage of the situation !

    Johny

  15. Great post and a needed reminder to not think from the perspective of your wallet, but from the power of your images. Thanks!
    -Scott

  16. Thank you so much for posting this. I know that I will refer back to it again.

    You are so totally right. Having (appropriate) confidence is key.

    Thank you!

    -Anastasia

  17. Dennis, great story you shared, thank you so much. I loved the way you remained calm on the outside and stuck to your guns. I struggle with self doubt occasionally even thought I know and believe I have a quality product. Why do we let a little seeds of doubt borrow trouble from tomorrow that 99% of the time never comes to pass.

  18. Fantastic, inspirational article, Dennis! I also am going to do my best to apply your father's advice. He sounds like a wise man, and you seem to be doing pretty well yourself....

  19. Well put. A perfectly timed reminder for me! Thank you.

  20. Thank you for sharing this experience. I love how you reacted to the situation.

  21. Nice story and also, I love the comment from Johny. So true these days... Thanks everyone for sharing.

    Frederic

  22. Turn off the copy locks on the articles so we can copy your headings and send traffic to your site! This is so frustrating....

  23. Brought back memories of a similar incident 25 years ago. ;o)
    Nicely handled

  24. Great advice. It's also something you need to remember from beginning to end.

    In the beginning of our career, we once had a wedding client that chose or lowest package, and proceeded to negotiate throughout the entire process. Even though it came with two hours of time, she wanted three. Even though it was ceremony only, couldn't we just come to the reception for the cake cutting? On and on.

    That one client changed our entire business practice, and made us realize we created our packages for a reason. They worked. If one didn't cover what you wanted, you must move to the next level. If you stay firm at the beginning, you'll have less confrontations throughout.

  25. Thanks so much for an encouraging, substantive article. I'll keep such very important points in mind when the doubts come calling again.

  26. Good writing. Great writing! I hope to see more.
    As to self-doubt, it happens at the worst times, doesn't it ? But as the boxer Mohammeded Ali is quoted as saying, "tell yourself you're the GREATEST, and even if you're not --pretend.
    -Rohn Engh

  27. Brilliant article! I've recently had this happen to me. The client was happy-ish (another long story) with the low res photos until I would not hand them over because of a lack of final payment.

    She then stated the images were horrendous and that she could find fault in every single photo - I was gobsmacked!

    Fearing this could get "legal" I submitted the images to 4 well known Cape Town wedding photographers (and colleagues), Each one of them stated in writing that they were more than accepetable and that she should be over the moon!

    She has threatened me with a lawyer, I responded by handing over my lawyers details... I've yet to hear from her over a month later!

    I have repeatedly asked her what the problem is and to please supply me a faults list so I can look into it, after 6 emails nothing!

    Even though I'm a well known and experienced wedding photographer in Cape Town I was still extremely upset and found I was asking myself if I'd missed something somehow. But whenever I show people the full wedding on my Iphone the response is the same "Is she mad??, she's trying to play you!"

    I missed nothing, I did a great job on a difficult wedding and the photos came out beautifully!

    I can't believe someone would be that sleazy!!

  28. Thanks Dennis for this excellent anecdote. Your father was very wise and I will carry his words with me. You were smart to have "presence of mind" and not react to your client's startegy. Best of luck in all future endeavors.

  29. I, too, will keep your Father's saying alive in my mind and pass it along to my friends and family. As soon as I started to read about your situation, I knew she was playing you. You handled it extremely well!

  30. Good article. Not preachy...not judgemental of "Mrs. Customer"...and I like how it all worked in the end with being able to look both /Mr. & Mrs. in the eye.

  31. I wish I had read this story a few years ago, things would have turned out much better

  32. I am so happy that your post was brought to my attetion! We all need to be reminded of our talent sometimes. Thank you

  33. I'm so glad I started my day reading this article. I've also had a customer that claimed she was not happy and it did make me doubt myself, but then I thought about all the customers that loved my work and were willing to back me up with written letters and realized this particular customer was trying to get something for nothing. I stuck to my guns and it paid off in the end. Great article. Thank you.

  34. Ditto (Barry Ricketts). I'm a wannabe. I have an emmence lack of confidence in all areas of photography. You were polite and showed respect to the customer. Thank you so much for sharing.

  35. Excellent advice! As a new studio, we are facing many different personality types on a weekly basis. We recently had a more difficult client in for a viewing and she constantly criticized the proofs..didn't like the background, didn't like the drool on her grandson's lip, couldn't appreciate the cute and natural. We never backed off of our price. I would rather her walk away and buy nothing as to lower our standard of doing business. We need the money but I will not be bullied into accepting what is less than fair! Your advice backs up this view...and we needed to hear it!

  36. Excellent read! Kudos!

  37. Thanks for sharing your experience, I guess most of us have come to meet this kind of Customer in their professional lifes...

  38. Prepare for the worst. People are going to take advantage of you left and right if you don't. Always look out for #1

  39. Always negotiate as if your wallet were full.
    Fantastic article and great point of view....so many of us cave in, when we really just need to head towards the door.

  40. What a beautiful story of negotiation. It's an excellent example to would be photographers looking to sell their work :o)

  41. Great article! I have had similar incidence happen to me now and then. I am trying not to let them make me react to these situations. For some reason, there are always going to be "those" kind out there. I think the more creative of a person you are, the more sensitive. Thank you for reminding me of who I am!

  42. You're welcome. Thanks for the feedback!

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