The Two Types of Photography Clients — and Why You Should Only Want to Work with One of Them


As both a graphic designer and photographer, I used to think that working with clients was no fun.

Then I realized that all clients weren’t the problem — just a certain type of client.

I call them “amateur” clients. This is to distinguish them from the clients I do enjoy working with — “professional” clients.

Here are the two client types as I see them. See how these descriptions compare with your experiences.

The Amateur Client

Amateur clients are usually entrepreneurs, businessmen, store owners, etc. They require your services only on rare occasions.

Because they have little background or experience in what you do, they don’t understand your work. But because their business is so important to them, they feel compelled to micromanage you anyway.

Amateur clients lack professional distance; they are too close to the product. With them, business is personal.

Here are four characteristics that most amateur clients share:

  1. They are terrible at briefing you on their needs or what they expect from you.
  2. They are slow at making up their minds or on giving you feedback on your work.
  3. They frustrate you and waste your time by changing their minds frequently.
  4. Even though they run you in circles, they resent paying you for your time.

The Professional Client

By contrast, the professional client has experience working with photographers, graphic designers, writers and other creative people. They understand the nature of what you do, and they are clear about their role and yours.

They respect your time. They are also busy themselves, so they don’t have time to micromanage you. They give you excellent creative briefs and trust that you know what to do with them. They know what they want and rarely change their minds.

Professional clients tend to be employees of large companies; they have budgets and deadlines, and as long as you meet them, they won’t haggle with you over every penny.

Most of us have to work with amateur clients early in our careers; it’s called paying your dues. Once you have some success, you graduate to a more professional clientele.

Fortunately, that’s what happened for me.

But I do value the lessons I’ve learned in my dealings with amateur clients — principally, patience.


19 Responses to “The Two Types of Photography Clients — and Why You Should Only Want to Work with One of Them”

  1. AWESOME post. Thank you, David!

  2. Could not agree more. We recently set-up a web design and photography business and we're still finding our feet. Our most recent client was a classic example of an amateur client and it's just been micro-management all the way.

    We've learnt a hell of a lot in the process, though. Really good post, David.

  3. This doesn't just apply to photography clients. It also applies to writing clients and helicopter services clients. (I'm both a writer and a pilot.) In fact, I suspect it applies to all clients for any kind of service. (Oddly, only moments ago, I was re-reading a post on my own blog about this where I referred to another post here on Black Star Rising: http://www.aneclecticmind.com/2009/06/09/just-say-no-to-troublesome-clients/ and http://rising.blackstar.com/five-tips-for-dealing-with-unreasonable-photography-clients.html respectively.)

    The thing that bothers me most about the "amateur clients," however, is the way they constantly look for ways to reduce what they have to pay you. "Professional clients," who know the value of your services, don't do that.

    I'm with you: work for the pros.

  4. I always find it an uphill struggle to educate amateur clients.

  5. But there are many more Amateur clients than Professional. All it takes to deal with the "amateurs" is the ability to set and manage expectations.

  6. I totally agree with you on this article. I've dealt with both in my business and have learned to spot them within 10 minutes of the first meeting.

    One of the main things I've learned is that the amateur client hardly ever if ever returns for more work because they either go out of business shortly there after for what ever reason (I don't want to read to much into that) so all the bending over backwards I do is all for naught.

    The professional clients send me regular work and never balk about the cost. I've even gotten tips for some in the past for beating their deadlines.

    I've had to tell the people I work with that sometimes the client is not always right and I've turned down paying work (not lately mind you) when the client wants something I know will turn out hideous. Sure I could do it as they request to show them how ugly the graphic or website or photo will turn out but they will never pay me for that time I put in to teach them the lesson and they will usually go under with in 6 months anyway so I really won't be out any future business.

  7. I find this post quite irritating and snobbish. I have hired photographers and respected their work, time, ideas. I work as a designer in the textile/fashion industry, perhaps my field is different: I distinguish between neurotic clients, and polite ones.

  8. The "Amateur Client" has to be educated about your services, find out their needs, have them sign contracts and stay professional no matter what! Once they have the understanding that you are a professional then they will act accordingly.

  9. @ Eva:

    This is not snobbish at all. It is reasonable and only logical to establish that there are DEFINITE two types of clients. Amateur and Professional. It's a fact of life, get over it.

    Do you want to work hassle-free and get paid? Or do you want to struggle every single day to make a buck? It's up to you. This blog is simply making things easier and educating the photographers and young business-people out there on what to look for.

    For that, thank you everyone for contributing to BSR.

  10. While I agree in principle with the general categories you define, and obviously with the general preference of working with the "professional" client, I think it is too easy to just fault the client. I think we have a responsibility to 'manage' the amateur client differently, and oftentimes our client management skills (or lack thereof) are at least contributing to the bad experience. It always takes two to tango...

  11. I have had the same problem in my business. When I identify what David calls an "amateur client," I cut it off as soon as I can. The reason is that I'd rather spend my time finding work that is more rewarding financially and personally. I can't do that if all my time is spent with difficult clients. And frankly, education only goes so far. If a client isn't what David calls a "professional client," I can still work with them, but it really only works if they respect my experience and defer to my recommendations. Otherwise, they're not getting their money's worth and I'm not having any fun.

  12. This post so exactly accords with my experience that it's kind of spooky. Well done.

  13. I love it when my blogs create controversy like this. One day I should write a book about my "amateur clients" It would make interesting reading. I think there is a web page somewhere for these stories. Someone once told me years ago that you know you have made it when you can no to a client. That was good advice. I have never had to say no to my "professional" clients.

    What do you think, Scott, should I post a client story?

  14. I agree with Maria that categorizing clients with undesirable behaviors as "amateur" and clients with desirable behaviors as "professional" is snobbish; worse yet, it lacks utility.

    Labels aside, the key point of the post is that clients with some experience in purchasing creative services are more likely to understand why certain business practices (such as writing a clear brief) are productive and others (such as micromanaging) are not. Nobody teaches them this stuff in biz school, people!

    The upside, as others have noted, is that it's possible to educate a less-experienced purchaser in why desirable practices benefit him/her as well as you. This seems a more useful approach than simply labeling clients as "amateur" or "professional" and avoiding the former. Granted, there may be occasions in which the extra effort needed to educate the inexperienced purchaser isn't worth the turn for you, but the same may not be true of another vendor.

  15. Go for it, David

  16. I have do disagree with some of the posts. Let me give you an example of one of my past clients.

    I was hired by two little elderly ladies to build them a website for their business that sold handmade jewelry. The initial meeting went well although I could tell they were going to be real picky on every aspect I took the job because I liked the women and I felt it was something I could knock out in a few days time.

    The first day I was set to work on their site they met me at the door when I opened up the shop. They sat behind the desk with me often taking the mouse and keyboard from me to make changes on items they had already liked just hours before. When they came in one day to find me working on another clients project they chewed me out even though I was ahead of schedule on theirs and dealing with them 8 hours a day had put me behind on other work. I assured them their project would be done on time but that I had other clients that I had to answer to as well but they never understood that concept. When they were not in the office I was on the phone with them and it got to the point my secretary would just tell me "my girlfriends" were on the phone when they called because I saw them more than my own wife.

    After completing the job which included quite a few items they wanted that was not in the original contract because they would go home at night and search other sites and decide they wanted to add something we had not discussed they signed off on it. Then when sent the final bill (not including all the additional work they caused me) they said they could not afford to pay (even though it was what was agreed initially) and would I consider taking some jewelry in trade I could give my wife.

    I know starting a new business is tough. I know most people think of it as their child and want to nurture it as it grows but at some point the amateur client needs to understand that the vendors they hire also want to see their business grow as well because it means future business for us. To come to a vendor and tell them every step of the way how to do their job when the client really has no clue does no one any good and it only harms both their business but takes time away from everyone that could best be spent growing their business and not smothering it.

    In case anyone is wondering their business shut it's doors within 5 months of the site going live. I know this because they called to ask if I could pro-rate them a refund on the rest of the year they paid for hosting.

  17. Okay, photographers, while we're on the subject -- how do YOU treat YOUR vendors? Would, say, your accountant, website designer, prop buyer, technician, etc., see you as a "professional" client who respects their expertise and value? Or would they say you're self-absorbed, a diva, a penny-pincher? Remember, karma is a b*tch!

  18. There’s no choice if your next client is a wedding prospect. You can be pretty sure the client is an amateur. My hat’s off to wedding photographers. They must have the patience of Job – the successful ones. We can all learn from the wedding pros. Please invite a wedding pro to explain how they turn the feisty amateur into a kitten.

  19. I don't think there is any problem labeling them amateur or professional clients. As someone who used to work in the graphic design industry and now works solely as a photographer, I am inclined to agree with the spirit of this article.

    Educating clients only works some of the time. Contracts give you a high chance of being paid but do not necessarily prohibit un-professional clients from becoming neurotic or arguing with you for every dime you charge even if it's all outlined from the get-go.

    I don't think this article is snobish at all. I think it speaks the frustration that we've all felt at some point or another in our careers and I think it's something good to reflect on.

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