Don't Judge a Client by His Cover

August 21, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I’ve been a professional commercial photographer in California since 1990. During that time, I’ve successfully done business with a wide variety of individuals, mostly small business owners. Naturally, the clients who’ve hired me have come in a variety of personality types ranging from reserved business pros to laid back and kooky creatives. I’ve always prided myself on being able to accommodate just about all types of people who choose to hire me as their commercial photographer. I guess I have the right personality to get along easily with just about anyone. At least that’s what I thought until I met someone I’ll call “Client X”.

Client X contacted me regarding product photography of his custom baseball-style hats he sells via his e-commerce website. I first met with Client X in a public place where he gave me about a dozen or so hats to photograph for him. His instructions were pretty standard — the hats were to be well lighted and shot individually on a white background, positioned at approximately a 45 degree angle to the camera. Sounds pretty easy, right? That’s what I thought. Boy, was I wrong!

Client X’s surfer dude manner of speaking and his disheveled, unshaven, 30-something pothead appearance — all topped with a baseball cap — gave me the impression that he was a bit of a slacker who came up with the idea of selling custom baseball hats because he couldn’t handle the responsibility of a real job. I sensed there was something "off" about him, but he seemed harmless. To be perfectly honest, the term “hobo” came to mind — a word I hadn’t thought of in many years. Taking all of that into consideration, I felt some compassion for him so I offered him an exceptionally low "per item" price for my services. He looked like he could use my help and I figured this would be just about the easiest gig I had undertaken in a long time. Big mistake.

When I returned to my studio, I got to work right away photographing Client X’s custom baseball hats. I used my best Nikon camera, sharpest Nikkor lens and studio lighting gear to ensure top quality results. After performing the photography phase of the project, I spent three or four hours doing the Photoshop post-production work to ensure a pure white background and to create a perfect “drop shadow” below each hat, just as my client had requested. In my professional opinion, my photos turned out beautifully, and I believe any reasonable client would have agreed. I eagerly posted them to a private online album and proudly notified Client X his photos were ready to review.

I was expecting the type of comments I typically get from my clients like, “Wow, these photos look GREAT! I can’t wait to get them onto my website!” But, there was no such reaction from Client X. Instead, he criticized the images with comments like, “They aren’t EXACTLY aligned. I can see the hat in photo #3 is at a slightly different angle than the hat in photo #5. He asserted that the height of the camera kept changing -- even though my camera was on a stable, unaltered tripod the entire time I was shooting his project. His list of criticisms went on and on. It ended with “This was a complete failure. You need to re-shoot ALL of them!” I was stunned. I’ve never had anything close to that type of reaction to any of my commercial photography.

It turns out, the baseball cap wearing, hippy-dippy slacker dude-hobo, Client X, is the most “anal”, obsessive-compulsive human being I’ve ever met! Given his physical appearance combined with his particular psychological disposition, he inspired me to coin the phrase, “obsessive-repulsive”. LOL

A trained psychologist would have immediately recognized Client X as a textbook example of someone with OCD, and probably a cluster of other mental health issues, too. I wasn't so observant nor quick to recognize there were some kind of mental health issues at play. I ended up shooting, re-shooting and re-re-shooting Client X’s hats (all for no extra charge) in an attempt to win him over as another satisfied customer. I spent countless hours on this “simple” project. I even created a custom template to place each hat into to ensure consistent placement, which I thought would be fool-proof. But, my efforts were all in vain. He showed no appreciation for all my hard work. Instead, he kept riding me harder and harder. He even invented new complaints. He said he needed to see both of the eyelets on the front of each hat, that the flat billed hats needed to be shot approximately two inches lower than the curved bill hats, and many very odd and specific additional requirements that he had never previously mentioned to me in any way. His list of requested corrections and nit-picking complaints escalated and evolved over a period of several months. In effect, he kept moving the finish line so I'd never be able to reach it.

At some point, I seriously began to wonder if maybe I was an unwitting test subject in some kind of secret psychology experiment designed to see just how far a perfectionist (like me) will go to please an impossible-to-please business customer. I still wonder.

One night, I had finally had enough and I told him I was giving up on his project. I wrote him a polite and professional email to explain my position and my ongoing frustration with his unusual behavior. I made every effort to be diplomatic. I told him it had become very apparent that we were a mismatch and that I was not the right photographer for him. I suggested he find another photographer and I even provided him with the website URL and phone number of another local commercial photographer. He responded to my thoughtful email with rage, hostility and anger -- all while claiming I was the one being hostile and angry! He peppered his email with insults about my lack of professionalism, sub-par photography skills, laziness — even accusing me of not understanding the basic photography concept of composition! All very, very strange. Delusional. But, I was confident I had finally done the right thing by cutting him loose. He’ll have to become some other photographer’s problem.

Happily, Client X is now an ex-client. This unfortunate experience has taught me is that there are people out there with serious mental health issues. Some of them own small e-commerce businesses, and some of those people will occasionally hire a professional commercial photographer. I hope I never meet another "Client X". If I do, I hope I can recognize it right away and avoid another unpleasant ride on the crazy train.


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