Ok. First things first: breathe.
If you’ve just experienced ‘photographer rejection’ for the first time, it’s ok – you’re not alone. As photographers, rejection is just an occupational hazard. Photography is art, and art is a subjective medium. What looks amazing to one person’s tastes and sensibilities might turn another person’s nose up in disgust. It never ceases to amaze me what some people like and dislike in photography. Alas, this is the reality of our craft – and we must adapt if we hope to enjoy our photographic careers. While it might seem insurmountable now you’ll look back on this in a year and smile.
Because we work in a subjective medium it’s only a matter of time before a client communicates some degree of dislike for the images we create for them. This is true enough for portrait photographers but is even more likely for photographers in more commercial circles. Real estate, product, fashion, and other commercial photographers can expect very, very particular clients with very particular tastes. So when your client sends you THAT email or leaves you THAT voicemail, what should you do? How do you recover from the rejection and avoid future anxiety and discouragement? In this article, I’ll go over a few ways I, personally, overcome rejection and I’ll also suggest a few ways to (hopefully) prevent rejection as much as it depends on us as photographers.
Dealing with Rejection
I was as insecure as a photographer can be for probably the first ten times I charged for my work. I got my start with portrait photography and I knew I had a LOT to learn. I had a rudimentary understanding of the exposure triangle, shot in Manual mode, and owned a cheap 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. Basically, I knew enough to be dangerous. Looking back now I realize that I was a nervous wreck when working for clients but I absolutely loved the pictures I was taking of my own children. When I worked for myself, as it were, on personal projects I was pleased with my progress and artistic interpretation but every single time I delivered my images to my clients I sat by my phone with bated breath. I just knew that as soon as my clients saw my beginner-level photography they would “find me out” and demand a refund. I learned much, much later that I was suffering from a particular type of anxiety called “Impostor Syndrome”.
This concept is best described as a state of mind or ‘anxiety’ which manifests itself as an inability to internalize success and a constant, nagging fear that someday you will be exposed as a “fraud” or “impostor”. Essentially, this means that despite all external evidence to the contrary, many professionals are convinced that they deserve none of the success or praise they experience because they believe they are frauds. Any apparent success is quickly undermined or explained away as luck or deception.
It was wonderful and liberating, then, when I learned about this “syndrome” and recognized it in myself. I felt validated and encouraged in the revelation that I was not alone – that countless other photographers, in fact, felt this very same way. I believed that I was feeling exactly what I was supposed to be feeling as a budding photographer, so I took a deep breath and cast my anxieties to the wind.
Then it happened. The rejection text came. My client was… not in love with their images. This wasn’t some imagined pity – this was undeniable, outspoken dislike for my work.
I. Was. Crushed. I was mortified! What do I do!? My reputation was months-old! How do I recover from something like this? The screaming in my head wouldn’t stop. Questions about my future in the industry were rattling around in my brain. I thought back to every client I’d ever had and reinterpreted their claims of satisfaction to be empty compliments made out of pity for a new and terrible photographer. I remembered every soft-focused, funky-colored, ill-composed image I’d ever created and gave serious thought to listing my gear on eBay.
I did not handle that first rejection well. I, of course, veiled my discouragement from my client and apologized but internally I was a wreck. Nothing about my mental state was healthy when I first experienced client rejection and I would hate to see any of you go through the same downward spiral I went through. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand a few things about rejection:
1: You Can’t Please Everybody
A photographer provides a service, yes. We are hired by clients to produce images, yes. Ultimately we work for our clients, yes. However, photography is an art form and art is subjective. Even when a client demands the most realistic, true-to-life images of a product or person it is impossible to deliver an image which universally satisfies all conceivable standards.
For example, color is something that photographers (and all visual artists, really) learn to see over time. Of course, the vast majority of the world’s population sees in full color, but – as I’ve learned in my own personal journey with photography – truly seeing color for what it is takes time, practice, trial, and error.
For example, I remember watching some YouTube videos early on in my hobbyist days which attempted to explain the Split Tone panel in Lightroom. It drove me insane to watch a 20-minute video and have literally no idea what was changing in the image. I just couldn’t SEE it. Now, after much more time and experience, I actually understand how to “see” the colors and hues in the highlights and shadows in an image or video.
I say all that to say this: I’ve had friends whose clients have complained that their images made their skin look “strange colors” when, in reality, the skin tones of the image look almost perfectly true-to-life to my eyes and the photographer’s eyes. If people can’t even universally agree on something as fundamental as color how can we expect to please everybody with our imagery? Color is only a small fraction of what makes a photograph.
As a final example, go open two tabs in your web browser right now. In one tab search “photography composition” and in the other search “best photograph (2017)”. You’ll find very quickly that there are all kinds of classical ways to compose a photograph… which the average person doesn’t really care about. You’ll see the golden spiral, the rule of thirds, diagonals, etc… in one tab and then hundreds of popular images where the subject is imperfectly centered in the other tab.
Art is not universal and you can’t please everybody – so stop trying to impress other photographers with your work. Just create work you like to look at.
2: Rejection isn’t the end of a client relationship – giving up is the end
One thing that was difficult for me to understand about rejection is that rejection doesn’t mean I’ll never work for a particular client again. Rejection doesn’t mean the relationship is over – but if I let the rejection defeat me or embarrass me too much, it will.
Case in point: Ironically enough, real estate agents can be among the most particular type of client I work for – and rightfully so! My images are often the first thing a person sees when looking at their listing. If I do poorly at my job they don’t even get to do theirs. So I’ve had to learn to adapt to the tastes and preferences of my real estate clients. I’ve had wonderful clients who really wanted their images to have that surrealistic HDR pop. More recently, I’ve had equally wonderful clients who wanted their images to be clean, straight, and as true-to-life as possible. Both of these types of clients are ideal! Both communicate their desires to me clearly, but how do they do that? By telling me what they don’t like about my images.
Not long ago I began working for a team of agents and, after looking at some of their prior listings, attempted to mimic some of the work of their old photographer. Everything went wrong for me. The client wanted to photograph the home in the evening, so I had no ambient light to work with. The bathrooms were particularly small. There were some very challenging color and dynamic range issues. The combination of high-ceilings and poor light quality made my flashes less-than-effective. Ultimately, the images came out fine but when I didn’t hear from the agents for a few days after delivery I realized they weren’t happy with the images. Finally, after a little prodding, they told me what they didn’t like about the images. And you know what? It wasn’t a big deal. One of the agents asked if I could grab an extra picture of the backyard one night and I decided to just reshoot the entire property for them… but at an earlier hour this time. The images I was able to deliver the second time around were closer to the tastes and preferences of my clients and everybody left happy.
If, however, I had decided to let the initial rejection scare me away from these clients what would it have said about my maturity as a business owner? What would it have said about my professionalism as an entrepreneur? It was crucial both to my relationship with this client and to my reputation in the community that I move past the rejection and find a way to deliver the best images possible.
3: Rejection comes with the territory as artists
As artists, we are going to come across people who don’t like our work. Whether people outright say it to us or send us subtle hints there will always be instances in every artistic career of rejection and dislike. In the grand scheme of things, however, does this even really matter? At the end of the day, that’s just the way it is – especially in the internet age.
We’ve all met a few keyboard-commandos during our adventures through cyberspace. You know the type: Tells you what ‘he would have done’, uses excessive profanity when provoked, mistakes ‘your’ for ‘you’re’ and ‘there’ for ‘they’re’, is apparently a world-class photographer but somehow is also probably 12 years old. These types of people are all over the internet spouting off their opinions and almost never doing so in a positive, edifying manner. We’ve all interacted with them and we all know that, to put it bluntly, they’re idiots.
The problem is that when they criticize YOUR photo it gets in your head. It doesn’t matter how many compliments you get, how many accolades you earn, how many awards that image wins… all you remember is that one, singular, solitary criticism.
This is just what it’s like to be an artist. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. We have to be prepared for the possibility of rejection every time we submit our work to the world – just remember: skill in photography isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. Nobody ever “gets there”. It’s all about picking up new tricks, tools, and techniques to create new and exciting imagery that YOU are interested in. This is actually just a convoluted way of saying “you have to develop your own style”. It takes time, trial, and error – and you better believe there will be people who don’t like your style. That’s ok! There are plenty of people in the world who will. Do it for them and do it for yourself.
4: Focus on your “why”
I also find it helpful to remember why I picked up a camera in the first place. I didn’t want to pay ridiculous prices for my family photography. Then I wanted to be the photographer who didn’t cost very much. After some time I realized that I had to cost at least something if I wanted to be able to feed the hobby, so I found a more reasonable rate and found other ways to price myself competitively without contributing to the “race to the bottom”.
After a while, I decided to go full-time as a photographer so I could focus on some other, wonderful things in my life – so my “why” quickly shifted from ‘I want to take great photos’ to ‘I want to provide for my family with photography’. It’s amazing what a simple shift in my “why” did to my career.
I quit caring so much about whether or not I was ‘fulfilled’ by my artistic expression. I quit worrying about what everybody thought of my work. I quit all the negative self-talk that comes along with the impostor syndrome (which gets REALLY bad when you go full-time). I quit all that and I started looking for every conceivable source of income I could think of in order to pay the bills and live the life I wanted to live with my family. Of course, I’m still a little nervous when I send my images to my clients (who are mostly commercial clients these days) but I’m not nearly the wreck I used to be. It’s not about the photography anymore – it’s about my “why”, and rejection of my photography can’t touch my “why” anymore.
Figure out your “why” and ask yourself if client rejection can rob you of (or otherwise diminish) your “why” for being a photographer. If the answer if ‘yes’, perhaps you should reevaluate what the point of your photography really is (and if your answer is a good one or not).
5: Plan a personal project and publish it
When you work for other people it’s very, very easy to lose excitement and motivation. Your whole goal becomes doing what they want and creating what they want to have created. Sometimes you just have to unplug from that and go your own way. I spend a lot of my time photographing the insides and outsides of houses. That’s fun in its own way for me. But after a while it’s just another house. Sometimes I just want to throw the wide-angle lens on and chase my dog around. Sometimes I want to make videos. I just want to do something that has no expectations. No rules. No limitations.
Pick a color and go chase it down for a month. Pick a subject and find 100 ways to photograph it differently. Buy some super weird, fringe piece of gear on Amazon and see what you can do with it.
And then publish it. Post it to your business page in all its raw, unadulterated glory for the world to see. Show your clients that you actually like knowing how to use your camera.
You’ll be amazed how much love you get on social media when you shoot for yourself (and sometimes, that just feels nice.)
6: There’s often truth in criticism – and there’s always something to learn
One final thing to remember, and I say this as gently and lovingly as possible: sometimes there’s a tiny seed of truth in the criticisms we receive. Not always… but sometimes.
One of the best things I ever did was invite another local photographer I didn’t know out for coffee. We ended up hitting it off and now we’ve become pretty close. We do occasionally talk about things other than photography but, for the most part, he likes to teach me a thing or two when we get together.
I also show him my work and ask him genuinely, “What do you think?”
The criticisms I get from him are so much gentler and constructive than anything I might find on a social media post or from a non-photographer friend. Sometimes his criticisms are more subjective and I may or may not agree with his suggestions – but more often than not I hear what he’s trying to suggest to me and I see the potential in what he’s trying to help me achieve.
That’s priceless, in my opinion. Take the criticism for what it’s worth, use what you can, discard the rest.
Before I wrap this article up I want to cover 5 quick tips to help mitigate the chance of rejection before it ever rears its ugly head.
1: Make Sure Expectations are Clear before the Photoshoot
When working for a client (be it portrait, commercial, real estate, product, fashion, etc…) make sure you wholly and completely understand what your client is looking for. If they have ideas for their photo shoot, don’t discard them. Make sure you deliver images as close to what they’re looking for as possible. My newest real estate client is wonderful at communicating this with me – he always tells me exactly what he wants and he makes sure that I know exactly how many images he’s hoping for. That gives me something to work toward! At first, though, I was not good about clarifying client-photographer expectations – an oversight which did begin to play out negatively until we remedied the situation. Always make sure your expectations are clearly spelled out IN PRINT before each photoshoot.
2: Make Sure Potential Clients Have Seen Your Work and Your Style
Sometimes you’ll get inquiries from who-knows-where with only one simple question: “How much do you charge for ___”. Depending on the situation, you might want to pass on these. These types of clients often have a very vague idea of what they want (but will almost certainly hate what you deliver and ask for a discount as a result) and are only inquiring with you to see who is the cheapest. They don’t value you, they don’t value your time, and they definitely don’t value your work or your style – because they haven’t seen it. These types of clients are very often demanding, cheap, and opinionated. I, personally, stay away from these.
However, the inquiries which start with, “I’ve seen your work and I really love everything you do…” are worth their weight in gold. Not because of their flattery, but because they somewhat understand you as a photographer. They’ve seen your personal style and they want you to put that same unique spin on images for them. Ask them what they’ve seen of your work and what they liked best about it. When a client books with you because they wanted to book you, it’s going to be a good day.
3: Do NOT ask your clients to make you a Pinterest board of other photographers’ work
I made this mistake SEVERAL times as a young photographer. I initially did it because I wanted to know what kinds of things my clients liked – but what I learned very quickly was that it prompted the comparison game in all directions. I was comparing my work to the work I saw on my clients’ Pinterest boards. My clients did the same thing. If our locations wasn’t as great as the locations on Pinterest I looked bad. If my subjects didn’t look like flawless models I looked bad. I lost my creative edge and started chasing images that others had already created for other people.
This is not a good way to maintain your sanity.
Pinterest photos are almost always staged, styled shoots with paid models, full makeup and hair, and insane production costs. Your Fall photo sessions WILL NOT look like your clients’ Pinterest boards unless you have all of the above. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself.
4: Portrait Photographers: Expose for the skin tones and get your colors right
I once heard another photographer say that, when photographing families, just make sure that Mama looks her best. If Mama looks good, you’ll do great. That’s genius advice. Two things to help you in that pursuit: Expose the scene in a way that her skin looks its best and make sure your color balance flatters her skin tones. If you’re shooting RAW you can get away with a lot after the fact in Lightroom or other editing software but try your best to get it right in-camera. Make sure she’s not too orange and not too blue. Just get the skin looking soft and natural and you’ll do fine. (Take it easy with that Clarity slider – in both directions).
5: All photographers: Keep your screen color calibrated – and check the final product with your phone
One thing I recently did was manually calibrate my monitors to match what I was seeing on my phone. I tend to produce digital images for my clients more than anything these days. As such, it’s safe to assume that a large percentage of them view my images for the first time on their mobile devices – which are almost certainly not color calibrated. I’ve used expensive monitor color-calibrating tools, and they work great, but I’ve found an even simpler method to be very helpful to my particular setup.
First, I edit the photos on my desktop computer. I get everything looking right and then I upload my images to my online gallery. Then I pull out my phone and I look at my images. First I look at the blacks, shadows, highlights, and whites. If my whites look dull I adjust my monitor accordingly, and so on. Then I look at my colors and add red, blue, or green as needed. Finally, I have a set of monitors which are roughly calibrated to accurately portray what my clients see on their mobile devices. This helps me avoid the email that says, “Why does my face look so orange?” I’ve seen the images just like she’ll see them – and her face won’t be orange unless that’s the way she wants it.
I hope these tips have been helpful for you. I also hope that, after reading this article, you won’t let rejection or discouragement slow you down too much. We’ve all been there and, if we haven’t, it’s coming. Just remember to have fun and don’t take anything too seriously. At the end of the day, photography is all about capturing what we see how we see it. It isn’t about impressing anybody. If you can keep that in the back of your mind you’ll go far. Until next time!