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Why You Need to Manage Expectations – Both Yours and Your Client’s

As you prepare for a photo session with clients you probably run through a checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything. Cameras? Check. Lenses? Check. Lighting modifiers? Good to go. Props, stepstools, spare batteries? Got ’em.

But one thing that often gets left behind, so to speak, is a set of expectations that you and your client might have for the photo session. You might have something in mind for the session based on your experience, your work with previous clients, or the particular set of gear you are bringing along. But if your clients have a different set of expectations it can spell big trouble and will require a lot more than a few batteries and extra memory cards to fix.

 Why You Need to Manage Expectations - Both Yours and Your Client's - maternity photo

These clients hired me for a maternity session and it went smoothly thanks to a very clear set of expectations that we discussed beforehand.

Expectations are important

Think of the many ways in which your expectations influence your perception of the services and products you buy. When you go out to eat you will expect a certain level of service based on previous visits. If you go on vacation you will probably look for reviews online and base your satisfaction of the accommodations on how well those expectations were met.

If you hire a contractor to remodel your kitchen you will make sure to have lengthy discussions with them to make sure the work they perform is precisely what you want. It’s fair to say that as a consumer you probably base many of your buying decisions on expectations that have been set for you.

And yet, as a photographer, how often have you worked to set expectations for potential clients? Your website might proudly proclaim that you do weddings and formal events, but there are probably two dozen other photographers in your area who offer similar services. The same goes for most types of photography: families, youth sports, products, high school seniors, or even aerial drone images.

You’re good at what you do but what makes you stand out from the rest, and what can your clients expect when you show up to take pictures?

 Why You Need to Manage Expectations - Both Yours and Your Client's - baby in a basket

What can clients expect from you?

One of the first things I learned when I started doing portraits for clients was that the things which I thought were the most important were not at the top of my clients’ priority lists. I spent so much time thinking about pricing and choosing a template for my website that I neglected to properly craft a message letting clients know what they could really expect out of me.

A few dozen sample images of portraits in parks along with a testimonial or two are a great way to market yourself. But these don’t really tell clients much about your approach to a photo session or what you will do to get the shots they are looking for.

Set expectations early

Think about the many ways in which you can set expectations in advance to let clients know how things will go. This goes well beyond simply telling your clients how much you charge, how many prints or images you will deliver, and whether you take checks or credit cards.

For a session to go smoothly think about the more esoteric expectations and do your best to manage them before a single click of your camera shutter. Some items to ponder would be…

  • Your shooting style: Are you easygoing, flexible, and open to improvisation or do you have a more strict and pre-planned approach to photo sessions?
  • Accepting input: Do you incorporate input from clients in terms of poses, locations, or picture ideas?
  • Who can attend the session: Will you let clients bring friends, family, or even pets to a photo session? (Not to get their pictures taken, but just for help, encouragement, or comfort.)
  • Where you draw the line: Are you willing to engage in illegal or semi-legal activity to get photos? Some clients might want to shoot in areas that prohibit trespassing or are otherwise off-limits which might be beyond the scope of your services. “But my friend got photos taken at this abandoned warehouse last year.” they might say, in which case you might advise your client to solicit the help of another photographer.
  • What types of pictures are off limits? Your clients might want to do pictures on train tracks or recreate some risqué images they saw on Instagram. If that’s not your cup of tea, your clients need to know about it. And in the case of train tracks, the answer should always be NO!
 Why You Need to Manage Expectations - Both Yours and Your Client's - family photo of hands

This picture was not my idea; my clients suggested it on the day of the shoot, and we made it happen. I told them that I was open to their ideas so they offered some, and the results were great.

More expectation examples

  • Posing: Are you the type of photographer who likes to use specific formal poses or do you take a more casual hands-off approach? This is especially important if you are doing wedding and other types of events that are not easy to replicate.
  • What’s your approach to social media? Will you share pictures of the session online, talk about the session before or afterward, or snap behind-the-scenes photos to ingratiate yourself to other potential clients? Some people might be fine with this but other clients may prefer more privacy. If so you would need to adjust your approach for those clients, or let them know so they can make an informed decision about whether or not to use your services.
  • Photography locations: Do your clients want to shoot in locations that just won’t work (or the wrong time of day), or you simply can’t get to with your gear? Discuss what your clients expect beforehand so you won’t be caught off guard during the session if they ask you to shoot in a dimly-lit alley, behind a waterfall, or in the middle of a crowded mall.
  • Photography assistant: Do you use a second shooter and if so, what will his or her role be during the session?
  • Turn-around times: How long will your clients have to wait to get prints or digital files after the session?
 Why You Need to Manage Expectations - Both Yours and Your Client's - cards from a funeral

I was asked by some friends to take pictures at a funeral for their loved one. The key to the whole experience was a crystal-clear understanding of what the clients wanted and what my role was as the photographer.

This is just a starting point. You are going to have other things that are unique to yourself and your photography. And even though some of these might be clearly spelled out in your contract, it’s a good idea to set and manage expectations clearly and without room for misinterpretation. A contract may cover you in legal terms, but don’t assume your clients have meticulously read and understand every single word.

 Why You Need to Manage Expectations - Both Yours and Your Client's - graduation photo PhD

Open communication is key

In my experience, one of the best ways to set these expectations is to have some kind of real-time back-and-forth dialog with your clients. Exchanging information over email and social media is fine, but when it comes to hashing out the details of a photo session nothing beats a phone call or in-person meeting.

If the latter isn’t all that practical, then, by all means, talk with your clients on the phone or via video chat. This can help you set a positive tone for the session, ease their minds about any concerns they might have, and give you a chance to explain what they can expect. Reassure them that you have their best interests in mind.

What do you expect from your clients?

There’s a flip side to setting expectations and it’s one that sometimes gets overlooked when planning or executing a photo session. You might have bent over backward to let your clients know what to expect from you, but what have you done to let your clients know what you expect from them?

Just as every photographer is different, each client is also unique. They have an attitude and approach that separates them from everyone else. In order to make sure things run smoothly, think about ways to communicate your expectations of them with your clients. Otherwise you, and they could end up knee-deep in frustration with no easy way out.

  • Punctuality: Do you value punctuality and expect your clients to be on time for a photo shoot? This might seem obvious but not all clients take the same disciplined approach as you might when it comes to arriving when they are supposed to.
  • Cell phone usage during a session: Will you ask your clients to put their phones away during the session? For some photographers, this isn’t an issue, but others get irked if clients are constantly snapping, tweeting, and texting during a photo session. If you expect them to be focused and attentive, let them know in advance.
 Why You Need to Manage Expectations - Both Yours and Your Client's - family photo of people walking

When this family arrived I spent a few minutes explaining how I was going to conduct the session and listened to their ideas as well. It set a positive tone that resulted in some images that they really liked.

More examples of your potential expectations:

  • Transportation on-site: Do you expect your clients to be able to walk around or transport themselves to different locations? If you are doing high school senior photos do you plan on taking them to different locations in your vehicle? If so, do the seniors and their parents know that this might be a possibility? Iron out these details beforehand or you could find yourself in an uncomfortable situation the day of the shoot.
  • Other photographers at the session: If you are doing a wedding, will you be the only photographer or will the groom’s uncle (who just got a new DSLR for his birthday) be hanging out taking photos also? Some photographers don’t mind this sort of thing, but most would rather the clients tell Uncle Bob to leave his camera at home and let you do your job. Communicate your expectations well in advance to avoid hurt feelings the day of the ceremony.
 Why You Need to Manage Expectations - Both Yours and Your Client's - 2 kids

When working with kids, especially infants, things are never going to go how you expect! But discussing things with the parents beforehand is a good way to help deal with issues as they crop up.

As before, these are only some of the things to consider when setting client expectations and the best way to go about doing that is with a phone call or other type of back-and-forth conversation. This information might be on your website, but it’s incumbent on you as the photographer to do everything you can to make sure your clients know what you expect of them. Don’t simply just assume they have read through every page of your site.

 Why You Need to Manage Expectations - Both Yours and Your Client's - family photo

This family was a joy to work with, largely because of clear expectations from both parties (the family and myself).


Finally, one tip that might be useful to you is to make a checklist of these items so you have it handy during conversations with the client. This way you can update it over time as new issues come to light, and you can make sure to properly address all the most pressing expectation issues that could come into play before, during, and after a session.

The goal here is to make every session a positive experience for your clients as well as yourself, and the more work you do to manage expectations for all parties involved, the happier everyone will be.

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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