Pre-empt the Problem: Be a Client Stalker

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No photographer wants to discover that their client is using photos in unintended ways. If there was something more that you could do, to not only make your terms clear, but increase your bottom line, why would you not do it?


Andy Warhol commented, “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” The future, obviously, is upon us.

Well into the digital millennium, humanity is more connected than ever. Privacy concerns are very real for most people. Others, however, don’t seem to mind putting every part of their lives on display. It has never been easier to learn about the people we deal with. A search engine can bring up everything from social media feeds to mug shots. Most public records are well and truly public.

It has always been considered practical advice for job hunters to research the companies interviewing them. Paid background checks are available for everyone from prospective tenants to first dates. Some hiring departments actually ask for social media login info of their applicants.

It really is frighteningly easy to find at least some basic information about people. The higher the profile, the easier it is.

So there is no excuse not to cyberstalk your new or prospective client. In fact, it should be part of your onboarding process.

Stop clutching your pearls long enough to hear me out.

The better word is probably cybersleuth. In fact, it should go without saying that your research should be limited to publicly accessible information that the client has shared with the world. If you don’t understand why that is important, it simply can not be explained to you. Under no circumstances should any information be obtained illegally.

If you are a brand or commercial photographer, you probably already know the benefits. Researching your client is a requirement of understanding whom you’re working with and what they might want. You can start the creative process right away. We all know that some clients just never get around to your carefully thought out questionnaire, after all.

But what about your non-commercial clients? What about that nice family who just wants some family photos and a solo portrait each of Mom and Dad? Aside from the information you need to craft your setting, and maybe what colors they plan to wear, what more do you really need to know?

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Quite a bit more, actually. But a few things in particular can save you a lot of grief later.

Too many photographers come into peer groups with one common complaint. They took a job for a certain type of photography and later discovered it was being used by the client in unintended ways. That lovely portrait of Mom has turned into the cover of her newly published book. Dad has splashed the photo of his pearly toothed family on his dental office website. Not only that, but on a billboard downtown to show off his mad dental skills!

These are obviously commercial uses and most photographers understand that different uses have different price tags attached. Licensing is a complicated topic all on its own, we won’t go into the “What, When, Why, and How Much” here.

If you don’t understand at least basically why this is an issue, stop reading right now and get a license and usage refresher before you tank your photography business. Then come back and finish reading.

The bottom line is that the intended use of the photos affects your bottom line. Commercial usage displays to a different audience, has a higher value to the client, and therefore, to the photographer.

Your contract should be very specific about the rights that you attach to the photographs. This is unique to each individual project, assignment, or client. The vast majority of consumer (non-commercial) photography is intended for personal use. That means that the photos are for their personal enjoyment, within a limited amount of natural exposure to the outside world. The (overly) simplest explanation is that they are not used to make money, by your client or anyone else.

Whether you’re one of those photographers who doesn’t sweat stuff like this, or if this drives you apoplectic, you still have the right to deal with the infringement.

Who knew? Well, you should have.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a way to head some of this off before the infringement even happened?

Actually, there is. It begins with dropping the assumption that family photos are just for the family. This is where your cybersleuthing skills can come in handy.

  • Who, exactly, is your client?
  • Do they own a business?
  • Are they an Instagram with a kazillion followers?
  • Do their children regularly participate in sports, activities, or pageants?
  • Does Mom have a recipe and family blog?
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Think of all the possible ways they might use your photos and where they might end up.

If you feel icky reading about Little Johnny’s ball team or Mom’s struggles with weight loss, change your perception. This is more than a defense mechanism for your business. This is a sales opportunity.

It’s just good customer service.

Ask your client about their business. Ask about their family interests. You don’t have to mention that Little Linda looked so cute in her new gymnastics outfit. The objective is not to creep your clients out. The point is to show an interest, build rapport, find uses for your photography services. Turn potential problems into potential profit.

Frankly, we all know that not every client reads every word of every contract. Even if you have carefully crafted your contract and license, it doesn’t mean the client understands what they may and may not do with the photographs. It is also not unheard of to explain, verbally, face to face, exactly what this means, and still have clients who don’t comply. Whether they understand or don’t, they can not simply use the photos as they wish.

If there was something more that you could do, to not only make your terms clear, but increase your bottom line, why would you not do it?

  • Research your client
  • Take a genuine interest
  • Ask questions
  • Present options instead of obstacles

This creates value for both you and your client. The client has a positive and beneficial customer experience. You have not only an up-sale contract, but the potential for a valuable recurring client.

At the very least, you have one less ulcer when you drive by that billboard full of pearly perfect teeth.