Know When to Say “No”

Photographer at Work. Pano. B&W rendering. ©Alina Oswald.

Know When to Say No to a Project

Years ago, when I was still trying to figure out my life as a freelancer, the advice was to never say no, to take on any and every project possible, paid and most of the time unpaid. The idea behind this advice was, I guess, to build a portfolio and get work samples.

The idea in itself is not bad, but up to a point, and that is a point when you can actually say no to a project when you can choose to or are forced to refuse to take on a project.

First and foremost, I’d like to mention a couple of basic things to keep in mind when deciding if a project is right for you or not:
– trust your gut or at least pay attention to what your gut is trying to tell you
– trust that “enough is enough” feeling when you can’t take any more…exploitation (yes, a somewhat strong word, but that’s what it is) and also disregard from clients you’ve worked for for years (you always seem to be the last entry on the client’s priority list, in particular when it comes to payment)

Writing, ink pen in hand. Photo by Alina Oswald.

When not to take on a project:

– when your gut feeling tells you that something is wrong or at least that something is not right
When you need money, when you are desperate to take on any paying project, or when you’re just starting out, be careful. Clients can and will take advantage of your state of mind or of your vulnerability. Although it is easier said than done, do try to take a moment and consider all aspects. Do not rush into making a decision that later you’re going to regret. Take a moment to listen to your gut feeling. It’s almost always right.

– when you had enough
When you’ve worked with a client for a long time, although that client is chronically late paying you for your work, you will reach a point when enough is enough. There comes a time when that client wants you to do one more project and is ready to make you feel guilty if you refuse. That, while the client owes you several projects worth of payments. At one point–and you are the only one who knows that tipping point–at one point you will have enough of it–enough of being paid late or promised payment without seeing a dime, enough of putting up with the client’s excuses (there are always excuses), and so on. Do not be afraid to address the issue in a professional way and set limits. Use this opportunity to remind the client of the outstanding invoices, and explain why you cannot take on any more projects before all or at least most of the outstanding invoices are paid. Those clients who want to keep you around will understand and will pay.

– when the client asks for too much work, for very little money
I think this is even worse than being asked to work for free. It shows how much or how little the client values your work.

– when the client wants your RAW files, or all rights to your work, in general, unless they are willing to pay handsomely.    When it comes to giving away your RAW files…I’d like to add that as photographers, we develop a photographic voice, style, or look by how and what we photograph, as well as how we post-process our RAW files. I’m not talking about “fixing” bad pictures in Photoshop, because, yes, we should try to get them right in camera in the first place. I’m talking about the post-production workflow, the photo editing, and, yes, the retouching, we do, to achieve the look or style we’re after. If we give someone the RAW files, the process that leads to achieving that look is abruptly interrupted. Hence, the final images won’t really have our photographic signature, not really.

Zigzagging through life. Photo by Alina Oswald.

I am all for taking on projects, being a can-do kind of person, willing to give much more than 100% on the job, but within limits. If you always say yes for fear of never getting another project from a certain client then that client will abuse your dedication and interpret it as weakness or foolishness or whatnot, and use it to benefit them, not you.

The question is: How do you say no?
You do it in a polite, professional way. Explain your reasons. Take the opportunity to remind the client of the outstanding invoices. Reattach the invoices as yet another reminder.

Or, if it’s a new client who expects way too much for almost no money, make that client understand why you cannot work for that low payment. It would probably mean working for way below minimum wage.

Be confident, and professional. Know when to cut your losses. Know when a project is worth fighting for, and also when it’s not. And then move on!

Learn from your journey, the good and the bad of it, and use it to better your work.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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