How to Deal with High-Maintenance Subjects

Umbrella. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Dealing with difficult, high-maintenance (human) subjects, as a photographer

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a blue moon, I end up having to deal with a difficult, high-maintenance client or (human) subject with a prima-donna attitude. There’s no way to avoid that, especially when photographing these subjects for a client; hence, there’s no way out.

Don’t get me wrong, the signs that that’s going to be a high-maintenance subject show themselves right from the start, but we often don’t pay them much attention for different reasons–because we are paid to get the job done, in some cases because we thought that we were friends and, hence, put up with an unacceptable attitude for much longer than we should, because we were taken by surprise, aka we don’t really expect it, that kind of behavior from the subject, especially when we turn our schedules upside down to accommodate their needs because we want to get not only the job done, but the best job done.

Vampire photography by Alina Oswald.
Vampire Photography by Alina Oswald.

The surprise element comes in first, in particular when we’re just started out as photographers, as well as writers or creatives in general, I believe. The surprise element comes in, in particular, when dealing with someone we know, oftentimes doing pro bono, from the goodness of our hearts, kinda work. We invest time and talent only to be told, one way or another, that our work doesn’t count. We learn a lesson the hard way, but we learn it nonetheless.

The surprise element comes in also when dealing with difficult clients, with high-maintenance subjects. While many of us try to stay away from high-maintenance clients–I’ve had my fair share–what we cannot really do is stay away from said subjects when we photograph them for a client, for a project, when we don’t have any say-so in choosing the subject. There’s not much we can do then, especially when their true selves come through late in the game.

How does one deal with such subjects?

When it comes to working for free, for friends who decide to take advantage of you, the photographer or the creative, take it as a mistake and try not to repeat it. And, if you want to save that friendship, don’t ever, never again offer photography or creative help to that person you thought you knew. And if they ever ask again, find a reasonable excuse and do not do it.

When it comes to difficult, high-maintenance clients and subjects, it’s best to avoid them altogether, but that’s not always possible. So, what to do when caught in such situations?

Katyn Soldier memorial - hands detail. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Katyn Soldier memorial – hands detail. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Try your best to accommodate everyone involved in the project, including yourself.

Explain the rules of the game, so to speak. After all, every project, including photo shoots, has rules and guidelines, what’s possible to do and what is not, depending on time, weather, location constraints, goal of the project, etc.

If there should be last minutes changes to the original plan, inform the subject ahead of time and offer alternatives, while trying to accommodate them as best you can, ask if those alternatives work for them. Most of the difficult clients have their schedules set in stone and are not willing to change them, no matter how much you end up changing yours. Be prepared to bite the bullet! Sometimes you will have to deal with all those changes, some unexpected and independent of you, only on your side, since the client/subject will not be willing to give an inch.

In Studio. Lights. Camera. Action. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Lights. Camera. Action. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Keep it professional, as you should always do, but remember that you work with people after all and it helps to be a people person. But that doesn’t mean that you should let them walk all over you.

Studio Lighting. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Studio Lighting. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Oftentimes the behavior of difficult, high-maintenance clients and subjects makes it…difficult for the creative to connect and work with said clients. That does not help the photo shoot or the overall project. And so, if possible, make sure that that kind of client is not a repeat client. It’s not worth it!

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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