Style sheets and client expectations

When I returned to the world of freelancing ten years ago one of the biggest changes that I noticed was the arrival of the “style sheet”. Almost every commercial and PR client had a prepared guide that let you know what they wanted from a commissioned shoot and a few pointers of what they, or their end client, liked and didn’t like in their pictures. These ranged from really helpful pointers about what kind of clothing should be worn for portraits or whether or not images should have unfussy backgrounds through the obvious such as “images should be properly exposed” to the mildly bizarre “avoid any and all references to money”. I wish that I had kept them all – they would have provided me with a mixture of useful references and a good laugh.

Recently I have seen two rather odd things in style sheets provided to me by three totally unconnected clients. The first oddity appeared when talking to a PR company about an upcoming commission. They are based in London and the job was for an insurance company. Their style sheet featured three identical pictures and one completely identical paragraph to a style sheet supplied to me previously by a Manchester PR company. I cannot see a connection between the two PR companies and so you have to think that they are getting their style sheets from a single supplier or that they have both copied something from a third PR company. Either way, it explains why so much of the PR and corporate sector has come to look like a catalogue for a stock photography company. Bland people doing bland things with even lighting is a bit dull and I’m pretty sure that every single one of the photographers involved would have been capable of something way more interesting.

The second oddity came when a PR firm working for an educational establishment sent me a style sheet with one of my own photographs used in it. A picture that I created almost twenty years ago and which bore no resemblance to anything that I was being asked to do. When I asked them where they had obtained the images for their style sheet they told me that they had got them from Google Images over the years. Bizarre indeed.

I point out these oddities because photographers have always had to manage client expectations. A while ago there was a graphic doing the rounds on the internet showing a still from the film “Life of Pi” with the principal actor and a tiger with huge production values and an awful lot of post production labelled “client expectations” against a snap of a shabbily dressed person and a domestic cat labelled “client budget”. Almost every time that you quote for a job these days you are bombarded with ideas, instructions and ‘must-haves’. There’s rarely enough money to do what they want and, even if the job is well paid, what is required is not physically possible. I have heard “we want a picture that shows the person walking into the room and sitting at his desk” from someone who should have known better and when I pointed out that I was shooting stills and not a fifteen second video clip we agreed that something less ambitious and more photogenic was in order.

Developing techniques for managing expectations is a lifelong quest. Expectations change and clients knowledge of how our job is done doesn’t really seem to. There’s now an expectation that we are all Photoshop Ninjas and there’s an expectation that our cameras can produce beautifully lit images when the light isn’t beautiful and there’s no time/budget/possibility of providing our own light. I have mentioned in a previous blog post that people skills are one of the single most important things that a photographer can learn and that is highlighted when dealing with expectations. I was shown a set of images recently to illustrate how the client wanted me to shoot a portrait. There were six pictures and all of them were lovely and all of them relied on being upright compositions to make them strong. Sadly, the client wanted me to recreate the feel but in a horizontal composition. I wanted to laugh but I didn’t. I wanted to point out the glaringly obvious issue but I didn’t do that either. I have found that coming back with (intelligent) questions from another angle is the best course of action for me. I cannot remember precisely what I asked but it was something like “what do these images have in common that are ‘must-haves’ for the portrait that you want me to shoot?” I think that I followed up with a couple of other questions and it turned out that a short conversation was way more useful than a style sheet that featured pictures that would probably have sent me off in the wrong direction.

And that brings me to another point. We all like to have our instructions in writing – there in black and white to read and re-read but I find that it is increasingly true that clients are cutting and pasting bland examples and instructions that are far from instructive from briefs that probably made a lot of sense a while ago. The issue is that it is rare for the process of commissioning pictures to get the time and expertise that it deserves and requires.

Many moons ago I wrote that there seems to be more attention given to the finger-food menu at PR events than there is to how and what we are going to get the pictures that will do the job. There are certain things that I need to know and there are others that the client needs to leave up to me so that I can bring my experience and skills to the party. I could write a checklist but that would be misinterpreted too often because what I need to know and what freedoms I have come far more accurately from a discussion ahead of the job as well as support during and after it.

This morning I had a conversation with a potential client who seemed genuinely amazed that I couldn’t simply bring every single item of photographic kit that I own along to a job. Well, I could but the bill for the two assistants and the van hire to simply lug it all would blow the budget wide open. They’d sent me what they called a “comprehensive written brief” which it really wasn’t. I was asking questions about how much time and how much space I’d get to shoot a set of portraits and a few action pictures of a number of employees of a company at work. I’m not sure that my questions were received in the spirit in which they were asked; I want to do a better job for the client and knowing more about everything really helps. I guess that’s another lesson learned – find yet more new ways to ask the same old questions because the client’s expectations are everything.

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