Mission Creep

I have lost count of the number of times I have agreed the details of an assignment with a client only to find out that they want to add a few “little extras” on the day of the shoot. Sometimes it is a job where we agreed to do a dozen headshots only to find out that they’ve added another six or seven. It can be a school prospectus shoot which was meant to end with the school day where, over a cup of coffee, they casually add an after-school club that doesn’t start until after you were supposed to be off-site. In the most extreme case I can remember it was to do half of the job in central London and the rest of it a two-hour drive away on the outskirts of Coventry.

The military term “mission creep” sort of covers this except that most definitions use the word “unintentionally” whereas this kind of “job expansion” is pretty often entirely intentional. How you handle this regular occurrence says a lot about you as a photographer and can define your relationship with that client for years to come. What might seem as a harmless addition to the brief can leave you with extra work, less time to shoot parts of the original brief and can get you into a row with the client.

For me the worst part of mission creep is the almost inevitable additional time that will have to be spent in post production. It stands to reason that even if you can shoot extra pictures in the time given for the job there will be a greater number of images to be sorted, captioned, cropped and toned. The client almost always ends up getting what they perceive as more pictures for the same fee.

I have already mentioned the typical scenario of an extra hour or so being added to a school prospectus shoot and that was only one part of an on-the-day job expansion that I recently had to deal with. When quoting for the job via a design agency with whom I work quite regularly we agreed that we would have a minimum of half an hour for each element of the day; the school assembly, an English lesson, a mathematics lesson, a science lesson, a physical education session, lunchtime food service, lunchtime playground activities plus two hours for staff headshots. That’s not an unreasonable schedule and everyone who was involved in the planning agreed. Move forward to the day before the shoot and a phone call came from the school asking if I can “get there a bit early and snap a couple of staff who needed to leave at lunchtime”. Even before the job started we had an extra half an hour for the set-up, shooting and break down for the extra headshots – not to mention that any idea that shooting a set of matching portraits with available light was made a whole lot tougher as the sun would be in a very different place at two o’clock in the afternoon than it was at eight o’clock in the morning.

Being a flexible kind of guy I agreed to shoot the extra session but not before gently expressing my concerns about having some creative options removed before we even started. In the end one of the teachers was a bit late and that meant hurrying from the extra headshot session to the school assembly. The knock-on was that I wasn’t able to get pictures of some of the kids coming in and it prevented me from being in position before anyone arrived. That element went as well as it could have given the time constraints but one of the discussions we always have – and one of the things I always put in writing – is that it is the school’s responsibility to make sure that any children who cannot be photographed are kept to one side or in some other way made known to me. It became obvious that this hadn’t been done and so the school casually mentioned that they’d like to see the whole shoot so that they could identify the children later and that I could “Photoshop them out”. Now that’s not a particularly difficult task but showing pictures and then having to do unnecessary post-production is time-consuming and, well, unnecessary.

Next up was a quick ten minutes and a cup of coffee with the Head Teacher who wanted to “fit in a few extra shots”. That included not one but two mathematics and science classes plus a music lesson, a parent helper training session and the after-school club. It’s at this point that you need to bite your tongue and calmly explain that this isn’t just a few extras but that this is a root and branch re-writing of the brief. It basically meant that the day would be about one and a half hours longer on-site, half an hour (at least) longer in post production and that the chances of getting a fantastic set of pictures of those classes we had agreed on were reduced.

I like to think that I’m a nice guy with half-decent people skills and that I have developed a way of handling commissions that builds-in a little wiggle room but that limits the scope for mission creep ahead of time too. Over that slightly tense cup of coffee everything was explained calmly and we compromised. We agreed that an extra one and a half hours on site was basically adding 25% to the agreed working day and that the extra post-production time (which I always try to equate to teachers and their marking time or another activity for other professions) would also add up to an extra quarter on that part of the commission. We also agreed that the addition of extra classrooms risked not being able to spend as much quality time shooting and that as an extra unfamiliar adult in the room there was a possibility that the pupils wouldn’t get a chance to relax and ignore me.

With all of this going on it went from being challenging but eminently achievable brief to being quite a tense day which never really allowed me to get the depth and style of shots that we had planned. I like to think of myself as a completely professional person and so I tried my best to shoot great pictures within the constraints presented without turning into a prima-donna. The day went well, the pictures were good and everyone was happy. The design agency passed on the extra costs to the school and two of the pictures that wouldn’t have been shot had we not altered the brief were used in the prospectus and the Head Teacher used a couple more in a Powerpoint presentation that she gave to prospective parents.

Job expansion is an ever-present danger in a lot of professions. My family has enough electricians, plasterers and plumbers who will all tell the same story of a few seemingly innocuous extras being added but the difference is that they tend to charge by the hour. Getting a written brief and schedule agreed in advance is something that we need to do as a matter of course. Having a mechanism to handle changes made on the job has also become essential. Before writing this blog post I went through my terms and conditions and made sure that I have covered myself ready for when the next time this happens and the chances are it will be on the next job.

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