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Time Out With Tanya

How To Say No Without Losing Portrait Clients

By Tanya Goodall Smith on February 27th 2015

Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera and you can come along, if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here so you’ll never miss a Time Out.

As budding photographers, it seems we’ll do anything to get people in front of our camera. We’ll bend over backwards for exposure. We’ll work for free. We’ll give a discount. We might even break the rules or the law to get the shot. As I’ve gained experience over the years, I’m finding none of these things are worth it. They simply end up hurting us in the end. But it’s so hard to say no. Especially if you have a people pleasing personality type like myself. If you’re struggling with the same thing, read on, because I’m arming you with some communication tips for how to say no without necessarily losing clients or sounding like a jerk.

When They Ask for a Discount

I admit, in the past I have not handled some discount inquiries with grace. At one point, I suggested a discount seeking client go to the Wal-mart portrait studio (which no longer exists because their low-price points were not sustainable). In this video, Rachel Brenke (a.k.a. The Law Tog) shares a brilliant tip for turning a discount inquiry into a good thing. Instead of feeling frustrated and de-valued when someone calls and asks for a promotion or discount, she recommends you take a deep breath and smile. Let them know you don’t have any promotions or discounts available at this time, but if they will join your email list, you can keep in touch and let them know the next time you have any special deals going on. This gives you a contact you can market to in the future, and chances are, they may book you at full value anyway.

When They Ask You to Break the Law

This sounds a little extreme. Are clients really asking you to break the law to take their photos? Have they asked you to take their photos on railroad tracks or on private property without permission? Have they asked you to photograph them in a public park that bans professional photos? Everyone else is doing it so it must be ok, right? Wrong. Consider very carefully the consequences of shooting in unauthorized or dangerous areas.

If you’re being asked to endanger your life or the lives of others, I hope you have the courage to speak up and say no. Last year, Sarah Jones, a camera assistant working on the film Midnight Rider, was struck by a train and killed. The makers of the film were later charged with involuntary manslaughter because they failed to obtain the necessary permits and permissions to film on the tracks. They didn’t even bother to check a legitimate train schedule before filming, putting their entire crew at risk. Several were injured and Sarah was killed instantly when she was hit by the train.

Would you risk this for your clients? If they ask you to photograph them on tracks or the middle of a busy road, there are so many ways you can say no. Offer a much more interesting and safe location. Let them know a person or vehicle is hit by a train approximately every three hours across the U.S. and you don’t want to be one of them. Remind them trespassing on railroad property is illegal and you both could be fined or even spend some time in jail. Simply posting a photo online of yourself or your clients on tracks can incriminate you (at least in the United States).

When They Ask for Selective Color


Thankfully, this has never happened to me, but I hear complaints of it often. First of all, I wouldn’t show any wacky editing techniques on your website or social media, because if you do, people will ask for it. If you have never shown any kind of awful editing trend, then you can simply say, “Oh, sorry, that doesn’t fit in with my modern style,” and leave it at that. If they persist, I feel sorry for you, but I still wouldn’t give in. You could always bring up Schindler’s List and hope they drop it. Yikes!

When They Ask You to Work for Free


At least once a week, I get a call or message asking me to work a charity event for free. “It will be great exposure for your business!” they say. “It’s for a great cause!” I’m all for a good cause, and as previously mentioned, I have a hard time saying no to people, especially if it’s going to make me sound like an uncharitable, selfish person. But as a business owner, I’m going to tell you the cold hard truth. I’ve worked a lot of charity events during the last several years and never once booked a single session or gotten a new client from all that exposure. So, unless you have a deeply personal reason for volunteering your time with a certain charity, or you have some secret for success I don’t know about when working charity events for free, in the long run, it’s beneficial to say no.

You don’t have to lie or make an excuse to avoid sounding like a total jerk when turning down all those great causes. I personally choose one or two non-profit organizations to work with throughout the year and allot a certain amount of time to donate. Then if anyone else asks, I can simply tell them my volunteer calendar for the year is full, but I would be happy to work the event for a discounted rate (or whatever you want to offer). If they turn that down, I offer to spread the word amongst my photographer friends. Read about my incredible volunteer trip to Jamaica and once you find your own special project, you’ll have no problem turning down others.

When They Ask for RAW and/or Digital Files


I’ve heard complaints lately from photographers who receive requests from clients for RAW files. This kind of baffled me at first. Who wants the RAW files? Most non-photographers don’t even know what RAW files are. And then it finally happened to me. One client kept pressing me for the RAW file of a particular image from their session and I wasn’t sure what to do. Did I want to give up this unprocessed file? What would they do with it? Why did they want it?

I decided honesty was the best policy and explained I don’t normally give RAW files because my editing process is an important part of my style. I offered to “fix” the photo, if they felt something was wrong with it. And then the truth came out. They mentioned a few simple changes they wanted to the photo, which I didn’t mind making, and everyone was happy in the end.

Just FYI, the above image was edited with the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System with the standard soft color import preset, a slight exposure boost and a radial vignette added. This is my go-to edit for on-location portraits.

When They Ask You to Teach Them How to Use Their Camera


I get asked this question a lot. Like daily. My natural inclination is to say YES! because I love to teach people about photography, but I don’t have much spare time and most people have not been willing to commit to a full weekend for a workshop or pay what I ask for private or group classes. My time is pretty valuable these days.

So I was ecstatic when the SLR Lounge team announced and finally released their Photography 101 Workshop DVD. Now, I just refer my friends to this totally comprehensive photography workshop for beginners. At a fraction of the cost of what you would spend for 7 hours of private instruction, in video format so you can learn at your own pace, this is the perfect solution for all your friends or clients who want to learn the basics of photography.

Do you feel armed and ready to say NO in a tactful way? If you don’t remember anything I taught you today, you can always keep in mind something I learned from Bambi Cantrell in a workshop video awhile ago. When people ask her for discounts or anything she won’t do, she just says, “I wish I could, but I can’t”. Simple, non threatening, easy answer to remember. I wish I could photograph every adorable child and family in the world for free, but I simply can’t…

What crazy photography questions do you get asked by clients or friends?

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Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Lounge Lizard

    Interesting post! Quite a good read!

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  2. Rafael Steffen

    Thanks for sharing these great opinions on why selective color is kind of dead.

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  3. robert s

    those who ask for discount are people that will nitpick and be problematic throughout the shoot and afterwards. theyre mindset is to get more all the time and will never be happy. cheapos who arent willing to pay for quality. this isnt a shook where you haggle. you want a top notch protog and want a discount? go into tiffanys and ask for a discount. see if they dont laugh at you. theyre more problems and headaches than theyre worth.

    re-working free. there has never been any work that has come from 3 different shoots. if youre an amateur looking for exposure and experience its great. mostly its a waste.

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    • Aidan Morgan

      In my experience, the bigger the discount you accept, the less the client values your work.

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    • Aidan Morgan

      Argh, clients asking for RAW files. I’ve had one client who wanted the RAW files but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain why. Eventually I gave in, even though I knew I shouldn’t. I sent them along to the client, and a few weeks later she emailed me again to complain that “she couldn’t open the images” and could I help with that? So now I make it clear that I don’t provide RAWs.

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  4. aaron febbo


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  5. Stephen Jennings

    I’ve never had someone ask for a selective color image.. I don’t know if I’d refuse. I get the work for free thing all the time. =/

    One thing I’d of liked to see you addressed which has happened to me numerous times… is cell phones! In the middle of a shoot someone taking out their cell phone and taking pictures. Or I even had someone bring along a point and shoot camera to their kids portrait session. The first time it happened to me I was extremely rude and stopped working, told them they had it under control. But then it kept happening, I had to include in my contract I will stop working if someone brings out a camera or cell phone to take pictures.

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    • Tanya Goodall Smith

      This has happened to me too. Very rude.

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    • Lauren Leith

      wow, I can’t believe someone would do that, so surprising. What the point of hiring a professional if they are going to start doing it themselves. It has never happened to me except for in weddings, when certain guests lean into your frame, but that feels a little different. Thanks for sharing and sorry about your bad experience.

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    • Lauren Leith

      that was a really helpful article. I haven’t experience all those situations before, and now I feel much better about how to respond rather than react if they do come my way. Thank you!

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  6. robert garfinkle

    I am not protographer – just a newbie, yet work in the web world, development, which does include graphics…

    Term, Terms Terms, yes? define your terms – what your services include. Explain it to them, get them to sign… therefore you get them to say “Yes” to your terms, vs. you saying “No” to them (with “No”, unanswered questions) – and be firm…

    And don’t fear them saying “No”, ask why – not out of desperation, yet be prepared to let them go if things don’t work out – move onto the next “Yes”… Keep your well deserved self respect. Self respect is professional.

    I’ve been both sides of the coin; saying No, and bending like the wind, desperate to keep the business, at the expense of self respect and at the expense of business, shortchanging myself, and the customer… Once you give in, you are more than likely to give in again, and they are more likely to ask…

    I have had to walk away from clients saying No; yet I felt better about moving on and losing the sale as opposed to saying yes, bending, and feeling all sorts of bad about the transaction while service was being rendered…

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