How to avoid, "Help! I don't love the photos from my photo session!" | helpful hints series

what to do don't like my photos

A few weeks ago, I received this email from an out-of-state friend saying, "Help! I don't love the photos from my session!" Are there any two sentences that strike more fear into a photographer's heart? Probably not! Names and identifying details have been removed from the email:

"I recently had photos taken. I love the photographers work, but I was just not happy with how the photos came out... particularly, how I look in them. I think I liked maybe 4 out of 50. I was beyond disappointed when I received the gallery yesterday. I told the photographer I loved the photos in the sneak peek to be polite hoping there were others in the full gallery I'd love but there weren't. I know it's not their fault but now it feels like the session was a waste. Any advice what I should do?"

For better or worse, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Most people hiring a professional photographer don't have enough experience to even know what to be on the lookout for. With that in mind, here are seven tips to increase the odds that you'll be happy with the outcome of your photo session, whether it's your wedding photos, engagement photos, headshots, senior portraits, or something else:

1. Find a photographer whose brand and images all consistently speak to you. Seriously, I cannot emphasize how important this is. Not all photographers, no matter how talented, are the right fit for all clients. If your personalities don't jive, or if you can't imagine yourself in their photos, keep on looking until you find a photographer where you DO jive and you CAN imagine yourself in the photos. And for whatever photographer you choose, make sure the work you're looking at isn't just highlights... and that it's the same type of product (wedding, headshots, etc) as what you're hiring them for. It's easy to cherry-pick 20 beautiful photos from many clients for a website gallery. But if you look at actual, full, delivered client galleries, you should be able to get a much better feel. I don't know any photographers who won't share full galleries upon request -- if you don't see them, just ask.

2. Know that there's a vast variation in photographer skill levels and packages out there. Generally, you get what you pay for --  while you might get lucky with a talented art student, etc, the more skilled a photographer is and the more experience they have with tricky things like lighting, styling, posing, etc, the higher fees they can charge. Experience --> skill. Skill + natural talent = great photos.

Posing is a particularly tricky thing to shop for. First, look for a photographer that you consistently like the posing you see in their photos. If you're a woman in your 50s, ask to see images they've taken of women in their 50s. If you're a man in your early 20s, look at their posing of 20-something men. If you're a couple, look at the posing in their photos of couples. Do the people look relaxed and natural (or fierce, or romantic, or whatever you're looking for)? Are the poses flattering? The answers should absolutely be YES! in 99% of the photos you see. Then, gauge your rapport (in person, if possible!) with the photographer. Do they make you laugh and feel comfortable? 

Also know that different photographers offer different things -- often, you won't get an apples-to-apples comparison between photographers. Give thought to things like hair/makeup and wardrobe styling that play into a photo -- that may or may not be something the photographer provides in a package. 

3. Make expectations for your photographer explicit. Be explicit about your expectations of the photographer, and know that everything that's important to you should be in the contract. There should be a contract.

4. Have realistic expectations about yourself, and 'fess up about your insecurities. Just like a JCrew dress on the size 0 model in the catalog doesn't magically make you look like a size zero model when you buy it, If you're sensitive about your body image, make sure you've seen your photographer's images of people of your body size.  Talk about your insecurities with your photographer beforehand. Bald spots, weight worries, dark circles, etc. 

5. Don't expect to love every photo of yourself. 1 of 2, or even 1 of 3 is great. We are our own worst critics

6. Practice, practice, PRACTICE! Get in front of the camera more often, no matter how much you hate it. Friends iPhones, group photos, everything. Practice makes perfect and makes it easierIf it's a wedding, DO ENGAGEMENT PHOTOS. Because practice makes perfect.


What if it's too late, and you don't love the photos?

Sleep on your disappointment, but don't wait too long before contacting your photographer. In other words, give yourself 24-36 hours to process your feelings about the photos. Most people communicate more rationally and more clearly once they've had a chance to work through emotions. By waiting 24-36 hours, you're giving yourself time and space to process your feelings before reaching out to your photographer. But don't wait much longer than that, because many people (photographers included!) naturally assume no news is good news. In other words, if you wait too long after you receive your photos to reach out to your photographer, they'll assume all is well, and may well be caught off-guard by your disappointment -- and be less willing or able to do anything about it.

Compare and contrast the photos to your (explicit and implicit) expectations. Write it down. This is all about understanding expectations on both ends. The photos you receive should match the photographer's existing work (so if they don't have any existing work, red flag) and the explicit expectations laid out in a contract (so make sure there is one and that you read it carefully). If you hired a photographer who advertises dark and moody photos, it doesn't make sense to expect that your photos aren't light and airy. In the same vein, if you notice that your photographer's angles and posing aren't flattering in the work they advertise, you should expect that not all of the angles and posing in your photos will be flattering. 

Contact your photographer with specifics. Reach out to your photographer within a day or two, and cordially express how you are feeling (i.e. "I feel let down" or "I feel self-conscious about my weight"), and share a few specifics of where they fell short  of your expectations (ie "I feel the posing was unflattering in image 6," or "these images are dark and moody when we talked about a light and airy style").

Give your photographer time and opportunity to offer options about how to proceed. Your photographer will hopefully respond thoughtfully to you, and depending on what it is about your photos that falls short of your expectations, they may offer any number of different ways to move forward.

Some missed expectations are more or less easily corrected with some additional editing or post-processing by the photographer. Other missed expectations may be more involved to correct, like advanced editing that has to be outsourced to a specialty third-party editor, or things that can only be changed with a re-shoot, such as wardrobe and styling choices or awkward posing.

If the photos fulfilled the explicit expectations laid out in your communication prior to the shoot, and laid out in the contract, your photographer has held up their end of things. In that case, the options they offer you may have a price tag attached.  If your photographer offers a re-shoot (whether it's free, discounted, or paid), consider whether what you're re-shooting to correct is something that you and the photographer together have the skill and means to correct -- some things, like poor composition or extremely bad posing, may be out of the photographer's skill and you may be best working with a different professional. In other cases, you may need to bring on an additional professional, like a makeup artist or wardrobe stylist, to assist with other problems outside of those controlled by the photographer!