“Half of the Photos are Blurred” – the Time I Nearly Gave a Client a Full Refund

I’ve just read an article on Digital Camera World about a couple in the states who complained about “irreversible distortion” in a family and engagement shoot. It reminded me of a time some years ago now when a similar thing happened to me.

The article can be read here. The gist of the customer’s complaint was that they didn’t like what they called “irreversible distortion” in the background and foreground of the images supplied by the photography company. What they were complaining about was actually the blurred backgrounds caused by a choice by the photographer to shoot with a shallow depth of field. They had contacted the photographer asking if the “distortion” could be reduced, but of course the photographer replied saying it was caused by the lens and therefore it couldn’t. The crux of the issue is that the couple wanted to be able to see more of the attractive surroundings in their images. The complaint also talks about the time it took for the photographers to reply. To be fair, an argument could be made in favour of the couple. It’s not entirely unfair to want photos without an out-of-focus background, and indeed if the photographers were taking a long time to reply then that probably would be frustrating, especially days before a wedding.

But, in reality, the images the photographers took are actually really nice photos, and supposedly most of the images in their portfolio also have out-of-focus backgrounds. If the couple had booked them based on their portfolio, which one would assume they did, then they should have known what to expect.

In fact, this was exactly how I won the argument with the person that wanted their money back for some wedding photos I shot back in 2009. I know it was 2009 because it was the Christmas I moved house. I had an enquiry for a wedding photography job up at the register office in Worcester. Anyone who knows the place will also know it’s quite a bland and poorly lit venue at the best of times. In winter, even more so. But it’s what this couple had chosen, and so that what I was going to have to shoot – as a professional, I knew exactly how to make the venue work for me.

It was always going to be an unusual shoot too. They phoned me sometime late December, around the 22nd I think. The wedding was on the 28th. They just wanted an hours worth of coverage during the ceremony. Nothing more. I’d had a stressful few months. Our house sale and purchased exchanges and completed on the same day on the morning of the 21st. Had it not gone through, because of changes to stamp duty that were coming in on the 1st of Jan, the whole thing might’ve fallen apart. There’s no reason for telling you this beyond the fact that it had caused me a lot of stress and, since it had gone through, I was due to move house just after Christmas.

When the prospective client first got in touch, because of the stress, I nearly declined the work. But on the basis that he would allow me extra time to deliver the images, and that it was just an hour’s shoot, I agreed to the job.

It went well too. It was a small affair, a second marriage if I remember rightly, with just a few family and close friends. Everyone was very pleasant on the day too. I remember walking away with my payment in cash in an envelope. Unusual, but I wasn’t going quibble with some cash just after Christmas and having just bought a house.

I moved house within the week, and then didn’t get to the photo editing until a couple of weeks later when the client got in touch demanding them by the following Monday. I remember being a little frustrated by this demand – he knew I was moving house and we had agreed that I would have leeway in the delivery time, but obviously I’d used that up in his mind so processed the photos for him to collect on the Monday. The Monday came and the client in his big black Range Rover appeared outside my house. I handed him the CD, and without so much as a thanks he withdrew to his large car and disappeared. 

I expected to hear nothing from him again, but a couple of weeks later I get a letter through the post demanding a refund for the photos. The justification being two fold. First he claimed that I had handed him the CD between my thumb and middle finger and had therefore been swearing at him when I handed him the CD. The second element of his complaint was that “half the photos are out of focus”. I remember getting that sick feeling in my stomach, but knew that at very least the second part of the complaint wasn’t the case. My first thought was perhaps that something had corrupted in the transfer to the CD, but that seemed unlikely. It was only when I went and scrolled through the photos on my computer did I realise what he was talking about. He didn’t mean half the volume of images were out of focus, he meant half of each individual image was out of focus. 

Since I was shooting these images indoors, in winter, and it’s generally frowned upon to use a flash during the wedding ceremony, I had used faster lenses shot wider open. The result was, of course, that large areas of each photo was knocked out of focus. 

I wrote back explaining that not only had he booked me on the basis of my portfolio which contained many similar images, but also it wouldn’t have been possible for me to have taken photos of the same quality (low noise) in that environment. I honestly can’t remember how I dealt with the totally insane accusation that I had sworn at him…

I learned two things from that experience. One was that – as is repeated in the Digital Camera World article – the “customer IS NOT always right”. In fact, sometimes not only is the customer wrong, but they also might be either slightly unhinged or at very least something of a moron. The second lesson was that I should always ask the client what sort of style they were expecting to see in their images. Of course, these days I don’t shoot many weddings, and when I do they are people who come to me because they know me personally and know what my photos look like. But these lessons have translated into my commercial photography practice. They are probably all the more important in a world where the majority of photos are taken on smart phones with huge depth of field too… despite the flaws in their argument, that’s clearly what this couple in the states were looking for and expecting. 

In case you’re interested, the photo at the top was taken at a mates wedding the following summer – my angry customer didn’t put me off taking half-blurred photos, even in the sunshine…

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12 thoughts on ““Half of the Photos are Blurred” – the Time I Nearly Gave a Client a Full Refund”

  1. There is nothing quite as frustrating as people who have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about, who also have very specific expectations, but who also fail to convey those expectations to someone providing a service.Those kind of people make the worst possible clients.

  2. Every now and then I come across a situation where it seems clear that someone else’s perception or understanding, (of something quite normal) is so different to mine that I just – quite literally – can’t understand it, full stop! This situation is one of those… interesting (in hindsight) but painful. Thanks for sharing the story Hamish!

  3. In cases like these, you need to ask yourself who the hell your client is. Sounds like the opposite of someone who knows the value of photography. Remember: *Get your work in front of the people you want to work with* NOT the first idiot who calls you.

  4. Hi Hamish,
    interesting story! I work in dispute resolution and I can certainly relate to your experience. And I agree, expectation management is extremely important – however, that does have its limits as was clearly demonstrated here. From now on I shall be very mindful when I hand someone a CD 😉
    All the best,

  5. There is no real answer! People are so used to small sensors esp. on phones, they “expect” everything in focus. From here to Zanzibar.
    I no longer do pro work. I do however take images at family functions. I use phone or small cameras. NO FILM. no fancy depth of field.
    I hate flash but do use it in certain cases. Any job at last moment I learned to regret.
    When I did weddings, I would do a trial shoot of bride, groom, and family! At my expense. If I didn’t blend with them, it was a no.
    The photos were theirs either way.

  6. As a professional which you’ve mentioned in the article, wouldn’t it be appropriate to have a a shirt discussion with the couple before hand ? To enquire about their expectations and if they agree to a documentary style pictorial process or want “glamour “ pictures. Some photographers in the UK do advertise themselves as a documentary photographer and no meeting is held with the clients and the photographer. From your narrative, there must have been a substantial delay compounded by some misunderstanding which aggravated and led matters to a boil. The very best wedding photographers are not only amazing in making images but excel in communication with their clients. But not all clients are the same. I do think Hamish a few weeks plus a week is rather too tardy to hand in images. Even shooting and developing film is faster than that.

    1. Did you read the full article. Perhaps you missed the second to last paragraph?
      And yes, as I say, there was a delay, but as I wrote in the article the delay was agreed with the client before hand.
      Finally, in the 13 years since then, I haven’t had any complaints or issues with wedding clients.
      The reality is, some people are just unreasonable… this particular client was one such type of person!

      1. I did read the whole article. Perhaps my viewpoint is that of a person who works 56 hour shifts w-3 times a week. So we do work around the clock. Granted not many people work like this. Perhaps you could have given him the initial RAW files and got the edits to him at later time. Though I agree this might not have averted what happened. By the way Hamish, after reading your series on M bodies I find myself the owner of several M film cameras including several new ones and one of them is the quintessential M which you reviewed. Your articles on Leica I felt have not been bettered. Thank you.

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