The Ideal Portrait Client

This post is by Ron Dawson from The Online Photographer

Following up from this post, about the recent portrait I did for Kerry Graff, a doctor in Canandaigua, New York, here’s the picture she chose from the five proofs I gave her:

Kerry unretouched-small

It’s for professional purposes, for a public-facing website of medical professionals. (My choice, not that that matters, is in the original post. She thought that one was too formal.)

Kerry turned out to be an ideal portrait client. For these reasons:

—> She chose the picture she wanted right away. I mean it took her five minutes. Man, when I think of all the portraits I did when the client took days, weeks, or in some extreme cases even months to make a decision…. What that meant is that I had to remind them multiple times and keep the job open (and wait to be paid) for what seemed would be an indefinite period. I would always think of that Lovin’ Spoonful song:

…Did you ever have to make up your mind?

Pick up on one and leave the other one behind

It’s not often easy, and not often kind

Did you ever have to make up your mind?

…Did you ever have to finally decide?

Say yes to one and let the other one ride

There’s so many changes, and tears you must hide

Did you ever have to finally decide?

Back in the olden days, when I did portraits for pay, I finally ended up charging just $20 in advance under the pretense of “reserving” the sitting. I found that even with that small amount, FOMO would motivate them to carry through, make their selection, and get their portrait; otherwise they forfeited the twenty bucks. (Not for nothing do higher-level photographers, like higher-level lawyers, prefer not to deal directly with the public!)

—>She chose one. Just one. Not two, and not four…. Every portrait photographer knows the problem when the client says “I like them all! They’re all good! Can I have this one, and this one, and this one, and this one?” Of course, that’s not a problem if they’re paying for prints. But when I’m doing the job for expenses or for free, that’s not what I agreed to do.

—>She never even mentioned the other shots (I mean apart from the five proofs I presented her with) and never asked to see any. She just trusted my choice of the proofs. This is fairly atypical. The last portrait I did before this one—also done for free—I explained very clearly to the client that I would provide six or eight proofs, and I ended up providing ten or twelve (I don’t exactly recall). Well, he hectored me to see “all the shots,” saying things like “I know you took a lot more than that. Why aren’t you letting me see them?” I thought, what do I need to do, put it in writing and make it a contract? He started acting like I hadn’t delivered what I had promised, like I was being negligent. It got a little unpleasant, to be honest. But if I take 150 shots, you don’t get to see all 150. I’ve always been like that, even when I was a teenager.

—>Finally—and this is probably the part I like best—Kerry actually preferred the unretouched version. Look, Ma, no Photoshop. Again, It’s more common for clients to nitpick the Photoshopping—”can’t you get rid of this wrinkle?” (Or, can’t you make me look like I did when I was in my twenties only better-looking?) Photoshop is a great boon, I’ll give you that. I started using it in 1994 with Photoshop v.3. I can think of a dozen trouble jobs pre-1994 that I could have solved with it in a jiffy.


OoC on the left, retouched version on the right

Whenever I work on a portrait in Photoshop I think of Edward Weston slaving over the retouching of his portraits for his clients, when he made his living doing portraits, as recounted in The Daybooks*. Of course he was doing it with a graphite pencil on the emulsion side of 4×5 to 8×10 negatives, but “same difference” as we used to say when we were kids.

Shut up

I’m sure all of this makes me sound like a terrible whiner, like I never did anything but bitch and moan about my clients. Far from it. I did have a few troublesome clients, who I tend to remember well, and if I’m honest I had a couple of jobs that I myself was guilty of flubbing, and I’m not too proud to tell those stories as well. In far and away the majority of cases, however, I liked spending time with portrait clients and I miss the work. (Nobody pays for portraits any more, in my experience. My son’s girlfriend Kate sent me a portrait of their baby recently that a professional thirty years ago would have worked hard to get and would have been justifiably proud of. She has an artistic eye, a smartphone, a parent’s love and regard, and access.) I didn’t advertise who my clients were, back in the day—privacy concerns, you know—but they included a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a U.S. Senator, a prominent black activist I guarantee you’ve heard of, several television personalities, and a variety of socialites and local luminaries. And of course I treated those people like anybody else. By far the majority of my subjects were fun to work with, and most everyone was pleased with their portraits.

But I’m an idealist, and, in an ideal world, all my clients would have been more like Kerry in those four ways listed above. Smiley emoji!


*Which every aspiring art photographer in my youth read, and which are now out of print. Ah well, culture moves on.

Original contents copyright 2023 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. (To see all the comments, click on the “Comments” link below or on the title of this post.)

Featured Comments from:

Simon Grosset: “These are all the reasons I give hi-res files to wedding couples, so they can make prints themselves (I do recommend an online printer too.) Similarly, I will deliver a proof of a wedding album without asking which pictures they want in it. They’re allowed to make one set of changes before they start getting charged extra for my time.”

Albert Smith: “Re ‘Nobody pays for portraits any more, in my experience… has…a smartphone, and access…’: I think about this a lot. When we were learning about perspective, lens-induced distortion, and creative use of selective focus back in the day, and acquiring some classic focal length in the 85mm to 135mm range to be flattering to the subject, we also learned how not to render a subject, such as a headshot made close-in with a 28mm lens. Today, 10-plus years into the smartphone generation, I’d guess many 20-somethings have never seen a photo of themselves made with basic photo 101 techniques that we all used in the before times. When I see many of the ‘selfies’ posted by people that think they are terrific, all I can see is the things that we were trying to avoid back when people studied this stuff. It would be fun (and easy) to impress a vain subject with the most simple portrait technique when all they have ever seen of themselves is an arm’s-length wide-angle shot with large nose and small ears. Of course, we wouldn’t get that chance.”

Mike replies: I don’t know what the “effective” focal length of the above portrait would be…shot with a 56mm, which is an 85mm-equivalent, and then considerably cropped (to Kerry’s instructions—she cropped it on her phone the way she wanted it and then sent it back to me). It’s probably equivalent to something in the 120mm to 135mm range.

s.wolters replies to Albert Smith: “A few weeks ago I made a portrait of the seventeen-year-old daughter of a friend with my Panasonic 42,5mm ƒ/1.7 lens. An 85mm-equivalent. She said she didn’t like it because she looked so weird! The wide-angle distortion seems already the standard now for the young generation.

“What doesn’t help either is that the portrait mode on an iPhone is also a 26mm-equivalent. Portrait here means only means that it gets a blurry background.”


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