The Airhead

“Experience is a lousy teacher; she gives her lessons after you need to know them.”

In addition to selling my own work, I offer a range of “photographic services” to a handful of clients, mostly local individuals and businesses.

I have a dozen regular clients, and perhaps another dozen for which I work sporadically. There's another handful for whom I've done a single job but with whom I maintain a relationship that could result in future jobs. For the most part I love my clients. These are fun, talented, smart people; most are very good at their craft; they bring me interesting, sometimes challenging work; and they (usually) pay their bills on time. What's not to like? But it's not a perfect world. As proof of that, there's the client who's not so fun, talented, or smart. The airhead client. I've had the great fortune to have very few of those.

A Recent Example

The Mission Range reflects in a kettle pond in Ninepipe NWR, Montana, U.S.

The Mission Range is reflected in a kettle pond in Montana's Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. A local clinic chose this picture, the one at the top, and eight more for their new Web site.

I'd just wrapped up a very busy period. Those jobs included one from a local clinic wanting photos from around northwest Montana's Mission Valley for a new Web site they're building. To better understand their purpose I asked a few questions, received answers, and then quoted prices for licensing images to suit. My clinic contact then identified ten photos from my Web site. I prepared jpegs per their size requirements, sent them, and then sent an invoice that included the terms of the license. Several days later I received a check. Everybody's happy, life's good.

While completing that job I received an email from a “media” company in Kalispell, MT. They create print advertising, publications, Web sites, all manner of graphical work. I'd never heard of them, but after a little Web research I felt comfortable pursuing the relationship and the job; not quite working blind, but without past experience there's no assurance how things will go. In this case they could have gone better. What follows is a series of email exchanges with my contact at the agency. I'll call her AH (Airhead, much too kind a term). I'll quote some of the messages; others I'll just summarize to shorten the story. I'm not making up any of this!

It Started Well, Didn't Stay That Way

AH emails, asks about using a specific photo in a Web site they're developing for a client. She attached a thumbnail taken from my Web site, and asked how to proceed/purchase the photo. She offered to give a photo credit. (This is the usual red-flag that they're expecting the image for free, but that's to be determined.)

I replied as usual for such inquiries: depending on usage, the cost varies. If the picture will appear on a single page of a single site, the cost is $…. It's a bit higher if it will appear on multiple pages. If it'll be used on more than one site, multiply either of those costs by the number of sites. Additional uses, including printing, advertising, etc. have different licensing. Royalty-free, non-exclusive, not necessary to credit me. This is all pretty standard stuff, uncomplicated.

AH: “We'd like to purchase the photo for a website banner is all. I don't know if we'd be using it in printed material, but if we do, do we have to pay for an additional image usage?” She also asked how to pay (a good sign!).

That doesn't answer my questions, so I asked again, and provided some details about printing rights. I assumed her company had done this before, but I'd begun to think maybe not. I also suggested paying by PayPal or just sending a check.

AH: “Given your restrictions, we will not need this image more than for a simple website banner. It's all good. it just seems very complicated. Most images these days (not all, just most)..are much less constricted.

“I greatly admire your art/photography. But, we will have to find another option. So, int he simplest terms ever…how much will it be for your single image for a website banner ONLY?”

OK, “simplest terms ever”, coming right up. I said I was sorry she felt that way, that I'd hoped it was simpler than it apparently is, and included the same cost as in my original message and nothing more.

AH then asked for an invoice, and for a “high resolution” image of 1900x646 pixels.

We had an extended back-and-forth about the image size, because the picture's aspect ratio (it's a panorama) won't resize to 1900 x 646 without significant distortion. Can you imagine trying to explain aspect ratio to this woman? Neither can I, so I didn't. I worked around it, and then learned she'd accept it if sized correctly to 1900x775, so that's what I sent.

AH: “okay great. going online now to pay the $… fee….will you be sending the final version/image in a separate file? Will it be an eps, tif or jpeg file?

“Thanks much for clarifying,”

Final version?? What!!? “The jpeg I sent IS the final version. I thought I'd completed the job.

“But it sounds like you expected something else. OK, it's just a communication issue. Please clarify what you need if the jpeg I sent today isn't sufficient. I'll do my best to accommodate you. And my apologies for the confusion! I really want to make sure you've got what you need.”

I also included my phone number and suggested she call at her convenience so we could talk through this. Email exchanges seemed to be getting nowhere. The call never happened.

You can tell I'm struggling not to reach through the ether and strangle this woman; I'm regretting taking the job.

AH: “Hi Jay, I'm just wondering if this jpg is too small? It's only 212 kb…”

And in another message a few minutes later she said, “I just sent payment through PayPal.

“I am checking with our website admin to see if this image is large enough (212kb)… I'll circle back in a few minutes.” (She didn't; I never heard what her admin had to say.)

It's a black & white image, with lots of smooth, untextured area, so even a large image at a low jpeg compression (high quality) won't make a large file. But still trying to be diplomatic, I wrote, “Good point. I'm pretty careful about jpeg compression, looking for the best result in “problem” areas typical for jpegs. In this case that would be areas in the clear sky (there are some faint wisps of fog/cloud there). To me it looks very clean, so I think the compression (that is, the jpeg “quality” setting) is just about right. Also, the image at 1900 pixels wide isn't especially large, and there's no color for the jpeg compression to deal with. Lots of techie reasons why the file's not larger.

“However, if you like I'd be happy to send another of the same size with the quality setting at max. That would give you a file size of a little over 600K. You could compare them and pick the one you prefer. I'll just attach it here. Then you can use your judgement and pick the smallest file that gives the best look. Looking critically close I see no clear winner.”

AH: “Hi Jay, that would be terrific. I just want to make sure we see your photo right. I'll let you know when my web guy circles back to me.” (Nope, I still never heard.)

Are We There Yet? (Not Even Close!)

Mountains reflect in Lake McDonald on a cool spring morning, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

The photo at the center of this mess. Sunrise reflections of Stanton Mountain and Mt. Vaught, the Highline, Mt, Cannon, and Mt. Brown in Glacier National Park's Lake McDonald. The photo was made on the 2011 vernal equinox (March).

Upon receiving a payment, Paypal sends notifications almost instantly. A day passed but I'd heard nothing. I got busy with other work and let it slide. I really didn't want any further communication with AH. Then, being the wise-ass I am, I decided to pester her just for fun: “It's been 12 days since you made the payment per your message below, but I've received no notice from PayPal, and there's been no payment to the account. Notification typically happens within minutes of the payment, but didn't. I'm wondering if perhaps there was a mistake (typo?) when you entered the account email to make the payment. I'm sure PayPal would have complained if there was some obvious problem.

“In any case, would you mind checking? You could see if the account or credit card you used has been debited. Somewhere along the line something didn't happen correctly.”

AH replied, saying she'd check their PayPal account for activity and get back to me. A few minutes later she sent: “I just logged into PayPal and here's what I found: It says you HAVE NOT CLAIMED your money yet. Here's the transaction number:”, followed by those details. She followed up one minute later with another message including additional details about the transaction.

And again one minute later with: “You NEED TO GO INTO PAYPAL and retrieve your money.”

In the transaction detail she sent I found the problem: AH, completely ignoring my instructions and the email address I'd provided for the payment, had sent payment using the phone number on my invoice. Which is a landline and therefore can't receive SMS (text) messages, which means I received no notice from PayPal. There's simply no explaining why AH would do what she did.

I'd never had to “claim” a payment. After some back-and-forth with PayPal's robots I received a message from a human, explaining that AH would have to cancel the transaction and then do it over using my email address. Oh, boy. I faced the thrilling prospect of explaining this to AH. I did, and received this:

AH: “So basically you sent us the wrong phone number, therefore, PayPal cannot process our payment. What's your physical address Jay? I'm cutting checks today, I'll just put a check in the mail.”

OK, blame me. Sheesh. Feeling a little defensive, I wrote back, explaining that she'd ignored the email address I'd asked her to use. Her reply is amazing: She took a cell-phone snapshot of the return address on the printed invoice, which does indeed include my phone number. She emailed that and yelled at me that I DID TOO include a phone number. Again, I can think of no explanation for her grabbing that off a printed invoice, after I'd specified an email address to use for payment.

I'd had enough of this knucklehead, so I wrote back a simple “Thank you.” A few days later a check arrived in my mailbox, and this long, ridiculous story finally ends.

All For a Simple, *u(#!^& JPEG

I should note that I never felt AH's company tried to avoid paying. In the end I believe she works for an honorable company (clearly one with poor hiring criteria). I have no issues with the transaction as it eventually wrapped up. Chances are zero they'll ever contact me, ever request another photo. But should that opportunity arrive, chances are exactly the same that I'd take the job. Selling rights to jpeg use is (normally) quite easy when the master files are ready for use. On the surface it seems quite profitable, since one just makes a jpeg per the client's requirements. Of course, this discounts the time and work (expense) required to capture that photo in the first place. That's why there's licensing! Most of the time this works quite well. When it fails as spectacularly as described above, one could charge ten times what I did for that file and still not see a profit.

It's said that the customer is always right. OK. Maybe true when it's the right customer. Another lesson learned.

December, 2017

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