You know that heavy sinking feeling you get in your stomach after you’ve put your whole heart into a shoot only to have someone tell you it’s ok, but not quite what they were looking for or, even worse, that they flat-out don’t like it? Then you know exactly what failure and rejection feel like. But wait! Before you even think about going down that little rabbit hole of negativity, would you believe me if I said that feeling is actually a GOOD thing? And that feeling that way, sitting in that space, and then PUSHING THROUGH IT can actually be pretty dang amazing AND make you a better photographer in the process. Let me explain.
Failure and rejection are sort of like two peas in a pod — if you experience one of them, chances are you’ll end up feeling the other one, too. For instance, say you reach out to a client you’ve been dreaming of shooting for and they never respond, or they flat out say we’re not interested. That feeling of rejection can make you feel like you failed yourself. Or, say you did book that new client and when you send the images over they don’t like what you gave them, so then you feel like you failed them and, yup, hello rejection, nice to see you again. But what do both of these examples have in common? The fact that you TRIED, you put yourself out there, you put your whole heart into something, and LEARNED from it.
If you have ever found yourself paralyzed by your fear of rejection or failure (who am I kidding, we’ve all been there), then I’d like to invite you on a little journey down memory lane with me…to the time that a young, ambitious, starry-eyed Nicole booked her first real fashion client…only to have the whole project turn into a confetti popper full of failure. Yes, it really really was that bad.
It was my first “BIG” job. I was still in school and still starting out in literally every way imaginable. I was still trying to figure out how to perfect my portfolio and how to maneuver the photography industry with zero experience under my belt. I was hired by an LA fashion designer to shoot her upcoming collection and I was over-the-moon freaking out with excitement. She hired me to shoot her entire line and edit a few hundred photos for her…all for a whopping $400. The editing alone was going to take me weeks to finish, plus I had to hire a friend of mine to help assist me for the shoot day. So, all in all I was going to be walking away from this shoot with barely $300 in my pocket. But at the time it felt totally worth it for the experience, and opportunity to work with a “real” LA designer.
We discussed our shot list, and I knew that she wanted a combination of e-comm shots and campaign images for her site, all of which would be shot in a small, kind of dark hotel room in downtown LA. I made sure to bring lights and a white backdrop with me for the e-comm shots, and then jumped on the highway for the two-hour drive from Santa Barbara to LA. I was crazy prepared and crazy excited for this shoot and was certain that nothing would go wrong. (But did something go wrong? OF COURSE.)
Just before the shoot, while I was setting up the lights and backdrop in the little (tiny, itty bitty, super dark, did I mention small? Like 4-feet-between-the-bed-and-the-wall small?) hotel room, my client pulled me aside and said, “So, I really want you to recreate the lighting you used in this photo.” Cue panic. Cue that heavy sinking feeling you get in your stomach after you’ve put your whole heart into a project only to have someone ask you to do something that is literally impossible… at the LAST. MINUTE.
The picture she showed me was one she pulled from my website of a girl backlit at a sunset in a gorgeous field. Need I remind you: we were in a tiny hotel room with studio lights and no sunset. I explained to her (as kindly as possible) that recreating a backlit sunset in this small hotel room was impossible, and that if she wanted that look, we’d have to shoot someplace else at sunset. She seemed to understand, and we went on with the shoot in the hotel room as planned.
Fast forward a few weeks. She picked out the photos she wanted edited, I edited them, and then sent them over to her. As soon as I hit send, within minutes I had an email in my inbox from her. She was livid. Cue panic 2.0. She complained that the clothes were totally wrinkled (she styled the shoot, so that was on her) and that the lighting in the images wasn’t anything close to the sunset photos she had shown me. She demanded I give her a full refund (even though she now had all the photos I had edited for her).
Y’all—this was my FIRST PAID FASHION JOB. I was totally mortified and spun into an emotional whirlwind full of failure, panic, and—you guessed it—rejection. Crying my eyes out to my then boyfriend, now husband about how horrible of a photographer I was and how I had failed this designer. Before I knew it, I had emails from the makeup artist telling me that I would never work in LA again if I didn’t give the client a full refund. That this is a “small industry” and they would make sure that word spread fast about the kind of photographer I was. The problem was that, as a young college student with limited income, I had already spent that $300 (not to mention paid my assistant the other $100 and there was NO way I was going to try to get that back). Most importantly, I had already done the work according to the terms the client and I had originally agreed upon. So, I knew I had to stand my ground. And it was TERRIFYING. It stills gives me chills thinking about it. But I did it, because I knew I was not in the wrong here. And after responding to several scary emails in which she threatened to sue me and destroy my career, the emails finally stopped. And I never heard from her again.
This client ended up using the images I sent her (and, in fact, some of them are still on her site to this day… so how much did she actually hate them after-all?), and every now and then I’ll be tagged in photos from this shoot and immediately be pulled back into how horrible this moment felt. Years later, I still know that I failed—HARD. Even though it wasn’t really my fault, the interaction itself was a total failure. And I sat in those feelings of rejection and failure for a long time afterward. It made me afraid to pursue my career in the fashion industry because I was worried that other designers would treat me like she did and that I would fail again.
But here’s the beautiful thing about failure and rejection: you learn a whole lot from it. And you become better because of it. I’m not going to lie to you, failure and rejection freaking hurt. It can take so much out of you to admit when you’ve made a mistake, but the important thing is to give those mistakes a purpose. By this I mean that you need to look closely at the failure, the rejection, the mistake and figure out what went wrong, where it went wrong, and how you can fix it next time. It’s in the learning that mistakes become worthwhile.
This massive failure I endured taught me a tough lesson fast: to always, always get everything in writing before agreeing to a shoot. To make sure that you and your client are on the exact same page. And to make sure the client understands that anything they ask for on the day of the shoot is NOT going to be guaranteed. Because it’s not always possible to get every single look they want within the limits of a single location.
The moral of this story is that you just can’t be afraid of failure or rejection (or mean clients who send you nasty emails) — because you will fail, and you will be rejected. And, believe me when I say that you want both of these things to happen to you. It’s scary, and it hurts like hell in the moment, but we become so much stronger as a result. And we become better photographers and better people because of it. Sometimes it takes the most painful situations to help us learn the most important lessons, so open yourself up to the world, put yourself out there, take on the risks, and learn those lessons. Let fear of rejection and failure be damned! Because YOU’VE GOT THIS.
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