You're Not an IdiotWell, I'm making an assumption I suppose, but you probably aren't. You know that you've practiced and honed your skill, brought along spares, planned the shoot, and generally done everything that a true craftsman is supposed to do. But inevitably, something will go wrong, whether it's on every shoot or just once in a while. Occasionally it's something you can fix with spares you've brought, and occasionally it's something you've done wrong that cannot be fixed later, like forgetting to refocus when you moved the camera four inches to the right. You casually zoom in on the LCD, only to discover that the shot you've spent an hour composing is now useless. How you handle that kind of thing is what will separate you from the rest of the pack.
Let's take a look at why you shouldn't tell your client what you just did.
You Seem Less Than Professional
First and foremost, your client isn't there to be your friend. They're there to have you do a service for them, and they expect it to be done to a certain level of professionalism, even if it's being done for free. You should be attempting to build yourself up beyond the point where it looks like you're making excuses. You and I know you're not making excuses when you say "just a moment, I broke one of my lenses, so I need to put another one on," but the client won't see it that way.
You're Not Drawing Them Into a Kinship, You're Alienating Them From Your Product
It's often assumed that the sharing of a potentially disastrous adventure will bring you and your client together, since they should be able to relate to what you're going through, and perhaps as a result you can both have a good laugh about it later on down the road.
They can't, and you won't.
All that ends up happening is that they will now feel like they made the wrong choice in hiring you, and they will feel that way from that point on. You will have no chance to "redeem yourself."
Their View of the Product Will Be Forever Tainted
Sure, they'll get their product, whether it's shots, a poster, or whatever, and they'll tell you it looks great. Or fine. Or okay. But it doesn't matter what they tell you, they're lying, either to you or to themselves. All they'll ever be able to think about when they see that shot is how much better they think it could have been had you been able to use your first lens, or both lights, or if they could only have used that other location that you forgot to ask permission for. They have just purchased a permanent reminder of something they think they don't want. And it has your name on it.
Crystallized With a Story
I know the above sounds somewhat extreme, but it happens all the time. Many years ago, I was recording a series of live dates with 28 bands from a famous venue in the mountains of Colorado, North of Boulder. Those recordings, done one band at a time over a period of almost a year, were to be released as a compilation with the venue's name on it, as promotion not only for the venue, but also for the bands who appeared there, since few of them had any label attention at that time. The venue, the bands, and the CD will not be named here, as I do not wish to appear disparaging about anyone in particular. It's the experience itself that's important.
I was recording with three 8-track digital machines synched together, using two 24-channel boards as input and monitoring. This was back in the days before a workstation could do all of that (in fact, no computer was involved), so it was by necessity a pretty complicated setup that needed to be broken down and moved a lot. During one evening, one of the machines refused to sync with the others, leaving us with only 16 usable tracks to record. I had other dates piling up behind this one, so it was a bit frustrating, thinking about when I would be able to either pull the deck apart, or be without it for service. But as far as the recording was concerned, it wasn't a big deal, since I was only planning on using 18 tracks total for this particular group.
So I combined two of the tracks into others - one tom went onto another tom track, and the hi-hat went onto the stereo overhead drum pair. Those of you who are familiar with the process will know that having this setup won't be a problem during mixdown, as long as I got the relative levels between the channels correct during recording. No problem.
During the first break, very relieved that I had solved the issue, I casually mentioned it in conversation with the band. Much to my surprise, they absolutely flipped out. They couldn't believe I could be so unprofessional, so uncaring about the music they were so carefully crafting on stage. And no, that's not an exaggeration. They informed me in very elevated language that I had just ruined their career, and given them a handicap that no one else on the album would have, thus possibly destroying their local reputation as well.
When it came time to mix, 27 out of 28 bands approved their first mixes. But this band was livid - everything was wrong, there was no "life" in the mix, and it was brought up many times in the several conversations about it that the obvious culprit was not having enough tracks. Through this whole process, I was very open with them, telling them that only two tracks had been reassigned, but that just didn't make any difference to them.
I added more reverb, pitch correction, compression, and doubling to their mix, as they requested. That second mix was still not good enough. So I did a third mix, editing out more performance mistakes, changing reverb and compression, and generally trying to give them a pop-oriented, highly produced mix that sounded very unlike something one would expect to hear from a Folk band. My protestations that it wouldn't sound like the other bands fell on unhearing ears. They were determined to get everything they possibly could out of the recording, whether the source material was there or not.
So finally, the third mix was approved, but that's not the end of the story. When the double album came out, they were disappointed yet again, because their tracks didn't sound like the other bands. Why yes, dear reader, I had indeed warned them about that exact scenario playing out, about how I wanted to capture the feel of the musicians for a live album, not go in and sand off all the live magic from a small club. But I had done just that, and spent several extra days in the studio (before we had recallable automation) giving them something I knew they didn't want, and would never have asked for in any other circumstance. That was another mistake I made.
Now we have a CD that is a self-fulfilling prophecy, though not for the reasons they think it is. Their tracks sound like an over-produced studio Folk melange of hypercompression and long reverb, damaging their reputation, just as they had foreseen, and it was my fault. Part of my fault was in trying to appease them during mixdown, because I should have realized it was simply impossible for anything about it to be what they now wanted it to be. I should have told them it was my production and my decision, and they had no say in it. But my personality won't allow that. I give in far too easily, to try to make my clients happy.
But mostly, it was definitely my fault for letting them know that one of my machines had gone down. Had I kept my big mouth shut in the first place, I would have saved myself three studio days and kept a client happy.
So What Do You Do When That Happens?
Here are a few basic guidelines I've come up with, but of course you're free to add your own:
1. Don't tell anybody anything.
If your client isn't there, no worries! No one will ever have to know, as long as you keep quiet about it later. If your client is present (and this includes any human being at the shoot, because they can always blab when talking to someone after the fact), keep them engaged in conversation about anything at all while you fix whatever you need to fix. Talk about the car or model you're shooting, and what your plans are for the shoot, as though you're telling them your secret methods that no one else knows about. While they think they're getting the inside scoop, you're figuring out how to use two lights instead of six. Or the location wall instead of the white backdrop you forgot. Or you have time to switch radio trigger systems, or even figure out how to use no triggers at all.
2. If they ask, deflect, deflect, deflect. Spin, spin, spin.
You don't have to lie to them. Well, usually. But you're going to need to think quickly. If they ask why you're changing lenses, tell them you were experimenting, but the other lens you have to pull out of the trunk will do this job better. That's certainly no lie if you just broke your primary lens!
If they notice you're not setting up as much stuff as you told them you were bringing, tell them these new lights will do a better job than the old junkers you had planned on bringing. Come up with a reason why you either had to change gear, or use less. Turn it into a positive. Keep in mind the mantra that "this other" gear will be better, and less gear will be better. Ansel Adams had one camera and no lights. You think you can do better with ten lights and four bodies? You may even literally come up with something better than you imagined, when you force yourself to think on your feet, to solve problems you weren't anticipating. The best music and art in human history was produced by working within economic limitations and seemingly random genre rules.
3. They may still know.
Yes, they may, if they're very savvy, and they're hands-on enough to know that no photographer would use a brick wall out of preference, rather than necessity, or a 55-gallon drum as a light stand. If they saw you break your lens, make sure they know it's fortunate that the cheaper one broke, since the good one's still in the case! That's certainly not a lie either, since your $1500 lens is now worth about $4 as a paperweight. Or when you have to ask them if they have a white sheet somewhere, and they ask you why you didn't bring enough, you can say "I just had a cool idea I've never thought of before, and I want to try it out today, here with you." If they can't come up with what you need, but they have something else, say "Oh, that's even better - let's use that!" You've turned a potentially disastrous PR nightmare into something the client will be bragging to his friends about as soon as you leave. They're part of a new experience, and suddenly they're excited to see what you come up with.
Now you'd better come up with it, even if they brought back a blue curtain instead of a white sheet. While you're setting up with the reduced gear level, start explaining in small pieces (don't be too verbose, or they'll get suspicious) why this will be better than having too much gear, and your impressed client will come along for the ride. This is your chance to either build your reputation and relationship with this client, or damage them both.