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Providing a Photography Estimate to Growing Businesses

We’ve all been there. Trying to interpret what a client needs from an email that says “Hey we love your work, how much is your day rate?” We all have different types of clients. Editorial, advertising, corporate, and some businesses who handle all creative in house. Most of the clients I work with now are very good at giving me as much information up front to help me provide the best, most accurate estimate. However, there are still plenty of times that the clients really don’t understand this process. It’s our job, even if we aren’t being paid for it yet, to help educate them and hopefully make their next experience better for everyone.

Here’s how it goes. We sit there, putting an estimate together for a potential client who doesn’t give you any creative direction, budget range or scope. They don’t tell you much of anything because often they don’t know themselves and it’s really hard to guess what a client needs. You already know what they expect. They expect their finished products to rival that of a million-dollar campaign but don’t have a budget for that or the true understanding of what it takes to pull off “just a couple of photos.” They have no concept of creative fees, expenses or image licensing, but that’s another story.

Here’s how I’ve helped my clients navigate this process and in turn helped myself provide better estimates. There’s no guarantee I’ll get any job, but I feel better about the process afterwards knowing I had all the information and presented an accurate estimate of what the project would cost for me to do it.

  1. Don’t blindly answer emails asking for a rate. Every project is different; every client has different needs. Every client has a different budget. A $50K estimate may put one client into shock but make another think you aren’t qualified because it’s too low.
  1. Get on the phone. Ask to schedule a time to chat about the project. It gives you time to process the initial request and get your wits about you. You can do a little homework on the client to see what they currently have for creative so you can gauge the size/scale of their potential budgets.
  1. Find out the scope. What is the project for? Is it a lifestyle campaign for an apparel company? Is it a product shoot, maybe it’s a music artist’s album cover? You have to know the scope. Keep digging. What is their creative direction? Often times with businesses who don’t handle creative, they think we are the creative directors also. Find out some examples of competitors they admire and creative they like. Try to get as much visually as you can. It helps them dial in what they expect and also gives you a better idea.
  1. Once you have determined the scope, and this is the fun part…let them realize that the campaign/project they show you likely had a five or six figure budget. Folks don’t realize what great creative costs. Their general knowledge of photography is limited and likely isn’t even a line item in their budget. It’s probably lumped into “marketing/advertising” and isn’t attached to their hard costs (things that they HAVE to pay each month) like rent, salaries, and utilities etc. to stay in business. This budget usually shrinks every year for some reason, even when they have record growth (insert the funny economic anomaly joke here). They don’t have an advertising agency doing this work for them yet so they pull from this budget to fund other things to keep the business going. I get it, it’s just the way things work for most businesses.
  1. Ask them if they have a budget prepared. Just ask and be quiet. Most of the time they will say something like “we don’t really have a fixed budget yet and are trying to get estimates for the project.” They all have a budget. If you can get a budget range, it can at least give you a starting point to see if this project is actually something you can consider. What I’ve noticed is that everyone is fearful of telling you their budget number so I ask for a range. Typically, their upper number is close to their actual budget. If they don’t give you any indication of what they are planning to spend, you have to use your Google investigative resources and experience to guesstimate your starting point.
  1. Put a list of questions together and submit to your client if needed. There may have been some things you failed to ask and shows you’re being as thorough as possible. NOTE: send all of your questions in a single email. Not as you think of them. That’s just stupid. But I’ve done it and learned from it.
  1. Once you have all of your questions answered, its time to determine your creative fee, expenses and licensing. Creative fees are the costs for your time, talent and experience based on the scope and complexity of the project. This is where I may be able to bill $5k for my creative fee for a hypothetical project and another photographer gets $50k and another bills $500. There is a supply and demand factor here also. The more experience and in demand you become, the more you can scale your fees. The old adage “when the parking lot is full, it’s time to raise the prices” holds true. Your goal should be to grow, not just sustain.

Next, itemize all of your expenses. Any costs that you have to pay for to accomplish the job go here. Gear, assistants, permits, location fees, hair and makeup, styling, studio rental, scout day, travel days, props, producer, grip etc. These add up. Here’s where having all the information helps you plan for these expenses. I bill for the use of my own gear. It cost me thousands and I would have to rent gear if I hadn’t already purchased it. This is an industry standard practice I have no hesitation recommending. I itemize this expense so the client can see it.

The last area I bill for is usage. This is a confusing but really simple (I know) component. The easiest way I describe it to clients who do not grasp it is this: I create the content (intellectual property) and then based on the value (how many images, where it will be used and for how long) I license the use of the images. When dealing with smaller/emerging businesses you will generally be more flexible with the licensing. I would discourage, however, any scenario that you give any client everything or sign a work for hire. I’ve done it occasionally, I hate doing it and it’s rarely equitable. If your client says they need “5-6 photos for the website” be sure to get that in the agreement for 5-6 photos delivered. They often think they need the 5-6 but expect the full set. That makes their request more valuable because you’re now providing more images. Be CLEAR what you will deliver. Once you have the quantity, determine how they will use the images. Most businesses don’t really know. I traditionally give them pretty generous use for a decent amount of time, typically I’ll give a smaller business unlimited use for 2 years. Most small to mid sized businesses don’t have the budgets to bill for every type of use. Some of my peers will want to scream at me here but clients already not used to this process will balk if they feel you are taking advantage of them. It’s not because you are, it’s just that they don’t understand it and don’t have the budgets like the larger organizations. It’s a dance and if you need help there are professional estimators out there who can help.

  1. Reinforce to your client that your goal is to help them accomplish theirs. You are hopefully looking at this as a long term relationship with many more photo shoots to come. Educating and helping them now can go a long way in solidifying that relationship. Let them realize you are being conscious of their budgets and be willing to scale things to fit as long as it’s equitable. Keep things simple and straight forward. Usage will likely be the part they have the most trouble digesting. Most clients feel they are paying you for the job so they “own all the photos.” This is a bad precedent set by novice photographers they have worked with in the past and also a really bad misunderstanding about intellectual property. The digital world has made everything so “sharable” that folks think they are paying for a service when, in reality, they are also paying for a product.
  1. Follow up. If you haven’t already asked when a decision will be made, do it when you submit the estimate. Don’t be pushy but if you haven’t heard anything in a few days a simple follow up email shows that you are excited and thinking about the job. If there is time, send a note via snail mail thanking them for the opportunity to bid on the project.
  1. Be prepared to not get the job. Be prepared to not even get a call or email back that you didn’t get the job. It’s the crappy part of estimating/bidding. There will be plenty of times you think you nailed it, had a great chat with the person who reached out and then there will be radio silence, like they were kidnapped. It’s going to happen. We don’t get all the jobs we bid on and never will. You’ll be told the project was cancelled or pushed, it likely wasn’t. People don’t like to give others bad news and clients are no exception. Don’t take it personally. Try to feel good that you presented the best, most accurate estimate possible and educated your client a little bit. Remember, people move jobs, don’t get to make the final decision etc. They will remember your willingness to be a professional and the effort you put into the estimate. Enjoy the process. Remember we get to take photographs…. for a living.
Jason Myers

Jason Myers is an award winning commercial advertising and editorial photographer based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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