Photographers are sometimes intimidated by the prospect of creating a cost estimate for a client. Some even adopt the attitude that “money doesn’t matter” and they just take whatever they’re offered. However, money does matter. Whether you’re spending it or making it. And whether you like it or not, money goes hand-in-hand with creativity in fueling your photography career. Unfortunately, there is no pricing calculator and nobody is born knowing how to create a cost estimate, but anyone can learn how. In addition to the wealth of information that you’ll find here and on our website, we have an experienced team of producers who can help you create estimates for projects of any size — or they can just give your estimate a second look. Email them if you’d like to hear more about how they can help you.
You won’t get paid what you’re worth. You get paid what you negotiate.
A pricing calculator would be nice, but there’s no such thing. Every estimate has to reconcile a unique combination of factors that contribute “upward” or “downward” pressure on the value of a job. So the best approach is to learn about all the different things that affect value. You can then apply those “pluses” and “minuses” to comparables (comps) and to your own benchmarks to arrive at a valuation for a new project.
Any time anyone is buying anything, they’re going to consider more than one option. For example, if you’re shopping for a new camera, you’re going to compare brands, models, and stores. Price is likely to be an important factor, but it won’t be the only factor. You’ll consider all the benefits as well as the cost to find the best value. Clients evaluating photographers go through the same process. Simply offering the lowest price won’t always get you the job. Providing a thoughtfully prepared estimate with a reasonable price, backed up with an excellent portfolio, will give you the best chance at getting the gig.
Comparables or “comps” are what other photographers have charged for similar projects. If you’re putting together an estimate for an experienced client, they will probably have a record of what they’ve paid other photographers in the past for similar projects. They may also get other bids in addition to yours to compare for that project. However, it’s a little harder for photographers to find comps and the information is less reliable (because there’s so little transparency in this marketplace). One way is to build relationships with other photographers who are willing to share their experiences with you. Another way is to read our Pricing & Negotiating articles, which we publish on our Intel blog. Each month, we pick one of our recent estimates and redact the name of the photographer and client. This allows us to share the actual estimate and the negotiations that lead to the final price. We also let you know if the photographer got the job or not.
Benchmarks are prices you’ve been able to command in the past for your own photography. While comps are valuable data points, benchmarks are arguably more valuable. This is because you can be quite certain that the numbers are real (not that other photographers would ever lie about what they charge, of course). You’re also comparing apples to apples instead of trying to imagine a discount or premium to apply to another photographer/client/project. Over time, as you gather more benchmarks and comps, you’ll get a better idea about what your photography is worth in different situations, and you’ll be more confident in your estimates.
Just like pricing any product or service, when the customer gets more, it costs more. Also, when they get less, it costs less. Very few new projects that you bid on are going to be exactly like one of your benchmarks or comps. But, by thinking about how much more or less of everything the new job requires compared to those other jobs you will get a sense of how much more or less to charge.
When a client asks you to bid on a project, you may only have one opportunity for a conversation and a few email exchanges before committing to a price. So it’s important to learn what to ask so you can clearly understand the project to create a proper estimate. Start by visualizing the final images in your head (the “deliverables”). Then work backward through the process of making them while thinking of what you’ll need to accomplish that end result.
You’ll have lots of questions for the client, but you’ll also have questions for your producer or yourself. For example, are you going to rent a location or build a set, how are you going to light it, what are you going to do in-camera and what are you going to do in post, what crew will you need? Questions for your client will come in three main flavors:
Including pre-production and post-production
Since all visual arts are governed by copyright law, photographers must convey a license to their clients for them to use the images. To convey that license, you’ll need to get answers to the following questions:
Some of these questions you will ask your client, while others you simply have to answer for yourself. No matter how many questions you ask, you still will not know everything — and that’s okay. The important thing is to make reasonable assumptions and articulate them clearly in your estimate.
The terms usage and licensing are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re a little different. Usage refers to all the different ways the images will actually or likely be used. Licensing is what’s conveyed to the client and it defines the outer limits of that usage.
It’s not unusual for a client to say “we just want everything.” Don’t be thrown off by this statement, it’s just part of the negotiating process. Here are some things to consider:
You don’t have to be a lawyer to write a licensing agreement. Put simply, a licensing agreement states:
The intent of the license is to “put a box around” the project so that everyone is clear about what’s going to happen. The licensing agreement should be at the top of your estimate and it should be followed by a list of the anticipated expenses, which in turn should be followed by your terms & conditions. Sometimes it will make sense to separate the licensing fee from the creative fee. And other times it will make sense to lump them together. It’s important to specify who you’re conveying the license to. For example, if you’re sending an estimate to a creative agency that is working on behalf of a client, you want to convey the license to the client, not the agency.
In all cases, the client and the vendor (the photographer) need to determine whether the price quote is a “firm bid” or a “good faith estimate.” A bid is when the client agrees to pay the bottom line and the risk of any variation in the actual expenses is on the photographer. An estimate is when the photographer bills the actual expenses (which may be slightly different from the anticipated expenses). Sometimes a client will accept your estimate with the caveat, “just don’t go over.” That’s no good. It has to be a bid or an estimate but it can’t be both.
It’s sometimes beneficial for both the client and the photographer to specify in the quote not only a fee for the intended use of the images, but also to build in a price for an extension of that licensing (extending the number of images, the duration of use, or the territory). That saves both parties the trouble (and awkwardness) of renegotiating in the future. You can see a case study of a licensing extension on our blog.
Since every photographer faces the “we want everything” question so frequently, it’s important to find ways to offer “unlimited” use, but in a limited way. One way to do this is to offer either unlimited use of a limited number of images. Another way is to offer limited use of an unlimited number of images.
Sometimes clients request a “buyout.” But this term means something different to everyone and it doesn’t have a legal definition. So it’s best to avoid it when writing licensing agreements. Instead, simply describe in plain English how the client can use the images. If you intend to convey the copyright to your client upon creation of the images, then specify in the licensing agreement that it’s a Work For Hire. This is a legal term also seen in some places as “WFH” or “Work Made For Hire.” However, if you want to convey exclusive, unlimited use of any kind to your client forever (while reserving use in your portfolio for yourself), then say that. Lastly, if you want to convey exclusive use of any kind for a year and then non-exclusive use thereafter, you can just say that.
Whenever you’re hiring professional talent to appear in your images, you’ll need to negotiate usage with them. For the client to use the pictures, they’re going to need permission for the images, the talent, and the locations. This is something that the photographer should do as a courtesy to the client. But it also gives the photographer leverage knowing that the client needs these to use the images.
Production is everything that’s not covered by creative or licensing fees. It’s important to consider all the logistical work that needs to be done before (pre-production), during, and after (post-production) the actual shoot. Whether you’re paying a line producer to do that work or you’re doing it yourself, you’ll want to factor in reasonable compensation for that time, skill, and experience (in addition to all the other expenses). BlinkBid is a software application that helps photographers and producers create estimates. It’s user-friendly and it has become the industry standard. This means that it is easy for you to use and your clients will appreciate the familiarity of it. BlinkBid will prompt you for every conceivable expense, so you won’t forget anything.
With experience, you’ll learn how to anticipate all the different items you’ll need to successfully complete a shoot, including equipment, supplies, assistants, stylists, locations, props, wardrobe, insurance, permits, travel, meals, delivery, retouching, etc. Learn more in our article on hiring crew and hire your own crew using our Find Crew directory. Any large project will also require you to compile a production book. This will help everyone on set know who everyone else is, when to show up, and where.
While a markup on expenses (in addition to producer days) is customary for video shoot production, it’s less commonly accepted for still photography. In cases where a client expects to pay face value on the expenses, it’s important to get those expenses in advance. It is also important to charge enough for the pre-production and post-production time required to research, negotiate with, and pay for the cast, crew, locations, and transportation.
If you’re working in New York or California, you may need to use a payroll service to pay your cast and crew. Even if you’re not working in those states, you may also need to pay for workers’ compensation insurance. Additionally, you may need to provide a certificate of insurance to prove that you have an appropriate level of liability insurance. We did a program on insurance called Insurance for Photographers.
All of the factors we’ve mentioned so far are quantifiable in one way or another. However, there are additional factors that are a bit harder to quantify.
There are times when the client doesn’t have a pre-determined budget (or when they don’t want to say what that budget is). There are also times when the client is comfortable sharing their budget expectations for a project. Of course, photographers are expected to know what their services should cost and to present a competitive estimate based on the parameters of the shoot.
However, there are times when an experienced art buyer at a creative agency will send you a creative brief and tell you the budget they’re aiming for. It’s your job to work up a proposal that describes how you’d execute that project for that price. The beauty of that from the client’s perspective is that it allows them to compare apples to apples when they’re deciding which photographer to hire. The beauty for the photographer is that they don’t have to guess what level of production value the client is expecting. Instead, they can focus on solving the puzzle the best way possible within those parameters.
All of the estimates in our Pricing & Negotiating articles contain a Terms & Conditions page. Terms and conditions are all the “boilerplate” items that don’t change much from one project to the next.
For a small project like event photography or headshots, a simple estimate will be appropriate. But for anything more complex than that (and certainly for any project where the client sends you a creative brief), it will be appropriate to respond with a treatment as well as an estimate. A treatment is a presentation deck where you can share more about your skills, experience, strategy for approaching their project, your team, and a small custom portfolio of images that align with their project.
Another important element of bidding on any project of any size is a creative call. For a small editorial assignment, a creative call can be as simple as a 5-minute conversation to check your availability. But for any complex commercial assignment, you’re likely to be invited to a conference call with the agency and the client. That call is your opportunity to learn more about the project and to show your interest, ability, and enthusiasm for the project.
Even though most clients are fair-minded people who are just looking out for the interests of their company (you can’t fault anyone for driving a hard bargain), you may occasionally run into clients who know they have a lot more experience negotiating than you do. They will try to intimidate you into giving away your photography too cheaply. They may tell you that “nobody has ever asked for that.” Or maybe “there are a million other photographers who will do this if you won’t.”
As in all negotiating situations, it’s your job to stay calm and respond thoughtfully, respectfully, and cordially (regardless of how you’re being treated). Don’t react impulsively. Don’t be arrogant or fearful. Take a breath and recognize that this is simply a game. It’s your job to set aside your emotions and work in the long-term best interests of your company. Don’t expect to be paid what you’re worth. You will simply be paid what you negotiate.
Photographers are frequently asked to work for free, for cheap, or for trade. In all of these cases, you have to decide for yourself what’s appropriate for you and for the circumstances.
In all cases, regardless of the form or amount of compensation, if you accept the job then you should treat it and every job like it’s the most important one of your career.
If you read anything on the internet, you know that everyone has an opinion about what photographers should charge for their services and what they should pay their crew. At the beginning of your career, that type of information might be all you have to go on. However, with experience, you’ll learn for yourself what market rates are. As a business person, your job is to optimize how much you charge your customers and how much you pay your vendors so that you can maximize your profit. It’s also important to understand that while you can estimate the cost to produce a commercial photo shoot, there’s no intrinsic value to the photos themselves. In the end, it’s simply up to you to decide what they’re worth.
Many photographers make the mistake of thinking of value from their perspective rather than the client’s perspective (photography is easy for you and hard for them).
Need help with an estimate or shoot production? Reach out!