Real World Estimates: Product Photography

By Jess Dudley, Wonderful Machine Producer

One of our still-life photographers was approached recently by a major brand to quote on a series of product photographs to promote a low-cost line of glassware that they sell through a big-box store. The client needed pictures showing several variations of each of the bowls, plates, and cups so that they’d have different options for use on packaging, point of purchase displays, and on their e-commerce site. They wanted everything shot on white background. Their in-house designers would process the raw files and handle the silhouetting and any retouching. The client would plan to bring a hard drive with them and simply take all the raw files with them at the conclusion of the shoot.

The creative challenge was to make simple bowls and cups look interesting on their own. The technical challenge was to light clear shiny objects and have them show up on a white background. After discussing the project with the photographer, she told me she could comfortably handle 3-4 items/day. So I would need to plan on a four-day shoot.

We’re normally inclined to quote creative fees by the picture rather than by the day. That tends to align the interests of the photographer with those of the client. If a photographer is charging by the day, her incentive is to run long and the client’s incentive is to finish early. If the photographer charges by the picture, everyone is going to be incentivized to work as efficiently as possible. There are exceptions to this rule, however. In cases where the client (or the client’s client) is in control of the shooting schedule (like on a corporate project where the photographer might be at the mercy of the subject’s or facilities’ availability at any given moment).

This project, however, is the type of shoot that a lot of clients have a need for, and that photographers customarily charge by the day for. Rather than upsetting that apple cart, I thought it best to go with the flow and quote the photography by the day. I’ve found that product photographers can command anywhere from 3000.00-5000.00/day for this type of work, with this licensing for a national brand. Whether I quote the high end or the low end is going to depend on how prominent the brand is, the complexity of the pictures, how prominent the photographer is, how busy he is, and the exact licensing. The number of shoot days and the regularity of the work is a factor as well. If a one-day shoot suddenly becomes a five-day shoot, I would probably discount the additional days.

Location of the photographer and the client can also factor in. If the client (even a big one) is in a smaller market and you’re competing with other photographers in that small market, you might not be able to charge as much as for a similar project taking place in a bigger market. In this case, the client and the photographer were in a big market, and I felt that all of the other factors together pointed to about the mid-point of the range, so I quoted 4000.00/day. The client specified the exact usage they needed, which I quoted on the estimate (below).

I chose to include a digital tech as well as a regular photo assistant for this project. For bigger sets, I would want to have at least two assistants, but for table-top, one was enough. I’m also finding that most assistants now have most of the skills of a digital tech, so the personnel (and the fees they charge) are starting to become interchangeable. (Of course, digital techs with extensive software and hardware knowledge, or those who bring their own computers or cameras, will always be able to charge a premium.)

Since there was so little pre-production necessary (just arranging the catering and the assistants), it wasn’t worth breaking that out as a separate line item. And while some shoots might require a pre-light day, this one was simple enough that I couldn’t justify breaking that out either.

Sometimes product photographers bundle the studio and equipment charges into their creative fees. Other times it makes sense to show separate line items. (Either way, it has very little to do with whether the photographer has “his own” space or “his own” gear. Some photographers naively charge clients based on the cost to them rather than the value that they’re bringing to their client. Equipment and studios are expensive whether you rent them by the day, by the month, or own them outright.) There are pluses and minuses to either approach. Bundling the charge might make your creative fee seem fat. Separating those expenses out might make it seem like you’re nickel-and-diming. Generally, I do whatever I think is customary for a given situation. Here, I chose to separate it out.

For catering, we’ll normally do a light breakfast (muffins, bagels, fruit salad, juice, water, coffee) and a casual lunch (sandwiches, salads, chips, cookies, brownies, water, soda, coffee). For productions with more than 10 people, or if you’re shooting more than a few days in a row, it starts to make sense to go a step further. We’ve sometimes gone as far as offering made-to-order omelets, pancakes and oatmeal for breakfast, lasagna and other hot options in addition to sandwiches for lunch, and snacks to keep people going through the afternoon. For people (clients especially) who spend a lot of time on shoots like this, it’s nice not getting stuck with an Italian hoagie every day.

Naturally, the client provided the product. But they also provided the stylist, which we were sure to note in the estimate. The shoot took place in the photographer’s own studio so travel and certificates of insurance were unnecessary.

The client liked the estimate and signed off on it, and the shoot went as expected. (Not all estimates go through as easily as this one did. I promise to get into negotiating next time!) One thing you might ask is, “what does the photographer charge if the shoot takes five days to complete, or if it only takes three?” Good question. Strictly speaking, we’ve quoted this as an estimate rather than a bid. With an estimate, the final cost will vary depending on actual conditions. With a bid, you’re saying that the cost is fixed for the result you’re delivering. However, in this case since everything about the shoot is going to be either predictable or within the photographer’s control, there would have to be very unusual circumstances to justify billing for additional shoot days. But at the same time, most clients would expect you to only charge them for the three days if that’s all it took. This “heads I win, tails you lose” effect is one more reason I prefer to bill by the picture rather than by the day.

If you have any questions, or if you need help estimating or producing one of your projects, you can reach Jess at jess@wonderfulmachine.com

There Are 29 Comments On This Article.

  1. Excellent
    My personal experience has been a client wants you to come out and photograph 20 items

    Then when I arrive they tell me that they now only need 2 items shot. With a per item quote I am not going to cover any expenses. What do you think about adding in a Minimum dollar amount?

    In the past I have quoted per project. Stating that with x number of items, and with all stated as planned I estimate how long a job will take. If it goes longer due to me, No Charge. If it goes long due to them, then additional charge will be added (example: If they supply a stylist that arrives really late or not at all).

    • @Von R Buzard,
      If the specs change, you have every right to change the estimate. You gave them a quantity discount with 20 shots- that doesn’t apply with just 2! Even the smallest of clients should understand that. If I showed up to find such a change, I would pull out my laptop and revise on the spot, and see if they still want to continue, or just pay a cancellation fee- 50% of the original fees plus expenses incurred would be standard practice, though for a first offense it is probably better to educate & keep a potential client.

      =)

      Jeff

  2. Great info. Estimates and bids are always touchy subjects and I like the apporach and variations considered.

    It seems that image licensing terms are very loose. I that just for this type of shoot or is it typical for WMi.

  3. This is great information and you explained it in a way that made it much easier to digest than other articles I have read. I’m looking forward to the post(s) on negotiating.

  4. @justin… why so surprised? Depending on what’s being shot & for whom, this quote is actually quite low. (In my experience, if the client does not come back and at least ask for a price break, you’ve likely left money on the table.) Otherwise, honest and detailed insights, and thanks for sharing!

  5. @Justin: I agree with Peter. Depending on the specifics that estimate could be viewed as low or even missing some things that I always cover in my estimates. Man that estimate form looks very simple compared to others I’ve seen.

    Thanks or the great post Jess and Rob.

  6. “If a photographer is charging by the day, her incentive is to run long and the client’s incentive is to finish early.”

    -I have seen a lot of this conflict in a smaller market where it is generally understood the photographer pricing is based on time/day rate. Any suggestions for convincing clients that pricing by the image can be mutually beneficial?

    Excellent advice to price for the value photographer brings to the client rather than the cost to photographer.

    Taking notes and updating my contracts. Thanks for sharing Jess and APE!

  7. I just did an estimate recently for a similar shoot for a well-known luxury brand. I took a very similar approach. I line item’ed even less than what is presented here and came in much lower knowing they were trying to do it on the cheap. I never heard back and suspect that even though it was more than fair, that it was more than they were willing to spend.

    Sometimes I wish I had a rep/producer write up the estimate, but it will invariably come in higher and I’ll still not land the job. C’est la vie.

    • @Anthony, These things are never easy. Sometimes you have to know when to walk away from a job. I work on the earning to aggrivation ratio and try to offer realisitc expectations for the client. If you were painting someones ground floor flat and got asked to to do the external as well it would be right to charge much more. There is no difference in photography..Agrivation/earnings unless it is an editorial when you can spend 12 hours shooting for a small fee…..

  8. @Anthony: have you considered that the opposite might be true? I have been in meetings where the agency commisioning the work (in their infinite wisdom) have been concerned about a fee that comes in below their expectations. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense… When money isn’t the main concern (the end result is), being cheap is not necessarily a desirable trait.

    Just a thought…

    Oh, and good luck, I hope your break is just around the corner,

    O.

    • @Owen Silverwood,

      Thanks for your thoughts Owen, but in this case, money it was, not end result. In the initial brief they even discussed wanting to look at the possibility of shooting in their offices rather than spending money on a studio. Quick, cheap. Catalogue and website with 3-5 on model advertising images.

      The worst part is that they have a regular guy shoot their main items and the last time they had to do these other items, they let him do it and were less than satisfied with the results. He may have done it again this time, for cheaper.

  9. Do you have any tips or techniques for keeping the conversation going between the client and photographer/rep during negotiations? I will sometimes quote jobs then it’s just a call from the would be client saying “thanks but we are going with someone else, you’re just not in our budget”. I never get the chance to negotiate. Get post by the way. Thanks.

  10. The other day something odd happened to me. I was doing an ad job almost identical to one I have done before for this client. I got an email from the agency producer about usage:

    “Also just had this back from the cost controller on the job – which is slightly confusing as they signed off the costs last time without question;

    If we play to the AOP guidelines the photographers usage should be included within the fee so we shouldn’t accept the extra £xxx usage cost.”

    I noticed that on the real world estimate the usage is inc in the fees. How then is the usage broken down? `If the client wants to reuse the images next year then what part of the $16000 is usage??

    I think this is more confusing than breaking down fees. I have a day rate and I then have usage fees so everyone knows whats what. Surly this is better for the client also?.

    Any thoughts?

    • @Oli, I used to break down usage and fees into separate line items. But I since have seen the light. If you include them as one single fee, you are limited in your negations – say if they want to reduce the number of shots before the shoot. Same thing happens when they ask for reuse. You decide what the images are worth years down the road, and only then. Lot’s can happen in a few years. (Can your client tell you what their product will cost years from now?)

  11. I found this to be a great read.

    Though I know no one wants a”standard” pricing in a competitive market, I think that there is not enough open discussion among “working pros” and “up and coming pro” on pricing, negotiations, and other aspects of the business side of photography.

    I appreciate your willingness to share opening what you did in terms of pricing the project. I think we when share our experience it helps the industry as a whole learn and improve.

    I think this helps the client in that photographers are more confident in their pricing and not ashamed to be paid. Understanding pricing not only makes sure we as photographers have food on the table but that client is getting fair value for their money spent.

  12. Jess,

    Thanks for sharing the details of this with us. I’ve been thinking about how to differentiate what equipment, studio, … I am using to produce the shot – but never saw it as simply put as you have done here “Some photographers naively charge clients based on the cost to them rather than the value that they’re bringing to their client. ”

    From the client perspective that makes complete sense; thanks for breaking it down.

    … catching the light!

    Pascal

    • @Pascal Depuhl,

      Or worse yet, break down the estimate as what makes sense to the photographer, and not to the client. The ‘nickel and diming’ fear is very real… many clients will actually pay more for a photographer they feel is treating them fairly and delivers a simple cost estimate.

      This is why per-picture/product/setup works nicely in many cases. It’s very clear to the client what will happen if they change their order.

      I’ve found there are two camps.. there is still a day rate camp, made of mostly older photographers and buyers, and the creative fee camp that is the ‘new’ way of doing things, but is generally better for everyone, except those clients who told you they had 2 items to shoot in a day, and show up with 5.