Professional photographers shooting for advertising, corporate and editorial clients use thousands of dollars of specialized equipment on every assignment, and yet they don’t always factor that expense into their pricing. Some chalk it up to the cost of doing business, but others know there is precedent for adding an equipment fee to bids and invoices in an effort to recoup the expense and afford the occasional upgrade.
For an ideal example, look to any motion picture or video production where equipment fees are standard. These include everything from camera and lenses to lighting packages and even grip equipment. Advertising photographers, too, seem to be better prepared to add a line item for equipment to their proposals—not just for rented gear but for equipment the photographer owns outright as well. So why don’t more commercial photographers charge equipment fees by default?
“If you’re not factoring your equipment into what you’re billing,” one professional photographer told me, “you’re never going to break even.” This commercial shooter preferred to remain nameless, but he felt strongly that equipment fees should become standard on photographers’ invoices.
“You should bill for all the equipment,” he said, “because it’s overhead. The Sony α9 and α7R III are amazing cameras, and they aren’t inexpensive to buy. How many jobs do you have to have to pay something like that off? If you’re not charging a nominal amount on every job you use that on, it could be a long time. You also have to factor in your insurance into your overhead. Your cameras and lenses, even the computer you’re using. Everything has to be figured into your invoicing if you’re to succeed as a professional.”
Outdoor advertising photographer and Sony Artisan Gabe Rogel agrees with the idea of invoicing for equipment in theory, but he acknowledges that it isn’t always so easy to put that plan into practice.
“It’s a good thing to try,” Rogel says. “It just depends on the client. Your equipment gets wear and tear on projects, obviously. I think it’s totally legit. But it’s always a battle with people getting into the industry who don’t know to charge for equipment. We were all one of them at one point in time. I didn’t charge for my gear until relatively recently.”
While it may be ideal to bid with equipment fees as their own line item, both photographers suggest that you don’t hesitate to bundle equipment costs into a higher creative fee if it would be better received that way. In any case, the fee is determined by the going rate for rental of the same equipment in the marketplace—or slightly less since rental houses are looking to profit from the rental, while the photographer is simply seeking to recoup costs.
“If the budget allows and the client gets it,” Rogel says, “I just go to lensrentals.com. It’s so user friendly and I just plug in the gear I’m going to use. It doesn’t have to be every single thing, but I definitely include the costs for my bodies and lenses. That’s really it. Then I plug in how many days for the shoot and there you go.”
One legitimate benefit to bidding with equipment on an itemized proposal is that it offers some room for negotiating when it’s time to close the deal.
“I think by starting with those things,” Rogel says, “you have the opportunity to educate your client if they don’t understand it already. Do it respectfully and gently and be ready to explain it. If they’re still balking at it and you’re over budget or something, then you have something that’s negotiable. I usually want the job, so gear costs give me some room to work with them.”
Ultimately whether you get paid your equipment fee or whether you waive it, you’ve educated your client and in a professional and meaningful way. You’ve set future expectations. That’s one of the most important things to keep your business moving in a positive direction.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.