Across every creative specialty, commercial photographers share a common business challenge. It rears its head with every new call: the challenge of creating a meaningful photo estimate, often with one hand tied proverbially around our backs.
Whether it’s a lack of budgetary guidance or an incomplete shot list, assignment photographers consistently face a big decision: do we dig in our heels and demand more information before providing an estimate, or do we grit our teeth and make our best guess as to what it might take to do the job? Neither approach is ideal, of course. So we turned to photography rep Shannon McMillan to ask how she handles the challenge of making meaningful photo estimates when the customer isn’t setting us up for success. The trick, she says, is to learn to strike a balance between our own needs and those of the client.
Not sure how to bid a job? Read these tips from a photography agent on creating a meaningful photo estimate.
“Some days they’re in a rush,” McMillan says, “and so they’re lacking the detail that we need. We want more information and they say, ‘This is all I’ve got. Can you just give me an estimate?’ So I try to get as much information as we can, to at least get the number of shots, or if there’s going to be talent at least a rough estimate of how many talent. Is there going to be a location? How many locations? Just something to get a grasp of what they’re expecting from us, or what they’re expecting to do.”
Tools To Help Create Your Bid
McMillan says there’s unfortunately no playbook to follow for pricing and estimating, so experience is essential. For photographers without it, she suggests perusing the blogs of Wonderful Machine, a photography production network, and aPhotoEditor, run by a former editorial director of photography, which regularly share photo estimates and pricing information. Stock agency Getty is another resource, particularly for usage fees, though she suggests trimming about 30% off their rates. She puts together her proposals using BlinkBid, an application built specifically to help photographers with estimating and budgeting.
The preferred approach is of course to get all the necessary information prior to providing a quote, but that isn’t always realistic. So instead McMillan takes a few different tacks. For one, she’ll simply work backwards from a client’s budget to let them know what can be accomplished at a given rate. Other times she’ll help a client determine their budget by explaining what can be accomplished in a given amount of time. In every case, however, she makes clear that the estimate is based on the information provided to this point, and future changes will necessitate changes to the estimate.
“I don’t always have a budget,” she says. “It’s probably 50/50. So you can lay out ‘this is what we can do in one day,’ and then you help them make up the scenario. For example, ‘If we shoot two locations and X amount of talent, we can do this in one day. But if we go anything beyond that and if we have locations that are not in proximity to each other, then we're going to have to split it in two days because that's going to require two company moves or three,’ and so forth.”
“In the job description we clearly state this is based on these terms,” she continues, “and the estimate is subject to change based on additional information. That way when we do get more details they’re aware that their numbers are going to change. I add a clause: ‘This estimate is based on the information provided, and therefore any additional information is subject to change.’ It's in the terms and then I'll also put it again in the job description. If it's that loosey goosey, I'll put it in bold.”
Sometimes, though, no matter how many caveats a photographer or the rep includes in the estimate, there simply isn’t enough information to give the proposal teeth to make an estimate truly meaningful. In these scenarios, McMillan says, it’s imperative to draw a line in the sand signifying more information is needed, or else risk spending time on a meaningless proposal—or worse.
“The more complicated it is,” she says, “then that's when sometimes we'll just put the brakes on and say, ‘Can you give us more detail because it's going to waste our time, it's going to waste the producer's time, it's going to waste your time with all the back and forth, and we'll waste more time altogether trying to piecemeal this estimate based on the little bit of information you have, versus if we just wait a little bit and get all the information and be more concise to what we're trying to do.”
When To Walk Away
In rare instances, McMillan says, photographers should be prepared to walk away. She acknowledges how difficult this is, particularly for new photographers looking to make a name, but the risks to the production and to the photographer’s profit and reputation are just too great. Sometimes it’s a client who telegraphs how difficult they are going to be to work with, other times it’s simply a project scope that poses too much financial risk.
“You need to learn at what point you just walk away,” she explains. “Because if it's that chaotic at the beginning, can you just imagine how the whole thing is going to be? I know people are trying to make money, but there’s integrity. You need to maintain your integrity while you're trying to capitalize and make a living. Some jobs just are not worth it.”
McMillan continues, “Can you gauge if they are going to be difficult or are you getting a sense that everyone's on the same page? Sometimes they’ll say ‘we know this is unreasonable, so let us know what you can do.’ That’s when you can tell that they have a sense of reality and that’s then we become a little more flexible. Very rarely do we say ‘no,’ but if it's going to jeopardize the quality of the production, then we absolutely step away because that makes us all look bad,” she adds. “It makes the photographer look bad and it makes the production team look bad. And we always end up with the blame.”
Sometimes a client will provide all of the necessary information regarding budget, scope, locations, talent, turnaround, usage, etc. and still, the photographer must be prepared to walk away. That leads us to the biggest challenge of all: determining if a given job can be accomplished effectively, and profitably, for a given budget.
“The other day a client gave me a budget,” she says, “but then they came back and asked if we could actually do it for considerably less? I told them no because the timeline was crazy and they wanted a lot from the artist. It just wasn’t workable at a lower rate. I pushed back and we were able to work with them, but we cut the scope of the job back and we said, ‘we're not going over this line.’”
Why You Don’t Have To Be The Lowest Bidder
Some inexperienced photographers mistakenly believe the recipe for estimating success is always to provide the lowest possible price in order to get the job. But this is not only risky for the individual photographer, it’s damaging to the industry and ultimately can be just as unappealing to a client as a proposal that is too high. In either case, McMillan says, resources are available for photographers in need of estimating assistance.
“That’s lowballing,” McMillan says. “And for less experienced photographers, if they're unsure, we suggest they find a local producer or call a rep and just say, ‘Hey, I'm new to this industry, can you help me?’ I will help other local photographers and I just let them know, ‘I'm happy to help you if you want me to help you negotiate. I take 30% if you should get the job. If you don't get the job, I don't charge anything.’ Most reps are more than willing to help. We want everyone to succeed and we all have to band together to make that happen. Photographers that just lowball will destroy the industry. And it’s not just hurting other photographers. Companies will pick up on a lowball estimate and will completely walk away because it raises a red flag. They'll recognize, either this person doesn't know what they're doing, or they're not protecting their integrity and they're willing to do this for so cheap.”
To learn more about Shannon McMillan and her agency, Homestead Creatives, visit www.homesteadcreatives.com.
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.