7.31.2018

Today is "estimate day" around the office. I have three potential projects that need estimates and all three clients would like to have them today. How do we estimate?


I love to hear from clients. Especially clients with whom we already have an relationship. And I like it best when they call and talk to me about future projects. After all, that's what I'm in this business for.  But even if I've been a proven and reliable supplier in the past I still have to provide a gameplay and an estimate or bid for each new project; after all, every ad agency is representing a client and those clients all have budgets they're trying to meet. we have to really sharpen our pencils sometimes  when a fun project is attached to a smaller budget. And sometimes we have to let stuff go because the money is just not there to support the project. The happiest days are when the fun projects directly intersect with ample budgets. We bring out the gold plated lenses for those assignments.

My first step in estimating a photographic or video project is to determine whether it's the right fit for me or not. It doesn't make a lot of sense to spend time photographing something that doesn't interest you at all, even if you are being well paid to do so. You'll do a better job on a subject which holds real interest for you. Fortunately I'm interested in a lot of different subjects and I also find people consistently fun, interesting and entertaining. There are few jobs that include people that I'll turn down, as long as there is enough budget attached to do the jobs well.

Once I decide to commit I grab a legal pad and write notes as I try to envision how the whole project will come together. One of the projects I'm estimating today
calls for nine days of active photography combined with shooting b-roll video. The project is in a nearby city so I'm trying to calculate the best way to deal with travel logistics. The agency would like to break up the shooting days so their principals aren't out of the office for an extended period of time. I'd like to keep travel back and forth between my home base and the city where we'll be working to a minimum. The optimal way to break up the schedule would be to shoot in two day and three day segments. After two or three days of all day shooting I need a recharge day so I can get a swim in, charge batteries, return other client's phone calls and play with my dog.

The way I envision a two or three day segment in another city (an hour and a half away) is to make the first day of each segment an early day which would require us to get up early, drive over and meet the clients directly at our first location. After the first and second shooting days we'd stay at inexpensive hotels so we can be efficient with our time. At the end of the last shooting day in each two or three day segment we'd plan on driving back home.

While this cuts down on mileage and general "wear and tear" it adds five nights of hotel stays to the budget. One way to reduce costs is to source my crew in the project city instead of bringing my usual crew along with me. That can be a trade off because I'll presume that you work more fluidly with people you've worked with frequently in the past. On the other hand you save the cost of five nights of hotel rooms X crew members. You also don't have to worry about feeding your crew breakfast and dinner, just snacks and a good lunch.

So far my biggest production which required much travel planning was a resort shoot in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. I needed to transport four models from Dallas, Texas, an assistant, a make-up person and several clients from various locations around the U.S. We all needed to arrive and be ready to shoot around the same time. Hotels, meals and unplanned events give your contingency muscles a good workout. The upfront costs of bigger productions absolutely demand that you get your hard costs covered by a deposit up front. Make sure you're using the client's money when you book airfare, models and support staff!!! You don't want to become a finance company for your own clients.

Once we get the travel logistics worked out I can concentrate on how we'll actually handle the content creation. Industrial style photo shoots tend to fall into two broad camps. One camp is all about a photojournalistic style where you move quickly from scene to scene or situation to situation. There's minimal lighting expected and you sometimes depend on shallow depth of field to clean up cluttered backgrounds. The other style is working to precise comprehensive layouts provided by the client's art department. In both scenarios the client will have a prevailing visual style they'd like to have running through all the images that are created so I have to be aware of limitations to the style. My favorite client fail is the client asking for really wide shots that also have really shallow depth of field. I guess it becomes my "fail" of I can't explain the physics of photography to the client in advance of the shoot.

After we have all the scheduling and travel framework in place I have to get a crew together. A lot of assignments will be solo engagements but, as an exercise, I always think through and try to imagine how much better the project might be if I had a few helping hands to assist me. Some jobs, like corporate portrait work, just scream for the addition of a make-up artist. Video interviews work better if I bring along a dedicated camera operator or, conversely, a really good people interviewer who can ask the questions while I run the camera.

So, once I know where I'm going to work, how I'm going to get there, who I'll be photographing and how many people I'll need to help me, It will be fairly easy to estimate my actual hard costs. Basically it's: transport everyone, house everyone, feed everyone, get props, bring cameras and lights and keep everyone settled in with good coffee. When I know the numbers for all this stuff I can then do the harder work of figuring out what to charge in order to compensate me for my time and also put some profit into my pockets.

The compensation for my time is straightforward; it's a daily or hourly charge for everything from shooting on the set to spending time on the phone lining up crew and time on the computer working on travel logistics. If I'm photographing for nine days then I'll base my fee on how hard it is to do what the client needs and how intense the experience. As one of my photographer friends used to say, "I have a sliding day rate. For charities that I believe in it might start at one dollar. For cigarette companies it might be $15,000 a day. But there's a rate for almost everything."

The harder part is figuring in the profit which is usually calculated as "usage fees." The day rate, in many cases, only covers the actual creation of the images but the usage fee charges for (logically) the actual use of the images.

In one job I've estimated today the final client is a very good non-profit/charity. They provide lots and lots of good services to their community. I've waived any usage rights for two reasons. First, I want to maximize their financial resources so they can continue to do good work and secondly, it seems like a really fun assignment and the chance to work with a really good creative director. I'm selfishly setting aside the usage fee in order to increase my chances of getting the project and generating some really good work.

I rarely ever waive my usage fees for national and regional ad use. My fees are such a tiny part of most overall advertising budgets; and my work is the important first impression for most ads, so it's doing the heavy lifting in the media placement and clients are happy to pay not a fixed price from a price sheet but a price based on the value, to them, of the work itself.

The secret to estimating a project is to balance your financial needs with the client's resources. Ask hard questions. Ask them if they already have a budget range in mind. Ask them how the work will be used and then go back to the office and work on the numbers. A lower budget may mean the client will have to make some choices about their priorities. A lower budget may mean you shoot fewer images with the same production values or you shoot the originally imagined images but minimize the time you spend lighting or fine tuning details too much.

Some stuff is logical. If your images are going to be used small, and on the web, then shooting with a medium format digital camera and a digital tech is probably counterproductive. If you find out that the client is planning to drop out the backgrounds in the images you create then your plan to use very narrow depth of field may actually work against the client's ad team being able to efficiently crop out the background. If the light in a huge factory is even and not a ghastly and uncorrectable color you might be fighting time and the space by attempting to set up and control your own light. Better to figure out good ways to use HDR or long exposures with good color WB than spending days trying to light a 20,000 square foot warehouse.

It's important to get paid for your work. It's important to understand that different jobs, different clients and different end uses call for different pricing models. Make sure you cover your costs and make a profit, and then you can decide what the project is ultimately worth to you.

Today I sent out estimates with two much different day rates on them. One estimate is for a charity I really like the other is for a very, very profitable, national manufacturing company. You don't have to spend much time guessing who got which day rate. The bottom line is: I'll be thrilled to work on both projects. See the opening statement...

None of the estimating I've done today requires or even suggests that I inform the clients about what cameras and lenses I'll be using. The clients just don't care. They trust me to get the photographs we discussed. How nice.

6 comments:

  1. Wow, Kirk! You just rattled off 1800 words. That's a magazine article in itself. Or even better, a good part of a chapter in the book "Kirk Tuck on the Art and Business of Commercial Photography" (which may never see the light of day, but definitely should).

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  2. Dave, Surely you are not forgetting my bestselling book, published by Amherst Media, entitled: COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHY HANDBOOK. Right?

    But I do get your point. Make a book from these 3,000+ posts.

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  3. Kirk, is that the same book that was a required text in several college photography programs?

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  4. Yes. It's the one Austin Community College and a few smaller colleges selected a few years back as guides to commercial photography business practices.

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  5. I have had and profited from "Commercial Photography Handbook" for years. It sits on the shelf in front of me as I write.

    But "Kirk Tuck on the Art and Business of Commercial Photography" will be an even (much) better book. I have copied and saved 35 of your especially appropriate posts over the years. Plenty for a book, or at least a very substantial start.

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  6. Ah the Black Art; estimating. 30+ years on and I still get jitters. Jittering today as a matter of fact ...

    Google Maps has made the whole travel thing quite a bit easier. I can estimate my time and expenses so much more accurately by seeing where I'm going, sussing out routes and break-points in travel and can have a darn accurate mileage estimate too! That doesn't mean it's not a sticker-shocker to a client to find out how much it costs to move X people to Y places for Z days, while giving them lunch. Or my favorite "we'll just power through".

    Where things have become challenging is in usage/rights balanced against the cost of those uses/rights.

    In the old days we had extensive parameters and could really nail down where, how many, how long, etc to get an accurate compensation for the value of what we do. Things today have simplified tremendously. Clients today only want for me to:

    1) Come take pictures (it will only take an hour ... right?)
    2) Give them all the pictures.

    So many more shoots end up being "library days" where we come in and do broad coverage of many areas of, for example, a manufacturing operation. The client then pulls images appropriate to future needs they don't know they have at this point in time.

    Figuring out that usage-component is the tough part, especially since clients in smaller markets don't want to pay for the value they get. They want to own outright.

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