Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Business: I got the gig, what do I do now?

I had a reader ask me these questions, and I thought it appropriate at this stage of the blog to address them:
What is it like when you get a gig? What questions do you ask? What details need worked out? Have you ever turned anybody down because you felt you weren't experienced enough? Or lacked the right equipment?
A lot of questions, but all very important ones.

What's it like when you get a gig? It's exciting and scary at the same time. You feel honored and thrilled that someone wants to pay you to do what you love, but you are concerned that you will not be able to exceed their expectations. Unless you are either very experienced or self-assured, you will have this mix of good-scared until you convince yourself and the world that you can do this work and get paid for it.

What questions do you ask? The first question you should ask your client is to define the scope of what they want you to do. How long will the session be? What kind of prep time will you need? What kind of props or equipment will be required? What kind of products do they want? Prints, electronic images? These questions should help you understand the time and materials required to complete the job. Determine what it will take you in terms of hours, and base your pricing that, and also on the cost of goods and services you will need to procure to do the job.

Think about your planning, shooting and post production time commitment. Estimate the number of hours and then double it if you are inexperienced.

She didn't ask this question, but it follows: What should I charge? Next, think about your fair hourly rate. Remember that you will be paying all of your income taxes, medicare and Social Security, and supporting your business expenses. A good rule of thumb would be that you need to make 2-3 times your target hourly rate to take home as income. So for instance you will need to make $75 per hour to clear $25 per hour after taxes and expenses.

So how do you price a job to get $75/hour? If your math above said that the gig will take 10 hours of your time, is the client prepared to spend $750? Sometimes they are prepared to spend much more or less. And there are several ways to get the $750.

The first model is to charge a fixed price up front, and deliver a fixed product at the end. This is valuable when you are delivering a known product, such as a CD of images for use in advertisement.

The opposite end of the scale is to charge nothing for the session and hope to get it back in prints. I have done this as well and I'll tell you that often you will not get your money for this, as some people don't order what you think they would.

Some events, particularly groups like sports events and dance/proms, benefit from pre-ordering, where customers fill out and order and pay the day of the shoot. I have found however that sometimes you limit your sales by offering packages the day of the order. You'll have to decide that for yourself and your event.

Somewhere in the middle may be the right answer for personal photography. I charge a pretty hefty session fee for seniors, families and weddings. I call this the creative fee. It is designed so that if the customer orders nothing, I am somewhat compensated for my time. I allow part of that fee to be used as a design credit, to purchase products, provided they order within a deadline. This basically guarantees a minimum sale if they use the credit or not. The vast majority of customers order more than that design credit, and most of them order before the deadline, thus tying up the loose ends quicker.

You'll have to think about how you want to price your work. On my website, I publish my price lists for sessions and products for most of my services. They are different for the different types of work that I do. Early on, I made the common mistake of underestimating the value of my time and charging a markup on print cost only. If you underprice your services, you run the risk of coming off as low quality or not worthy of respect or consideration.

What details need worked out? You'll want to confirm the date, time, location, contact persons, fees, permits, electricity if needed, props/backdrops or other equipment. You'll also want them to understand how long it will take from the shoot date until they can see proofs or images, and until they can receive the images. I always recommend that you under-promise and over-deliver. Quote 4 weeks and deliver in 1 or 2. If it is a complicated event such as a wedding or commercial shoot, you may want to build a contract indicating what you will do and what they will do. Sometimes a 1-page agreement with a couple of paragraphs will do, and it certainly will be better than nothing. And confirm the details in writing, either via email or paper. It's hard to over-communicate in the planning stages.

The last question - have I ever turned someone down because I did not have the experience or equipment? Not yet, but if I were asked to do a job that required specific skills or gear, I may point them to someone else in the community. Or, I may take the job provided it gave me the incremental revenue to let me purchase the equipment to perform the job. I did that this fall on some sports shooting, which I knew would require a telephoto lens to do well. I didn't actually profit from that job, but I did break event and add a good lens to my arsenal.

For the other new pros out there, can you comment on your first gigs? What went well or badly?


  1. I didn't ask about the pricing because I had more specific questions for that topic alone, but you seemed to have covered them all here.

    Thanks for answering the questions, I appreciate it as I'm sure others will too!

  2. John, I appreciate your thorough and detailed suggestions in this blog as well as your direct honesty you give to clients. Confidence in my own photography has grown but I admit to having a BIG mix of the good-scared emotions at this point. I am a perfectionist, which stems from my nursing background, and I feel this holds me back. I tend to overthink the simple, worry too much on non-worrisome issues and expect the best too readily. I find I'm telling myself to "chill out!" This will get better with practice and a lot of humor. Charging at this point makes me uncomfortable. After reading your blog I realize it doesn't have to be so worrisome once confidence is attained at a personal comfort level. I'm working on it. I don't have a "studio" per say but what I do have works at this point. On another note, any suggestions/material you can share on taking indoor photos of 300+ lb football players would be helpful. Their size alone makes me nervous! But, it'll be a blast. Thanks again for the business insight of photography as well as all your help on camera settings, etc.

    Deanna H.

  3. Deanna, I don't have a studio either, I do all of this out of my residence and take the party to the clients' settings, both indoors and out.

    With respect to football players, definitely get some shots in their uniforms, with the grease under the eyes and all. Maybe spray on some water for the sweat look and do some straight on shots with low camera angle to emphasize the bigness and toughness of those guys!

    Then switch gears and get those personality shots that mom and grandma will love.