by Jess Dudley, Wonderful Machine Producer

Recently, an ad agency contacted one of our photographers about an estimate to shoot a series of still photographs for a campaign for a popular sporting goods manufacturer. A year earlier, the photographer had quoted on a similar project for the same agency, but the two of them couldn’t come to terms on it (the photographer wasn’t comfortable delivering extensive licensing on so many pictures for what he thought was a low fee). But his diplomacy, patience and professionalism were rewarded when the agency came back to him with another project. Knowing that the client was cost-sensitive he wanted to make every effort to deliver a reasonable proposal. But just as he knew the client’s sensitivity to price, the client knew his and came back to him anyway. They were interested in the photographer not just because of his style of shooting, but also because of his post-processing technique.

The shoot was to take place on one day at a factory half-way across the country. The project required making portraits and candid photos of employees at work, as well still life pictures of the final product. The shoot would require only minimal pre-production. All of the elements in the pictures (the people, the location, the props) were already in place, and the photographer’s (mostly) ambient light style of shooting would allow him to get his pictures with minimal equipment or disruption to the operation.

The photographer had gotten the initial details from the agency (including a shot list) and then asked me to talk to them. After reviewing the concept and approach with the photographer, I prepared a list of questions for the art buyer:

  1. Do you want the photographer to use his signature available light shooting and post-processing style? Yes.
  2. Do you want the photographer to work with the people and process as it is, or dress it up in any way? As is, but of course filtered through the photographer’s unique style.
  3. Would all of the elements of the manufacturing process be available to shoot at any time of day, or would we have to work on a certain schedule? Each step of the production process was going on all the time. The shot list broke the shoot up into four situations within the facility, with loose guidelines for each.
  4. Does the whole manufacturing process take place in one facility or will we have to move from one location to another during the day? Everything was contained in one big facility.
  5. Do you want all of the pictures (including the still life pictures) to maintain the same ambient light look (even though the photographer may add light here and there)? Yes.
  6. How many final images do need? 18
  7. What licensing do you need for those pictures? Worldwide print advertising use (in sport publications only), web advertising use, point of purchase, collateral (print and web) for 2 years.
  8. Are there other photographers bidding on the job? None (at this point). I also found that the agency was pushing hard to use this photographer because his past work and unique style was the actual inspiration for the concept.
  9. Do you have a set budget? No.
  10. Are you going to want to approve the pictures as they’re being made? No. (Normally, on an ad shoot, a photographer is going to want the client to sign off on each picture before moving on to the next one. The photographer and I decided that his project required a more fluid approach. If he was going to get 18 final images in one shoot day, there would be no time to stop and get approval every 20 minutes. And since the approach was more one of discovery rather than replicating a comp, he didn’t want to lose momentum by stopping frequently.)

With all that in mind, I got to work on the first version of the estimate.

Fee. While the licensing was pretty extensive, there were limitations to consider. The print ad use was limited to sport publications and it was unlikely the agency would be using all 18 images in ads simultaneously. To determine the fee, we looked at the number of situations outlined in the shot list, rather than the actual number of shots. The images within a situation amounted to a hero shot and variety of detail shots.  Based on the number of situations (4), licensing, style and sophistication of the production, we decided to set the fee for the first situation at 9000.00 and each additional situation at 3000.00. We checked our pricing against a few other sources. BlinkBid’s bid consultant suggested a range of 5950.00-8500.00 per image per year, which is a great starting point. Corbis was in the same ballpark, 8500.00 per image per year and FotoQuote was slightly lower at about 5000.00-6500.00. What these pricing calculators can’t take into account are the sophistication of the production, similarities between the images or caliber of the client/product/agency.

Assistant. Since the shoot was going to be pretty low-tech, the photographer decided to just have one assistant and to have him look after the photo equipment as well as manage the digital files. The photographer and the client were comfortable reviewing images on the fly in order to keep moving quickly (mostly seeing them on the back of the camera with a few breaks during the day to see them on a laptop). Against my better judgement, I went along with the idea of one assistant. For the small additional cost, I think it’s worth having a second assistant on just about any shoot. And when working out of town, I’ll normally book a local second assistant who will know where to go when the photographer needs something in a pinch.

Equipment Rental. The photographer didn’t need to rent that much gear  for this low production, available light project. We budgeted for 3 rental days of a 5d mk II @ 200/day, a 24-70 @ 35.00/day, a 50 1.2 @ 35/day and a 7d body for backup.

Digital Capture Fee. For most editorial and corporate shoots, I charge a capture fee for each shoot day (which pays for the time to create and post a web gallery) plus either a file prep fee (when the processing is straight-forward) or a retouching fee (when it’s more elaborate). For most advertising projects, it makes sense to have a digital tech on hand to help the client view the pictures as they’re being made as well as organize, rename and run any galleries necessary. But we chose the run-and-gun approach for this shoot

Retouching hours. The treatment the photographer gives to his final images is somewhat unique and time consuming, so we billed accordingly.

Scouting and Travel Days. Since the locations (and the action at each location) were fixed, the scouting would be relatively brief. We decided it could be combined with the travel day. The photographer would need to figure out where he was going to stage his equipment and review all the areas on the shot list. This allowed me to bundle the scouting with the travel day. The photographer planned to fly in the day before the shoot, scout that afternoon, shoot the next day, and return home the following morning.

Airfare & Baggage. I estimated for airfare for the photographer and his assistant. Since they wouldn’t have to bring a lot of gear, we only had to account for 2 checked bags each way per person @ 25.00 each. The tickets were 337.00 per person and baggage fees would total 100.00. I rounded up a dollar and made it a point to remind the art buyer that this fee would increase the closer we got to the shoot, so making a decision sooner rather than later was most cost-effective.

Car Rental. We looked up rates for a two-day SUV rental. Enterprise had cars available for about 100.00/day. I also included the full insurance coverage at 20.00/day and 40.00 in gas to refill the tank.

Lodging. The photographer and assistant would each have their own room for two nights. I found rooms at a Residence Inn for 120.00 per room per night, including taxes.

Catering. We estimated catering for 8, including the photographer, his assistant and 6 others from the agency and  client. We typically estimate 35.00 per person for a light breakfast, normal lunch and snacks throughout the day.

Miles, Parking, Tolls, Meals, Misc. This item covers miles the photographer has to drive to the airport from his home/studio, any parking, tolls, meals that he pays for on the travel or shoot days (excluding catering), and any miscellaneous expenses that may pop up at the last minute.

Location, talent. We wanted to make sure that we clearly stated what the agency and client will be providing if the photographer wasn’t providing it. Every necessary component of a shoot should be addressed in the estimate.

Advance. We normally ask for 50% of the estimated costs so that the photographer can pay their vendors in a timely fashion and buy/rent what they need for the shoot. Some agencies have rules about paying out a certain percentage of the expenses and a certain percentage of the fee, which we are usually fine with as long as the photographer has enough to cover out-of-pocket expenses.

Here is the first estimate:

The art buyer ran it by her colleagues as well as the client and got back to me the next day. Not surprisingly, a budget had materialized. She told me that they would like to keep the estimate below 25k because it’s their policy that if an estimate exceeds that amount, they’re obligated to consider three vendors and run the estimate through a cost consultant. This is not the first time I’d heard about the “keep it under 25k rule.” So the give and take began.

The fastest way to cut costs is to reduce the licensing terms or number of images licensed. The client was very specific about the licensing they needed, so it seemed our only option was to limit the number of images. Even though we priced this based on the number of scenarios, we decided to trim the amount of shots down to 15 and prorate the fee on a per-image basis. Had we needed to reduce the number of images by more than three, we would have reevaluated the cost per image. This adjustment also reduced cost of the file preps and brought the bottom line down to 24,225.00.

Here is the second estimate:

The art buyer ran the second estimate by her colleagues and the client. Now they decided that they wanted 20 images from the shoot (two more than initially requested). So we bumped the fee up accordingly and resubmitted the estimate.

Here is the third and final estimate we sent to the agency, which the client approved. Apparently, the AB can skirt the cost consultants by issuing 2 POs if the estimate comes in just over 25k:

About a month after the shoot, the agency contacted the photographer and asked to license an additional image from the shoot to be used in a single spot on television as well as online for up to one year. We gave them a price of 3000.00 and they agreed.

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

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  1. IMO, this is one of the best photo business related articles I’ve ever read.The wealth of information on the process has already helped me rethink what I do and how I do it – thanks!

    Cliff Etzel – Photographer & Multimedia Journalist

  2. If only all of us were repped by Wonderful Machine..
    Thanks, as usual.

    • Anthony,
      I am rather sure that you can hire them for your estimating and negotiating without their representation. Reach out to Jess for confirmation.

  3. Great info seeing how the bid was broken down and seeing the 2nd estimate after client came back with a budget.

  4. I want to thank you for posting this. As a photographer about to release a new site and just about to jump into the commercial realm this post is perfect.
    Not only a wealth of knowledge and business savvy but client relations and behind the scenes insight as well.
    A big thank you to you and Jess Dudley.

  5. Now if I can just get my prospective clients to read this!

    Great article, thanks one and all.

  6. Any particular reason there wasn’t a separate creative fee on this estimate?

  7. Excellent and beautifully detailed article!

    This kind of articles I like most about Aphotoeditor, as you can hardly find them anywhere else.

  8. It’s always a treat when we get a post from Wonderful Machine!

    This article has piqued my interest and now I’m curious to see who this mystery photographer is. Jess, is there any chance you’d spill the beans? :-X

  9. Unless I’ve missed something, why on Earth are pro photographers hiring basic equipment?

    • What do you mean by “basic?”

      • Camera bodies – not even specialist or expensive ones. Surely costs for basic tools of the trade shouldn’t be billed to the client? It’s like a a band not having a guitar or drum kit.

        • It’s pretty much standard industry practice for photographers shooting advertising and editorial work, to bill for renting gear, even if it is your own gear. Some smaller magazines don’t have the budget to pay rental on gear, but most larger ones expect to do so. (On the other hand, in the retail photography business, i.e. weddings and portraits for retail clients, photographers never bill for their gear. At least I’ve never heard of that.)

          I don’t know if there is something similar in music. Perhaps if a band was hired to record a song, a jingle for a commercial, I doubt whether the band would pay for the recording studio or recording engineer. Yes, the band owns their instruments but perhaps that is different: while cameras must be updated every 3 or 4 years and bands can use some of their gear for years, such as their instruments. Certainly classical musicians will own an instrument for perhaps their entire life! I sure wish I could do that with my camera! But in the digital world of today, I have to purchase a new camera every 3 years.

          Also of note, some photographers don’t own a lick of equipment! Yes it’s true. Some photographers always rent their equipment.

          I myself keep two 5D MKII’s on hand, but if a client wants a digital back that costs $30,000., I rent it. It’s not cost effective to own it.

  10. That makes sense and I agree for $30,000 digi backs. It’s for basic day to day lenses and bodies I’m surprised about. Well, that’s something I didn’t know!

    • Take it as car depretiation charges, a common expense in business. Also all those “items” just aid to make the estimate for the asking price, another photog could just say “hey I charge $3k per image and that’s it!”, doing it in an itemized form is just more professional and takes into account the costs the photogs will incurr, also helping those who pay to understand where that money goes.

  11. For me there is a few things of note that I wonder about on the estimate:

    1. Was the photographer able to bill for insurance?

    2. The fee per image comes out to less than $1000. per image (if my math is correct and it isn’t always.) If so,”For shoot a series of still photographs for a campaign for a popular sporting goods manufacturer,” I’m somewhat shocked. That price two years usage? Wow. This is so not 2005! But hey, would I turn down the job? Ha! Ha! Nope.

    It would be fun to have a few other reps weigh in on this and say what is happening with fees these days.

  12. Smart estimating – just another reason why I enjoy working with Wondeful Machine!

  13. I want Wonderful Machine to come to Australia!

  14. Thanks for posting this Rob. It’s interesting to see the budgets and the client interaction in a depressed economy. Reblogged on mine.


  15. The fact of the matter is that only a fraction of a percentage of photographers are good enough to even be considered for a shoot like this.

  16. These Wonderful Machine estimates are always very low.

  17. Nothing but a ripoff, charging for stupid things, yes we need to make money but $20.000 for a few photos, It would be a case of F*** O** I’m afraid.

    No photographer is worth that money , NONE

    • pathetic. i suppose you think nice cars watches and other finely crafted things are worthless too.

    • Tom just because you CANT demand (and get payed) that kind of money for your own work doesn’t mean anyone else can’t.
      And btw they where charging for some 20 photos… I bet the photographer is worth much, much more.

  18. There is a difference, if people could buy nice cars and watches cheaper, they would, just the same as being able to get the same photos taken cheaper.

    Only pathetic person here is you, anyone that does not agree with your way of thinking is pathetic? Guess that makes you the Moron.

    • It’s pathetic that you don’t understand the most basic of business concepts: Creating Value. Look it up. You can certainly buy an excellent watch and car for cheap yet people still pay more for certain brand. Ever wondered why? I’m guessing you think they’re all idiots.

      • @APE – A great deal of branded products today are made with the same quality of materials, on the same machines, at times by the same factories. The only difference being the label and price tag. Pigs with lipstick.

        A $50. pair of jeans vs a $350. pair of jeans.

        • that’s my point. most photographs are made with the exact same cameras. adding value (professionalism, exclusivity, packaging, buying experience) are how you make a picture worth something. same goes for jeans.

          • lol… isn’t that the nature of advertising and persuasion. Essentially the jeans are identical in utility. There might be some slight aesthetic difference – which is often subjective. Some may prefer the cheaper pair. I buy mine at the thrift shop ;)

            Some of this holds true with photography as well. Very subjective. Some people rave over the emperor’s new clothes, others turn away.

    • @Tom – Yes, if the client can source the some quality of services -CONFIDENTLY- for less cost, they often do. There is a glut of images and image makers on the market today as well.

      However when a client is paying hundreds of thousands to possibly millions of dollars on media space, the very small portion of the campaign budget allocated to producing the art is not that big a deal. Clients will pay a premium for the confidence and assurance the art is produced correctly and on time. The initial expenditures and their business requires a professional approach. Professionalism has a cost of doing business to provide a return on investment.

      Consider the contrast between the photographer’s fee and the CEOs annual salary, benefits, and bonus.

  19. Absolutely wonderful article. The ability for a photographer to know when the photo is right…PRICELESS. Some have it, some don’t, some never will…some don’t understand the question.


  20. Where is the mark up? Where is the overhead percentage? Where is WM’s fee?
    The first 2 items are standard and appropriate parts of any profit-making biz. I assume WM’s fee is coming out of the photog’s rate, which only makes the job less profitable for him/her.

    How were these items addressed?

    Thank you.

  21. Thanks for so open post ! … and comments.

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