By Craig Oppenheimer, Wonderful Machine

If you ask anyone to describe me (especially my colleagues or clients that I’ve produced shoots for), one thing they will all tell you is that I’m organized. When I head out of the office at the end of the day, my desk looks like an overhead shot from a Wes Anderson movie. Folders and post-it notes are aligned, and my pen, notepad and calculator are purposefully positioned next to each other. My orderly way of doing things extends to many aspects of my job, especially in the note-taking process when developing estimates.

Aside from determining creative and licensing fees, a lot of the skill required to create a proper estimate is about asking the right questions and having a method for taking notes. Large projects often require a handful of questions to be answered, while small projects may just need some points to be clarified. Either way, you want to be prepared for when you speak with a client by asking intelligent questions that will emphasize your ability to deliver the most cost efficient estimate based on their specific needs. I’ve developed the following worksheet that I use to write down my questions prior to hopping on the phone and to organize my thoughts as I compile an estimate:


The first page starts with basic contact information, and I’ll use this space to write down the name of the photographer, client and agency (when applicable) along with the name of the agency/client contact as well as the estimate’s due date.

The next section is all about the W’s: who, what, where, when and why. Some of these questions can be answered based on general correspondence with the client before the phone conversation, and some I might be able to answer on my own. Keep in mind that every project is different and some require additional information. I use the large blank section to write down extra project-specific questions. To be even more organized, I’ll often write down the information I already have and the questions I want to ask in blue ink, and record the answers in red ink. This may sound like overkill, but it keeps the information clear and easy to read afterward.

The last section is dedicated to licensing. On the most basic level, I always want to know how many images a client wants to license, how they plan on using them and for how long they want to use them for. Oftentimes the client’s requested use doesn’t match up with their intended use, and that’s the reason why I have two different sections to record this information. It’s common that a client will request unlimited use, but really they only intend on using the images on their website–that’s a huge difference. (You can read our pricing & negotiating articles for tips on reconciling this.)

The very last item on the sheet is a section to record a client’s budget (if they are willing to tell you this information). I placed it last because it’s always important to show enthusiasm for a project and talk about the creative approach before asking about money. However, I do always ask this question because it certainly impacts my approach to the estimate.

The second page of the worksheet helps me organize the estimate as I’m building it. It primarily acts as a list of production elements to think about to keep all of the major elements in mind. As I mentioned earlier, each shoot requires a different approach, but this list helps me consider every aspect from start to finish. Here is how it came in handy for a recent estimate I compiled:

This is an email I received from a client about a shoot:


As you see, the information is a bit vague. I wrote down all of my questions on the worksheet before I called the agency contact, and below is the filled out version after the phone call (blue ink shows my questions and missing info, and red ink shows the responses)


Once I had the information I needed, I used the second page of the worksheet to think through each line of the estimate. Here is what that looked like:


Here is the final estimate based on all of the above organized information:


Read all of our Expert Advice articles here, and visit our consulting page for information on the estimating services we offer.

UPDATE: 2/28/14
To address the comments to this post, I’d like to note that the scope of the project changed from when I reached out to acquire information to the time the final estimate shown above was delivered. The following estimate was the original one I compiled based on the original description:


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  1. Another great article. I am going to share this link with my ASMP group here in Michigan.


  3. Thanks Craig. Great article!

  4. The note template is very helpful an would assure that pertinent production questions are asked. I have a similar note taking structure but see very useful additions. However, the initial request for an estimate says 4 patients in a studio against seamless shot in 1 day. The estimate has 2 days of shooting including a location. A large part of the estimate is for scouting, a producer, a producer’s assistant, extra stylist days and many other extra charges. Did I miss something? Obviously I’d love to invoice $94,200 for 4 patient(subjects) shot against seamless, but something seems out of whack? And is the photographer travel/pre-production days a flat $3000 for three days?

    • Thanks Dave,

      You are correct, and the scope of the project did change a bit from when I reached out to acquire information to the time the final estimate shown above was delivered.

      As noted in the estimate, we ultimately anticipated 3 photographer travel/scout days and included $750 for each of those days.

  5. I’m just as confused as Dave…how did $1,000 (per talent) x 4 = $4,000 turn into $16,000 for talent and $9,000 for wardrobe? And why would you need to scout a studio location to shoot on seamless? At almost 100K that doesn’t seem like a “lean” estimate. I’m curious, did the photographer actually get the job? And if so, how did the job change from the initial estimate? Thanks, I always enjoy reading this column!

    • Hi Jessica,

      Thanks for your comment. Please see the update to the article above.


  6. the one thing that I believe that is MOST important is prior to sending off the quote a discussion should be had between the creatives at the agency and the photographer
    the project can be won or lost in that conversation…
    I have never done a quote for an agency without that call happening first…
    if the agency does not want to do a call them decline doing the quote….

    they are wasting your time….

    • Michael Ash, that is great advice. Unfortunately, it’s quite common for agencies to hold out the carrot on a stick . It’s enticing because photographers want the get their foot in the door. I’ve had lots of art buyers tell me they HAVE to get three bids to satisfy the agency bean counters and that they know who they want to use before a call is made. So you’re correct, if they can’t discuss the job, you’re likely not the agency’s pick.

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