I do shoot food related subjects too (Chefs, Bartenders, Farmers, Makers, some liquid’s etc). I’ve been lucky enough to be able to really specialize and think it has helped with longevity.
I do have a presence on Wonderful Machine, but not a rep currently. I have had maybe 5 reps over the course of my career. Some good, some not so. Some international and some regional. I think if you have a good relationship with a good rep, then it’s a win/win, but if the relationship is unbalanced, then it will never work as well as it should.
My income is 80% Commercial Clients, 20% editorial clients and of that 80% about 75% is stills and 25% motion. I am structured as an S-Corp.
I have a range of clients from global brands to small independent businesses like mine. The majority of my clients are corporations, so don’t do a ton of agency work-maybe 20%. Occasionally I’ll get an agency project, but honestly prefer to work direct with client. There seems to be less stress and clearer flow of info. A lot of agencies i’ve worked with over the years seem unorganized and unrealistic with their expectations-especially when it comes to pricing. Even though I’m based in Atlanta I don’t do much, if any agency work here. It tends to be other markets for me. I do feel that generally Atlanta agencies don’t have the budgets NY/CHI/West Coast have, so find myself getting priced out of the Atlanta market to a certain extent. If I do work locally, I do feel there’s a lot of pressure to price myself competitively with the local market, but I feel my experience and knowledge are what clients should value and if I’m expected to price myself to be competitive with some of the local shooters, then I’m already feeling slightly under appreciated. I’m more than happy to work locally, but there has to be some compromise, at least as far as i’m concerned.
I have 1 permalance assistant, 1 part time book keeper and permalance producer as well as a plethora of freelancers on a job by job basis.
My biggest overheads by far are studio & payroll. Studio Mortgage is reasonable at $1700 p/m, but the studio sucks cashflow out of my account as soon as it hits. I buy all my equipment and research thoroughly to determine if I will get value for money from it. Just today, I dropped $4300 for another Canon R5C as I have a video project looming and want to shoot it all on 3 R5C’s. Props & surfaces are a huge investment to stay current and contemporary, so that takes at least $1K a month & if I am shooting a larger project i’ll invest in props that I know I’ll be able to reuse, so will often spend well over that in a given month if there’s a big project going on. Marketing is another cash drain. I am committed to At-Edge which feel gives me a presence in agencies I wouldn’t necessarily get a ton of success marketing to directly and find their speed dating reviews to be great and really beneficial. Thats around $800 per month. I was doing Agency Access at about $165 a month, but just stopped this as I wasn’t getting a lot of traction and have replaced this with a custom marketing plan from Wonderful Machine which is too early in the process to know if it works. Studio insurance that covers both property and liability is about $500 per month. I pay myself through payroll so thats another $8K per month and supplement this by paying through distributions. My car is also paid by the business, so thats another $800. I pay myself via payroll and top that up with distributions.
My retirement is a combination of IRA, 401K and investments.
It’s around 6 days per month of actual shooting, so about 70 days a year, but there is so much to do in pre pro for my shoots, I’m always seemingly busy. This year, I wanted to spend more time in studio, so set myself personal projects when I’m not working on commissions, which has been great to rediscover some of the hunger that maybe got a little lost over the previous 6 or so years.
My income has stayed about the same for the last 8 or 9 years. We all took a hit during covid, but even though my hospitality clients stopped everything, the grocery store clients were keeping me busy. I have enough experience with all aspects of food photography I could work by myself and do the food & prop styling during the first few months. As more of us became vaccinated it was easier to hire crew again and get back to normal service. I do infrequently rent my space to trusted friends, but so far, luckily haven’t had to supplement my income.
Honestly every shoot is different. These days I seem to be ‘work for hire’ almost as much as I work via estimates/licensing, but even so, my work for hire clients generally pay my standard day rate. Obviously I don’t get to negotiate any licensing fee’s for these. For the clients I do work with via estimates, again each one seems different. My biggest paying client is global and I work for a day rate to include unlimited use in perpetuity that is $10K a day. On these shoots, we usually shoot between 6-8 images per day. Its not a huge project though, normally 2-3 days 3 times a year.
Most of my shoots are from 8am-6pm on shoot days, so a 3 day shoot would likely also have a full prep day, travel if on location or with one of my OOT clients, post work (I do my processing, simple retouching & color). The bigger retouching/compositing is sent out of studio. So a 3 day shoot really is about 6-7 days of my time. My prep/travel/pre light rates are $1k per day flat rate and for each 10 shots I charge 10 hours @ $100p/h for retouching.
Generally I pay assistants $500 per day for commercial clients and $350 per day for editorial clients. My permalance assistant also often doubles up as Digi Tech, so will also pass on that line item to him, so he can make $1000 a day on big shoots.
My best paying shoot in the last 2 years has been a menu/web redesign for a global QSR chain. It was 12 days of shooting 8.00am-6.00pm, 2 sets of stills (me on one set and my old assistant on the other), 1 set of motion. Not a very organized agency to be honest and partly explains why I appreciate working direct with client. They couldn’t give me an approved shotlist until the Friday before the shoot began on the Monday. So we were winging it and changing what I had proposed as the shoot order. They also couldn’t supply the quantities of food we requested so had to keep getting one of the restaurants to supply extra food. This did not go down well and we were thrown under the bus several times during the shoot for ‘not being organized enough’. I am too old to be thrown under the bus, so I did not accept this and immediately pointed out all the things they failed on to their client. They also kept adding shots, or tried to. Not even sure if this agency and client still work together. Needless to say though, we didn’t have any further problems during this shoot. The shoot overall was about $200K and after my overheads and crew costs, I made about $50K but with all the extra work reorganizing schedules and late nights reworking production books it probably took about 4 weeks of my time all told. so although a pretty big invoice, a lot of it went out to crew.
Editorial is so poorly paid now that I will shoot if its a story I’m excited about. Generally paying about $600-$1K per day. On those though, they are usually really fun so the pay off is work I’d likely use in my book and relatively stress free days.
I was doing WFH for a small agency working on a national chain for $1500 a day as I really liked the people I worked with, but after a disagreement with their client, who basically told me how to light his shitty product I told them I was done with giving them an unbelievable rate and they’d have to go with my regular standard rate. Needless to say, I’ve never worked with them again.
For marketing I’ve tried most things over the years. I’ve done all the source books at one time or another. I’ve done face to face with At-Edge over the years both in person and virtual, I’ve done printed promo’s at regular frequencies, i’ve done sporadic promo’s, i’ve done very targeted custom lists and also done the old school cold calling. Generally though I find most of my work comes through referrals from past/present clients. About 60% of my work comes from clients i’ve been with for 10+ years, so maintaining those relationships is important. I’m no kiss-ass though, so don’t send gifts, or take them to dinner unless we already have a project to discuss. I always liked face to face meetings & without things like At-Edge its really hard to get face to face meetings these days from cold calls. Obviously having a stellar website with good SEO optimization is probably one of the best marketing tools that works for me. I actually stepped back from Instagram as I don’t think my typical clients would source their photographers through this medium.
Best Advice: I always say something that was instilled in me when I started assisting and that is ‘you are only as good as your last shoot’. Meaning I won’t be remembered by a client for what I shot 10 shoots ago, so I approach each shoot like its my first one with that client.
Worst Advice: We can fix it in post.
It’s made us lazy IMO, and although there is some need to retouch & fix, its usually because we don’t have either the product or time to get right on set. Back in the day when shooting film, we’d probably only shoot 2 or 3 shots a day, but now its in the region of 6-8 generally, so don’t always have the time to get it right first time. Also as I deal with food, almost every food item will be different to the last. As an example, if I’m shooting steak, we could have a really beautiful steak, perfectly seared, fat lines in all the right places and when its cut it could look horrible. In the past, we factored this into how many shots a day are achievable and have the time to find the perfect steak, but now with more shots expected and smaller budgets for everything, we don’t have the time or in many cases, enough product to ensure we get it in camera.
Honestly this is all subjective, but for starters don’t be a jack of all trades. Even though I have the experience to shoot, food style and prop style, I would only do this if it was totally unavoidable such as when covid hit. A great food stylist will almost certainly give you better results than doing it yourself. Same applies to prop styling. A great prop stylist will almost always go the extra mile for a thin glass if we’re shooting drinks. I remember saying to an emerging prop stylist that I don’t expect them to style and purchase from chain stores as I could do that. I think that was a light bulb moment for her and although I can’t be credited with her establishing herself, she took on board what I said and has become quite well known and when we get to work together, she often brings this up as good advice.
Also, test as much as you can. Its so easy to get complacent-i’ve been like that many times, so keep engaged and focussed. I offer my space to any of my assistants to use if theres no shoots and most don’t take me up on it. Some do-which has always been great to see.
The biggest advice I have though, especially to those trying to take it to the next level is to really understand your market. Price yourself appropriately. Ask questions of your client. Before you even submit an estimate ask the client what their budget is. You might be surprised. If you low ball its really hard for you to get rates you probably could get. It hurts everyone. Some clients take that and use it against the entire community. Also, If you low ball and mess up, it doesn’t leave much in the pot for someone like me to reshoot. I can’t tell you how many times i’ve been asked to reshoot a project only to find out there is no budget because it was all spent on the first go. I know that doesn’t help nail the job first time, but it at least provides a bar for everyone to be more or less competitive with each other.
I honestly don’t know how we got to be shooting more than 8 shots a day, but again, it happens. Don’t be desperate and offer more than you can comfortably offer with the quality the client expects. I got offered a project last year through a huge agency and they wanted 16 shots in a day with video for 2 of them and they said this was standard. Not in my studio it isn’t. It’s less than 30 mins per shot with set changes and is impossible to do with any lasting quality. Once I broke it down like that they said I could bid it as a 2 day shoot. Needless to say I didn’t get that project & honestly didn’t want it, but at the very least I bid it as it should have been bid. I know they said it was too expensive, but in my mind it’s their loss. A slightly better budget would have proved beneficial for everyone. No-one wants to work 16 shots a day especially food stylists. It’s really demanding on them and I personally have their backs and know with almost certainty what it should take.
I have a saying I use as a mantra: ‘You can have cheap & you can have good, but you can’t have them both’.