Time, Expenses...And Experience
How To Bill For Your Work, Whether You Are A Pro Or An Amateur

Can you really charge a client more if you own fancy equipment, like this Better Light digital scan back on a Cambo Ultima view camera? No, but you can charge a premium for delivering incredibly high-resolution color files on CD-ROM without making the client pay for scanning.

As a pro photographer I get a lot of questions about my work. While many address my equipment and techniques, a lot of people want to know what I earn. There is no question more loaded than "How much do you make?" (Perhaps except "How's your sex life?") While a client has a right to know how much I'm going to charge, does another photographer?

If you're an amateur who needs to bill someone for the occasional pro assignment or a fledgling pro, figuring out your fee structure and how you bill for expenses is probably the toughest task. I am continually running into posts on various pro photo web sites from photographers looking for information on what to charge. The answers, by and large, never mention a dollar value. "Charge for your time plus expenses," says one poster; "Bill according to usage by the client," intones another. I've never heard of advice like, "Charge them $500."

There are any number of ways to assess your legitimate worth to a client. Obviously you've got to figure that a part-time or beginning photographer will charge substantially less than an established professional. Experience is usually worth something. What that experience is worth depends upon the marketplace that you have chosen to compete in. A wedding photographer who has never photographed a wedding probably won't command top dollar, yet every year established photojournalists and commercial photographers are paid exhorbitant sums of money by celebrities to capture their wedding from a unique vantage point. Magazines often hire unpublished photographers to lend a fresh eye to a familiar subject. Ad agencies are known to bring in totally new photographers to create a sense of excitement for a cutting-edge campaign. While the opportunities for amateur photographers to turn pro are few and far between, they are out there, so how much to charge?

What to charge for a simple shot of a machine, like for this basic sales sheet? The answer depends on your client's budget.

The Commercial Realm
For this discussion of fees let's take a look at the world of commercial photography. While this is the most difficult field in photography to make your career, it is also filled with the most possibilities for a part-time pro to get some work. There are lots of corporations, restaurants, realtors, and manufacturers who are looking for bargains and will give a new guy a chance. The issue of what your time is worth is a difficult one to assess. Let's take a look at the ranges. I've seen inexperienced photographers charge as little as $100 for a day of photography, and internationally respected photographers in New York bill as high as $20,000 for one day's efforts. Obviously both extremes are somewhat rare, but where do you fit in?

While there are many ways to figure out an appropriate fee structure, you need to examine your own situation. In my case I factor my rates based on a number of factors, including my time, my equipment, the proposed usage of the image, and the rights granted to the client. In other words, a full day spent taking a simple building exterior to be used as a poster in a corporate lobby should be billed substantially less than a full day of digital photography, using 10,000 ws of strobes, softboxes, computers, and various lenses, to be reproduced in a national magazine ad in a publication with a 600,000 print run.

For big photo shoots like a product catalog it's tempting to quote a cheaper price to get the work. However, take into account the amount of time that you will spend on each and every item, plus the inevitable re-shoots and changes in product layout.

How and where the image is to be used is an important consideration, and one that has largely made the term "day rate" an anachronism. How can you figure what a specific image usage is worth? There are several resources a photographer should have access to. An excellent source for information about all American magazines is www.editorialphoto.com. There you will find a list of all the currently published magazines, their total circulation, cost for a full color, full page ad, and even the rate they pay for photographers they hire. (Imagine accepting an assignment from Newsweek with its three million circulation, $175,000 per page ad rate, and their 1970s era $400-$1500 day rate for photographers.) Why is this information important to you if you're not shooting editorially? Because if your client is committing to a $175,000 ad they should be charged more than if they're committing to a $5000 ad.

Billing for "usage" is a fine art, and lots of information can be found in the pro photographers' bible, The American Society of Media Photographers' Professional Business Practices in Photography. In this comprehensive pro photographers' tome you'll find tons of information about estimating, billing, and negotiating fees and usage rights. (Also be sure to check out their info-packed web site, www.ASMP.org.)

How Much Is Enough?
Fine. We know that deep-pocketed clients running major national ads are in a better position to pay a steep bill than a local business running an ad in the Pennysaver. We know that a major manufacturer should be billed more than the local pizza joint hiring you to take some pictures for the menu. The big question is, "How much?"
Let's look at the factors that any business must take into consideration when setting prices. As with any business person, you need to factor in your fixed overhead, your yearly capital expenditures, the amortization of your equipment, and all your ancillary expenses. This will give you a bottom-line, break-even point from which you can begin to set your fees.

Clients tend to think that when they come into your studio or you show up on location that they're paying for your time outright. I once had a client do the "idiot's math" thing and took my $1500 fee, figured out that's $7500 a week or $390,000 a year. He then figured out a teeny bit of overhead and assumed that my take home pay was well over $250,000. At the time (10 years ago) my take home pay wasn't a fraction of that. What the client didn't take into account is that a really busy commercial photographer still only averages around 100 billable projects a year. A few lost accounts, a couple of weak months and you could be fairly busy yet still only have 30-35 billable assignments a year. Whether you bill $500 in fees or $15,000 in fees will make a tremendous difference in your own bottom line.

Do The Math
Here's how I do the math. I own a lot of gear. I own a spacious studio, chock full of computers. I have a substantial amount of experience. When a client chooses me (thank you!) they should know that I can deliver the job. Their budget and schedule will be respected, and I'll try my best to make everyone look good. Let's look at a typical assignment. A client wants me to come to their location and photograph several large machines. The images will then be edited in Photoshop to strip them of their background, logos will be added electronically, and the finished images saved as CMYK EPS files with "clipping paths" supplied to the designer. How in the world would you bill for that?

In my case I used my basic "day rate," factored in the usage (minimal), the copyright assignment (one time), and the equipment requested (digital). Then I did my "equipment rental worksheet," which I usually show to first time clients to help justify my fee. In other words, if the client were to shoot the photos themselves, but rent the gear that I brought with me, they would have incurred this expense.

In this particular case we had a Canon D30 body, 17-35mm f/2.8 L, 28-70mm L, 70-200mm f/2.8 L, 50mm Macro, 100mm Macro, Hasselblad 500 C/M body, prism, 120 film backs, 50mm lens, 150mm lens, Polaroid back, 1200 ws location lighting system, 2400 ws lighting system, softboxes, light stands, and tripods. The total if you were to wander into your local pro rental shop? Try $760 for one day! I like to think that the minimum fee for a day's photography is double the equipment rental fee. The fee for that photo shoot should be at least $1500. Bill less than that and I'm selling myself short.

There are some circumstances where I'm using much more expensive equipment and in addition the usage is higher, so maybe double the rental fee is $2500 and I have added another 25 percent for usage. That's a fee of $3125. Unless you are paying New York or L.A. studio fees that's a good day by anyone's standards.

Time & Expenses
That fee of course is for my time including all of the equipment provided. On top of that I would bill my expenses, the time to digitally edit the photos and the fee for burning the CD-ROM. In the old days when I shot film on every job I could always count on bringing another couple of hundred dollars in on every job charging a marked-up price for the expenses.

Now that I have moved into the digital world there are lots of assignments where I use a Dicomed or Megavision digital back and don't use any film. I had hoped at first to get away with a "Digital Imaging Fee," but clients balked. Now I just try and charge a little more to both make up for the lost film profit and to pay for the gear. I'll call the extra charge a "Digital Conversion Fee" to create color managed CMYK images.
If the client wants to pay the same fee as film, they get a disk full of untouched, unsharpened RGB images and must sign a disclaimer stating that they are accepting the images "as-is." While that might seem draconian it is a sure-fire way to reinforce the value of my color management expertise and my desire to be compensated for it. Since there is no "original" film to refer to, my interpretation of natural color is all the client has to hang their hat on.

No Surprises
While these numbers seem awfully attractive keep in mind that there are plenty of times where a photographer negotiates a fixed $500 price for what seems like a simple shoot, then spends all day trying to get it right, sometimes even spending out-of-pocket to fix the image after the fact. I've been stuck on some jobs just making enough to cover my expenses, having horribly underestimated the time and difficulty of the shoot.

I have found that one way to get clients and keep them coming back as repeat customers is to charge a reasonable amount, justify your fee when asked, and never spring surprises in the invoice that were not quoted up front. Sometimes it's hard. You've just shot a brilliant ad. The client is delirious and everyone loves you. When preparing the bill it's tempting to throw a few hundred extra bucks in there just to compensate for your acknowledged brilliance. Then the quizzical phone calls come and it becomes hard to get the entire invoice paid at all. From hero to zero in minutes.

"Simple" Jobs
Let's say you get a request for a simple photo. A theoretical realtor wants you to take theoretical pictures of this theoretical house for a quick and dirty sales sheet. The realtor figures that since you're a photographer you'll do a better job than she can do with her Kodak DC-3400 digital camera. She figures $50 or $100 should cover the hour or so of your time, but you're thinking more like $500. What's it worth? Ask yourself a few questions: What is the print run? What is the usage? What is the total budget for the job including design layout, printing, etc.? What is the potential financial benefit to the client?

Well, the answer won't make you rich. The print run is a few dozen on an ink jet printer. The usage is zero--no publication at all. The total budget besides your fee may be zero--all in-house. The one advantage is the financial benefit. The client stands to earn thousands and thousands of dollars in commission if the home sells, so if you do your job correctly it's worth her while to hire you. If it were me, I'd prepare an extensive quote, laying out every angle and lens I'm going to use, and my total one-time fee of $500.

The final picture of what you are worth has a lot to do with your work, your marketplace, the economic conditions, and your skill at presenting your work to the client. If all the pros in your city bill $600 for their day rate, then trying to get $10,000 for a three-day assignment might be out of the question. Conversely, if the prevailing rate is $3500, quoting $1200 for a week-long shoot is selling yourself short. To sell one of your stock photos to a publisher for $50 when the prevailing industry rate is $800 is just stupid.

To get what you deserve, do your homework, get very comfortable with your real bottom line and the amortized cost of your equipment, and develop a real relationship with your clients. There's nothing better than communication, and the better you get along with the folks paying the bills the better your chance of developing a long-term client-photographer relationship.