The Bigger the Production, the Less You Earn as a Photographer or Filmmaker

The Bigger the Production, the Less You Earn as a Photographer or Filmmaker

Would you work on a project where you as a photographer who creates the final images will take about 10 percent of the production cost? That's a tricky question.


Most of you who do paid work have had those projects where you were the producer, director, stylist, retoucher, and photographer. Maybe you got paid well. But on your next project you hire a makeup artist. For two hours they may charge as much as half of what you'll get paid for. If they are really high-end professionals, your cost may be less than theirs. Are you jealous when you see that? Two hours and they earned more than your shoot time and retouching?

The first time I worked as a team member of a bigger project I got jealous, I admit. I asked myself if I should raise my prices or not. If you happen into this situation and decide on raising your prices, think twice. Why would you do it? Because you feel jealous or because you have a sound business reason to do that? The truth is everyone who's involved in the project deserves their payment. Whether you find their cost high or low stick to your guns and mind your own business.

When you work with an agency or with a service that stands between you and the final client don't be curious how much they charge for the final product. It's not your job. Your job is to make something that looks good. You can't make it look good if, for example, the models look bad, or the setup looks bad. Everything is of importance. Your prices have to be such that whether you work alone or in a team they cover your expenses and bring you profit. Don't be greedy.

Show Me the Money

Let's get into numbers. The prices in every part of the world are different but I'll give examples with pricing for the U.S. market. I am not in this market, so I will use one of the online calculators. Imagine you have to shoot a magazine cover (one image) licensed for one year worldwide. You are hired by an agency which organizes the whole production. Your job is to go on location (in your local area), shoot several models, and retouch the image the client chooses. It is a two-hour photoshoot. Your hour rate is, let's say, $250, and your retouching is $100 for a flawless image. What would be your final price? It will be $500 for the shoot, $100 for the image, and a licensing fee. The price this calculator gave me for licensing was $900. Your total price is $1,500.

Let's see what the agency may ask for. Disclaimer: I'm making everything up.

  • Location - $1,000/day
  • Four models - $1,500/day each
  • Hair/Make-up artist - $500/day
  • Wardrobe stylist - $800/day
  • Set designer - $2,000
  • Set builder - $1,500
  • Producer - $1,500
  • Creative fee (the idea the agency came up with) - $3,000
  • Equipment rental (for a backup) - $500

Total: $16,800

Your cost is 8.92 percent of the total cost. Do you feel jealous? Don't. That's the way business goes.

A Hollywood Example

To make you feel better, let's talk about the high budget Hollywood movies. I'm talking millions here. Where does all that money sink, you'd think? The answer is: in several deep pockets and a much smaller fraction goes for the actual production. Famous actors are often paid by the millions. Directors are also paid quite high (yes, millions). The DP (director of photography) may or may not reach to the seven figure number. Yes, they do all the visual work but it's more about the actors and directors here. Having said that, what about the expensive cinema cameras? If a movie uses five RED cameras, this makes a total of $250,000. You see, it's a fraction of the budget. Poor DPs.


You may think the DP, the videographer, or the photographer is the most important person on set and should get the majority of the pie. That's true if you are a one man band. If you want to be rich in your eyes, be a one man band. If you want to create great projects, work with a team, and stay humble.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Tihomir Lazarov is a commercial portrait photographer and filmmaker based in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is the best photographer and filmmaker in his house, and thinks the best tool of a visual artist is not in their gear bag but between their ears.

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Hang on, so if you earn the exact same amount, but it makes up a smaller percentage of the production budget you somehow earn less? This isn’t clever, it’s drivel.

Not exactly. When you work with a team some of your usual one-man-band tasks are taken by someone else including the payment for that. Examples: directing, creative, retouching.

No creative fee is going to be majority of the budget. Of course on a feature film anyones salary is going to be a fraction of the budget. Thats 1 person and theres hundreds of people that work on films.Not to mention the gear. This is a pointless article. You're not earning less you're just earning a smaller fraction of the budget because production costs more.

If you usually think of concepts for your client and add that to your final cost, also you add post production to your cost, these may not be in your pocket when working with bigger teams.

When you add people to the team that help you do something that you usually do, you earn less.

The problem is the example. Editorial shoots pay little. Run the numbers of a decent, not high end, commercial production and the net becomes much bigger. Not only do I make money on my image license but I make a cut on most of the support personal since I produce the shoot. I can also charge for retouching, casting, location scouting, equipment rentals, etc. My average net on a commercial shoot is somewhere between 40-80 percent of the total cost of the production.

That is a pretty good % Zave. On recent advertising shoots I have found that my slice of the pie was 30% - 40%. But I was not producing the the shoot. Handling the production as well can add more profit.

That's pretty good, yes.

I usually don't ask agencies how much they take from the client. I get an idea by their reaction when they ask for my price.

There was a time when the client had to choose the photographer from several others. They chose me and the agency was quite angry because my price was one of the highest.


I only care if I have to pay them.. for me if I have to pay all what there is on the list, THEN sell the image, that is a problem. But, if the money don't came up from my wallet I don't care because is the client that is paying.

If I ask for that amount of money to make that image, I don't care about nothing else but create the image that the client wants. I know that if I work for someone and I ask for... 1000? he will ask 1500 (in Italy most of the times goes like this), I don't care either!

I don't understand what the point of this article was or what purpose it serves. The title is also misleading I think. There is no real clear conclusion and the last paragraph is muddled at best.

What is trying to illustrate that has to do with the field of photography? That a photographer will earn only a fraction of a budget a client or agency uses for a photo shoot? Well duh!

I've worked on some bigger budget shoots, as the primary photographer and as an assistant. I made more on those than any of the smaller shoots I do (even as an assistant I made more). On one I was given a nice budget to get hair and makeup, a stylist, a carpenter, two models, and rent private beach. Yes, my fee and license was a fraction of the budget. It was still more than I had made all that year of doing small shoots combined. So in my personal experience the title "The Bigger the Production, the Less You Earn as a Photographer or Filmmaker" is incorrect.

If you are a one man band, you do everything. When you work with a team on a big production you will get less than if you were all by yourself.

If you're a "one man band" you should be billing for preproduction for and all the tasks you do that cover "everything." It sounds like you're talking about gross and not net, and may not understand the difference?

I know the difference. It's exactly the way you state it: When working in a team the pre-production is just different and often costs less. But it's less from your standpoint. From client's standpoint it could be the same because someone else is doing that anyway.

Let's say the pre-production requires finding a location, hiring interior stylists, florists, etc... If you just go there the previous day, plan for your lighting, that's your pre-production. The other tasks are taken by other people from the team.

I'm not saying you don't understand me but I'm clarifying for other readers.

"If you just go there the previous day," - EXACTLY. And that's billable, even if I have to scout a location down the road from me, driving there and scouting, looking at the sun, the parking etc, that's an hour. Really what you're saying is, "I do free preproduction for smaller projects." When I work with my team, preproduction costs much more, because more often than not, the larger the team, the larger the project, the larger budget for prepro.

I haven't said anything different. There is a preproduction, it's just smaller. Whether you want to bill it as if it were big or small, it's up to you, but it's billable.

This is pretty normal in the advertising world. The big pay check missing here is the licensing. Usually 1 image that becomes the used creative a commercial shoot can easily fetch 1-10x the price of the creative fee. So yes, if you book a $100k job but only make $5-$10k through the creative fee and some random gear rental fees or retouching expenses, you will probably also have 1-5 (or more) paychecks on the licensing.

The licensing is that $900 in the example (the number the calculator gave me).

Other than that I agree with your example.

We are working on a business tutorial and from the people we have interviewed, licensing for editorial work isn't the same as commercial. In many cases the editorial world will pay you your day rate but not license the image the same way a commercial client will. The main exception is the cover because that has more value than any given article.

If you are shooting commercially, you will have a day rate or creative fee, a post production fee and then a completely separate licensing fee. It's actually possible to shoot an entire session and make say $5000 and then have the company not license any images at all or license one for a year for $1000. More than likely though they will license a few images that can be used for a year or two for $1000-$50000.

In almost all cases the editorial photographer in your example will not get a license fee while the commercial photographer will get way more income in the license than the actual creative fee.

Yes, I agree with the correction on the editorial vs. commercial cost calculation.

Awesome to hear this tutorial is in the works! Its much needed. Ya'll might want to pull this article down though :/

I'm absolutely fine to take that article down but let me ask something:

Would you like it if I used $AAAA, $XXXX, $ZZZ as numbers instead of real numbers?

Just the license fee is from an online calculator. The other numbers are taken from different samples of "" price negotiations articles. In my country the prices are quite different but the principles are exactly the same.

I've never hidden the fact I made those numbers up but the principle is always the same. If the problem is the exact numbers, why that bothers you after I clearly stated they are just to show the way business goes?

And again, I don't mind taking the article down if this "hurts the industry" or "requires to re-educate clients".

Take it down. Everyone is telling you that your article and it's premise is not accurate. Everything you've written in the comments shows you don't understand what you're talking about. If you actually had experience in the field you wouldn't have to make up numbers and use a license calculator. You'd have real numbers to run by us.

The longer this is up the more it's going to cause confusion.

As I said, I am living in another country where prices are quite different but the principles are the same. That's why I am writing out of experience but with numbers that are made up for the US readers. There are quite a lot non-US readers who will understand how it works and who won't be offended by numbers. And yes, I have experience in the commercial world but the numbers here are different.

I also said the numbers are not quite random, because the only number I took from the calculator is the 1 year print only license fee for 1 image. Everything else are prices from real photography contracts in the US (which is basically what I'm repeating from my previous comment).

makes sense though

It's not just the percentage. It's the work that you usually do when working alone vs. the work that you will actually do when you are in a team.

Apart from that clarification, I agree with your comment.

Isn't that common sense for a one man band? You seem very confused on what photographers should do and how they should price themselves.

I am very aware what a photographer does but as an example when working in a team post production may not be photographer's job as it's often for a photographer working on their own.

Yes but then it's all in the pricing. You are charging according to your responsibility.

The % is irrelevant. The questions are - 1) in this example, you need to add a preproduction fee to account for coordinating all the talent, etc. 2) is your fee net profitable. If your CODB is $500/day, it doesn't matter the project cost, it matters that you make more than $500/day.

Preproduction is not always something you do when working with a team. In other words, it's not the preproduction you would do if you did the project on your own.

But I agree with the other points.

I agree with your points, but will add that preproduction on a project where you are alone is often quite different than the preproduction when working with a team.

I'm not sure I understand - I'm saying you bill for preproduction that YOU do. When I work with a team, I hire the assistants, makeup artists and stylists. I have to coordinate their schedules and selection and that time is billable. And I'm not sure what you mean by "alone" - I don't know many/any photographer who work alone for editorial work, and ZERO who do for commercial work.

In my area there are lots of examples for "work alone" for editorial and commercial work because the market is small and agencies are much smaller. I've been working with teams and alone on both commercial and editorial projects. It's not just the US on the earth. Lots of us, working commercial photographers, are scattered throughout the world. We may have different price levels, but the principles are the same.

For example, I'm not a make-up artist, but there are female photographers who do make-up as well as the photoshoot for some small editorials and commercial projects for small businesses.

And if they shoot the photos, and do the makeup, they bill for both. if they don't, they're driving the market down, undervaluing themselves and leaving money on the table. Those things don't lead to longevity.

It's up to them, yes.

If they don't bill for that they are not driving the market down because everyone who wants to have a stable business has to get paid enough to stay in business and keep it running. Those that don't get paid enough are soon out of the market because they can't afford to work at extremely low rates.

Yes, there are times when people think the low prices are the way to go but time tests them all and after a short period those who are more expensive ("more" is quite subjective of course) stay while the cheap ones vanish from the scene.

Then there's this other extremity when greed drives it all. I'm not talking about that neither I'm talking about the cheapest ones.

I also understand that the term "paid enough" is quite subjective from area to area in the US and much more if you compare those prices to the prices in my country. But again, the principle is still the same: everyone has to get paid for the job they do.

There's enough misinformation out there already. Please don't write about a market you don't work in. Also including stats from "online calculators" and admittedly made up numbers is further adding to the misinformation. You're doing way more harm than good with an article like this. Please leave content like this to actual professionals in the US market, because it falls on us to REeducate clients and up and coming photographers after reading this crap.

I work in cinema so here it goes. Director is far more valuable than DoP. Can a good director cover a shi**y DoP, in most cases, yeah, he can cover with edit, story structure, making actors do their work at their best and so on. In lot of cases Director knows the angles where to shoot, how the set should be built, how the mass actors should move and so on. The director literally has whole movie in his head, where as DoP is responsible for the visual. So who is more valuable?
Cameras are extremely expensive and nobody owns them (except maybe super top tier studios). (in Europe most are filmed with Arri, in States is RED I believe. We prefer Arri due to better dynamic contrast and shadows).
Next Point - Von Wong. I mean look at him, what he produces, it is effort of the whole team and how he manages to join people together for the project. I def believe he is not thinking about how to get get the bigger part of pie.

I could not agree more about the Director vs. DoP relations. I'm glad you mention this because for many photographers who start to work in the motion pictures world the visuals are everything, while they are not.

In photography is not less different because there are lots of technically savvy photographers who can't do anything of higher quality because they don't have the ability to direct their subjects or to produce projects that are bigger than shooting a headshot of a beautiful subject with a shallow depth of field. It's the same as in video but the importance of directing is not that visible in photography.

I'm glad you shared that. Thank you. The readers will appreciate it.

About cameras: Being in Europe, I see more and more people go with the RED cameras because they are cheaper to rent. In my area it's way easier and cheaper to rent a RED than an ARRI. My comment here is only on the price base, not the characteristics of the cameras.

For full meter pros go for Arri, even in TV movies. It is really an astonishing camera. As working the scenes I was in awe how some directors steer the movie. It is AMAZING and sometimes I don't even understand how. How they control the main actors, their movement, back actors movement, reorganize scenery directors work to fit their image.
For example a scenery director organizes whole set. I find it amazing to shoot and can't find better. Then comes director and reorganizes it and makes it even better. Then you understand how much you need to learn in all areas, besides lighting poses and even directing people...

Yes. I respect quite much the big movies directors how they can manage to organize everything so you can watch for 2 hours without even noticing it while :30 seconds commercials made by inexperienced directors can feel so long and burdensome to watch.