My First Considerations Prior to Bidding on a Commercial Photography Job

My First Considerations Prior to Bidding on a Commercial Photography Job

In today’s article, I thought it might be helpful to those just getting into the business to take you through my real-time thought process when bidding on commercial assignments, from the initial query email to whether or not I take a job. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of good decisions and a lot of bad decisions, and hopefully, you can learn from my journey.

Just this morning, in fact, I got a call from a potential client. They were very nice; they're launching a new business and wanted to inquire about processes and costs — the usual things. I always prefer, if possible, to speak to someone live, on the phone, on Zoom, or otherwise prior to submitting an official written estimate for a job. It’s a much easier and more efficient way to understand exactly what they are asking you to do, identify any potential tripwires, and make sure you are both on the same page with your expectations. Everything will eventually get put into writing. But, in the initial stages, sometimes, emails can get lost in translation.

The last seven days have been particularly active on the bidding and estimating front. That’s not meant to brag. Photography is a career of feast or famine. This week has been crazy busy with calls. Two weeks ago, I had enough time to watch every video on YouTube. Twice. Sometimes, you get lucky enough to have the universe send several calls in your direction. Knowing how to manage those calls takes more than just luck.

Of course, as a commercial photographer who shoots stills and videos for advertising campaigns, just getting a call doesn’t necessarily mean that I have the job. Most large clients are duty-bound to solicit multiple bids for each project they put into production. So, if you are getting a call, it’s very likely that at least two other photographers are getting the same call, having the same discussion, then submitting their own bid for the same job. Only one can win. It’s the name of the game. And no matter how good you are behind the camera, you’ll never win them all. The client’s decisions on who to hire can be as random as knowing whether a potential mate will accept your invitation for a date. Sometimes, it’s just random. Sometimes, it’s based on timing or who you know. Sometimes, it’s based on economic factors. But money isn't always the key ingredient in their decision.

Of course, evaluating value is not just a one-way street. Clients need to decide if they want to work with you. But you also need to decide if you want to work with them. Upon receiving an email from a client, the usual litany of questions starts running through my head. Who is the client? Is it a company I’ve always wanted to work for? Or is it perhaps a company I’ve never heard of? That’s not always a non-starter. Perhaps it is a smaller company, but a bit of Googling will reveal that their past campaigns have all been launched with amazing art. Or perhaps they are under the radar, but actually have a long history, deep pockets, and are more than capable of financing a proper campaign.

That last question is one that has moved its way up in the lineup as my career has progressed. It’s been a long time since words like “exposure” have been any enticement for me to accept an assignment. You can’t put exposure in the refrigerator. Nor do I want to be paid in free merchandise. Well, maybe if that free merchandise is a new Ferrari. Darn it, perhaps I should have become an automotive photographer!  Guess it’s too late for that.

But you’ll also reach a point in your career where you simply just know how much things cost, including the value of your own time. You’ll have enough successful and also unsuccessful bids in your rearview mirror to have established your own day rate. This number will vary wildly based on the type of photography you do, your relative position within the market, as well as your geographic location. Another photographer may shoot the exact same type of thing that I do, but be based in Omaha, Nebraska as opposed to Los Angeles, California and thus be working with an entirely different set of numbers and a different set of clients. Even within an individual photographer’s business, there may be different day rates based on eventual usage of the imagery, size of the project, or a number of other factors. I can’t quote a one size fits all day rate that you should charge. But it’s important that you know that number for your individual case. And it’s equally important to the long term success of your business that you stick to it. It’s not really a day rate if you never charge full price.

In addition to your own creative fee, you’ll also need to know your costs of doing business. Again, this will depend on your individual circumstances. If you are a headshot photographer, for example, who owns his or her own studio and your business is having clients come to that studio day in and day out for a relatively standardized shooting experience, then you will have a pretty good idea of your fixed costs and what you need to make in order to break even. Because your approach is somewhat standardized and really only the subject in front of the camera is changing, you also have very limited variable costs, as most of your expenses, such as camera, studio rent, lights, etc., will be spread out over multiple clients.

If you are shooting standalone advertising campaigns, however, variable costs will likely account for the bulk of your overall production budget. If you do one campaign shot in a studio for an e-commerce company, then another job shot in the Sahara desert for a car company, those two shoots are going to have very different expenses. It’s unlikely, for instance, that you’ll need to rent a camel for your e-commerce shoot, that is unless you are marketing leisure suits for camels, which, come to think of it, is a million-dollar idea. Forget I mentioned it. It's mine. Likewise, in the Sahara shoot, you probably won’t need to rent a photo studio. These are obviously extreme examples. And I have no idea how much it costs to cast a camel thespian for your campaign. But if this is a scenario you find yourself in a lot, it’s good to have an idea of what those numbers might be.

All of this linking back to the call I was on this morning with the potential client. Without giving too much away, they were a new company from out of town. They wanted to do a full campaign to launch their product. They wanted to shoot here in Los Angeles. We discussed the overall theme of the shoot and what they wanted to accomplish. We discussed some basic things such as how many models would be required, whether they would want to shoot inside the studio or on location, whether they wanted motion in addition to the still work. An endless list of questions to zero in on exactly what it was they were looking for in return. Left until the end of the discussion was the topic of how much it would cost.

There is a logic to this. You need to know what you are bidding on before you start throwing out numbers that the client will ultimately hold you to and may make the project unprofitable for you to undertake in the first place. But, of course, there is also the human component. Like most photographers, I may love to discuss aesthetics and visual concepts, but when it comes to talking money, it’s about as uncomfortable as a bathroom stall with a missing door. But you will quickly learn as a professional that avoiding having the money talk is a really good way to not make any of it.

How early I get to that part of the conversation is usually driven by the client’s concept. I live in Los Angeles. I love living in Los Angeles. Whatever one might or might not think of the reality, the dream of the city has a certain brand image around the world. Because of this, some clients will want to shoot in Los Angeles in order to tap into the feeling the city invokes in order to merge it with their own brand identity. It’s a smart way for a marketer to get more bang for their buck.

What out-of-town clients don’t always realize, however, is that the great scenery that comes with Los Angeles comes at a cost. It’s a city built around Hollywood and the film industry. People have been coming here for great shooting locations for a century. The people who own those shooting locations are well aware that there is money to be made. The city is well aware there is money to be made. And everyone, at the end of the day, needs to get paid. So, whereas some clients expect shooting here to be as simple as walking outside, grabbing the first beautiful person you see, snapping some pictures, and emailing them all back for use in a global campaign by the end of the day, there is obviously much more to it than that. So, in addition to understanding the photographic needs of my clients, I also need to comprehend the production logistics necessary in order to deliver the end product. Where can we shoot? Is there an obvious place or will we need to budget for a location scout? What are the permit fees associated with shooting at a particular location? If you plan to shoot in Los Angeles, you will need a permit. Given the current moment, can you even get a permit for said location with the pandemic in full flux? The list of questions goes on and on and on. So, when having a discussion with potential clients, I am doing the calculations in my head to get a rough idea of what we’d be looking at in terms of a total budget. The actual written legal estimate will come later. But, in real-time, I am running numbers in my head so that I have a sense of the ballpark we’ll be playing in.

Then, of course, the time comes to say the quiet part out loud. What is the budget the client has in mind? A client may or may not give you this information. I wish they all would. If, from their description, it’s clear that the total production budget is going to be $50,000 and they tell you they have $5,000, then you know it’s going to be a pretty short phone call. But, as a negotiating tactic, many potential clients won’t share that information with you. They want you to, in essence, blink first. They want you to put your cards on the table. It’s all fair play.

If you are just starting out and not quite confident in your numbers, this is usually the part of the process where you will drastically underbid your own value, afraid to lose the job or scare off the client. When I think back on some of the pitifully low day rates I charged my early clients just because I was afraid to scare them off, it’s enough to make me scream. Yet, I have no one else but myself to blame.

Of course, some clients will come right out and tell you that they have X for the photographer’s creative fee. This may or may not be a statement of fact versus just a starting point for negotiation. It can be hard to tell. I’ve both accepted this number in some circumstances and pushed back on it in others. Hard to say what jobs I may have lost by pushing back and what jobs I got, but could have earned more had I only asked for it.

Recently, I’ve shifted to a third method for having these talks: stating clearly and affirmatively upfront what my rates are and not mincing words. If the project has other requirements that I’m familiar with from experience, I will also not hesitate to tell them how much expenses such as those have cost in the past as well. My own personal day rate is unlikely to be the largest portion of their overall budget, and the fewer surprises, the better. Most clients don’t overlook potential costs out of malice, but rather because they simply didn’t consider them.  

Let’s say, for example, you’re shooting a celebrity at a public exterior location with three wardrobe changes. Now, let’s say the client is well aware that they will need to rent a particular park for the shoot and pay the city permit fee. But they might not think that you’ll also need to add the cost of a motor home or some other enclosed area so that the celebrity can change into the next wardrobe selection without mooning half of the San Fernando Valley. It may seem silly, but knowing small things like this, even though they add to the budget, can actually help you win a bid, as you are proving your expertise and helping them prepare a smooth production.

There’s an argument to be made for letting the client state their overall budget number first. And, to be clear, I do always try to get that budget number out of the client prior to revealing my hand. But, I do find that stating the base numbers upfront, along with the potential add-ons has certain advantages. One, it sets a certain baseline, a starting point. Almost every client is going to try to talk you off of your number. It’s just good business. You would do the same in their position most likely. Whether or not you choose to budge is wholly up to you and can only be judged on a case-by-case basis.  

Let's say you establish a starting point day rate of 10 bucks, for example. I’m using 10 bucks, a truly unreasonable day rate, simply to make the math easier. But please, do not accept a day rate of t10 bucks. But for our equation, let’s say your rate is 10 dollars. If your client tries to talk you down to five, then perhaps you end up at seven. If you try to pre-negotiate in your own mind out of fear that your client doesn’t have enough money and offer them the discounted five dollar rate upfront, they will inevitably try to talk you down to three. Or, likewise, if you allow them to tell you the rate is three upfront, then you are in a position of having to try to negotiate it back up to anywhere near the 10 bucks you feel is the true value of the service.

The other advantage of stating your number upfront is that it will allow you to gauge whether or not the client you are speaking to really does have the budget to accomplish what it is they have in mind. If you know from experience that a job will cost a minimum of $50,000 and the client gasps when you mention that number, then you know that either the budget is going to need to come up or the scope of the project is going to need to go down. Negotiating is always a possibility for sure. But there is no point in wasting either your or your client’s time if what they want simply doesn’t match what they have to spend.

One mistake I’ve made in the past is to keep trying to lower my own rates or find ways to work faster to essentially give the client what they need while meeting impossible budgets. While, yes, I did get those jobs and yes, I did make something at the end of the day, I’ve found that these situations never work out well. At worst, you were right all along and you end up not being able to deliver what the client needed within the budget agreed upon. At best, you end up creating awesome work but feeling devalued as an artist. Your client might be happy. They got a great deal, after all. But ultimately, you are devaluing your own work.  

And, just in case you are under the impression that offering heavy discounts the first time will result in them paying your true rate on future projects, let’s just say that those odds are not particularly high. They may come back to you, alright. After all, you did a great job. But most likely, they’ll come back expecting you to recreate what you did previously and do so for the same undervalued rate.  

On a side note, as I am proofreading this article, I have literally just received an email from such a client. I shot a campaign for them a few years ago with heavily discounted rates. The shoot itself went well, but the production and pre-production time demands ended up being so extreme that, in addition to the discounted creative fee, I made far less than the value of time put into it. They’ve reached out a couple of times since for another shoot, but simply the sheer sight of their name in my inbox triggers a negative memory and seriously jangled nerves. Business is business, so I will provide them a quote. But I know better than to even start discussing a discount. If I lose the business, I lose it. But, back to the article.

Sad to say, it’s not the only time I’ve put myself in that situation. On more than one occasion, I’ve done jobs beneath their value for one reason or another. Felt a bit cheated, but moved on. Then, a year later the client comes back for another shoot, you send them your real rates, and they seem confused. Even now, when I do offer a client a discount, either on my day rate or any other line item within a bid, I make sure to state the actual rate and mark it as “discounted” to the new rate. It’s my way of establishing what my rate actually is, making it clear in writing that what they are being offered is a one-time offer, and, if they do want another shoot, it gives me something tangible to point to when quoting them a non-discounted rate the second time around. And, of course, if all else fails, just like your client, you also have the ability to say no.  

In the last week, I’ve had to repeat this bidding process five times. One campaign was won and has already been shot. Three campaigns are still in the bidding process. And one, the one from this morning, I had to say no to simply because the gulf between the client’s need and the client’s budget was, in my opinion, too big to bridge.

Like photography, bidding can be an art and not a science. It’s one of the hardest parts of the process for most photographers, and you will make a lot of mistakes while learning along the way. But knowing your value and how to present that to potential clients can be the difference between success and failure.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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