Your Photo and Video Work is a Representation of Yourself, Not Your Client’s Budget

Your Photo and Video Work is a Representation of Yourself, Not Your Client’s Budget

Are you proud of every commercial photo or corporate video production you’ve done? Have you ever found yourself explaining to someone, maybe even a client, about how a project you worked on could have been better, but you were held back by the lack of a big budget? That’s understandable to a point, but I think there has to be a certain standard of quality with any production, regardless of budget.

Personally, I feel that one thing that makes a director or visual creative valuable is their ability to make the most out of what they are given. By being crafty and strategically using a small budget, even a one-person crew can come away with a successful project. I was recently in this exact position, and instead of giving my client the bare minimum of what they were paying for, I went the extra mile. Here’s why.

My business, Wilkinson Visual, was recently hired to produce a short web commercial. When we were first approached about producing this video, a few ideas were discussed between the owner and I, in person. The client told me that they had “some budget,” but wanted to get some options from me to consider.

The options I offered ranged greatly and I explained them in detail, noting the kinds of shots and setups we would be able to do, and how it would affect the final story. My client ultimately decided on the least expensive option, which meant there was no budget for extra crew, gear, shoot days, or doing proper interviews. All it afforded was me shooting with a basic kit for a half day, and then making an edit within a few weeks.

Having a small budget didn’t mean the video would be bad, it just meant it wouldn’t have as many elaborate, controlled shots as I wanted. I saw a lot of potential for creative visuals with this particular project, so I decided that I needed to figure out ways to get the most production value, while not adding crew, gear, or shoot days. Did I have to do that? Not according to the budget per se, but I felt it was worth it to spend some of my own time to develop ideas that would make the most of this shoot. Everything came down to this: the final video created wasn’t going to be a reflection of my client’s budget– it would be a reflection of the quality of work that my business can produce.

You might be curious as to what I specifically did– honestly it was any number of small things, that when added up made the difference. Bringing a few extra items I already owned, asking for help from strangers who were nearby during certain shots, and spending some time helping my client with the script. Technically these were all things that by definition in the contract, I wasn’t responsible for, but all it took was extra planning.

While this isn’t my usual approach for a promotional/commercial production, by working hard and being flexible on what personal gear I used, the final production value increased tremendously. Again, this would be a reflection of my work, so to me it was absolutely worth it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’ve noticed more and more production companies offering a “budget” service for clients, but when I see the work, it’s subpar. Did the client get what they paid for? Probably. Is that production company going to attract larger businesses with bigger budgets though by doing that? I’m not sure they will.

So what do you think? Do you accept a production job at its offered rate, and provide a product that matches the budget level? How do you compare $25,000 projects next to $2,000 projects on your portfolio then? This experience really got me thinking about my pricing models, so I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments, thanks for reading.

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23 Comments

Eric Lefebvre's picture

Good article and I like how you don't talk about this in absolutes. Like you said, there are limitations.

I had a band ask me how much it would cost to do a music video and I explained that it would vary a lot.

Would we be doing a simple "studio jam" in their studio or were we looking at hiring actors and extras, renting a helicopter, blocking a few streets downtown, hiring police to secure the set and include enough CGI to make George Lucas think twice about taking on the project?

That LITERALLY was the example I used. The band had a good laugh and then I quoted them a simple "studio session" shoot where I would just do it all myself (no assistants or anything, no crazy gear) and a more concept video where we get a couple of actors, an assistant, we storyboard/script a story ...

On the budget they gave me at the end, we really couldn't do the latter, no matter how imaginative we got with budgeting.

Craig Staples's picture

The budget should not affect the overall quality of your work, but you cant say that it doesn't have a huge impact on the content of your work, whether its locations, number of camera coverage, lighting, etc.

If in your own example you had added the extra crew, gear and shoot days you would have been giving your client a much better video, but based on the clients budget you compromised and gave them the best you could deliver within their budgetary constraints.

Saying "Your Photo and Video Work is a Representation of Yourself, Not Your Client’s Budget" in my mind isn't true it should be "THE QUALITY of Your Photo and Video Work is a Representation of Yourself, Not Your Client’s Budget"

This is a real difficult one. I've definitely been in this boat more times than not, and I've erred on the side of quality, but it's hard. A lot of the times it's easier to go with "i just won't post this in my portfolio", but that becomes draining and leaves you unfulfilled.

I need to listen to my own advice, but this is why i wholly support personal projects. As you develop your skill, it puts you in a place to dictate the kind of projects that come your way... at least that's the theory

Mr Hogwallop's picture

We all make do with what the client decides to spend. There are going to be limitations and compromises when the client has already determined what level of production it is. No need to spend $100s of thousands on a web ad for a 3 store sandwich shop chain.
The slippery slope is when we start agreeing to the low $ amount but bust our butts to add production value (that the client didn;t seem to need in the budget) to include many bells and whistles, like instead of having a crew, asking strangers to help...WTF?
And then a couple things happen. The project turns out well and the next one has the same or even less $ budget but now the expectations have been set. As has the value so $$$=A certain level of production.
Or next time when the client has a lot more money for a project, they go to a larger production company as the smaller producer is pegged as the lower cost option. As an art buyer ex GF said "once you are in the bargain hole, you ain;t getting out of it"
I had client who was a CD at BBD&O, he was always telling me to give him an estimate so we could do something the way he wanted to do it.
He would then let me know when the AE was going to call me to try to cut the price, and tell me to stick to my guns, he said photographers have no spine and will usually cave in like a house of cards, which then compromises what he wanted to do....
Most of us try to "underpromise and overdeliver" which is good but avoid "underbid and overdeliver",

Dr. Dominik Muench's picture

"The slippery slope is when we start agreeing to the low $ amount but bust our butts to add production value (that the client didn;t seem to need in the budget) to include many bells and whistles, like instead of having a crew, asking strangers to help...WTF?
And then a couple things happen. The project turns out well and the next one has the same or even less $ budget but now the expectations have been set. "

Spot On !!! a lot of the times it's not actually the clients money....its our extra time as shooter/ director/ editor/producer that goes into a project for the extra mile and plish, which the client never ends up knowing about.

Usually the budget becomes a problem when a client refuses to believe there are limitations that come along with their budget, and they start pushing for compromises or adding things (i.e. "since you are there anyway..." or "what if we just did a quick interview"). This is where I have seen most photographers and videographers get into trouble. Know the limitations of your client's budget. Set those limitations and stick to them.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

I completely agree! If a client came at me with a low budget but then started asking about adding "this little thing" or a "quick interview" that would be a huge red flag. It's definitely up to us to nip that in the bud as early as possible, and if that's the kind of attitude a client has, I'd likely want to not work with them. (I should note that in my examples above, the client never asked me to do more than what was budgeted for, that was my choice.)

Chris Helton's picture

I think thats just called business, not a red flag. Every person out there wants to get the most they can out of their dollar. Sometimes they're not the money people, their boss is telling them get C done on a B budget.
Elsewhere here has been discussed as laying things out up front "I understand C is what your wanting to accomplish, but C can't be accomplished using B budget unless other areas are cut" For example instead of you asking bystanders to help, negotiate the client providing 2 people to help carry gear, or they line up interviews ahead of time and have a host. It isn't in their budget for a penthouse shoot, but their CEO owns one, so the client provides that for the shoot to cut costs to fit their budget. (note* I ask bystanders all the time to fill in. "excuse me, would you mind walking past in the background" or "could I get a shot of you picking up this product for a second".)

Ben Perrin's picture

Always give 100% of yourself. Budget will affect that in the end but that's outside of your control.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Can you elaborate on that?

Jayson Carey's picture

I agree...kinda. Always put the effort in, but don't get lost in the freebies. If you have the gear to get a shot at your disposal, but it's an extra fee that the client didn't budget for, then you are not obliged to use that equipment for free.

Christian Santiago's picture

It's a bad precedent to set, busting your ass on a limited budget. It spoils the clients into taking advantage of you knowing they can always get more than what they pay for. If you're worried about "budget work" being a reflection of your brand, then just don't advertise it. Do it if you need the money, but keep it out of your portfolio. The nature of our business is such that incomes fluctuate in ebbs and flows. When i take low budget work to pad my income, I intentionally give only exactly what the client paid for and nothing more. It's important that they understand the value of your work and what it takes to create it. It's important that they understand that if they want something exceptional, they have to pay for it.

That doesn't mean I turn in shit. My shots are still properly in focus and properly exposed. If it's video work, the audio will be clean. But it's not going to blow anyone's mind either.

I think the point isn't that you do extra work for small budgets, but that you set and live by limitations. If their budget isn't "bust your ass" sized, you don't, but if it isn't worth going and doing, you don't either. You're better off turning down a low paying job than phoning it in... after all someone might see it and think that is your normal way of operating.

And then there is client relationship to consider: If you take the job, your client should feel they are important (they are!). When a client feels that you aren't putting effort in, or that they're not getting value for the money they have paid, whatever it is they paid, they don't think they should spend more with you next time. They actually think just the opposite. Of course, all of this can be solved with clear communication up front about what their budget entails.

Christian Santiago's picture

All of your issues with my original comment are easily reconciled with good communication. If a client gave me a small budget, i would be very upfront and very realistic about what they can expect. They won't question the value because they'll have known ahead of time.

I am not proposing "phoning it in." As I said before, the quality would still be good and consistent. It's not like i am gonna playing on my phone the entire time while i leave a camera on a tripod. But i am not going to go out of my way to set up a sick moving timelapse, or doing complicated lighting set ups or tracking shots.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

"You're better off turning down a low paying job than phoning it in... after all someone might see it and think that is your normal way of operating." - This x100.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Consider up-selling. You can show them work you made within their budget, and then offer them, for the price, version with the shots for which you've used your own equipment. It is still not as good as the version with bigger crew and more shooting days etc., but it is something that you added out of your pocket.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

I hadn't thought of that... clever idea!

Chris K.'s picture

Pretty good article! For me I do my best to accommodate the budget but always will still put the same effort I would for a small budget then one which goes above my rates. In the past I've had a small limited budget then down the road with the same client (who I never expected them to contact me again due to logistics) I had a huge one with them-they remembered the effort I put into the small budget and knew I'd go above and beyond for the larger one-you just never know in the future where it'll lead to.

You stated it great-how the quality of the final video would reflect on what I'm capable of and not on the budget. But in almost all circumstances in the event of a low budget I'm not going to use my Dragon and steadicam for something which would look just as good in the end with my fs700r and ronin.

Scott Wilder's picture

Well mr. "award-winning video director". It's your business, run it however you want.

But you threw in personal gear and did script work at no expense. How would your bigger budget clients feel if they knew they were not getting the same treatment (discounts) just because they have deeper pockets?

And then "asking for help from strangers who were nearby during certain shots". Another way of saying that is you put people to work in a way to profit yourself without compensating them. That's not clever or frugal. Did you explain to them how much you were getting paid? Or how much a professional doing what they were doing for free would get paid?

Did your final production value increase? Sure

Was it worth it?

Darragh Sinnott's picture

Interesting conundrum, do you protect you name and the quality of your work or do you protect your work ethics and your reputation among higher paying clients. I think there's a grey area here but I would love to hear a discussion on it.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Directed by Alan Smithee.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

It was absolutely worth it, and I'd do it again.

I do give big clients discounts when they ask me to produce multiple videos.

"you threw in personal gear and did script work at no expense" - I "wrote" script points while on a 5 hour drive and having my partner take notes, and let her (with no script writing experience) take a stab at things. Of course on a bigger budget shoot I'd be hiring an experienced writer, and it would likely need weeks of revisions and approvals, it's just a completely different setting.

"asking for help from strangers" - people who were at the business were asked to pose a little and sign a release to appear on camera, as opposed to hiring paid talent and hair/MUA. At one point I asked someone to hold the end of a camera crane while I balanced it– they are a photo enthusiast so I showed them how it works and had a lively conversation about it. It's not like I put a camera or light into someone's hand :-)

The client is a personal friend of mine and didn't have many expectations for the project in question, but it wasn't a "for a friend" approach– I still had a signed contract and was paid. Definitely not all of the things I've noted would apply to a bigger budget project scenario. The point is that the experience got me thinking about effort, budgets, etc., so this article is what came of that. Thanks for reading and for your comments!

Mr Hogwallop's picture

One thing I have found out is my budget / estimate are going to be compared to the previous project of a similar nature. If that project was done with a lot of value added items for free like owned equipment, skeleton crew and what not, the client expects that to part of the next production, which means I need to also do the same...slippery slope. If the previous job was traditionally worth around $5.00 but was done on the cheap, for a friend, not charging for equipment, re writing scrpt, so the invoice was $3.50 then that type of job is not worth $5.00 anymore unless you I have pretty darn compelling reason why.

Personal friends are a different kind of client. We can work on budget and I trust them to make it up on the next one.
Having employees at the business help is not asking help from strangers. "Co Workers" are often used without pay because they are getting paid to be at work anyway.

But whatever works for whatever clients, good to hear how other approach things