Estimating Fees

Introduction | I: Presentation | II: Client Contact | III: Self-Promotion | IV: Estimating Fees | V: Estimating Expenses | VI: Coordination | VII: Execution | VIII: Expense Accountability | IX: Billing | X: Payment

This is the Fourth in a series of articles on the nine steps necessary to complete a successful freelance photography job. In the first three articles, Presentation, Client Contact, and Self-Promotion and Marketing we took a look at the first three elements of the Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job, which together comprise the sales aspects necessary to define your work, to pull together examples of your best work, how to find the clients who would respond most favorably to your work, and how to stay in touch with them and to identify new potential clients. In this installment we enter a new round of considerations dealing with how to communicate with your client about what they want, and how much to charge for your work.

Pricetagging Your Work


I have found over the years that, generally speaking, most people have a hard time putting a price tag on their work. It is one thing to put an amount on a commodity like a pencil, or box of cereal, and quite another to price a piece of artwork. The challenge for artists is that they look on their artwork as an extension of themselves, a piece of themselves if you will, and it is hard to separate themselves from the exuberance of creativity and the cold reality of commercialism. One is objective with costs of goods, while the other is subjective based on education and years of experience, who the client is, what media are involved and a whole host of other interlocking considerations.

When I start this discussion with my students I try to approach the subject from a different perspective. I pull my writing pen out of my pocket and ask them what they think is the “value” of my pen. They look at it and notice it is a little unusual looking so a few offer the opinion that it is worth about ten dollars. Then I tell them it is a Mont Blanc pen which catches them off guard because it does not look like other Mont Blancs since it has a stainless steel body and cap (I show them the Mont Blanc snowflake logo embedded on the cap to prove its heritage).

Someone in the room then says it is worth over thirty dollars. I then tell them it is a pen I bought in San Francisco thirty-five years ago and which I put in a drawer and hadn’t used up until five years ago when I realized it wasn’t being put to its best use just laying around in a box. By this time a student tells me it is worth one hundred dollars. Then when I tell them I have retrofitted the pen so I can use a special refill allowing me to use it everyday someone invariably lets me know that it is worth over a hundred and fifty dollars. When a student then asks me what I think it is worth I tell them that to me it is my favorite pen, I use it every day, and to me it is priceless.


The point of this exercise centers on the concept that while they were focused on the “worth” of the pen, I was interested in its “value.” Worth depends on objective criteria, while value is derived in terms of perception. The more information they received, the more background they had about the value of the item the more they thought the pen was worth. All you have to do to have this driven home is to watch the PBS program, “Antiques Roadshow” and you will see this notion carried out every time someone finds out that the old painting that has been sitting around in the attic and no one in the family wanted is actually worth some amazing amount of money because of its historical value and its provenance. And the reason that it is worth some astounding amount of money is that someone is willing to pay that sum because of its perceived value.

The lesson becomes clear at that point that, when pricing our art work, we not only have to take into account the costs of making the end product, but we have to calculate in the value to our client, and the intangibles that make our product unique.

Years ago I had the privilege to attend an Advertising Photographers of America meeting in which the featured speaker was Herb Cohen, internationally reknowned negotiation expert. Mr. Cohen achieved his fame by being part of the team that secured the release of the American hostages being held in Iran in 1984, working with governments in other high profile negotiations, and as the author of, “You Can Negotiate Anything” the best selling book on the topic. One of the things I remember most about his presentation was that he said he was going to tell us the two most important words while negotiating. When he said this everyone scrambled to get their pens and paper ready for these great words of wisdom. Mr. Cohen then said (I am paraphrasing here), “The first most important word to say when negotiating is ‘Wha?’- That’s spelled W-h-a; and the second most important word to say when negotiating is ‘Huh?’ and that is spelled H-u-h.” We all looked at each other wondering what the heck he was talking about.


He went on to say you never want to be the first one to offer a solution (in this case, a price) in a negotiation; you must be prepared to ask as many pertinent questions as you can possibly think of. This tactic has two objectives. First, you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner by blurting out an amount and then have to spend your time trying to work with a number that is too high or too low for you to maneuver. The other objective is that, by asking a lot of questions you form in the mind of your opponent (this is after all something of a game) a number of reasons you can use to manipulate your reasons why they should eventually come around to your way of thinking. (Actually I have found there is a third more nefarious reason for this tactic and it is that the more questions you ask the more time is consumed and you may be able to wear your opponent down until they finally agree just because they don’t want to prolong the pain any longer.)

Now I understand that we are not world famous negotiators, but the principles Mr. Cohen outlined have been invaluable for me and for my students. For many of my students the idea of negotiating is threatening because they feel awkward at the prospect of being thought of as being pushy or arrogant. But the fact of the matter is that you have to believe in the worth of your art and be willing to educate your clients as to its value to them. You can not be mealy mouthed when talking about your fees. After you negotiate the optimal fees for your work you must be able to stand on your two feet and say with conviction, “The cost of this job is (fill in the blank) dollars.” And then you must be able to back up your reasons why you feel that is an equitable position. People will not take you seriously as a professional commercial artist if you cannot state your ideas and your price clearly.


So what are some of the questions you should ask when discussing a project with a prospective client? Well, first of all I am going to encourage you to get a copy of the American Society of Media Photographers, “ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography-Seventh Edition”—Allworth Press, because it is the definitive book, which explains how professional photographers develop their fees. The articles included in the book will give you a clear explanation of why one image may be priced at one figure while an another image may be significantly more. Along with this book you should also become familiar with the Advertising Photographers of America estimate form which is available online and downloadable to members of APA. These two items will greatly help you understand the intricacies of estimating and I will be referring to them continually throughout these articles on the art of estimating.


Every photography estimate must include a section in which the “Description of Services and Rights Licensed,” or Job Description is outlined. Your fees will be developed as a result of the Job Description so it is imperative that we look at this aspect first. There are certain topics that must be discussed and agreed upon prior to a job so you can develop a comprehensive idea of what it will cost to complete the job. Those topics include the following which I will go into more detail: Number of shots; A concise description of each shot; Name of the client and product; Rights licensed which take into consideration media usage, period of use, geographical location, languages, and exclusivity. The thing to keep in mind is that the more potential sales your client will receive as a result of your images, the more money you should charge. The more people have an opportunity to be affected by your photographs the more valuable your images are to your client because they will drive sales to your client.

Before taking a deeper look into the specifics of the Job Description let me mention that one other value to the discussion you will have about an upcoming job is that you will be able to find out (by the caliber of your questions and the responses to them) if they are sincere about actually using you on the job, or if they are just fishing for information and numbers. You must listen closely to the way they answer the following questions and trust your instincts. Remember you are not obligated to take any jobs just because you are happy they called. You have a right to be discerning about the jobs you take on because you are a professional. I don’t mean to imply that all potential clients are out to take advantage of you—on the contrary, most are trying to select the most talented photographer for their project—but you must always protect your professional integrity and be honest in all of your dealings.

Number of shots


Now let’s talk about the number of images to be executed. It is imperative that you get a solid idea as to the number of shots your client is expecting because your estimate is going to be based in large part on how long the project is going to take to complete, how much film or digital involvement it will take, how elaborate the props, sets, locations will be, and how many crew members you will have to hire (to name just a few considerations). Any time a client says, “Oh, I don’t know. Just go out and shoot a bunch of shots and we’ll decide later which ones to use,” be very leery. It will be difficult to create a meaningful estimate on “a bunch of shots.” If you are having a hard time pinning them then ask them to at least give you an approximation as in “approximately twenty shots” because then you can build an idea of what it will take to successfully accomplish the job when you have a concrete number on which to start. Also, should your client decide during the job that they “need a few more shots while you’re on the shoot” you can tell them that is fine, but you will be glad to calculate the costs beyond the original twenty, and then they can get authorization for the additional shots, and then have them sign a change order form (which you will happen to have handy). It is very hard to get paid for additional shots in such a circumstance after the shoot unless you get them to sign a change order form (which we will discuss later) because they will tell you they thought you were just doing it for free as a professional courtesy. To me professionalism involves full disclosure and a respect for the involvement of both parties.

Concise Description

Every estimate must have a concise description of the images to be executed written into the Job Description. This might seem like a no brainer but by this I mean you must include some language that succinctly describes the images the client expects. The reason this is important is that both you and your client need to be on the same page as to what your objectives are for the project. Where problems arise is when each party has a different vision of the outcome and they fail to communicate their intentions and come to mutual agreement.

You do not need to have a lengthy or flowery description that takes up all the space in your Job Description when a few well chosen words will do. “Little girl with balloon on beach” will suffice instead of a tome on the lighting, and choice of equipment. I like to write my short, to the point description and then follow it with, “See attached layout” in the Job Description, and then staple a copy of the layout or comp to the estimate. If there happens to be a large number of shots involved I write, “See attached shot list and layout” and that way we will have a check off list of all the images that are requested.

Name of Client and Product


Believe it or not I must mention the importance of writing in the name of the client and product in the job description. It is very important to define for whom the project is being executed. I have heard of instances where photographers have failed to be specific about, for whom, or what, they were shooting and when their client used the images beyond what the photographer felt was appropriate and went to litigation, the judge ruled in the favor of the client because the photographer was not specific enough about the client and/or product in the Job Description. This is just one of those things that you would think is a given but it bears mentioning that you should not overlook the obvious.

Rights Licensed

Now here is where things get interesting when we get into the topic of which rights you are licensing to your client. First of all let us think about your ownership of your images. As the copyright laws point out, once you complete your artwork you are the author of that work and you have the right to allow others to copy it or use it, but only with your consent. If they use your work beyond any agreement with you they are in violation of the Copyright Act and you can go after them for compensation. This is a basic right of yours as the author of the work and it is written into the Constitution of the United States. So what are some of the rights that you can license to allow your work to be used by another party?

Well first of all you will need to ask your client in which media they will use your image(s). Again you will have to ask them to be specific. If they say they don’t know then you will have to pin them down, and this goes back to the concept that the more visible your image(s) is (are) the more you should be paid. For example you will have to find out the circulation of the magazines in which they will run your photo(s) and the higher the circulation of the publication(s) the higher your fees. If your images are in a trade publication that goes to a narrowly targeted group of enthusiasts your fee estimate will be less than if it (they) were to be in a widely seen consumer publication. There are various resources for finding out the circulation of publications available including through the reference desk of your local library.


You will also need to ask how long the image(s) will be used. Obviously the longer they are out there to be seen the more you should charge. Should a client want to use them for “one insertion” into a publication then the fee would be less than someone who intends to use them “in perpetuity.”

Next you will have to inquire about which geographical location, or locations, the work will be featured in. The breakdown for geographical locations that most photographers I know use as rules of thumb are as follows: Local which would include a metropolitan area; Regional which would involve a grouping of states such as the New England states, or the West Coast; National which would embrace all fifty states; International which would be the fifty states and other countries; and Worldwide meaning all the countries throughout the world.

Also it should be pointed out here that you may also ask which languages the client intends the image to be printed in. That may be a tipoff that the images will be used internationally or worldwide. In our increasingly global economy our images have a wider reach than ever before and therefore have more potential to drive sales for which the photographer should be compensated.

And we must not forget the topic of Exclusivity versus Non-exclusivity. Any image you shoot may have the potential for you, as the owner, to generate additional income through repurposing such as stock photography. If the image(s) you shoot have a product or other entity in them that limits your ability to relicense them then you may have a case for charging more for them initially. As an art buyer at an ad agency which has a major automobile account once explained to me, you may get a healthy sum of money for shooting an ad of one of their cars for them, but that car model is only valuable to them for that model year and after that they may have no more need for your photos. On the other hand a photo of “a beautifully shot banana” may be more lucrative to you if you could license it for a multitude of uses.

One more thing, I suggest that at the end of your list of rights licensed you add the following, “Further use to be negotiated.” That little sentence will alert your client to the fact that they will owe you more money should they use your images beyond the original agreement.

A Handy Mnemonic Device


So now that you have the basic questions to ask your client outlined how are you ever going to remember them especially if you are called by a prospective client when you are on your cell phone in the middle of nowhere? Well, I am glad you thought of this because I am going to give you a handy mnemonic device that you can refer to any time and it will make you sound like the true professional that you are. Of course you know that a “mnemonic device” is a fancy way of saying a memory aid and in light of the fact that there are quite a few items for you to remember this handy little trick is something you can refer to wherever you are. And remember Herb Cohen’s suggestion to ask as many pertinent questions as you can so you can negotiate effectively. Are you ready? Good.

One thing, before we get started with the mnemonic device, let me suggest the following. Imagine a large scale like a thermometer with a pricing range that can scale up or down depending on the responses to the questions you ask. For example envision a vertical line with a horizontal line at the bottom next to which is written (let’s say for the sake of illustration) $1,500.00, and a horizontal line at the top next to which is written $5,000.00. That then will be your range for this project; the amounts are arbitrary but they are any range you feel is competitive in the marketplace you are a part of. As your client responds to the questions you are about to ask you can move your pencil up or down the scale between the high and low to get a feel for how much you should charge.

Okay then, let’s get started with the memory device and imagine the rise and fall of the thermometer scale. The first word I want you to remember is Complexity. Ask your potential client how complex the shot or shots will be. This is also where you can ask how many shots they intend to be accomplished. A simple product on a white background will be less involved than a big production with period costuming and sets, and so the more complex the more cost. Move your pencil line up or down the scale accordingly.

The next set of questions to ask is about Usage. Ask your potential client which media the image(s) will be used in. Remember to be direct and find out about all the media involved. That way you can research the circulations and get a handle on how widely your work will be seen. Again move that line in the scale.

Time is the next issue. Find out the duration of use for the photo(s). The longer they wish to use the work the higher your virtual thermometer will go up. If they want to use the work “in perpetuity” then the top of the thermometer should blow off, figuratively speaking, when your line moves off the top of your vertical line.

And next you have to ask them about Exclusivity versus Non-exclusivity. Remember that in this case you may have the potential for making more money on the photographs by relicensing them to other sources later so take that into consideration, but also factor in if they may not be as valuable in the future. By now you know how to move the marker line.


The next set of considerations with your memory aid starts with your ability to know your Marketplace. By that I mean, who is your competition and how does that effect your pricing. Are you competing with big city shooters who have a high overhead, or are you in a marketplace that has lower everyday costs of doing business? Never estimate on the basis of undercutting your competition, you will bring the industry down and eventually your opportunities along with it. Find out from your photography trade organizations what are the reasonable price ranges for the type of work you love to do, and use that as a place to start.

I also highly recommend Michael Heron and David MacTavish’s book, Pricing Photography, The Complete Guide to Assignment and Stock Pricing. It is another great resource from Allworth Press.

The next issue you have to address centers on you own Expertise or Experience. What special talents do you bring to the project that give you a competitive advantage? And what kind of things in your background give you special knowledge of the product and will win over the client? Maybe you have an advanced educational background, or technical knowledge, or language skills, or life experiences that have to be factored in. Possibly you can execute the job more skillfully, and you can control the outcome because you have done this kind of work before. This is a very important factor that can move you to the first position and that could affect your pricing.

And now we come to the last mnemonic and that is what I call “X-the unknown.” This X factor refers to the other things in your life that are the deal makers or deal breakers. You might want this job badly because it will bring you more of the work you want to do so you are willing to be very competitive in your pricing. Or maybe you have heard that this client is challenging to get along with, but the concept is creatively compelling, so you may decide to estimate higher fees so, if you get the job, you can rationalize to yourself that you can put up with some inconveniences at these rates. Conversely you may want to price yourself out of the running because you’ve decided you don’t want to deal with this client. Or maybe you glance over at the stack of unpaid bills on your desk while doing the estimate and you sharpen your pencil so you can at least have a chance at getting a shot at this job. “X-the unknown” embraces all those intangible reasons for wanting, or even occasionally not wanting a job. As a freelancer you are your own boss and you can accept or not accept any job that comes your way. Of course you pay the consequences either way so you have to reflect your decisions in your estimate in one way or another.


Now, take the first letters of each of the topics listed above and you get your mnemonic device namely “C-U-T-E M-E-X!” That’s right, Cute Mex. Now I am very proud of my Hispanic heritage so I give to you (free of charge, because I love my students and my readers) my memory aid to help you remember the pertinent topics you need to ask your prospective client when developing your fees for a freelance photography job. I know this may sound corny but it works.

I have had former students call me years later and thank me for this little aid because it made them feel in control of the conversation when discussing a prospective job. Part of being a professional is knowing the right questions to ask and this simple device will help you have the confidence to have that productive conversation, maybe even to help you land the job you’ve always wanted to do and help take our photography career to the next level because, as Herb Cohen states, “You can negotiate anything!”!

In the next article I will continue on this important topic of estimating a job with an investigation of the below the line costs involved in bringing an assignment photography job to life. The estimated fees (or above the line costs) together with the well thought out estimated expenses will provide your prospective client with a definitive blueprint of how your creative intentions match up with their needs. Your ability to be hired in no trivial way hinges on the thoroughness of your estimate.


Lifecycle of a Freelance Photographer

Other Articles by Tony Luna

Tony Luna—the President of Tony Luna Creative Services, a Creative Consultancy founded in 1971, and Artist Representative/Executive Producer with Wolfe and Company Films. Mr. Luna has been an Instructor at the Art Center College of Design since 1985 where he teaches “Career Perspectives” in the Photography and Imaging department, and “Crafting a Meaningful Career” and “Living the Dream” in Art Center’s Public Programs. He is the author of, How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career (Allworth Press): an informational and inspirational guide to career evolution. Tony presented a lecture titled “Taking Your Career to the Next Level” at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in October 2008. He has helped well over a thousand artist-entrepreneurs begin, sustain and enhance their careers, and hundreds of companies to grow and prosper.

About the Photographer

Justin Bastien is a freelance photographer based in Ventura, California. Justin specializes in travel, adventure and lifestyle photography. Justin’s extensive travel and adventure experiences offer a unique view on the subjects he photographs.

Text ©2009 Tony Luna. Photos © Justin Bastien.

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    • I just want to say thanks for this interesting information.
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    • Thank you for the valuable and informative article. This is what the internet is for. Mal Stevens Los Angeles, CA
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    • Thank you very much Tony, for the great article. Very useful reading.
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    • I can't soak it up fast enough... THANK YOU!
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    • Dear Tony,

      I am grateful to have come across your post. I have a feeling that the takeaways, especially C-U-T-E-M-E-X will be instrumental in the growth of my business. Thank you!

      Much Heart,

      Julia Zave

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    • Still a GREAT article 12 years later with a lot of information for the photographer.

      Mal. Stevens

      Los Angeles CA.


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