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 seventh 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 looked at Sales aspects of what I call The Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job. In the last three installments, Estimating Fees, Estimating Expenses, and Coordination (pre-production) we focused on the process of envisioning a photographic assignment, setting the costs that will allow you to execute the assignment to the best of your ability, and taking all the necessary steps to prepare for the job. In this installment we will examine the topic of what you need to know while executing the job, so you will be able to free yourself of distractions and you can heighten your communication with your client.

As you look back at what you have accomplished so far you have come a long way before you even picked up a camera to execute this assignment. Actually, everything you have done so far in the way of your training, presentation and promotion, estimating and preparation have been carefully orchestrated to bring you to this point. Now, finally you get to take a photograph!


Some people may read that last sentence and think, but I just want to take pictures. Why do I have to do all that other stuff? Well, as you have learned by now the taking of a photograph while on assignment is not just a casual or trivial thing. Being a professional means not only knowing your craft but also appreciating all the other elements, obstacles and personalities involved. In other fields these elements might be referred to as barriers to entry. In our world once those barriers are lowered by thoughtful planning the easier it is to do your job.

The myth many people have about photographers is that they are carefree, risk-taking, live by the seat of their pants dilatants that happen to own a camera. I know a whole generation of people whose idea of the life of a photographer was the romanticized image of the existentially challenged fashion photographer in the classic Michelangelo Antonioni 1960s film, “Blowup.” For others it is the idealized vision of an adventurous glob-trotting, nature documentarian or war correspondent. By and large the most successful veteran professional photographers I have the honor of knowing are hard working business people who have learned the delicate balance of art and commerce. This is not a profession for the faint hearted considering the inconsistent checks combined by the need to constantly look for fresh ways to see, capture, and share images that might otherwise go unnoticed and unappreciated.

More often than not I have had students whose families and friends don’t understand what they want to do for a living. When one of my students tells their friends or family members they want to be a photographer the usual response is, “What kind?” In the minds of many there are wedding photographers, and commercial photographers who take pictures for ads, and that’s about it. Not all wedding photographers and commercial photographers should be lumped together any more so than any other profession. The subtleties in the differences help to define us and that is one of the things that makes photography as a profession so intriguing. Once I had a student who told me that his parents were allowing him to get a degree in photography on the condition that he “get it out of his system” and, upon graduation, return home to run the family business. Like many others his family could not reconcile that someone could successfully be an artisan and an entrepreneur at the same time. But there is my point; the most successful photographers are the ones who blend their artistry and their ability to grow a business. They are the ones who understand the value of living a life in which they can create on many levels, not the least of which is the aesthetic. What could be better than to be a part of a profession in which you have the opportunity to interpret the world, share it, and have your imagery live on while earning a living?


Be Aware

Once everything is in place to begin your new job the first thing you have to do is be aware of the goals of the project and then see where you can add your own creative touch to make the project the best it can be. Once you proclaim to be a professional photographer we assume that your formal and informal education has prepared you to know the correct tools—the right format, lenses, lights, etc.—to achieve the look you want. We accept the fact that you have surrounded yourself with the support personnel who will clear the way for you to create. Now you have to step up to the plate and perform. You must show a command of the subject (the result of the research you did to put together the ideations and the estimate in pre-production) to instill confidence in your client and crew. This is not a time for shooting from the hip. You have to have envisioned the whole job from start to finish just as an athlete visualizes a sporting event, or a scientist sees the outcome of an experiment. Everything has to be choreographed, rehearsed in your mind before you place the viewfinder in front of your eye.

Learn to Listen

But now comes the tricky part. Of course you have to concentrate on what is happening in front of the camera but you must also train yourself to listen for the slightest hint of dissatisfaction behind the camera. Your technical and artistic training has taught you to control (to the best of your ability) what goes on beyond the lens, but you have to keep a part of your senses open to what happens behind the camera, to be aware if the client is not happy with the way things are going. There may be subtle comments such as, “…do you think we should try…,” and “…maybe we should…” that indicate the client has something in mind other than what you are going after. Or it could be that you are alone on the assignment and that little voice is coming from inside your own head in anticipation of your client saying after the shoot is over, “…why didn’t you try something different?” In either case you must have asked and answered the challenge to your creativity and have the conviction that your solution is the best resolution under the circumstances.

Keep in mind that the client may have a valid thought so you would be well served to give it due consideration. Maybe you just got so involved that you overlooked something and their suggestion may have some validity. Then again they may be just making a comment with no intention of meddling. You will have to be the judge of that. The important thing is that you process the information quickly and thoughtfully.


The Art of Client Education

When responding make sure that you defend your position without becoming defensive. By that I mean that once you process the information you have a rational reason why you are proceeding in the way you think is best. I have seen photographers skillfully turn a potential Armageddon into a learning session in which the client appreciates how the photographer created a meaningful solution and ends up gaining confidence in the photographer. I call this the act of “client education” in which you guide your client along the path to understand why you are making the choices you are making and you involve them in the process. Your choices are not random acts of trial and error. They are made on the basis of years of experience, of learning the optimal approach, and they will result in the most efficient solution. Client education is an art in itself and you must always (no matter how many years you are in the business, or how many jobs you execute) appreciate its importance to getting to the end result you mutually want to achieve.

The thing to keep in mind is that chances are that while you are shooting the client is second guessing what their boss will say when he/she gets back to the office so they are covering their options (I obviously cleaned that up) in anticipation of having to do a rug dance when the higher ups throw in their two cents worth after the fact. You can be sure there will be Monday morning quarterbacking when the images arrive at the office, and now your client will have the vocabulary and insights you imparted to them to answer the second guesses.


This leads me to another fact of life that is part and parcel of the topic of client education. Imagine yourself in their shoes. By “their” I mean the client, the Art Director, the Art Buyer, the Director of Marketing, the Director of Communications, the prospective mother-in-law, whoever it is that has hired you to take the photographs. They hired you because you came highly recommended, or you went through a tough vetting process, or you were the first one listed in a directory under “Photographer.” For whatever reason they chose you they are expecting you to ultimately make them look good to the people who entrusted them to get the pictures taken. That’s it; bottom line. If you do well, they look good, they tell their friends, and hopefully you get more work from the experience. If you don’t do well, they look foolish, and who knows what kind of catastrophic events could follow from that. It’s the old story for any human endeavor of initial expectations versus final observations. If you live up to their expectations then the world is a beautiful place. On the other hand if you don’t live up to their expectations, or even if you greatly over shoot their expectations, there could be repercussions. Yes, sometimes greatly exceeded expectations can be as much a problem as underachievement because you may have gone way beyond what they anticipated but it ended up costing more and it opened up a can of worms.

Remember in the article on estimating I stressed the importance of setting well defined limitations before the job begins? This is where those limitations come into play. If for example on the shoot the client benignly asks, “while you’re at it could you shoot another shot or two?” that simple request could set in motion a potential predicament. On the one hand you could say “sure” while trying to be the nice guy and even though it wasn’t part of the original agreement you decide to take the shot, which invariably turns into several more shots and that adds costs to the job for the extra involvement and for the fact that other shots originally estimated get pushed back and now you have gotten into unanticipated overtime.

Then when you go to bill for the “extras” you are told there’s no money for them and besides you agreed at the time to just throw them in as part of the job. Yup, we’ve seen this happen more times than we would like to admit. Obviously you don’t want to upset the client, but on the other hand, you have to pay for your added expenses including the time your crew put in over and above the call of duty. In the end, you the artist/business person is stuck in the middle and the overages may have to come out of your pocket.


Defining Limits

So how do you avoid such a difficult situation? The professional thing to do is to deal with it before it becomes a problem. (Remember our definition of a professional being a person who deals with a potential problem before it becomes a problem?) The way to do this is to go back to our old friend the Advertising Photographers of America Estimate Form and to refer to your clearly defined “Description of Services and Rights Licensed.” As you will recall from the article on Estimating you wrote down as part of your estimate that you were going to execute a specific number of shots and assign the rights for those shots.
So when the topic of shooting a few extra shots “while you are up” comes along you can say, “I’ll be glad to do that. Just let me get the original estimate and figure out how much more that will cost. Then I will give you an Job Change Order and you can sign off on it, and I’ll be happy to do the additional work.”

Now there are several obvious advantages to handling this otherwise awkward situation in this fashion. If you agree to do the additional shots without compensation one time your client will think that is the way you do business so any further times they work with you they will feel free to have you tack on a few (and eventually more than a few) shots. It’s human nature. If you go ballistic when they ask for more than anticipated work for which you doubt you will get compensated then you will come off looking like a jerk and who wants to rehire a jerk? No, your best option is to address the circumstance honestly and openly, in a smiling matter of fact way, saying you’ll be happy to accommodate them once they agree to pay the additional fees and expenses, and they sign your form, which you just happen to have neatly folded in your equipment case.

The job change order form itself, available through the Advertising Photographers of America, or in the book, “Business and Legal Forms for Photographers-Third Edition,” by Tad Crawford, Allworth Press, is a humble document that lists the number of additional shots, the name of the shots to be taken, the rights licensed and the costs involved. Once that is signed off you are back in business. When you bill for the job you simply include a copy of the signed change order and total the original amount plus the amount for the add-ons. It’s as simple as that. No histrionics; just straight forward business.

Keep in mind that to come up with a figure on the spot can be crazy making. Here is where your professionalism comes into play again. Back when creating your estimate take into consideration how much it would be to shoot any images the client requests on the spot. I suggest that you write down a breakdown for each shot so it will help you to have a pretty good idea as to how much you should charge should the question come up. Then, when you are actually in the situation, you should not have too much trouble formulating a price. There is always the possibility that the light will be better in a different location, or the client will want an extra shot for some other extended usage. Once when I was involved in an annual report shoot the president of the company asked if we could shoot—“while we were there”—some additional shots of new products and also some passport photos of the board of directors because they were going to have to travel to their new offices overseas. You have to hand it to them. Thank goodness for the job change order forms.


Have Release Forms Handy

Also on the topic of forms it is imperative to have a handful of release forms handy in your camera case. These would include Model releases for adults and minors, and Property releases. Even if the models have their own releases from their modeling agencies you must have them fill out one of your releases. Again those types of forms are readily available through the sources mentioned above. The simpler the forms the better since many people have an aversion to signing anything with legal jargon on it. The form will have you named as the author of the work, the purpose of the photograph, the compensation (for a dollar amount, or for prints), the signatures of the model and a witness, and the date. I know of a lot of photographers who are too casual about getting release forms signed and then have a problem allowing their images to be used for stock because they do not have documentation to use the photos.

Another important item to have is a job jacket which simply is an envelope large enough to put all of the pertinent paperwork for the job inside of. So your estimate, your change order form, a production sheet (which I will discuss in the next article on Expense Accountability), any receipts including your petty cash envelope, call sheet (with contact information for all involved), and any other notes, maps, directions, reference shots of the location, head shots of the talent, etc. can be easily accessed for any information regarding the shoot. On the outside of that job jacket I write in large print with a Sharpie three things, namely the name of the client, the name of the project/job, and the studio’s job number so I can reference the job and have everything in one place.

The execution of any photo shoot is a journey not only of your creativity but also of your ability to understand the vision your client has in mind. That vision is made up of all kinds of preconceived notions and the hope that you can make the vision better than they can imagine it. Your job is to extract that image, bring together all the resources you need, and translate their dreams into a visual reality. Not only that but you also have to be ready to address the business issues that arise so you can protect your work and be compensated fairly. For anyone who thinks the profession of photography is an excuse for a hobby send them to me and I will set them straight.


In retrospect in the preceding articles we have taken a look at what it takes for us to define our passion for photography through our portfolio. Then we looked into how we can market ourselves to the clients who need what we love to shoot. Next we scrutinized what it would take to develop the most comprehensive estimate, with special emphasis on the development of our fees and an explanation of the production charges. We also discussed the intricacies of the pre-production and coordination processes. And in this article we gave consideration to some of the things you should be aware of during the execution of the photographic assignment and how to handle potentially challenging situations. But how can you keep track of your time and expenses during a shoot without being driven to the brink of distraction so you can accurately develop your billing? In my next article I will suggest some simple ways to organize your paperwork thereby freeing you up to spend more time on your creative expression.


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

Todd Johnson—I think I am simply a guy too stubborn to be content with what is generally agreed to be reality. As a child I collected my passions and looked for ways to mash them together, visualizing what crazy thing would result. When it was time to create a career, I just looked at the top of my list and saw 1) photography 2) cars 3) traveling. 18 years passed living that childhood dream, and it was time to check my list and reassess. I still loved the same things, but with a wife and baby, my priorities shifted. I felt a hunger to create something truly valuable for others and share that passion with my son. While watching people escape fires here in California, it hit me, so many of these people were fleeing
with the one material thing that meant so much to them their wedding photographs.I am happy and grateful to be able to collaborate with amazing couples to create images that they are excited about, and will pass on to their children and grandchildren. View Todd Johnson’s web site.

Text ©2009 Tony Luna. Photos © Todd Johnson.

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