Once you’ve been shooting for a while (and becoming good at it) someone will inevitably ask you if you are interested in shooting something for a fee, either for a commercial or editorial job (but for the sake of discussion I am labeling any paid shoot as a commercial shoot).
Your first paid assignment will certainly be very exciting, but there are a few things you should know before saying yes.
Shooting commercially is pretty different from shooting for yourself, mainly because you are paid to shoot for someone else. You are paid to deliver someone else’s vision of a great shot, so the first rule in the house is to understand what that vision is.
1) Establish expectations and requirements
It is very important to establish expectations. Never agree to a job or give a quote before knowing roughly (you’d never know exactly what’s on the client’s mind) what kind of images they are looking for. Ask the client for images that closely approximate what is required, so you can a) know what they are looking for, and b) know if you are capable of delivering that standard and quality.
Disputes happen when both client and photographer assume they are talking about the same thing before the shoot, only to discover later that they have very different ideas in mind. Set the stage right by using reference visuals and discussing the requirements of the job in detail, and make sure all these agreements are in black-and-white to protect the interest of both parties.
2) Understand the intended use of the images
It is important to understand how the client intends to use the images for two reasons: pricing and execution. The price you quote may vary according to the usage of the image, so you may charge much more if the images are going to be used on a nation wide advertisement than a local store poster, even though the images may be the same. This is known in the industry as license/usage rights.
Secondly, knowing how the image is going to be used helps you plan better. For example, if the image is going to appear as a wall mural advertisement, you might need to discuss with the client if a medium-format digital back is required for the highest resolution. Or if the image is going to be used as a cover or poster, you need to shoot in portrait format and leave space for the title and promotion text.
Always clarify with the client on the usage of the image before the shoot, discuss any technical and layout requirements, and confirm the deliverables (format of the files, resolution etc).
3) Quote realistically and reasonably
Always quote realistically, and that means taking into account all your expenses, time and effort. If you need references for a realistic quote, check with any professional photographer you know, or give a shout out to your photography community. Just because you have a day job doesn’t mean that you should quote a ridiculously low price to secure the shoot.
Never charge a low rate because you don’t need the money or you don’t think you are good enough. If your client hires you because you are competent enough to deliver the results, charge the rates you deserve.
Take into consideration the time for discussion, research, preparation, shoot and post-production. You will be surprised at how much time a job takes in addition to the actual shoot day. And yes, get a signed work order or quote before you start shooting!
4) Preparation and packing
As the famous adage goes, “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” Preparation is very important for a commercial shoot. One does not turn up on-site and muck around the set hoping for something to work.
A good photographer starts by preparing sketches of the shots required, detailing the layout and lighting set-up required for the production. The sketches provide very useful references to set up the images quickly, and reduce the stress on you during the shoot. If you have assistants, it helps them understand what you need so you can go through the shoot with the client while they set up the gear for you.
But preparation starts way before that — when you are packing your gear. As you sketch the diagrams for the shots, you are really helping yourself plan the equipment needed. You may realize you need certain props, lenses or lighting gear when conceptualizing the sketch, so be sure to write them down when you’re packing your bag. And do bring back-up equipment for the critical gear such as camera or lights. Your client paid for your services and will not take kindly to any excuses.
You can probably begin to understand why professional photographers charge a higher rate — there’s simply so much behind the scenes before the shooting even begins!
5) Sign offs
Always insist that the client has to be on-site to approve the images during the shoot. As the shoot progresses, the client has to sign-off on the image before you start to tear down the set. Basically, this signifies them saying, “yes this is the image we want, so you may proceed with the next set-up/stop for the day.”
If you are shooting tethered to a computer, a lot of software such as CaptureOne or Adobe Bridge lets the client rate the images for shortlisting later. When the shoot ends, the client can go through the images and decide if they have something they want, or if you need to continue shooting. Before you tear down the set, get them to confirm in writing by signing off a document with the image numbers (eg. IMG0863.jpg) of the selected photos.
It’s challenging but fulfilling
So there you have it: the 5 essential tips for your first commercial gig! Shooting for yourself is always fun and entertaining, but a paid assignment is like having the sword of Damocles hanging over your head. No matter how nice the client seems, there is tension at the back of your mind reminding you not to screw up the job.
Half the work takes place before the shoot — the discussions, research and preparation already determines 50% of your success rate. The rest depends on you thinking on your feet during the shoot and being able to handle the client or agency simultaneously.
Shooting commercially is certainly challenging, but it is also very rewarding when you get rewarded financially, and there is the feeling of pride when you see your images in print advertisements or on billboards. Start off with smaller jobs and you will soon pick up more experience in handling larger assignments. Good luck!
Image credit: Photographs by Nelson Tan, all rights reserved.