Advertising photography is not for the faint of heart. It might be better said that it's an exercise in terror, punctuated by precious few moments of sanity, accompanied with a pinch of stomach-churning trepidation. Otherwise…it's fun.
Recently I was recounting my first experience as an advertising photographer. I won't go into the details here, but let's just say it was a lesson in humility and was less than a stellar debut. Although we got the needed pictures, neither I nor the client were pleased with the manner in which it was done. As a frustrated football coach after the game when asked about his team's execution once said, "I'm all for it!" I pretty much felt the same way.
Having noted that, let's look a bit more "behind the scenes" as to how an advertising shoot comes together. It might be surprising to learn that, like many things these days, it takes a lot more time to plan a job than to actually execute it.
Of course, the first step in any commercial photography endeavor is to catch the eye of a potential client…and not just any client. One of the things I've learned over the years is that not every client needs my level of expertise and frankly, not every client can afford my services. I don't want that to sound off-putting, but it's a simple fact that larger companies spend more on advertising, as they know that in order to produce a job, many diverse elements come into creating custom images for their marketing needs. Smaller companies just can't sustain that level of production, financially speaking. Also, there are those (usually small) business owner's that don't see the value of creating custom images, and would rather spend their marketing dollars elsewhere. That's OK too, as the sooner I figure that out, the sooner I can move on to a company that has the financial resources to produce custom images that speaks specifically to their marketing message.
Once a company has been attracted to my product, namely advertising photography, then the conversation may begin. It is not unusual for this process to take months, if not years, before it comes to fruition. This is yet another reason why advertising photography is not for the faint of heart. It takes a long time to develop a client base that will sustain your business, and that will allow your company to grow, and prosper. It's a very symbiotic relationship, and should be viewed through that lens. If I can produce excellent images that helps my client attract their clients, and helps promote their product or service successfully, then that is the basis of a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. This is where we all need to be...
With that in mind, let's say that you've attracted a client (or better yet, will be working again with a current client!), and it's time to determine what is needed. Many times I'll begin the conversation by asking how much they have in their budget for photography. While this may sound like I'm fishing for a number (I am…), it not because I don't know how much to charge for a particular job. Mainly, it's an indicator of how much production a client may expect to devote in creating images. If the budget is low, then that will necessarily limit the resources that can be brought to the job. If there is a decent (or heaven forbid, healthy) budget, then I can bring a much greater array of resources to bear on the visual problem, and thereby offer a greater spectrum of solutions. It offers a much greater degree of flexibility in creating images that will not only meet expectations, but in a perfect world, wildly exceed them.
Commercial photographers, like other businesses, have fixed overhead, including but not limited to such items as communications (telephone, internet service, websites, blog, email, etc.), insurance (one of my biggest overhead expenses), taxes, salary, vehicle, self-promotion, development of new images, equipment, cameras, lighting, software, computers, and so on. It's actually a fairly long list.
Having said that, once those expenses are covered in an estimate, the production costs must also be factored in too. Items such as assistants, digital technicians, hair and makeup artists, stylists, carpenters and set-builders, lighting rental, equipment rental, location motor homes if necessary, catering, production coordinators, post-production and retouching, shipping charges, and vehicle mileage, are just some of the items required to do a "proper job" as our British friends say.
Then, there is usage. What's that you say? In advertising, one of the primary questions to ask before creating an estimate is "where and for how long will the images be used?" If an image is to be used for a long period of time, and in many areas (magazine ads, television, website, postcards, point of purchase ads, billboards, mailers, etc.) then by definition it has tremendous value to the client, and should be priced accordingly. If the distribution is limited, and/or to be used for a short period of time, then the value is lesser, and the pricing reflects that. It should be mentioned that factoring usage into an estimate is almost as much art, as it is science. Experience plays a key role here, and there are consultants that help with this sort of thing.
If both parties know and recognize these parameters, then the "nitty gritty" of the job can begin. How many images do you need? Will it be shot on location or in the studio? Will models be needed? Professionals, or will amateurs do? What other resources do we need, such as a hangar, an FBO (fixed base operator), one or several aircraft, personnel to move them around? What about weather? Will any air-to-air images be needed? If so, we'll need a plane and experienced photo-ship pilot as a shooting platform. What will the background be? What time of day can we shoot? Are there any airspace restrictions we need to be aware of? Are the two aircraft compatible, in an aviation sense? What is the end use of the images? Will any special equipment (radios) be needed to produce the intended results? How many people will be available on the ground, if necessary?
As you can see, it can get very complicated very quickly. It's like a puzzle that one has to get an overall feel for, and then begin to fit together. Oh, and did I mention we have a very short period of time to get this done? Again, not for the faint of heart… Experience can play a key role here in knowing, ahead of time, what will be required to pull off a job in a smooth and timely manner, and to bring back the images necessary to make the client happy.
Of course, we haven't even mentioned that we are supposed to be creating ART! Heaven help us if we are fumbling around on set, trying to get a particular piece of equipment to work, or trying to figure out how our new camera works. Those are givens, and any photographer not prepared to handle those items will have a short career.
So, let's say our estimate has been approved, we have a definite shot list, models are scheduled, the FBO has agreed to participate, aircraft are scheduled, and our team has been assembled. Once those parameters are known and in place, then a definite shooting schedule can be laid out, so that everyone knows what is expected.
Then, it's time to EXECUTE! With a solid plan in place, and everyone does their job, the weather gods cooperate, the models show up on time, and none of the equipment breaks, then there is a good chance we'll be able to create art…and it can be incredibly satisfying and rewarding when it all comes together.
But like I said…it's not for the faint of heart...