7 Tips For Photography Clients
Recently I read an interesting article published by a photography producer, Chase Jarvis. The subject was nine tips for photographers and videographers on how to stick within their production budget. It described the pre-production steps that would make certain the image creator remained in control of production and was able to confidently report back to the client on how their budget had been spent.
However, it’s equally important for the photographer or videographer to have a clear channel of communication with the client and to ensure that the client understands what is expected from them. The client expects their budget to create extraordinary images; the image-maker expects their client to be a source of helpful information so that they can produce these images.
In much the same vein as the Chase Jarvis article, here are seven tips for clients on how to perfect pre-production.
Be clear – or rather, Know What You Want (or Know That You Don’t Know What You Want).
Make sure that you have a strong understanding of what you, as a client, want your creative(s) to produce. You will be the entity funding the project, so it’s in your best interests to state exactly what you need for your marketing and communications purposes. A creative brief is perfect for this.
Everything you want created should be in your brief. Provide a list of all of the items you need to have photographed. Preferably with a priority designation. A list of some alternatives, nice-to-haves, or if-there’s-time ideas are very welcome, but it’s not just enough to write a list of what you want. Your photographer or videographer needs to see what you have written and have a conversation with you about everything on it. They will be building both their final creative solution and their costing estimate based on your brief. So make sure it is all in the brief.
There tend to be two types of client: the smaller, hands-on client who is used to being involved, and the larger, outsource-to-the-experts client. Both types have their advantages, but knowing which you are can help you to navigate this stage of pre-production.
Larger clients know that photography or videography is not the specialty of their business, it’s just one of many tools that they use to present their core message to their customer base. This doesn’t mean they’re not creative – they may have a very creative brand manager, head of creative, or marketing director with years of experience who “gets” all of that creative wizardry. Nevertheless, larger clients also know that to obtain the best work, they must hire people who can create what they need with a particular aesthetic. If you are a larger client, you should already recognize that your image creators will need a clear brief on what you need them to create. In the best case scenario, we’re not even talking directly to you, the client, we’re talking to the art director at your agency of record. The business case, strategic plan, and market dissection are all very nice, but may be abstract or esoteric for your creative people. A good creative brief might summarize some of that information in one simple paragraph, but the meat-and-potatoes of the creative brief should be image-driven. If there is an art director involved, we’re on a roll. If the image maker is going to be art director or someone that we’ve worked with before, we’re already approaching the jackpot. The key is that we all need to speak the same language. You know this when you’re faced with it; for instance, you want to a sell sun lotion product with a sunset shot of a couple kissing on a beach and their child playing. Great. What kind of couple will it feature? A young one or an old one? A designer-chic one or a trailer-park one? Are they cautiously protecting their child from the sun’s harmful rays by sitting under a parasol and wearing wide-brimmed hats, while wagging their fingers at the sun? Or are they flirting in the glorious warm rays of the beautiful light on a tropical beach at a gorgeous resort? If your creative brief hasn’t communicated this—the mood that you want to convey—and your art director doesn’t really know what you want, then your photographer will be lost. So be clear what you want, and if you don’t know, have a conversation to dig down to all of the details and explore what best fits your needs.
Smaller clients sometimes actually don’t know what they want either in the creative sense. That’s fine. We don’t expect you to. The creative experts are there to help you discover that. Problems often occur when the smaller client –often an entrepreneur used to being in charge of every aspect of their business, or a young company in a rapid-growth stage – thinks they know what they want, or sometimes doesn’t know what they want but won’t admit it, and continues to state what they think they should want! Confusing for all, to say the least. In these cases, it’s best for the smaller business owner to step back from the process and relinquish some control to a professional and experienced creative team. Power struggles on-set simply lead to poor-quality results as everybody frantically works to find compromises rather than the most effective solutions. Of course, in a subjective and creative field, there is no one “right” answer, but it is best if you, as a client, trust that you have hired your image creator for a good reason and let them do their job. If you follow the other steps and encourage good communication, by this stage you should be feeling confident that the creative you hired knows exactly what you want and can deliver.
Let your image-maker do research
Once everybody is clear on exactly what they want, the photographer or videographer will be able to go away, make many phone calls, gather lots of numbers, and return with a realistic estimate of the cost to realise that particular vision. If a client is ever in the situation where they are asking somebody on the spot “how much?” and expecting a number, then it’s pretty clear to the photographer that they have no idea of the scope of their project. In which case the job is probably going to be too small for them to risk taking on, because this type of client will constantly be wondering why everything costs so much, or why everything takes so long, or why everything needs to be so complex. They won’t understand all of the behind the scenes planning, preparation, and work.
A proper shoot needs to be costed properly. There are hard costs—equipment rental, studio or location rentals, models or talent, and props hiring, transportation and accommodation, food for cast and crew, techies, assistants and makeup, hair and stylists, and maybe also lighting, sound, scriptwriters, roadies, and other grip. Gathering all of these quotes, researching and producing realistic estimates for all of these departments will take the photographer time and effort. Those line items alone should indicate just how many independent businesses are involved in the production of a client shoot.
Then there are the more subjective and market-driven expenses—the creative fee and the usage/licensing fees. Again, the image-maker needs to do research. You may well receive some emails or phone calls from them if you haven’t provided all of the necessary information. For example, in what media is the work going to run? In what geographical regions? For how long? How important is the image in conveying the overall message (for example, are you looking for a tiny image on a page of other information, such as an author’s portrait on a book sleeve, or is the image itself going to be the main message, such as a full-page print advertisement shot of a new iPhone?). And of course, how creative or stylized would you like the final product to be? The creative fee will take that decision heavily into account based on the experience of the person who will do the heavy-lifting, so it’s wise to have an open dialogue with the creative on whether you’re looking for a Spielberg-esque or a Paranormal Activity-esque impact.
There are also post-production fees to consider. These combine simple but necessary tasks, labour-intensive skills, and subjective and experience-driven skills. Don’t be surprised when your creative charges you for retouching, cataloguing, editing, couriering, or storage. As we are all discovering in the digital age, there are real time and storage costs associated with the terabytes of data that a photo and video shoot generate. It is real work to make these raw files usable for any client use. The proverbial Cousin Jed offering to jump-in for free because he’s really good at Photoshop is akin to having your Cousin Jed add some new coats of paint to your car because he’s got some spare cans in his garage and just bought a spray gun. It’s not that simple and involves many more stages, that’s why there are professionals for post-production, and that’s why they charge professional fees.
Large or small client, your project will need a subset of all of these elements to be well executed, so be prepared to discuss the details at this stage so that the creative can build a comprehensive plan.
Logistics – Where, When, How, Why, and What-if?
This ultimately comes down to having all of your ducks in a row. Delays happen, department budgets change, project priorities are bumped up and down. Give as much lead time to your creative team as possible and leave slippage time in your timeline for unexpected bottlenecks from start to finish. It’s a disappointment to the client and the creative when last minute changes are necessary, but it’s not the end of the world. To mitigate the costs and disruption of changes, it’s best to analyse the severity and importance of the changes beforehand, and to determine if a change made now will lead to ripples later. To the client a change might appear to be minor, but it might mean rewriting copy on-the-fly, redesigning complex lighting setups, or finding new wardrobe to match newly approved colours. The old “just swap that out in Photoshop” usually involves lots of work for a digital tech in finding the perfect images to retouch and/or swap. It is definitely the creative’s job to accommodate the client, but if the client becomes aware of even the smallest changes up-front, it is cheaper and easier to identify them as soon as possible. Of course, changes don’t necessarily mean more expense or overtime, but changing things on-the-fly on-set usually mean there is less time to execute the client’s planned shots, and then there definitely will be overtime to make up for the changes.
Also, if you know you have a hard deadline by which time you absolutely must have the images, work backward from there. There’s an old adage that says, “You can have anything Fast, Cheap, or Good. Pick Two.” Bear this in mind and adjust your budget, schedule, and quality standards accordingly.
Over-communicate – Talk, Listen, Accommodate. Repeat.
As mentioned in the previous point, if you have information about the project, pass it along. If the information was passed to you, it probably needs to be in the hands of the creators sooner rather than later. If you came up with the information, communicate it in a clear manner. Also, give the team an idea of its importance. Some clients are by nature just full of ideas, so any good photographer/videographer out to please their client will listen to them. This doesn’t mean all of the ideas suggested are good or important or appropriate. But it puts your hired hands in a bit of a pickle if you are suggesting things to them and they think the suggestion is a directive or a must-have. If you can phrase your ideas in a way that makes their importance more obvious, you’ll relieve any unnecessary stress and know what will be prioritized at the shoot. For example, “I like the red lipstick you’re using on the model, but since our company red is more orangey, I think it’s pretty important that we stay consistent with that colour palette” is better than “Oh, I love red lips, so cool! Let’s do something that’s on-trend for this season too!”. The former sounds like a “must-have” and should be elevated to the next shot; the latter sounds like a “if we have time, maybe, sort-of, or not”, and will likely only be done if it doesn’t cause disruption. It’s definitely important that the client voice their opinion and be heard, rather than wait until the proofs return, only to realize that the colours are all wrong and they have to pay for another piece of retouch work.
Get it in writing – “This” is what we’re going to shoot…
We’ve already covered the creative brief to some extent. You also need to sign a contract with your hired creative. It will ensure that everybody involved is clear on what they are obliged to provide, when, and at what stage. A contract does not have to be a complex legal document drafted by lawyers in legalese. The key features are the names of the parties involved, what is to be produced, and when it will be delivered. Going into as much detail as possible in each of these key sections is better in terms of covering your back in case something is not delivered as required. You can even point to your creative brief as an additional document with detailed descriptions of the image elements. So as stated before, it’s in the client’s interest to develop a clear understanding of what you want, communicate it clearly to your creative, incorporate the feedback from the creative, and, once you’re all agreed on what you’re going to make, put it down on paper and sign-off.
Changes that come later can always be accommodated with further addendum (if you’re being formal), or simply in emails that refer to the contract. However, expect any additions to have additional expenses, if they mean more work will need to be done. It’s only reasonable and it prevents the notorious scope creep <insert this hyperlink: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scope_creep > that occurs when both parties don’t have a written agreement defining the project’s scope.
Bear in mind that a contract holds both parties to deliverables, ensures payment for agreed work, establishes a timeline, and protects both parties. The client should make sure that they have delivered to the creative everything they need to work. But they should also hold their creative to their side of the contract, making sure that everything they have agreed upon is being delivered and that it will be done within the agreed time. It usually does not require a still reference to the contractual terms to prod the photographer, but as often happens on shoots, creative exuberance can take hold and too many new ideas may push the planned shoot slightly off-course. A reminder of what was originally planned and a suggestion to adjust the contract may be helpful to either steer the project back on-course or formally permit new directions.
Also note that various jurisdictions have different rules and regulations on what is and is not considered a legal contract, so do your research regarding your obligations.
Prepare for surprises – “What’s our contingency?”
On the day of the shoot, something will go unexpectedly wrong. It’s <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murphy%27s_law Murphy’s Law >. The photographer will have their contingency, you must have yours. If the photographer runs up to you and says the talent is sick and the only replacement they could find is on standby but will blow the budget…be thankful that they thought of a contingency in the first place and had a solution to present rather than a problem. But you will ultimately have to sign-off of this. Do not assign blame. Just be ready for these sorts of things happening. Of course, it is a balancing act. When the surprises are small and lead to minimal change, the right course of action is simple. But if something disastrous or catastrophic occurs—Act of God type scenarios—the situation may be beyond immediate repair or may require you to consult with others. Just ensure you have everyone that you may need to reach on speed-dial. For instance, you may need to check with a company director or you may need to check with your printer, but if you can’t get the required response in reasonable time, your only option may be to postpone the shoot and reschedule for another time or location. Bear in mind that your expenses will now have climbed. Your contract should have included a clause for unexpected delays, and everybody involved will be sympathetic to this. So talk to everybody and see how feasible it would be to move everything around if absolutely necessary. Don’t lose your head. There will be a solution, it just might be hard to see at that moment, and particularly when you have so much invested in the original plan.
Pay on time
Just because you’re waiting for your accountant to do your books, doesn’t mean your creative team should be kept waiting. If you have their invoices, start processing them as fast as possible. The photographer usually has subcontracted many other services or paid up-front for goods. If they have managed this by using credit, they have a certain number of weeks before they accrue interest from their suppliers—a fee that they may well pass on to the client if payment is delayed. Late payment can be embarrassing, and, if the delay is extensive, it can affect a client’s reputation down the road, so it’s always advisable to pay promptly.
As a final thought, it is worth reiterating that every client-photographer relationship is symbiotic. Both sides need each other to solve a problem, improve their standing, and generate business income. It’s definitely worth developing a professional relationship based on mutual respect and appreciation for what the other party brings to the table and a frank, honest, and open level of communication. Once you have found a team that works for you, remember that experience. Cultivate the relationship and keep it fertile with new creative challenges. Make sure your team knows how appreciative you are. Keep the communications channels open, even in-between projects. Your calls will be returned more quickly when you have an emergency. Your next photo and video shoots will run more smoothly, be organised faster, and be of better quality when you work with people whom you trust and who give you their very best. After all, if your photographer knows that they have your trust, they will work above and beyond your requirements to ensure the best production.