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 sixth 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 the first three elements of what I call the Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job. Those first three elements comprise the Sales aspects necessary to define and promote your work. In the last two installments, Estimating Fees and Estimating Expenses, we focused on the process of envisioning a photographic assignment and then setting the costs that will allow you to execute the assignment to the best of your ability. In this installment, we will examine the topic of coordinating, or producing the job so you will have the best talent, tools, and conditions available to exercise your creativity.
Let’s assume that you carefully put together a dynamite portfolio using the criteria mentioned in the first article on presentation, and that you got the attention of the client you most wanted to attract by creating the most refined and most targeted client list by using the tips in the articles on client contact, and self-promotion and marketing. Then, let’s accept that the estimates of your fees for the job and the anticipated expenses were so comprehensive that the client just had to pick up the phone to ask you to explain your vision in more detail. You rocked his/her world so much with your professionalism, perception, and enthusiasm that they had no choice but to award the job to you. Just about the time you were about to give up on this idea of making a living as a professional photographer they called and had the faith in you to sign your estimate, deliver a purchase order for you to sign, and now you are ready to work your fingers to the bone to impress them because this job will be your launching pad for more innovative and inspired work.
But wait, before you proceed you have to pull all the elements together to make this job a reality. It is often said that in any business you are always fighting three things and you seldom have all of these three working for you at the same time: product, money, and time. In our industry those three elements have slightly different names but they are similar in that you hardly ever have the opportunity to have them equally distributed. In our trade I call creativity, budget, and money the “not-so-holy trinity” because they often prove to be barriers to the successful completion of an assignment. You may have the product ready to shoot but there’s not enough time to get it shot, so it will cost more to get the job done. Or you may have the time and the money but the product isn’t ready so something has to give. But here’s where I differ with conventional wisdom because I believe you can have all three if, and only if, you do an accurate job of preparation before the job even gets started by putting extra effort into the pre-production. This effort comes by way of doing your homework—you surround yourself with the best suppliers, have the right equipment at your disposal, and create an atmosphere in which you can anticipate any exigency that may come along. With a little diligence, it is possible to be the ring-master and tame these three competing forces so they can work in concert.
I like to ask my students to give me a definition of a professional. Some will say a professional is someone who has lots of experience. Others will say a professional is a person who has extensive schooling. Another will state that a professional is someone who gets paid for their job. In the definition I am looking for, I say that a professional is a person who can anticipate a potential problem and take care of it before it becomes a problem. That simple definition encompasses the other three definitions because it implies experience, education, the common sense that comes from hands on involvement, and someone who gets paid well because they can avoid mistakes.
So where does anyone get that kind of expertise? There are many excellent formal and informal sources for education on learning how to use your equipment, but the true test is to get out and assist a professional photographer for as long as it takes to feel you can handle a project on your own.
I cannot underscore the value of assisting because it is your time to compare management styles, to watch a pro talk with a client and find out how to communicate, how to deal with suppliers, etc. In other words this is your time to find out how you want to eventually run your photography business. While you are assisting, you must keep your eyes and ears open to learn who the best support personnel are and why they are considered the best. It is during this formative period that you begin to appreciate the importance of pre-production and how to assign responsibilities.
How do you find assisting jobs? One popular way is to join photography trade organizations (APA, ASMP, EP, PP of A, and others), which keep lists of people wishing to assist (and their skill levels) and have your name listed. If you are enrolled at an institution that teaches photography, you can ask your faculty for recommendations so you can meet the photographers whose work you admire the most and see if they need any assistance. Or you can go the old school route and boldly go up to a photographer’s studio, knock on the door, and ask if they need any help. Legendary photographer Phil Marco once told me that is how he got started. When Phil was young he had a variety of jobs and then one day saw an ad for a photo assistant. He went to the studio and noticed water coming out underneath the door. The photographer had been shooting a series of ads for Dial soap and when the photographer answered the door, and more water spilled out onto the sidewalk, Phil told him he didn’t know very much about photography but was willing to learn and do whatever was necessary. The photographer handed him a mop and gave him the job on the spot. The difference between Phil and just any Joe off the street was that he had a great work ethic, he absorbed as much as he could about the technical aspects of photography, and also a willingness to learn how to run a business, including how to work with the best support services.
I should also mention here that I have heard very good things about a service in New York City that has photo assistant boot camps. The service can be reached through 1ProPhoto.com, and 1ProCrew.com and is dedicated to working with photographers, photo assistants, and digital techs.
There is also the key importance of networking that ties in with networking. Once you have identified the people with whom you want to work, you need to keep in touch with them. As I have stated earlier, it is important to identify like-mined people—people with whom you share certain interests and whose company you enjoy. This may seem obvious but it is a fact of life that people come and go in our industry and it is very easy to lose track of associates. Today we have numerous Internet-based social networks and they help to keep current with compatriots, but you have to have real-time, face-to-face relations to keep up with what is going on in your segment of the industry. You can tweet and text all you want but you have to follow that up with having a cup of coffee and finding out who is doing what and what other talented people are up to.
Given that you have accumulated a generous number of contacts and references, how do you get started with your pre-production? Among other things you will need the estimate (Budget) you just created, a calendar (Schedule), and your layouts and/or shot list (Product), along with your signed paperwork to get things rolling.
Once I have decided who will be the best support for the job, I create a call sheet on which I write the names of the best personnel for the job, their contact information (including cell phone and land line phone numbers, and email addresses), and the dates you will need their services. I create a simple spreadsheet, and leave room for notes. I list my primary personnel and a back-up person in case an emergency arises. Then I call each person to find out their availability for the window of time I have worked out with the client. This is usually a process of a number of call backs because in very few instances are all the people I want available on the exact same dates. (When initially discussing the schedule with the client I ask them to give me as many alternative dates as possible so I have some wiggle room.) There are some suppliers that both the photographer I work with and I feel are so essential to the successful completion of the job, we will do whatever we have to do to work with their schedules. We are usually working with freelancers who have other commitments. You also have to keep in mind that if any one of them falters on their duties during the job, it falls on our shoulders because we were the ones who chose and hired them. As I say to my students, it is as true in Newtonian Physics as it is in plumbing: waste flows downhill, and if our suppliers mess up we have to accept some of the responsibility.
When everyone’s schedule is lined up, I then make sure I talk with them and discuss the time framework, the responsibilities, our expectations, the fees that have been allocated for their services, and any expenses that will be paid as part of the job (while referring to the estimate). I also take the time to talk about contingencies such as weather delays, postponements and cancellations. It doesn’t matter if I have worked with them for thirty years—I still make sure they are aware of the objectives of the job and what they can expect to be paid. Don’t take anything for granted. They may have raised their prices or have new added charges from the last time you worked and you don’t want any surprises after the job is finished. Treating your support personnel with respect will help to ensure they will want to work with you on the next project and develop a lasting relationship so they can grow along with you.
These days with all the technology available, it is fairly easy to get in touch with just about any type of service such as lining up equipment, locations, insurance, props, expendables, vehicles, travel services, meals, etc. You can pretty much get all that kind of information from your laptop, an iPhone or Blackberry. The convergence in communications devices is becoming more all-inclusive and it beats the old days when we needed a land line phone, money for pay phones, and a copy of the Yellow Pages. I still rely on “L.A. 411” in Los Angeles, and “NYC 411” in New York and production handbooks (for specific information in a two-dimensional, lug around, analog form.) They are still essential to me because I feel comfortable with them complete with dog-ear pages, notes in the margins, and Post-it notes. Use whatever works for you but make sure you have access to those inside bits of information like the name of the security guard who can get you on the job site after hours, or the secret phone number of the guy at the rental house who will let you bring in the equipment late and not charge you for an extra day if you get it to him before he closes.
If you have done a good job on your estimate, the pre-production process should move along fairly well. While there are hardly ever jobs that run completely smoothly without glitches of any kind, a well formulated estimate will help greatly to pave the way to a successful pre-production process. That is because it is exactly that—a process or series of steps that every job must maneuver in order to keep moving along. There are jobs that may seem as though they are shoot-from-the-hip, where you are given a shot list and you get the best out of the elements at hand, but even those require some pre-thought, some amount of preparation. It always makes me chuckle when a client says that we make the job look so easy. I suppose the deceptive aspect of any work accomplished by a professional is that it looks so easy to an outsider. The swing of a big league baseball bat looks easy after years of Little League, high school coaching, and minor league work to hone hitting skills. A late Picasso drawing looks easy after a lifetime of perfecting his unique approach to his work.
The point is that anyone who takes on the role of coordinating a production must have a clear vision of the outcome and then fill in the steps necessary to achieve the goal with a minimum of distractions along the way. I have had projects in which the locations changed at the last moment, or the product was being developed at the same time the photos for the ads were being shot so there were couriers on stand-by to bring any new products to supplement what had just been shot. In every instance, there had to be some contingency built into the pre-production to accommodate the client. As the coordinator for the job, I had to take that contingency into consideration without overstepping the limitations of the budget. If it did go beyond the original specs, I had to inform the client so we could change the budget or change the concept. A coordinator has to be flexible yet realistic, always keeping in mind that whatever changes are made the creative objectives are not compromised.
The coordinator also has to think dimensionally and be aware that when one thing changes that alteration will inevitably affect other aspects of the project. No change is isolated, and change is a reality in any creative product. That kind of dimensional thinking can only be gained though experience. You remember in my article on Estimating Fees, I mentioned the mnemonic device that will help you remember the most important questions to ask a client when they call regarding a potential job. One of the elements in that aforementioned “C-U-T-E M-E-X” memory aid is “E” for Expertise. This is where your expertise and experience gets its reward. Presumably, the more expertise you have under your belt the more you have to offer, and the more you can charge for your services.
A production coordinator must also have great communication skills—the skills of a seasoned salesperson because they may have to negotiate on the spot. Many times you do not have the luxury of prolonged negotiations. You must come to decisions quickly. Therefore, you have to have an appreciation for the whole job and know what you may have to sacrifice in order to keep the integrity of the concept.
You may have to be the one to fulfill this role, or you may be able to assign someone this job, but keep in mind the virtues of a good coordinator. As in the case of the well-executed estimate, a well-organized and thought-out pre-production procedure will eliminate problems when actually shooting the job. It all comes back to that simple concept that there has to be a balance between the concept, the budget, and the schedule. If you have all the pieces in place going into the job, it is possible to have all three working to enhance each other. As an artist entrepreneur, keep in mind that everything must work to the advantage of the creative product. Never hamstring yourself or your crew from doing the best possible job. When the budget or the timing become problems, let the clients know immediately and make the appropriate adjustments. Don’t expect that things will work themselves out—they seldom do. And when things don’t work themselves out, something will have to give, which will mean either the creativity will suffer or you will end up executing work for which you will not get paid. I see this happen all the time when people with whom I am consulting call to tell me that they didn’t want to upset their client so they “absorbed” the extra work they did on a job. This is insane to me and can be eliminated by simply communicating what the parameters of the job are and how an alternative can be created on the spot. We will never be treated as professionals unless and until we act as professionals. An important aspect of that is to prepare for the best possible experience for all concerned on the assignment.
So far, we have taken a look at what it takes for us to define our passion for photography through our portfolio and how to market ourselves to the most appropriate potential clients. Then we examined what it takes to put together the most comprehensive estimate including our fees and production charges. We just analyzed the pre-production and coordination process. Now we are ready to move on to the next stage—the stage that you have been preparing yourself for through all your hard work; the Execution phase. Finally, we will get around to your unique set of skills. In the next article, we will consider what goes on during a photographic assignment and some of the things you will need to keep in mind so you can deliver images that bear the hallmark of your creativity.
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.
Tony Di Zinno was recently asked to be on the advisory board of an NGO called Mountain to Mountain. This in turn took him to Kabul last November (2008) to work with young Afghani photojournalists at a fledgling photo agency called AINA. The resulting images were made while in Central Asia and will be part of a traveling photo exhibit to benefit these photographers and their continuing education, and help them to become self-sufficient. To find out more about the important work being done by Colorado-based Mountain to Mountain and the dZi foundation, visit this site: www.mountain2mountain.com.