How to hire a photographer
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I hire a surprising number of photographers considering that I work as a photographer. A lot of projects require second shooter or assistants. Also, I pass along overflow projects that I don’t have capacity for. So as a photographer and as someone occasionally hiring photographers, I can see where disconnects often occur between both sides.
As a photographer here are the things I try to suss out when I'm approached about the project: the timeline, the budget, my level of interest and if the client will be difficult. With agencies and photo editors, this is usually pretty easy (though not always). They generally hire a lot of photographers, approach the conversation very professionally and either provide this information up front or have a good idea of what they’re looking for (this either means they have a very exact image in mind and are look for someone technically capable or they have nothing specific in mind but like something I've done in the past and are aiming for that). Chances are, if you're a producer or photo editor you don't need this guide but if you're looking for someone for your restaurant, start up or your family photo session next week, this will probably be helpful. So here are the details I always hunt for when someone approaches me with a potential project or photo shoot:
A firm timeline is gold. If you give me an exact date, it makes my life a million times easier. Or a 2 week range and say that anything within that will work. I love both of those situations. They are easy to schedule. Also, a firm date or timeline range puts my mind at ease. I won't be as wary that the request is tenuous or a lark or just research (if you're doing research, that's totally fine but just tell me! I write a blog about photography so it's easier for young photographers and folks looking for photographers to navigate the world, I'm okay with research).
Moving along, I try not to book out shoots too far in advance. It’s hard for me to imagine what I’ll be doing in a year, so 6 months is generally the furthest out that I’ll book something. Wedding photographers will often book a year or two out. A lot of my friends that work on commercial photography projects seem to have a month or two mapped out at a time and often try to leave a day or two open here and there for interesting last minute projects. If you have a shoot that you're trying to find a photographer for next week, as long as you're flexible on the date you can probably find someone. For example, as I'm writing this I can tell you that I'm entirely booked next week except on Thursday.
Occasionally, shoots get pushed back. I tend not to get too concerned but if I'm working with someone for the first time and they push a shoot more than once without a good reason, I generally shift my focus to firmer projects. Sometimes, I get date hold requests. In those situations, I mark down the day and if someone else asks about the same day, I'll loop back to the first person or company to confirm within a business day. I've had a few agencies and companies abuse date holds recently and I'm reassessing if that's something I'm open to without a deposit moving forward.
Photo Shoot Budgets
For a great breakdown of photographer rates, I highly recommend Rosh Sillars guide to how much photographers charge in 2018. If you have a firm budget, especially on the low end, I would recommend being upfront about it. Talking through all of the logistics of a shoot only to discover that the budget is too far apart is not a good use of anyone’s time.
I don't want to delve too far into my photography rates because it ranges so much. For example, this year I've worked on projects that have started from a low of $200 to a high of $35,000. It all depends on how much work is required, what the image usage will be, possible production costs, travel costs and whether or not I'll retain the image copyright.
Overall Project Excitement
Here is where things get messy. If I am excited by an idea or location or brand that reaches out, I will occasionally bend on timeline or budget. This is true for every photographer I know. The flip side is also true. A while back, I got a request for some very difficult cinemagraph animation work for a makeup company. I sent over a proposed budget and got a lower counteroffer but it wasn’t something I was thrilled to work on so I politely passed.
It's hard to figure out when you're looking for a photographer if they'll be excited about your project. If you're excited about their work, convey that. Excitement is contagious.
I try to set my pricing for projects with the assumption that some of my time will be spent on calls and emails to work out logistics and concepts. There’s a certain amount of back and forth that’s normal but I get cautious when I find myself on an endless email chain or having to do 3 rounds of budget negotiations.
This past winter I found myself on a project where the client negotiated several production pricing details multiple times. At the start of the project they suddenly pulled all of the production funding but still wanted the same quality of work. I should have pulled out of the project at that point but felt some misplaced personal responsibility. It ate up a lot of time and energy and I eventually parted ways with them feeling exhausted and burned out.
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish inexperience from persnicketiness that'll evolve into difficulty. Whenever I find a client that's kind, easy going, timely and collaborative, I go out of my way to work with them whenever I can. Those folks are a joy to work with and it's easy to find middle ground on timelines, logistics and budgets. This all to say that it's totally fine to be inexperienced, to ask questions and to seek clarification but don't approach your potential photographer like a used car salesman looking to haggle and get one over them.
With folks that have a bunch of experience hiring photographers there's usually a somewhat familiar path of communication. I get the rough details of the project, the general timeline and occasionally a budget. I often ask about image usage. We work to piece together a timeline and finalize the budget. Sometimes there's paperwork to get a PO with larger companies and agencies or an NDA to make sure I don’t spill the beans on something. In these situations, it's clear that I'm either the photographer they're going with or I'm in a pool under consideration and that it's ultimately about availability, price and enthusiasm.
When I'm approached by someone that veers outside of this communication path, I generally proceed with caution. There are weird scams that target photographers, there are indecisive clients and there projects that just aren't a good fit that eat up a disproportionate amount of time and energy, I try to filter all those things out as much as possible without accidentally filtering a good project out with an unconventional communication approach.
When I’m trying to hire a photographer to help me out with a project, my text or email usually goes like this:
Hey, are you free on the 22nd for 4 hours? I’m shooting a liquor brand and could use additional angles. No edits necessary. Budget is $500.
Hey, could you assist for 3 hours on the 3rd? I’ll need help carrying things around in a large space and setting up lights. Budget is $150.
I'm going to be out of town on the 4th but this publication is looking for someone to shoot their hotel lobby. Not sure about budget but they're really nice. Are you available and interested? Want an intro?
These are usually situations where I know the photographer on the other end relatively well so I tend to keep things short and casual. If I'm reaching out to a photographer that I've only recently met, I would include additional details.
What I look for in a photographer
Even if you start your search with "photographers near me", always look at the work first. Look at their Instagram. Look at their portfolio. Do you love some of their photos? If you feel lukewarm about their work, move on. You aren't a good fit for each other. I know I'm not the perfect fit for everyone and that's totally okay.
Once you have a few photographers that you're excited by, reach out and try to see if your timeline and budget work and if they're interested in the project. If it doesn't work out but you have a good rapport, ask them if they have any recommendations for photographers. Not every photographer wants to recommend someone else so keep that in mind.
Finally, be on the lookout for any warning signs around reliability. Allow me to stand on a soap box for a minute and just shout RELIABILITY as loud as I can. Sometimes I joke to my husband, Eli, that the only reason I was ever able to break into photography is thanks to my reliability. I answer emails. I follow up. I run to catch the train to get to shoots on time. I text when I think I might be late. I send updates as I'm editing. I will stay up to 2 am to finish an edit because I promised to get something to someone the following day. I'm not perfect but I try and I communicate as I go. All these things seemed very obvious to me and I was amused and flattered when producers or photo editors would sent me kind emails about my responsiveness. Then I started hiring assistants and 2nd shooters.
Even as a photographer I have been burned by other photographers. From flaking to disappearing with a deposit, I've experienced it. A lot. I sort of get it. Creative work can feel like leaping off of a cliff but flakiness or unresponsiveness is terrible. Look for someone consistent, responsive and reliable. If I'm busy or not a good fit for a project, I try very hard to suggest people that I know to be reliable. If you have to write 3 follow up emails to get a response or if they blow off a call to discuss concepts or if they're 30 minutes late to a meeting, be wary.