About a week ago I wrote a post, What Is A Project, which focused on personal projects. But, I have had other kinds, commissioned projects by clients. We need to treat them quite differently from personal projects. Instead of having an idea and exploring whether it may work, in commissioned projects, we need to focus on ideas that will work to satisfy the needs of the client.
Many years ago, I photographed on assignment for annual reports, print advertising, even billboards. Later, I got assignments for product photography to be used on clients’ websites, magazine ads, brochures, etc. These projects, although still require the photographer’s creative vision, must serve the needs of the client by communicating their intended message and must be suitable for the medium in which they will be used. Here are some questions to discuss with the client before undertaking an assignment.
What is the scope of the project?
It is important to understand whether there will be a few products to be photographed or dozens, even more. I did a considerable amount of work for a watch importer photographing watches to be presented on his Web catalog and photographed watches to be used in magazine ads. The catalog photographs were simpler as they all presented in similar ways, clear, crisp, detailed, face on. Where photographs for magazine ads needed to convey a style, an attitude, an implicit or explicit message. Some assignments even required that I completed the magazine page layout. Knowing the scope helped me to pace myself and make sure I did not miss any deadlines.
Are there special product requirements?
There may even be special product requirements in the photographs. For instance, I had no idea that the analog watches had to be photographed ten-passed-ten and stopped by pulling out the crown. In post-production, the crown is put in its natural position. This makes sure that the photographer can take all day if necessary adjusting the lights, props, etc. without worrying about the hands on the watch covering the logo or other important parts. This lesson cost me probably 5-6 hours of work at the beginning with nothing more than a mistake to show for it! I had to shoot them all again. Oh, also, watches have reflective surfaces at varying angles. Watch out!
This may be an issue in food photography as well. While we try to present an appetizing view we must not deceive the viewer, there are dos and don’ts in food photography and a little carelessness can bring a lot of grief to you and your client. It was in the old days when they used mashed potato for ice cream because it did not melt! Find out how Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold became a chef and a food photographer and learn from one of the best!
How will the photograph be used?
The requirements for a photograph for a website are significantly different from photographing for print, either photographic print or offset print. The range of brightness that print can accommodate is a good deal less than what we can show on the screen. The photographs need to be dimensionally larger and must conform to a particular line per inch the printing process can handle. We sharpen these images differently from the images we print on our own ink-jet printers. If in doubt, deliver unsharpened images for output. Keep also in mind that the permissions for use and fees for different photographs will also be different.
What is the product image to be conveyed?
For my watch importing client, some watches had to convey a “black tie” elegance, whereas others, a more adventurer style. Their brand identities were quite different. For another client, a couple who built their restaurant building from the ground up, the architectural detail and style were as important as how delicious the food looked. I photographed the interior of a child care center to present it as a caring environment for the little children and I had to even know which kids could be in the photographs based on the parents’ consent.
What is the budget?
Clearly, your clients will not tip-off their hands before you give them a proposal but it is a good idea to get an idea of how much they may be willing to spend. Your time, travel, additional equipment, and props, even models necessary can affect the final cost. It is important to be able to work within the budget of the client or not get the project at all.
What is the time frame?
Working on a deadline is very different from working for your own art. The latter may take years and you may not mind that at all. But, your client will most likely have a deadline to meet. Be realistic on how long it may take to complete the assignment and then add some safety buffer on top. If you cannot meet the deadline, don’t fool yourself and the client by taking on the assignment.
What are the deliverables?
This question may not get sufficient attention which may cause unnecessary ill-will. Tell the client what you will deliver to satisfy their needs. It may be presenting a half-dozen photographs for them to consider and deliver two images of their choice for use both on the Internet and also in printed brochures. Be very clear about what they should expect. Some assignments may have a chargeable time component with no requirement for the client to buy any of the images. You need to clearly articulate them in the proposal that you and the client sign before you click the shutter.
While you can choose any idea or subject for a personal project, commissioned projects have a different agenda set by the client. Photographic engagement, enjoyment, and creativity can still be very satisfying in a different way. And, working under some time pressure, some stress may tickle the creative cells in the brain too. But don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself and make similar promises to your client. I usually present the deliverables ahead of time because of the sufficient buffer time I build into my time commitments. Being early delights the clients, being late annoys them. Take your pick.
On setting the bottom line of your work, don’t shortchange yourself. Inquire about, do research on the going rates for certain types of work. Equally important is what you deliver the client, a set of photographs they can use any way they want or for specific uses a given number of times. Of course, I will be glad to deliver the images for the client to use however they want so long as they are willing me to pay for that privilege. But again, this is not my livelihood!
Below are some photographs from a couple of my assignments. I photographed many watches for Roger Bartley over the course of 6-8 years for various purposes. Roger passed away in 2010 but his memory still ticking in the watches I wear. The restaurant project was in 2004 as they were getting ready for a website launch and a promotional campaign.
I tried to add titles that refer to what I mentioned in the text when appropriate. If you like, share your experiences and points I might have overlooked to make the post more complete. Most of these photographs predate Lightroom and I processed them in Photoshop. This is partly a matter of timing and mainly because Lightroom even today cannot handle at least some of the editing. Pushing the crowns of the watches is one such edit, so is taking a catalog photograph and creating a multi-layered representation of time as you will see in the Epos 8 Days watch photograph, not to mention creating a full-page layout for a magazine ad. These are still beyond the capability of Lightroom.