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Marketing Matters

Packaging Your Cost Proposals

By Maria Piscopo


The ASMP Bulletin’s Fall 2010 issue featured an excerpt from Packaging Your Cost Proposals, chapter 12 of the book The Photographers Guide to Marketing and Self Promotion fourth edition by Maria Piscopo, copyright © 2010.


The print article discussed important details of developing a project description and featured a case study from Seattle-based commercial photographer Andy Batt. Here, Piscopo offers expert tips for calculating costs, talking about money, negotiating conditions and packaging your price in a written proposal that will be irresistible to the client.


Jacket photo
This article is excerpted from chapter 12, “Packaging Your Cost Proposals” of The Photographers Guide to Marketing and Self Promotion, fourth edition by Maria Piscopo. Copyright © 2010.
ISBN 10: 1581157142
ISBN 13: 978-1581157147
Used with permission of Allworth Press. Available from booksellers or direct from


Once you have the project description, the next step is to take the time to calculate your costs. Don’t quote prices off the top of your head! Photography is not a product pulled down off a shelf with a price tag slapped on. Schedule calls with your clients to discuss price, especially when you don’t know them well enough or don’t know if you have the job for certain. Always ask when would be the best time to call them back. Often, clients have much more time than you feel they do and you do need the extra time. This will give you the chance to do an accurate cost estimate and show your clients respect for their requests of your photography services. When you call them back, you will use the script below to get some feedback on that mysterious budget figure they probably didn’t tell you about before. This feedback will help determine exactly how much work you have to put into the written cost proposal they will receive from you.



Why not just drop your price, why bother to negotiate? Because it is incredibly unprofessional to magically make money disappear, money from your profit. Because when you act unprofessionally it hurts the rest of us in the business. Finally, once you do this, the client will never agree to your regular price; you will always be asked to drop your price for no reason.


You should be prepared to negotiate before you talk price. So what can you do when the client wants to pay less? Answer: you walk away or you negotiate. A great old saying is, “In business, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” I will support you if you walk away but I do not accept the notion of dropping your price without negotiating some consideration to the project description. On any project, less money might be okay, but fairness and good business sense demand that some consideration be made before paying less.


It is a simple concept to use and explain. If the client wants to pay less, the client will get less of some aspect of the project description or you will get more of something valuable to your business. The considerations are items you and the client both agree on. Simply scripted, when the client names a price lower than what is acceptable to you, your answer is any variation of, “Let’s take a look at how it can be done for that price.” This has the potential to become a win-win negotiation if you can find common ground. You can always walk away if you are not willing to negotiate or the client simply can’t come close enough to what you really need to charge for the work.


To create the considerations put two lists together in advance of any pricing discussion. One is a list of the considerations clients can make to lower the price. For example, they can get less work, different variations, fewer views, less usage (if the project is a licensing one) or fewer approval stages (if the project has a long timeline). Anything you can think of that will help the client pay less without damaging the images.


If you need to, go to your second list. These are the considerations that can give you more of something from clients to lower the price. For example, you can get more time, more printed samples, a link on their Web site to yours, barter for goods and services, better photo credits, or better payment terms. Please check with your accountant for the income tax consequences to barter payment for your services.


Work on these lists before you need them and never wait until the client is asking, “What do you charge?” and the nervousness begins. Be ready. Your negotiations are simpler and easier when you have lots of considerations to choose from on both lists. The bottom line is you do not accept less money for the same amount of work without some consideration. You will damage your chance at a profitable relationship with clients. You will give your work away. Don’t do it. Instead, look for the win-win. Learn successful negotiating techniques to get the best return on your photography and your business.



You can tell clients that your price for their photography is the average, normal, and industry standard price, but if any negotiation is not going well for you, you may need to find out what is really going on with the client. One of the most common things to go wrong is when the client tells you, “I can get it for half price from someone else.” To keep the conversation going, you can ask a one-word question, “How?” What you are really asking is, “How can it be done for less money?” The client will stop and think, primarily because he has not considered the question in this way. Because what you are really asking is, “What will the client get less of at that lower price and does he want to know now or be surprised later?”



Write a script to get some feedback on that mysterious budget figure clients probably didn’t tell you about up front (even though you did ask). If the client does present you with a budget for a specific project description — for consumer or commercial photography— then you can work from there. But often they will not, and you should prepare a script in advance so that you can handle any direction their “how much do you charge” question takes you.


For example, ask, “From what you described, it will cost $15,000 for that amount of photography, how does that fit your budget?” The client will respond to the open-ended question with information.


Note the use of the word it making the photography less personal to you, and then take note of the test-question part of the script: how does that fit. The less personal the negotiation is the better you can handle the situation. The test-question asks clients to think instead of the more common use of the closed question you would never ask, “Does that fit your budget?”


If they respond positively, then you go forward to the written proposal. If they are negative about your price, then you go back to considerations to negotiate. Before you put anything in writing, negotiate all the considerations until you and your client agree the price is now in the ballpark.



Sometimes you will need to work harder to move the client around to your point of view. When you have a difficult situation in which you need the client to be on your side, try no fail scripting. It is subtle but very effective. Always start your sentence with the statement, “Since I am sure you want,” name something you know the client wants, then finish with “here is what we can do.” For example: “Since I am sure you want an accurate cost on this photography project, here is the information I need first,” or “Since I am sure you want all those family portraits to be displayed properly, here is the estimated framing cost.”


Sometimes you feel pushed by a client to do something you do not want to do. It may be some compromise of your work, the delivery time, production details, or even your price. Most photographers fold at the first sign of resistance to cost and will never get the price they want, but you do not have to do so with a good script for this situation. To agree to any request a client makes, no matter how irrational or irresponsible, is not only unprofessional but potentially unprofitable. This scripting does count on your being prepared, so this is a good place to stop, take some notes, and do some homework. To set the scene, the situation usually starts with your client making some outrageous request. For example, too fast a delivery time, too cheap a frame, too little money for production expenses. From this point you have what I call two choices with conditions.


One choice is to say, “No, but” then present your client with a more acceptable option. The other choice is to say “Yes, and” then present a cost to the client should he or she choose to stay the course. They can both work for you. For example: “No, that delivery time will not work but here is when you could take delivery without rush charges,” or “Yes, that frame is available and it won’t physically stand up to the exterior hanging you are planning for this piece.”



Now that you and your client have agreed on a price and a project description, the final step is to create an effective and irresistible proposal. This can be the difference between getting the photography job or not. Whether you are doing commercial, industrial, portrait or wedding photography, this meticulous and highly visual presentation of your price demonstrates your professionalism, expertise, and abilities. It will help the client or customer decide to hire you instead of a competitor. It will help you get the work because it explains to clients the value they will get for the price they will pay. More importantly, the person you call client probably has to get this approved and needs something to show and help get you the job.


Today, many estimates are delivered electronically, so creating a PDF file of all the parts will make sure the client sees the entire package and can’t lose any of the pieces. To show you the best way to package your price, we will walk through the four parts of an effective photography cost proposal: the contract (fees and expenses), the cover letter, samples of your work and your third-party proof.



The contract is more commonly called the “estimate confirmation”; it is most effective to print the contract information on your own letterhead to look as professional as possible. Use the industry standard forms with customary contract law for photographers to protect you and your client. You can find these forms in the book, Business and Legal Forms for Photographers, Fourth Edition, by Tad Crawford This book comes with a CD-ROM to provide electronic versions of these forms.


Your professional associations are also the best place to look for the support you need to make sure you are profitable with your pricing. Check out the ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography, Seventh Edition, published by Allworth Press. Successful contracts start with good business practices, and organizations such as PPA, APA, and ASMP have been established to inform and educate photographers on business issues. If you are not participating in your professional peer association, start today. If you are not a member, join now for information and relationships you will need later!


It is very important to get the correct name of the person with the authority to hire you and pay you. Does your client have the responsibility to find you, but needs further approval to hire you? When you are dealing with an advertising agency or third party of any kind, be sure to get their client and project names. Ad agencies get lots of photography estimate confirmation forms and you want yours properly considered by the right people.


Since any alteration in the project could cause an increase in expenses, getting a detailed job description can avoid the problem of going back to clients for more money to produce what they wanted in the first place. You really should get any fee or expense increase approved by clients during the job.


Photography fees should include a complete statement of the use of the photos. Will these photos be used just for display and exhibition or for reproduction in an ad, brochure, or Web site? Just because your wedding, portrait or fine art clients usually buy only the prints (real property use) does not mean they are not planning some reproduction use (intellectual property use). Ask clients what their plans are for the image use and re-use. Plan ahead!


Also, to maximize profitability, find out which budgets can be dedicated to your part of the job. Often, a fee is set aside and named as photography but that is just one line item on a project budget. Whether it is a wedding or a catalog shoot, technology today allows you to do more of the imaging work. These are often other line items named in that project budget that really should be rededicated to the photography fee. Check on preproduction, research, any and all retouching, post-production and pre-press, to name a few. The money is there to pay you for the extra work; it just may not be called photography fee.


Photography expenses can only be estimated and your form should state that the client agrees to pay actual expenses. State clearly what your price includes (such as the size and number of prints) so that clients know exactly what they are getting. Don’t let any expenses come out of your fee. Calculate the delivery charges, special research needed, proofs and any possible expenses for the photography assignment. Check the industry standard forms for a complete list of billable expenses. Client approval must be obtained if final costs will exceed original estimate by more than ten percent, but I think it is still a good idea to get a signature on any cost overage you may be expecting. Standard contracts state that the client will pay for any changes or revisions they make to the original job description. So, the more detailed the description, the less you risk absorbing any of these extra expenses.


The deposits or advances should be discussed. A deposit is a percentage of the total cost (from 30 percent to 50 percent) that the client pays to confirm the assignment and is common business practice in wedding and portrait photography. Commercial photographers should try to get deposits, especially on new clients and large projects. An advance is the pre-payment for the expenses of costly pre-production or travel.


For payment terms, your invoice should be paid when the images are delivered or sent to your client’s accounts payable department for payment “net receipt.” This should get you paid within thirty days. A late payment charge (usually around two to three percent) should be quoted on all jobs. It is customary for clients to pay any legal fees if needed to collect money from them.


Now comes the fun part, the packaging! Remember, unless you know you already have the job, you may need to give clients more than this estimate confirmation (contract) to help them decide to hire you. After all, the estimate confirmation just tells them what it would cost to hire you, but not why it is a good idea!



A good cover letter warms up an otherwise cold-looking contract. It will help your client (and even the client’s client) decide to hire you. Here is an example of a cost proposal cover letter.

Dear Robert,
It was a pleasure talking to you yesterday! As we discussed, enclosed is the estimate confirmation on the portrait photography you need for your annual report.


In addition, we have enclosed the special black and white samples you requested based on the work you saw on our Web site. You’ll find our style of portrait photography is exactly what you need. Because we have been established portrait photographers for over 12 years, you will receive the experience and expertise this project requires.


Also, when you are ready to proceed with the photography for your upcoming trade show, we will work with you to develop the “new look” you need for your company brand. Our solutions are rock solid, creative solutions that will make your job easier. We are here to relieve your corporate communications photography headaches with expert images — on time and within your budget.


I’ll call next week to find out when you will be making a final decision on this job. We are looking forward to working with you.


Maria Piscopo


P.S. Before you make a decision on your photography, please let me know if you have any questions or need any additional samples of our work.


Unless it is a regular client or you know the job is yours, include samples of the work estimated in the cost proposal. In this case, the client is interested in a subject expertise, portrait photography and in a particular style, black and white. Never assume clients will remember the work they saw in your portfolio or go back to your Web site when they are deciding whom to hire. Never assume they will pull your promotion materials from their files to make their decision. Count on having to visually re-establish your photography credentials. Also, samples will help your client get you the job when they have to present your cost proposal for decision by a committee that has never met you or seen your portfolio.



In addition to your contract and samples, you can add credibility by submitting proof of your capabilities. This third-party proof is someone else (not you) offering testimonial to your value. It may be the deciding factor to help the client decide to hire you. More likely, your clients may need these items to certify your reliability so they can sell you to their own committee of decision makers. Examples of third-party proof include: testimonial letters from satisfied clients, awards you have won, exhibits of your photography, a list of clients, client references and professional organizations you belong to. Anything you can do will give you additional trustworthiness and help the client make the right decision — to hire you!



Author Bio: Maria Piscopo has been a photographer’s representative for more than twenty years. She has consulted, lectured and written extensively about the business of selling photography. She works with artists, designers, and photographers, speaks at industry conferences, conducts professional seminars and conference workshops, and teaches courses at various colleges, including the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Orange Coast College, and Laguna College of Art and Design. The author of The Graphic Designer’s and Illustrator’s Guide to Marketing and Self-Promotion, she has had articles published in many industry magazines, such as HOW, Digital Output, Petersen’s PHOTOgraphic, Rangefinder, Step-By-Step, Shutterbug and Communication Arts. She lives in Costa Mesa, California.