Anatomy of an Advertising Shoot

An ad agency recently hired me to shoot a series of ads for their healthcare client. The idea was to shoot a series of portraits of people who meet the target demographic for their product. Kinda tell the story of these people so that consumers can see themselves in the ads. To accomplish the shoot, I had to scout locations suitable for the shoot, find talent and put together a crew of assistants and stylists for the shoot day. The last one was the easy part; the first two were not easy.

Now, when you look at these photos, you’ll probably think, “That’s easy! I could have shot that.” These shots don’t look too complicated to pull off. The lighting seems simple enough and the people are nobody fantastic.

If you are thinking that, well, you couldn’t be more wrong. Putting this shoot together took considerable time and money. First, finding the locations took some hard work. I went door to door to complete strangers houses to ask if I could photograph the inside of their house for a photo shoot. Think about it. If some stranger asked you if he could come in to shoot some photos, would you let him in? Let’s just say that I had a fair amount of rejection over my two weeks of door to door hunting.

The previous photographer for this campaign resorted to using a restaurant and building a set to get his shots. My guess is that he didn’t have the tenacity and chutzpah to get the interiors that he needed so he punted. I was determined not to go down that road, so I put a lot of work into finding the right interiors.

After I thought I’d nailed the scouting, the client decided that they wanted a workplace location after seeing a casting shot from my producer. So we had to switch gears and find an automotive garage in addition to the home location. That proved to be a bit easier since garages are relatively public locations.

I threw out this term “producer” so I guess I should explain. A producer or production coordinator is essential when it comes to putting ad shoots together. It’s the producer’s job to put the whole shoot together. A good producer will coordinate location scouting, casting, putting a crew together, arranging for permits and insurance, interfacing with the client, and putting all the essential details from phone numbers to call times in a production book that goes to photographer, client and crew. When I get a request for an estimate, my first call is to my producer since she’ll be the one putting many of the numbers together. On shoot day, the producer is handling details from getting everyone fed to nailing down model releases.

Next came the casting. We needed people who were overweight. People of color. Unlike what you might think, it’s not an easy task. It’s much, much easier to find a tall thin 20 year old girl than a 50 year old African-American woman of heavy proportions since talent agencies favor the young and fit. We did a lot of driving and knocking on doors to find the right talent. We even spent an evening in the ‘hood going up to strangers. Talk about street casting… we definitely hit the streets (with a little bit of looking over our shoulders to be safe).

Along with finding the talent, we needed to have their wardrobe and props to fill out the set. For the woman at home, we not only pulled from her wardrobe prior to the shoot, we also bought her a rack of new clothes for us to select from. For the mechanic’s garage shot, I needed the right mechanic’s uniform as well with name tag sewn on – everything has to look authentic. Having a wardrobe stylist who gets what what the shot is all about is invaluable.

So once we had the talent, location and crew altogether, you’d think that the rest was fairly straightforward. Think again. Both interior shots used about a dozen strobe heads to light each shot. I started with a huge 12×12 silk as my main light. I didn’t want to have to rely on sunlight because a) it’s weak and I didn’t want to shoot at f1.4 and b) its color temperature and strength varies throughout the day. I didn’t want to be chasing my exposures throughout the shoot. Using the big silk gave me the effect of daylight streaming in a window or bay door without the inconsistencies of daylight.

Next, I used my strobes in very tight beams to highlight areas of the scene that I wanted. I almost used them as layers to create a rich though believable scene. No detail was too insignificant for me to highlight. Each interior took my two assistants and me about two hours to craft. I pretty much just pointed where I wanted lights to be set up since I don’t lift gear during these shoots.

Everything was shot on medium format while tethered to my laptop so that everyone could see what I was shooting. I have a favorite lens that I use that I pretty much stuck to the entire time.

The difference in my efforts, though subtle, was noticeable to the art director and client. They both voiced their opinion that they liked my work much better than the photographer who did their last shoot. Talk about music to my ears!

So here’s the shots:

Believe it or not, I used about a dozen or more strobes to light this shot. We had packs, stands and heads crammed in all over the place.

The shot below was actually an add-on that was not called for in the original estimate. Since my fees are based upon the number of shots the client uses, not a day rate, I’ll charge extra for this image if they want to use it in addition to the other two. This shot had the least number of lights. My 12×12 sat off to camera right and then I had a light coming into light the pots off to the right kinda like a setting sun peeping around the corner. A softbox then lit the talent so her face didn’t go into shadow. Creating natural looking lighting is actually more complicated than you think.

This shot was all about picking out the detail in the background. I used two lights for the tool chest. One for my car wheel. Two for the tires in the background. The light spilling onto the shop floor was placed there just for that reason. I tried using a rim light for the subject but in the end I didn’t like it. Instead he was lit by my 12×12 silk set up just behind the car. This setup was my favorite.

Finally, it’s not a complete discussion of this shoot without talking about the budget. To keep things interesting, I’ll offer my new Fat Cats Photoshop Actions to the first person who gets the expense portion of the budget right (basically everything except my fees). (Digital Wedding Forum members not eligible since I’ve already posted on this on the DWF.)

John Mireles

About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
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32 Responses to Anatomy of an Advertising Shoot

  1. Lindsay says:

    since you mean your budget and not what you charged the client, because you charge on use…
    wardrobe – $100
    assistants 2 for 6ish hours each $600
    talent $500
    stylist / makeup/hair – $250
    assistants scouting – $200
    I’m going to guess somewhere between $1350 and $1750 out of pocket to hire everyone / expenses for the different aspects of the shoot. That would hopefully include mileage, etc.
    — how’d I do? πŸ™‚

  2. John Wiley says:

    Nice work, John! You’re 100% right, most people (even pro photogs who don’t do this kind of work)have no idea what goes into a shoot of this type and are shocked when they see the bottom line.

    To arrive at a more accurate “guesstimate” of the budget, we need a bit more info, such as:
    – Is the ad campaign for national or regional exposure?
    – What is the duration of the usage license?
    – What is the scope of the license (strictly print, strictly electronic media or a combo of these)?

    • johnmireles says:

      How about let’s limit the discussion to the expense portion of this? I do license my work based upon usage however I think it makes more sense to leave my creative fees out of this discussion.

      • John Wiley says:

        Sure, that’s fair enough. I guess what I was actually after was a bit more definition of the confines of the number you’re asking us to estimate, which is exactly what you provided here. Thanks John!

      • John Wiley says:

        P.S. I just noticed that the question was changed from the original wording of earlier today. Now it’s easier to tell what you’re looking for and also, that I wouldn’t be eligible, anyway since I am a DWF member (although I have not yet read your piece, there LOL!).

        Thanks for an always entertaining, informative blog, Juanito!

        To everyone else, happy guessing and good luck! πŸ™‚

      • johnmireles says:

        Hey John: Go ahead and take a guess! And yes, I did change things around to make things more clear.

  3. John Wiley says:

    Alrighty – and on my honor, I hereby swear that I have not yet read the DWF post! πŸ™‚ – I’m going to say more in the $2000 to $2250 range. While I essentially agree with Lindsay’s numbers, I’m guessing some of the lighting/grip gear may have been rentals and I’m thinking the wardrobe and stylists may have been a bit more.

  4. Marit Welker says:

    I think the wardrobe guess was still too low since he said he had a full rack of clothing to choose from. Wardrobes in large women’s clothing do not run cheap. I am guessing that like John, you did rent some equipment. That is a lot of lights for anyone to have, and even if you do have that many, I am not sure this was shot up the street from your house. Also, you didn’t mention a fee for use of the garage and the home. I doubt that those were free. So, I am NOT a member of DWF and I didn’t write a book on pricing, although I think I read John’s. But, I am going to go even higher and guess that your expenses were about $2450.

  5. maritdw1 says:

    I tried to comment and not sure it went through. I explained before that I think wardrobe guess is VERY low. Clothing in that size is VERY expensive – even if it came from Walmart. Also like John, I think renting that equipment wasn’t cheap and no one wants to travel with that much gear. Not sure if you are from the area. Also, fees for location usage were not included. So, I am upping the anti and guessing $2400. Also I am NOT a member of DWF – at least I think. ( I have probably been there, but don’t even know what it stands for except forum… )

  6. johnmireles says:

    Hey guys – what about locations? People don’t let a photo crew take over their property for no money. Someone did mention location scouting, but we’re talking about days of scouting here. As I mentioned, we had to do quite a bit of work on the casting – someone has to get paid for that. I mentioned that I worked with a “producer” but I haven’t seen any line item for that person. There’s more as well, but I thought I’d help kickstart everyone in the right direction.

  7. Rebecca Eby says:

    I’m guessing about $6500 – locations, crew, wardrobes, equipment, etc.

  8. this should vary depending on the part of the country you are shooting in but i will guesstimate between 3500 and 4500

  9. mhphouston says:

    Clothing – $400
    Producer/Scouting fees $1400
    Assistants $800
    Hair and makeup $400
    Models $500
    Location fees $400
    Lunch for staff on day of shoot $50
    My estimate $3950

  10. Devin says:

    I say around $3650

  11. Benoit says:

    Here is my wild guesses:
    Scouting – Talent & Location ~ 15 hours (walkin’ the ‘hood and all) – $1500
    Location Rental 1/2 day (2) – $1000
    Producer – (15 hrs) – $1000
    Talent (2 @ 1/2 day + appearance fee – no residuals) – $1000
    Assistants (3 @ 8 hours – experienced) – $500
    MUA 1/2 day – $125
    Wardrobe (you did say BUY and rack full) – $800
    Rentals (6 heads Profoto or equivalent 1 day) – $1000
    Mileage/Parking/Meals (assuming local) – $200

    Totaling things up, I get a bit north of $7,000, which based on your description, still seems low.
    My official guess will be $8,000 but it wouldn’t surprise me if the final tally reaches 6 figures.

  12. Lexia says:

    scouting 1,500
    talent (x2) 1,000
    location (x2) 1,000
    assistants 1,500
    food and miscellaneous costs 1000
    rentals 5,000 (i have no idea what you have already… but medium format tethered plus strobes…)
    MUA and hair- 300
    wardrobe- 1,000 (sounds like there were alterations, scouting for it, plus)
    producer- 1,000

    total: 9,700.00

  13. Aly Bucholz says:

    I would bid a shoot like this around $60,000 to a client, what your actual expenses might have been could probably be somewhere around $12,500 after you pay everyone out…

  14. eyeonlifephotog says:

    12,600 – most of the cost is human
    Producer 40 hours , 2 assist at 20 hr each, photog 3 days, post prod 20 hours….
    Additional exp – travel costs tolls gas parking, food, consumables, wardrobe, talent fees, location/permit fees, equip rental.

  15. bertopics says:

    John, we have done a few advertising shoots over the years, and the amount of coordination and work that goes into a shoot is rarely realized by consumers in general. Advertising Photography is always harder then what our finished product looks like for sure! Good article, and thanks for sharing.

  16. Lyn says:

    I’m gonna say $11,200.

  17. Matt Roberts says:

    Great job man! If something looks easy it means you spent a whole lot of time and effort to get it to look easy. I know how much work this is. I’ll go with $13,000 for a total production cost.

  18. Amelia says:

    My guess is $18, 047

  19. Different question John, Since you did not use a location locator service, how do you charge for your time finding locations & casting?

  20. Kevin Morris says:

    $50,000 total expense budget for total assignment ($12.5K per shot)
    crew $4800 (2 assts, prod, wardrobe, hair, )
    location scout $600
    talent $1000
    location fee $1000
    lighting rentals/grip truck $1200
    genny(s) $300
    camera package $600
    wardrobe & alterations $1000
    digital capture service fee $600
    craft service $250

  21. Tracey says:

    The two images of the African American woman resulted in a typical problem photographers have with darker-skinned people–too many highlights on the face due to not precisely diffusing and/or flagging. You spent a lot of effort doing an amazing job on the environmental elements and they came out perfectly. But the focus for the client is the subject

  22. These shots are gorgeous! As for range, I’d say:

    Clothing: $1,500
    Assistants: $1,200
    Hair/Makeup: $600
    Models: $1,500
    Producer: $1,500
    Location Fees: $1,000
    Feed the crew: $200
    Equipment Rentals: $1,500
    Total estimate: $9,000

  23. johnmireles says:

    Okay everyone – thanks for all your answers. It’s been great to see the responses. At first everyone came in pretty low. Then the high-rollers started to come in (especially on my Facebook Page). The actual total expenses are… drum roll please…


    When I first put my estimate together, my expenses were significantly higher. I then had a conversation with the person in the agency responsible for budget about their expectations and budget. This was important because my first conversation was with the art director who, as is usually the case, is not as focused on budget. Anyhow, once I had a more firm grasp of the numbers I needed to hit, I made some changes in the way the production would be handled so as to keep the costs down.

    Successfully estimating ad jobs is one of the trickiest things in all of professional photography. If I’d come in with a Cadillac production, I’d have lost this job. Likewise, if I didn’t account for all the expenses and came in too low, I’d send the message that I didn’t know what I was doing and that the client wouldn’t get the results they needed.

    Finally, I’m gonna finish with a plug for the Photographer’s Toolkit Commerical Contract Kit. It’s got a list of 50 questions that you’ll need answers to before you can accurately create a winning estimate as well as spreadsheet with all the expenses you’ll need to consider before taking on a commercial production. Not every production is a big one, but you need to consider all the factors before you know what each job is going to take.

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