The Critical Distinction Between ‘Photo Shoot’ and ‘Project’

by | Workflow & Processes | 2 comments

If you are a commercial photographer who often works with small and medium sized businesses, I have a simple tip for you that will transform your business, and make your clients happier too.

What’s this magical tip?

Stop referring to your photo shoots as ‘photo shoots’ when communicating with clients, and start referring to them as ‘projects’ instead.

Five good reasons why you should refer to your photo shoots as projects:

1) Implies a definite timeline.

Unless it’s simple event coverage and a client is booking your service directly from your website and you have minimal involvement before and after the shoot, there’s a lot more that goes into a commercial photo shoot than the shoot itself.

For every commercial client, you should define the timeline for their project, from the time they sign their estimate to the time you deliver the retouched files. There should be target dates for every milestone in between.

2) Improves client communications.

Client expectations about your process should be set by you, not by what your client heard, read on the internet, were told by a friend or even taught by past photographers.

Help your client understand that they are booking a project with you, not merely a photo shoot.

This distinction is important because it helps them get away from thinking of a commercial photography service as just a photo shoot, like they’d expect when getting family photos, which are typically far simpler, easier and quicker for a photographer to create.

Commercial photography can be an ambiguous, confusing area for small businesses, and the more you educate them about the process, the more confident they’ll feel in investing in custom photography.

When shooting for small businesses, communication and education are big keys to success.

And IMO ALL commercial photographers can stand to be more transparent about how we work and why, regardless of client size.

This benefits everyone.

3) Increases your revenue.

You shouldn’t be (regularly) doing free work on any aspect of a client project. You need to get paid not just for the photo shoot itself, but for every task you complete in the timeline.

Far too many commercial photographers don’t pay themselves for the time they invest in their client projects.

If historically you have only been charging for your photography, it’s time you start billing for:

  • client communications (emails, phone calls, text messages, PMs, etc)
  • creative direction / shot list creation
  • location scouting
  • talent casting
  • pre-shoot prep work (prepping & acquiring gear and props)
  • post-processing/color-correcting/raw file conversion/file prep
  • retouching
  • file delivery
  • file archiving
  • ETC.

Outlining to your clients that this is a project with extensive workflow will go a long way in helping them see the value in your time that falls outside of the shoot itself. (See revenue tip below.)

4) Sets your client up for future success.

If they have problems seeing commercial photography as much more than a singular photo shoot, they will struggle when they grow big enough to hire an agency of any kind.

Whether they work with a marketing firm, a small ad agency or social media agency, the ‘service’ provided will not merely be a singular act, it will be a project with multiple people and many moving parts. Including if/when they have a photo shoot done through the agency.

They absolutely will be paying any agency for all time any member of the team invests in their project.

Getting them used to this idea of a project will help them as they grow. (And hopefully you’ll be hired by those agencies to continue doing photo work for them!)

It also helps them understand the entire process better so they are better prepared for bigger future shoots.

5) Increases the chances you’ll be hired again for future projects.

When you set each client ‘photo shoot’ up as a project, it gives you many small opportunities to do great work for your client, and not just at the shoot itself.

If you streamline the process of working with you, it will make your client’s job so much easier too.

If they are impressed by your organization and professionalism throughout the project, and< they like the photos, they are more likely to hire you again for future work. And getting them set up again is a breeze if you do the bonus tip below.

Bonus reason why you should refer to your photo shoots as projects:

Forces you to finally set up project management software to keep track of and organize all aspects of your client projects.

I personally use Plutio, although many other commercial photographers use Dubsado (the most popular among commercial photographers), Bonsai, 17Hats, Studio Ninja, HoneyBook or others. (I personally don’t care what you use, just use something.)

Side note: as of the time of this writing, there are no commercial-photography-specific project management apps out there. I suspect because the costs to launch one of these platforms is so high, and the market for it would be so small, relatively speaking. But you can certainly make any of the above work for your commercial photography business.

Scripts you can start using with your clients to help your transition:

“I’d love to hear more details about your project needs”

“I have room in my schedule to book your project”

“When are you hoping to start your project? When are you hoping to do the photo shoot? And when do you need the final deliverables?”

“Hi client, I’d like to keep you abreast of where we are in your project. [Insert update]”

“I anticipate your project will take about three weeks to complete from start to finish”

(This one is key, because it places a much higher value on your time.)

“I’d love to work with you on future projects. We’ve already got you set up in our client portal, so we can get your next project up and running in a snap”

Revenue tip:

When determining whether you should charge a client for a task that you complete for their project, ask yourself:

‘If I hired someone else to complete this work, would they expect to be paid for it? If they hired an agency to complete this work, would the agency employee be paid for it?’ Examples:

  1. If you had to rent special gear to accommodate your client’s request, would you pay someone else to return that rented gear back to the rental house?
  2. Would you pay someone to research comp photos (yours or others)?
  3. Would you pay someone to cull images after the shoot?

If the answer is yes, then consider all of those project fees, and bill for them accordingly.

In short: bill for all time you invest in your client projects, not just the photo shoot itself.

If you make these simple adjustments to the language you use around client work, your business and your bank account will thank you.

Learn how to start booking more clients and making more money TODAY


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  1. What an info packed blog! I loved the list of things I should be adding to my charges and lines on the estimate.

    • Happy to hear you found it useful! I hope that implementing these changes makes a big difference for you and your business!


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