commercial photography advance

If you are a photographer who comes from a retail photography background (weddings, families, pets, boudoir, etc), you already know the importance of charging a retainer/deposit.

If you are new to photography (or a buyer of photography), you may not understand why you’d need to charge anything up-front for a commercial photography advance. And you may also have small-business clients who resist paying you anything until after you deliver the finished photos.

This article will explain in clear detail why it’s so important for photographers to charge, and clients to pay, advances toward commercial photo shoots.

First, an important point about what words should be used.

Verbiage clarification:

In retail photography sometimes the word deposit is used. In many cases, the deposit is legally required to be refunded. Due to the intensive nature of commercial photography projects (as outlined below), the term deposit doesn’t work here.

A retainer is typically something that is paid on a monthly basis, or paid up front and then used as-needed over time. Neither of those really apply to commercial photography (unless a long-term contract of monthly photo shoots is signed, in which case it may be referred to as a retainer). Since the vast majority of commercial photography projects are one-off projects, the term retainer doesn’t work here either.

An advance is a fee paid in advance of work performed, that covers some or all of that work that’s involved in the project. That is the proper term to use for commercial photography prepayment.

Ok, now that we’ve go the verbiage straight, let’s dive into why a photographer would need to charge a commercial photography advance.

Why:

#1- A commercial photography advance pays for some (or all) of the photographer’s pre-production time. 

In my ‘Anatomy of a $200k Photo Shoot and ‘Critical Distinction Between Photo Shoot and Project’ articles, I explain the work that goes into a single commercial photo shoot.

A commercial photo shoot is a project, and the photography is just a part of that project.

The photo shoot itself might only account for 10%-20% of the total time investment on the part of the photographer. And in the case of very large shoots (like the $200k shoot) it may be even less than that.

The advance pays for some or even all of the photographer’s time spent planning the shoot, preparing gear, prepping products, sourcing talent, etc.

#2- Once paid, the advance kicks off the production work

Once the photographer receives the advance, it puts the production wheels in motion.

The photographer (and/or producer) can then start sourcing talent, scout locations, procure equipment and/or props, create shot lists, etc.

The bigger the production, the more critical it is that the advance is received well ahead of the photo shoot.

#3- The advance protects the photographer from lost revenue in the case of cancellation

E.g. ‘lost opportunity cost’.

Because of the intensive nature of commercial photography, most photographers don’t double-book. Meaning, they don’t book two shoots on the same day.

(Exceptions include a quick in-and-out one or two hour shoot with minimal travel and little post-processing, event shoots or quick corporate headshots.)

For this reason, when a photographer commits a day on their calendar to a photo shoot, they are effectively declining all other work that day.

If the project is canceled, they lose the revenue not just from the client who booked and canceled, but from the other clients they were not able to book on that date as well.

Because either part or all of an advance is non-refundable, the photographer is still paid for at least some of their time in case of cancellation.

#4- It covers expenses incurred prior to the photo shoot

On commercial photography projects, there are nearly always some expenses needed for a photo shoot.

The bare minimum expenses for many commercial photo shoots include:

  • Assistant
  • Talent
  • Permits/location fees
  • Equipment
  • Props

Example: if a photographer pays $350 to secure a park permit, or pay $500 for a studio deposit prior to the shoot, that should be covered in case of cancellation.

Same goes for if they need to rent a special lens, pay a PA to source props, purchase a special color of seamless background paper, or pay for anything else required of the project that they would not otherwise pay for were it not for that specific photo shoot.

#5- It holds the date(s) on the photographer’s calendar, preventing the photographer from booking another client

As I explained above, a photographer can’t be in two places at once. If the client wants the photographer to hold the date for them on their calendar, the client should expect to pay an advance to hold that date.

The advance secures the date and ensures that the photographer is accountable to proceed with the shoot as planned.

So you can see, there are very good reasons why commercial photographers should charge advances for every project, and why it benefits clients as well.

In sum, a commercial photography advance is charged because:

  • It pays for some (or all) of the photographer’s pre-production time
  • It puts the production wheels in motion
  • It protects the photographer from lost revenue in case of cancellation
  • It covers expenses incurred prior to the photo shoot
  • It holds the date(s) on the photographer’s calendar

How much:

Talk to ten different commercial photographers and you’ll get ten different answers to the question “how much should I charge for a commercial photography advance?”

Most commercial photographers charge at least 50% of the total project fees, and 50%-100% of expenses for an advance. This is fairly standard. 

At my creative agency we charge 100% of expenses and 50% of fees for our photo shoot advances, because I like to say “we are not a bank”. Covering 100% of expenses up front means that the photographer doesn’t have to float any expenses for their client for any length of time.

Some photographers will drop their advance down to 25%-35% for well-established clients with a history of paying on time.

Some photographers charge as much as 70% of fees (and 100% of expenses) if/when they have concerns about a client’s ability to pay, or pay within a timely manner.

Some huge corporations with deep pockets have decided it’s a good idea to force ad agencies to wait 3-4 months (or longer) to get paid for work performed, and the ones who suffer the most from that decision are the tiny vendors, including the photographers, as they are typically paid last.

Charging a steep advance helps protect the ‘tiny vendor’ from that happening.

Some photographers with very deep pockets will sometimes shoulder all the risk and proceed with big shoots without collecting an advance. (This typically only occurs when they work with a major ad agency, the timelines are extremely tight, and they know the agency will make good on their promise to pay.)

Still I do not recommend not collecting an advance prior to a shoot under any circumstances. (See below.)

A final option if you have galleries set up with e-com/shopping capabilities, is to charge 100% of all fees and expenses with the exception of the usage/photo fees, which the client can then pay for when they ‘purchase’ the images from your gallery.

When:

Ideally the advance should be paid at the same time, or within a timely manner (within a few days to a week) of the signing of the photographer’s agreement and/or agency purchase order.

The less time there is between the payment of an advance and the photo shoot, the more the results will suffer. That hurts the client more than anything.

For this reason, photographers should be very firm about getting their project advances asap once their proposal is signed/contract accepted.

Super important point: photographers should make it a firm company policy to not do any pre-production work prior to getting an advance. 

It only takes one experience with not enforcing this policy and having the shoot cancelled to (painfully) learn how critical it is to have.

A camera isn’t the most valuable asset a photographer has- time is.

Considerations:

Every photographer should have firm policies with regards to advances and cancellation fees (the subject of next week’s post).

But this doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible with advances, and base them on each project.

Just make sure that whatever you have in your contract covers any changes you make to your advances.

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