If a potential one can’t, or more likely, won’t answer the “what’s the budget?” question; it seems a good possibility that the job isn’t real. Often, “What’s the budget?” isn’t the right question.


When a project is conceived, there is likely a dollar amount to produce it floating around in someone’s mind. A potential client with an idea of an amount of “spend” is worth pursuing. One that says “Give me a price and I’ll tell you if it will work” is probably not an opportunity.

Time invested in producing a proposal for the former is worthwhile. Making one for the latter is usually a waste of time. What both versions really tell us is the budget question might be at fault.

Face it. It’s human nature to want the grandest house and the fastest car. What counts in acquiring a house, a car or paying for photography is the amount to be invested. “Invested”? Yep. Invested. A place to live that one day will be paid for is an investment. A car that’s paid for is worth more than one that has ongoing payments. An effective photograph that contributes to increased sales and therefore more revenue is an investment, not an expense. Clients might not see it that way initially.

What’s a house cost? A car? A photo shoot?

Yep. The answer to all three is adult diapers–Depends. The price of a house includes location, school district (did I mention location?), square footage, number of bathrooms, does it have a pool, yard, multi-car garage, appliances (Hey! are they stainless?) and so on. The price also reflects the buyer’s desire. The greater the desire the higher the budget. A car can be a beater or a sleek, low-slung go-fast Italian job. The nicer the car the higher the budget must be. Photography? Yep. Same thing. The price does not depend on the gear the photographer uses to make the picture. It depends on how much the photographer can be trusted to deliver the image on time and within budget.

There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper. The people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey. It is a bit unwise to pay too much. But it’s much worse to pay too little and have to live with the disappointment. When you pay too much, you lose a little money. That is all that’s lost. When you pay too little, sometimes everything is lost. Why? Because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot because simply: it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something extra for the risk you will run. If you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better.

Photography that effectively tells a client’s story or showcases their product as a “must have” or portrays their service in a compelling manner is truly priceless. The real question becomes “Why is it weird to ask: ‘what has been budgeted for this project?’ After all, the client is going to ask about what it will cost to produce the shoot. When talking about money, the client is also asking “How much am I risking?”

The conundrum of budget & risk

Really it’s a dilemma. On one side the client wants photography done and wants it to be affordable. Fair. On the other side, the photographer wants the project and must make a profit to have an ongoing business. Also fair. It boils down to what the client is willing to afford and what the photographer requires for it to be profitable. This discussion wouldn’t be complete without a quick mention of that indefinable concept: value. What’s it worth? What’s it worth to the client? What’s the project worth to the photographer? On the photographer side, there are factors beyond dollars. On the client side, there are also factors beyond dollars. Delving further…

Client-side risk

Let’s not kid anyone. Professional photography is expensive. Take a fashion shoot as an example. The production costs alone can be staggering. Models, hair, makeup, wardrobe, location or studio rental, travel, craft service (food and beverages for the crew and clients, then add in equipment rental, assistants, the photographer’s fee and post-production–color correction, enhancement retouching, archiving not to mention pre-production meetings. This paints a pricy scene. On the client-side, even if the dollars are there, the biggest factor in her or his or their mind or minds is “Is this going to work? Or will it go horribly wrong?” They think (and worry) that “All of this work and money is my responsibility!” If it goes “South” the client believes they will be left holding the bag of pooh. On the other hand, when everything lines up and happens as promised and the results are on the monitor and they are stunning–well… The client is all kinds of happy. They are pleased, they are excited. And, don’t forget this one, relieved. Relieved? Yep. There was a lot of responsibilities on them going into the photography. When it goes well the client is a mighty hero to their boss. If it doesn’t, well, it can be a job ender.

Clients are really concerned about risk: Can this photographer that the client has chosen really pull this shoot off? Will it go well? Can I trust the photographer? That’s what the client is really thinking when the photographer is asking about the budget.

My next post is on risk managment starting with preparation.