£450 for a photoshoot? Let me put you in the picture.. | Idil Sukan on the economies of  publicity shots © Idil Sukan

£450 for a photoshoot? Let me put you in the picture..

Idil Sukan on the economies of publicity shots

A huge Edinburgh production company is budgeting £450 for their photoshoots. Is this ridiculous and stupid? Let's find out.

Let's go through the costs of being a photographer and getting this exciting new commission with a budget of £450!! £450! Sounds like a dream, more money than you could ever imagine, and you'll get the chance to do a showstopping, high-end publicity shoot for an Edinburgh show that will be licensed out in perpetuity and be the spearhead of their PR and promotion campaign, all over posters, all over flyers, all over their website, social media, and press. Maybe even a billboard!

It's a big responsibility, and as the photographer, you want to do the best job you can. Exciting. Let's see what happens.

Budget: £450

Ok. There are always going to be a few costs. Let's get those out the way first. Here are my typical costs.

1) Owning my own studio at home: Around £50 per shoot

This is a cheaper or about the same as renting studios every time you have a shoot, but hugely more flexible and gives me more space to run all this a bit more effectively. I pay an extra £500 a month (Plus bills: £100) in rent than I would do if I wasn't a photographer. I average around 10 or so shoots a month in the studio. So it costs around £50 per shoot to keep living here.

2) Assistant: £50 per shoot

If you are trying to do something elaborate and creative that needs prep or is on location, then wielding around lights, equipment, props, styling etc isn't a one-person job. You need an assistant. And a good, experienced, professional one who can be your sounding board too. Here's a tip, get someone with solid upper-body strength too to help you hoist the eight bags of equipment up and down the steps on the Tube. Not always easy to find.

(An assistant is not always totally necessary but I'm going to leave it in here because often the shoots are on location, and you have to bring lights, styling etc and it really is impossible to do yourself. Also doing this job completely by yourself endlessly is very harrowing. So it's in.)

3) Travel: £30 per shoot

This is averaged out. I shoot in my studio at home most of the time. But sometimes you have to hire a van, or take a cab there and back depending on the equipment/styling etc, or rent a car (my god, I can't afford to OWN a car). Or get something delivered (clothes, background etc) by courier.

4) Equipment, hardware and software: averages out to about £20 a shoot

These trivial little things like owning professional cameras, updating cameras, lenses, flashes, accessories, background rolls, camera cleaning products, walls, Tripod (which break) lights etc (which break sometimes too), soft boxes, archive hard drives, loads and loads of hard drives, etc, cleaning, updating equipment as I get better and frustrated with old equipment, server, online back-up, software licensing, god the list is endless - lest I forget: BATTERIES which the flash eats like Smarties. And every so often you'll rent something specific: £20 a shoot (ish)

5) Insurance: on average around £10 per shoot

All in, of lots of different insurances - specific photographers' insurance for all the crazy expensive equipment, and professional ones like public liability, employer's liability, professional indemnity etc etc.

6) General costs / buffer: £10

Let's just stick £10 in here for safety, averaged out. Sometimes I don't get fed on a shoot and have to buy a sandwich and a drink or snack at the only place nearby which is expensive. Or sometimes I can't get back the cost of the Haze machine from the producer (yup), or the cost of the van back to get the 9 foot backdrop back to the studio (yup), or I buy extra cardboard to black out a light etc. OK GREAT those are the costs.


The total after these basic photography costs is = £450-170 = £280

Now. Let's pay some TAX. Fun.
20 per cent corporation tax = £56.
You're left with, drumroll: Grand total of = £234

Doesn't sound bad!!! But. Now. Let's see how many hours you have to put in to make something really spectacular - this is your reputation after all! And the comedian's reputation! You want to give it all you can.


2 hours: Confirming the shoot

At least 2 hours talking/emailing and discussing with the producer and the comedian before the shoot is booked. (Sometimes it's longer)

8 hours (full day at least): Creative Direction & Planning

Developing a creative direction. Liaising with comedian/producer/assistant/anyone else. Ideas back and forth. Prepping for a shoot, trying to get any backgrounds, artistic direction, props, styling sorted. More emails. Mood boards. Research. Thinking. Sourcing anything odd or different, location management. Emails again. Signing it all off. Telling the comedian how handsome they're going to look. It takes time.

1-2 hours: Pre-prep

Getting the studio ready. Backdrop up, props, styling ready. 1 hour (at least): Comedian arrives. We talk. Have tea. Prepare ourselves. Talk about the shoot ahead. The comedian gets styled. (If there's a lot of hair/make-up/styling, this can easily become 3 hours)

3 hours: The Actual Shoot

Easiest part of this whole process. The shoot usually lasts 3 hours (but it went up to 9 hours at no extra charge once, and more usually around 4-5 hours).

1 hour: Strike

Comedian leaves, I pack down, download the pics from the memory card into my computer.

3 hours: Selection Process 3 hours if i'm lucky. This always takes ages. I pick the best 20-25 out of the shoot. This is a crucial stage.

8 hours: Post-production

8 hours MINIMUM. It's a whole long, long day. The most harrowing part of this rollercoaster. It's a huge, difficult task, that really is the make-or-break of the photos. I want these photos to look spectacular. Not just whatever, not just identikit, not just like anyone could have been in the photo. I care about these comedians, I love them like they're my betrothed. I want to make them look like stars.

1 hour: Upload, sending the photos to the comedian.

Waiting. Fretting. 'I'm not good enough', "It's all pointles', 'I'm nothing'. I scroll through Netflix. I watch nothing.

1 hour: Them getting back, me sending the final, high resolution photos

They love the photos! Huge relief. Maybe I'm worth something after all. Sending high res, begging them to credit me. Sometimes they do. Releasing photos once they release them.

Grand total worked = 30 hours.

So what's our hourly Professional Photographer rate to impress our parents with?

We have £234. Divided by 30 hours.

Final Hourly Rate: £7.80 an hour.

It's just over minimum wage (£6.50) at least. But London Living Wage is £9.15. And you live in London, and you have to - because all the work, however terribly paid, is here. But you're not here on work experience. You're at the top of your game. One of the most prolific and experienced photographers at the festival, and regarded as one of the best. You've shot thousands of shows and comedians. So they should get you in for some of their best comedians really. Match up the talent. Surely your wage should reflect that. Maybe get you on some skyrocketing fee of £15 an hour, eh? Something CRAZY like that. That'd be the least they could do.

But maybe you should shut up and just take your minimal wage. At least you're getting paid. And you're getting exposure (well, sometimes because good luck trying to get credited in the press or when people turn their Facebook profile picture to one of your photos).

But here's the thing. The 30 hours detailed above is minimum, those costs are minimum. All the above is tight isn't. Any more hours here or there, chasing payment (e.g. sending the same exact invoice over 20 times to a producer before you got paid), doing additional post-production, re-edits, paying for a stylist or a hair and make-up artist yourself (which I have done often because it can be so critical to make a photo really stand out), the shoot running over etc. and I'll actually make negative money. Remember, meanwhile, you're spending the evenings and nights trying to run your own business with all the responsibilities that go along with it.

This paltry £450 charge barely even allows the photographer to stay alive. So this budget is a loud klaxon announcing the production company has no interest in accommodating a stylist or make-up artist, prop designer, set designer etc and any associated costs. That's what everyone forgets about.

This budget is a complete rejection of the idea that a photoshoot is MEANT to be a team effort. They just think some guy has an expensive camera and that will do. That budget is a proclamation that they don't know anything about the photographic process, that they don't understand what makes images and what makes photographers different. 'All photos are the same,' they've said.

By that, what they're suggesting is that they don't care how their comic is photographed, it all looks the same to them.

Years ago I was asked to post-produce another photographer's shot of a famous comic by their agent. I removed the flash from the glasses, changed the perspective so the arm didn't look withered (it really looked withered), changed the colouring so he didn't look like a hungry ghost, tidied up his bitten fingernails which were quite noticeable, post-produced the face so the make-up wasn't so flat. Great. They liked it. It took me hours. Then they proceeded to send out sometimes my version, and sometimes the original version to the press and for brochures. They didn't see the difference or notice or care. I questioned it - and was met with the reply: 'It doesn't matter. He never looks good in photos.' I've since photographed that comic myself and seen newer photos by different photographers and guess what, he can look great. Someone just had to care.

This low fee is bottoming out the market, damaging the market, reinforcing a culture and expectation to force photographers to keep their fees low year on year, it's not fuelling an exciting creative buzzing industry that is attracting new design and photographic talent. I for one am going.

I can't do this any more. I can't go this low, so I can't work with their clients. Bye. I'm doing far less Edinburgh work this year than before. I don't have the capacity to do personal projects, or to give discounts to students or Free Fringe shows, there's no flexibility here. And with no flexibility comes no fun.

Instead it's just stress, trying to juggle money around day-by-day. I know other creatives - set designers, make-up artists, stylists, designers, photographers who are absolutely phenomenal who would love to get involved but don't do this work because they can't. The comedy industry would be lucky to have them. We're blocking out creative talent. So we're left with some designers and photographers working in Edinburgh who have worked for years and years with work that looks very similar to the work they did when they first started out. They're still charging basic rates and there's no significant creative development year on year.

The production company perpetuates the illusion that these constant, low fees are the Right Price and deem everything else Too Expensive. These photographers therefore become the only options for the comedians, rather than the production company trying to match different and unique photographers to each different and unique comic.

Good for these photographers with their basic rates year on year, but I wouldn't want that life, and if I were a comic, I wouldn't want those people working on my show. Not because they're no good - that's not what I'm saying - but because I'd want someone personally matched to me rather than forced to use them because they're the only ones that fit this nonsensical budget.

I've been a photographer in comedy for exactly five years and my fees have gone up every year as I improve, moved into new studios, try different things and suddenly I found myself in a position where I was forced to keep my prices low last year to accommodate these budgets and lost a LOT of money. I can't do that any more. I can't go round bankrolling everyone's Edinburgh publicity campaigns any more. I need to find the money elsewhere. Luxury pet photography. Christmas portraits of superyachts. Morning-after wedding photography (have you heard of that? It's a thing. You photograph newlyweds immediately after the first night they've consummated the marriage. I'm not kidding. It sounds gross. But profitable.)

I'm so angry, partly for myself, but mostly for new photographers coming into Edinburgh - there's no money here, guys, there's no industry, you can only grow a tiny tiny bit and then you're stomped all over.

It isn't just the brand newbie comedians the production company is budgeting this money for, they're budgeting this money for established acts, who've had several shows at the festival, who've been nominated for awards, have been on TV and the radio loads, who have a rack of 4 and 5* reviews under their belts.

As a rule of thumb, figure out how much that kind of comedian would like to be paid for a solid week's worth of commercial professional writing work that will have a big nationwide presence and be licensed out in perpetuity. And then go ahead and double that to accommodate all the costs. That's how much you should be paying the photographer.

More people will see these photos than will ever see the show. This is a really important fact that is always overlooked.

These photos will be the primary portrayal of the comedian for at least 18 months, and can last really forever. The comedian will be known for their images. I'm still seeing my photos from five years ago be used on posters, press and brochures. They will help create a fan base, be shared on social media, represent everything the comedian is about. This is the first and foremost representation of the comedian to the whole world.

Production companies spend so much money on the posters, the PR, the venue, the flyering team, the branded bags and anoraks, billboards, their production programme. But you get a good photo and a good design, and most of that work is done for you.

What good is getting a billboard if the photo makes you look like any other T-shirted-and-jeaned comedian up there. What good is it getting the best PR, if the photo they have to work with is middling.

I've worked as photo desk editor in the past. The better, more distinctive photo was chosen for coverage rather than the better show. We didn't care about how good the show was, we wanted to make our publication look great.

If one of the larger production companies started to reorder their budgets so they can allocate a few hundred pounds more to the photoshoot and allow a budget for costs e.g. a stylist, locations, make-up artist etc, then that production company is going to start to attract great photographers from different fields - from music, from film, from theatre, from fashion, and each poster and each shoot is going to start to get really exciting. The landscape of the homogenised billboards across Edinburgh will change.

These images will get very competitive in the press all year round - and result in a huge amount more coverage for comedians. That will bring in new fans and - more ticket sales, more tour sales, more DVD sales, more branded badges sales, higher profiles. Soon enough, the other production companies will realise they're missing out on all the talent and will change their budgets quick. If you want to put a figure on it - I'm talking about aiming for a £1,000-£1,500 total budget for the photoshoot (higher of course for very elaborate art directions).

That's still tight for a big editorial, art-directed publicity shoot to spearhead your publicity campaign, but it's a more comfortable amount to pay for the photographer, a make-up artist, stylist, backdrops, locations etc. It takes one production company to go ahead and realise the potential and comedians and photographers have to start questioning these low budgets. Do you, reader, run a production company? Maybe you can be the one to step up, maybe you can be the pioneer. You can change all this.

Now - for you independent comics maybe who are just starting out or you're doing all your own production gawping at that figure - don't panic. I'm only talking about the larger production companies and their budgets. There are options for you. But first, you have to make sure you put a lot of thought behind your shoot. You might not have any production budget, so you might have to find a great photographer to do you a huge favour or work together with a new photographer or student photographer just starting out that you really like the work of.

People starting out are all in it together, and you can help each other. Perhaps you can do something for them in return. Offer to assist some other shoots of theirs in return, offer to help publicise their work - do you have a big mailing list - maybe you can plug their work? All these things can be offered as trade for this favour to show you appreciate their work rather than trying to exploit someone or shame them into lowering their fees (both of which happens to me often).

The critical thing is that you know how much the work is worth so that you treat them accordingly, rather than demand people work cheap or for free. You should go out of your way to find the perfect photographer that loves your work and your show, that you put time into planning the shoot together with the photographer - to create photos collaboratively, rather than just push a few hundred cash into the hand of the only photographer you've heard of that you can afford, turn up, not invest the time, and get the same shots as everyone else that do nothing for your career.

The branded bags and the billboards and the accommodation only lasts that one month in Edinburgh. Photos are going to last for years. Especially in this crazed photo-dominated society, image is key. This is an investment in your life, in your career, and it's treated in this industry like a bit of admin at the bottom of an Excel sheet.

I pointed to one of the big, expensive billboards my photo was used on one year, turned to the producer and said - 'That looks cool. Does that kind of thing work? You know, for ticket sales?'

'That's just there to impress the agents.' he said. 'They'll see it on their way up from the train station when they get here. So it looks like we're doing something with their money.'

But it's not the agents' money. It's your money. Take hold of your budgets, start questioning them, refuse to be treated as just one of many assorted comedians on a long roster, demand a more personalised production experience. Involve yourself. The way the production is run is a reflection of your show. The budget is a critical part of the creative process. Stop ignoring it and assuming producers have your best interests at heart; make sure they do.

In conclusion. Yes. £450 is ridiculous, and stupid. We need to make a big change, and we can. Many thanks for listening.

Idil Sukan tweets here, while her art prints are for sale here. Her free retrospective exhibition, This Comedian, is on at the Embassy Tea Gallery, Southwark, from 12pm-7pm daily from February 20 to March 2.

Published: 11 Feb 2015

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