Many new photographers do not consider working with a producer because a) they feel such specialists are only for large budget jobs; or b) they do not actually know what a producer is. Fact is producers can be even more valuable to new photographers than they are to established photographers.
For established shooters, a producer is often necessary on large assignments where there is simply too much work for one person to do. The photographer’s primary concern is his or her client and they want to stay focused on creative issues with that person. The logistics of pulling together a large shoot can be significant! Working with a topnotch producer means the photographer can collaborate with someone very experienced at organizing the most challenging assignments.
Producers will typically work with the photographer at the quoting stage of the project, helping the photographer to quickly tally the costs of producing the job so that he or she can deliver a fast and accurate quote/estimate to their client. In many cases, the producer continues to work on set helping to organizing talent, stylists, propping, set building etc. They often work hand in hand with the 1st Assistant on set and this helps the photographer to remain focused on the shoot.
But Producers can also be of enormous help to newer commercial photographers, particularly when it comes to quoting an assignment. A newer photographer may not be familiar with the costs associated with a large shoot, let alone the logistics of pulling such a shot off.
I always feel the best partnerships are between an established photographer, who understands what it takes to produce a large shoot, and a veteran producer. In such cases the two individuals will know exactly what to expect from each other. But this is also a superb opportunity for a newer photographer to learn these issues by working with an established producer – just make sure you let the producer know you are a bit new to this. That producer will then make sure you look very good indeed in front of your client!
But enough rambling – the best way to learn about a producer is to hear it right from a producer’s mouth. I have invited Vancouver Commercial Producer Lisa Kaulback to join me on this blog post.
GB: Welcome Lisa! So tell me how you began your career as a producer?
LK: Hi Greg, thanks for inviting me. My beginnings as a producer were purely out of necessity. I landed a job as a studio assistant between my first and second year of the Langara Professional Photo-Imaging Program (2001) The day after my graduation our Studio Manager moved to Toronto, and I stepped in as the new Studio Manager and in-house Producer.
This was during the hay day of Stock Photography, so I had to learn pretty quickly how to manage and budget very large productions. Lucky for me I have a natural obsession with “the details” so managing it all came fairly quickly. After a few years of doing both studio managing and producing, it became pretty clear that producing was my passion. I’ve been a freelance producer ever since.
GB: What would you say are the most critical aspects of the role you play in a commercial shoot?
LK: I offer a variety of roles, but the skill set and experience of the photographer really dictates where my expertise is most beneficial. By far the most critical aspect is the quoting. If a photographer doesn’t have an accurate quote and they’re awarded a job, that’s a tough starting point for anyone. With less experienced photographers the process of quoting is the first of many steps where they can get into trouble and the area where I can offer the most value.
After the quote, the next most critical aspect of my role is managing the requirements of a commercial shoot. Knowing when certain items or tasks need to be tackled, knowing who should be tackling them, and communicating all this with the client can be daunting, not to mention time consuming. Freeing up this time and space for photographers really allows them to stay available for the creative part of the shoot, driving the vision so to speak.
GB: What kind of projects are you typically hired for – is there even a typical type of project?
LK: Funny you ask if there is a “typical” type of project. I would say that typically I am hired for commercial shoots, mostly because once there’s a client involved the level of accountability goes way up, regardless of how big or small the overall budget is, and photographers realize the benefit of not dealing with these projects alone. I would say the only thing “typical” about commercial production work is the process, as the budgets and scale of jobs here vary quite a bit.
GB: Do you know if it is common for a producer to be hired on non-commercial shoots, such as wedding shoots, fine art or personal shots?
LK: It’s not unheard of for photographers to hire producers for personal projects but it is pretty rare. Generally it all comes down to finances. When there’s more money in play, like there is in commercial shoots, it’s easier to see the benefit in hiring a producer. When that money is coming directly out of the photographer’s pocket, as it does for portfolio shoots, it’s harder for them to see the value in that investment. That being said, I have produced personal projects for some photographers that were building their portfolios and were serious about raising the bar on the type of imagery they were creating. I helped coach them through the production and together we determined where my time would be most beneficial for them.
GB: When on set, do you find it important to establish whom you take directions from or do you typically work directly with the client as well as the photographer?
LK: Overall my job is to make sure everyone has what they need to get their job done right. As you can imagine, it’s a busy role. The photographer and the client are my top priorities, if either one of those people are unhappy, then inevitably both end up unhappy. So I guess you’d say I work directly with everyone.
GB: What do you expect of a photographer on a typical shoot?
LK: I expect the photographer to be an expert at what they do, and to show up prepared and as ready to work as I am. I can do everything in my power to trouble shoot and eliminate problems, but if a photographer isn’t ready to really work and can’t get the job done, well… no amount of producing can change that. I can’t take the shots for you, but I can make the process easier.
GB: Ok, I have to ask –what is the best way for a photographer to piss you off? Of course, we’re not talking about me – we’re talking about those other photographers.
LK: Greg, you could never piss me off 😉 For me personally, it comes down to accountability, know what’s going on and be involved in the process. The worst is when a photographer doesn’t really engage in the creative process of the production. If you’ve mentally checked out and are letting other people make creative decisions for you, then you have to be able to work with the results of those choices. Don’t be a diva and start acting like your team let you down, because you have no idea what’s going on. I guarantee they did no such thing, if anything your lack of interest and direction has let them down.
GB: Any advice for new photographers in what to look for and expect from a Producer?
LK: Absolutely. Find someone better than you. You should really do that for everything when it comes to hiring people. If you don’t have experience with production you’re going to want someone that can fill in those gaps, this isn’t an area where “growing together” is necessarily a good thing. Meaning they should have experience if you don’t.
A big part of a successful relationship with a producer is personalities. Can you mesh with this person and do you feel they are being honest with you? They are managing a lot of major decisions and a lot of those decisions are about money and can be stressful even to a veteran shooter. If you can’t trust that they know where you’re coming from and are hearing your concerns, then they might not be the right fit. A great producer should be able to balance what is “standard industry practice” with your comfort zone as well.
GB: There you have it – words of wisdom and experience! Thanks Lisa for taking the time to share your thoughts and advice.
Lisa also has a new book out I highly recommend, named “Building Winning Bids.” It’s available on the Apple Book Store, and is written to help photographers cost and organize complex photo-shoots!
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Bluesky is a photography tutorial website created by veteran commercial photographer and college instructor Greg Blue. This site advocates an approach to learning studio & location photography that focuses first on light theory (these are free tutorials). Lighting, camera and post-production techniques are equally important, but should follow the study of lighting theory (these tutorials are also free). The site also offers a host of specific image tutorials that take a mile deep look at theory and technique from the perspective of individual images (these tutorials are members only).