What does the role of a producer look like? How should photographers approach producers? What makes a great producer? I wanted some detailed clarification on these and more, so I sought out a professional.
I connected with Christy Schmid, Chicago based producer, and was able to get some really great info from her perspective. Christy has worked on very creative shoots all across the board with massive brands and clearly high level visuals. She also has a whole slew of resources and connections on her site for crew members and studios in Chicago. Whether you're an up and coming photographer wanting to learn more about production or you're getting your feet wet in production looking to get some advice from a pro, Christy's answers shed some much needed light on this murky area!
Q: What's the difference between a consultant and a producer?
A: You pay a consultant to advise you on business matters or fee structures. A producer is there to help you produce a specific shoot. Although a producer can consult on things I would recommend that you talk to your rep, or hire a consultant if you need help with figuring out your fees and usage or anything pertaining to your business.
Q: What are some good methods of researching and finding producers to contact?
A: I get 99% of my business through word of mouth, and once every few years someone finds me on Google. The best way to get connected with a good producer is to ask other photographers, agents, crew or the art producer you’re working with. There is also Google, makecreate.co (which seems to be having technical issues at the moment) or productionparadise.com. If you’re shooting outside the US - Production Paradise is a good resource.
Q: As photographers starting out trying to make new connections with producers how should we reach out to a producer and what sort of questions should we be asking?
A: Generally, I don’t hear from photographers, or their agents, until it’s time to estimate a shoot. If you want to get to know some producers before you jump into estimating together, set up a call and pick their brain about how they like to run productions. I would also suggest telling them how you like to work to make sure you are a good fit.
A few of these questions could help you understand each other better:
What sort of shoots do you like working on?
How long have you been producing?
What things are included in your prep and what do you expect the photographer to do?
How do other photographers describe your work style and strengths?
Do you have experience working with (whatever types of shoots you do most)?
Do you tend to lean toward smaller crews/footprints or more support crew with lots of bells and whistles?
Do you have a preference on how billing works. (everything through the production company, everything through the photographer/agent, etc)?
What is your standard dayrate?
What kind of insurance do you carry? How do you charge for insurance?
Do you markup jobs? If so, how much?
Understanding how they think about production and budgets can help you understand if they will be a good match for you and your typical clients. If you work mostly with smaller clients with lower budgets, a producer who charges a large markup and is more comfortable with a large crew might not be the right fit for you. If you mostly work with big-name clients who expect their time on set to be comfortable with lots of bells and whistles, you probably do not want a producer who doesn’t have experience with this and doesn’t know how to estimate properly for a larger production.
Many independent producers can toggle between different kinds of shoots easily, but larger production companies (with more overhead) or producers who are just starting out (less experience) might not be able to be as flexible with different kinds of shoots and budgets.
Q: Should I have a project in mind before reaching out to a producer or should I reach out just to connect for potential future projects?
A: That’s up to you! If you are trying to get more work in a specific market / city it might be worth making some connections to make sure you have a producer you vibe well with when a job comes in. I occasionally have photographers reach out to me just to connect but most of the time I don’t hear from folks until they have a shoot they need help producing.
Q: How early on in the process of discussing a potential project with a client should I reach out to a producer?
A: Most producers prefer to get involved at the beginning - right after your receive your creative direction and bid specs.
Some photographers prefer I be on creative calls so I can take notes and come up with any production questions from the information discussed. Sometimes they don’t loop me until they have all the information about a job and it’s time to start estimating.
On occasion, photographers loop me in after they’ve already turned in an estimate but I would not recommend this. The most essential part of my job is creating the budget that makes it possible for me to produce it.
Q: Do most producers help photographers in the process of bidding/estimating? How is that portion of work typically priced? (hourly/percentage of the project)
A: Yes, producers and photographers (and their reps) usually work together to estimate a shoot. Estimating a shoot correctly is the most critical part of production. I would never work on a job before at least seeing and approving the production budget for the project specs provided.
Most producers do not charge anything for estimating a shoot. This is part of our job. Some producers might charge after you hit a certain amount of revisions with the agency but this is not as typical as it probably should be.
Q: How is a producer paid? Set daily/hourly rate? A percentage of the photographer's creative fee of a project?
A: Usually, a producer is paid on a daily rate, just like the rest of the crew. Since most of a producer's job happens before, and after, the shoot - prep and wrap days are critical to include.
For certain types of jobs producers also will markup the production costs to cover their time, expenses and overhead.
Q: Is it common for a photographer to reach out to multiple producers at once to find the best fit/price for a project?
A: This is not common. If you wanted to get multiple estimates from different producers I would suggest telling them you are doing so and offering to pay them for their time. The estimation process takes a lot of time and bidding with multiple producers (secretly) to see whose the best fit/price is likely to mean those producers won’t want to work with you in the future. It will also be a lot more work on your end.
If you are estimating with a producer you’ve never worked with before it’s worth an introduction call to make sure you are a good fit. I’ve had photographers call me after another producer estimated way over the supplied budget for a repeat client and knew they wouldn’t get the shoot if they turned that estimate in. In this case, they let the first producer know they would be asking another producer to help bid since they weren’t able to come in at the client’s budget.
Q: How important is it to find and partner with a producer in the same city as you vs remote?
A: My suggestion is to use local producers for the best production value. I love to travel and will produce in other cities but I am relying more on other people’s recommendations at this point since I won’t be as familiar with crew, production resources, local norms, etc. There are plenty of smaller markets that don’t have local producers (or crew for that matter) in which case you’d want to travel with the people best for that shoot.
Some photographers would prefer to work with the same producer, when possible, no matter where they are shooting. In that case, I would suggest hiring a local coordinator in the city you are shooting.
Having a remote/virtual producer (not on set) doesn’t work for most shoots but it certainly could depending on the size and scope of the project. Some of this was happening when Covid precautions were at their highest but that also meant the crews were small and clients weren’t on set.
Q: How important is it to find and keep in contact with multiple producers in multiple cities?
A: All connections are important in this industry. It’s good to know producers, crew, and resources in different cities, especially if you travel a lot for work. I wouldn’t spend a ton of time finding new people in new cities unless you are planning on working there soon. Your time is probably better spent on other things.
Q: How often are clients ok with their photographer using a producer that is remote and not present at a shoot?
A: This will really depend on the client and type of project but it is not very common in my circles.
I’ve successfully remote-produced smaller shoots for clients but am present on set for most of my shoots. Photographers I work with generally prefer a producer (or coordinator) on set to manage talent, locations, crew requests, client communication, and anything else that might pop up throughout the day so they don’t have to. In lieu of a producer on set, you can have a coordinator or even a savvy PA for a less complicated production.
On larger/more complicated shoots, I would make sure the client/agency producer is okay with your producer not being on set (even if this was noted in your estimate - don’t assume they’ve seen it and are okay with it).
Q: Do producers specialize in genre/aesthetics or are they normally broad in who/what they work with?
A: Everyone I know is fairly broad in what sorts of shoots they produce and who they work with.
Q: Is it helpful or appealing to a producer if a photographer already has a team of contacts in place (hair and makeup, wardrobe, location scout, assistant, etc)?
A: If we’re working in a city I have contacts, this does not matter to me at all. In a market I haven’t worked in before it’s always good if the photographer has some folks they are comfortable working with there but we will find a good crew either way!
Q: What can we as photographers do to make your job easier?
A: Communicate your wants and needs. We want you to be as happy with the production as your clients are. Our job is to make your life easier so let us know how we can do that.
Q: As a producer when you're in the role of hiring a photographer, what do you need to see in order to feel confident hiring that photographer?
A: Photographers and directors generally hire me to help them produce a job - I rarely work as an art buyer/producer on the client or agency side although I am occasionally asked to.
Each project will have a specific style of photography that it calls for. I would suggest photographers with similar work in their portfolios as well as folks I trust to have enough experience to execute the production well.
It’s important to understand what makes a good production. It’s very obvious to spot inexperience with commercial productions from how a budget is crafted and the questions that are asked about the project.
After you’ve been selected to bid on a shoot, you want to make sure you vibe well with the creative team. Most agencies will have a creative call with the 3 photographers they are bidding to go through details before we work on an estimate. This interaction, however short, is very important. They want to understand who you are, your style of shooting, and the energy you will bring to the project. I recently had a photographer dropped from the estimating process because of his lack of enthusiasm on the creative call. This was a first for me, but I honestly didn’t blame them.
Q: What should photographers be looking for when finding a good producer?
A: You should try and work with a producer you jive with that complements your strengths and weaknesses. Remember you’re going to spend a lot of time with your producer and you want to make sure the two of you get along well.
A good producer wears many hats - each photographer should decide what is most important to them in a producer:
Calm under pressure
Foodie (for stellar craft services)
Therapist (please don’t lean too much on your producer for this)
In my opinion, the ability to quickly and gracefully find solutions to any potential hiccup or change in direction is a huge part of my job. More often than not, your creative team (or location, weather, models or crew) is going to throw you a curveball and your producer should be able to give you your options or quickly get overages approved to make these creative changes on set. As the saying goes, the only constant (in production) is change. Being able to calmly move through these changes is key.
I’ve heard from multiple folks I work with that my ability to be calm under any circumstance is what they enjoy the most about working with me. On set, I like to manage all the details so my photographer can focus on shooting and being creative. If they’re stressed that the model is late, they’re not being the best photographer they can be. I’d rather them trust me to manage these details so they don’t have to pull focus from their job.
Q: What advice do you have for photographers transitioning from doing smaller self-produced projects to trying to win larger projects that would involve a producer?
A: I would start by making sure you have an easy-to-use website with a portfolio you’re proud of! The photographers that I see rise the fastest are the ones that are shooting constantly. There is a ton of competition - shooting new work and sharing it seems to be the best way to get clients’ attention. If there is no work on your site that showcases the kind of work you are trying to get, do some test shoots and fix that.
As a photographer, you are also a business owner, and you need to actively market yourself. This is not what many photographers envisioned when they started shooting but if you can’t manage a business you likely won’t cut it for long in the world of commercial photography. There is a lot of debate about what works best - but the truth is that every person you’re reaching out to is different. Most art buyers and creative directors seem to prefer emails, even if they’re not responding to all of them. Some prefer direct mail, most do not because they don’t have space to store them in their new open concept work areas or work from home office. The occasional 24-year-old unicorn art director will find you through the printed Workbook that’s sitting around at their agency, assuming they’re back in the office. And every once in awhile photographers are discovered on Instagram, although now that they only push out reels I’m not sure this is still relevant.
There are many online portfolio sites available to expand your reach including Found Artists, Behance, Wonderful Machine, Dripbook, Workbook, AtEdge, BlvdArtists, LeBook and Production Paradise. Most are paid, and some you have to be accepted to.
Some photographers find partnering with an artist agent very helpful. This person would be an extension of your business, could help with advising you on your business and help get you jobs. This person, or team, would be an extension of your business so you both need to make sure you work well together and want to work together. Not all artist agents are created equal so do your homework.
It might be helpful to join a professional photography association like the APA.
Once someone reaches out to you about a larger job, make sure to loop in a producer right away to make sure you’re asking all the right questions and getting all the right information for your estimate.
Need a photo producer in Chicago? Reach out to Christy to get going on your next project!
Thank you SO much to Christy for taking time out of her busy workload to give me such great inside info from the side of the producer.