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The way it used to be for commercial photographers was, once we shot the film, it was given to the agency and we never saw it again. It was very rare that you were involved at all in any of the postproduction. Which was fine sometimes, but sometimes the end result was different than the original intent. Now, because of the advances in technology, there has a niche has developed between photography and pre-press.
Instead of pre-press doing all the postproduction, today the photographer does postproduction on their own, or they hand it off to someone like GreenBox to do the work before it’s passed on to pre-press. One-way to look at it is: The budget is out there for retouching on every job, regardless of who does it. There’s nothing that doesn’t get touched by Photoshop these days. The question is, who is going to get paid to do that postproduction work?
If photographers want to do their own retouching, it’s a good skill to develop and I think it’s good to retain control up to the very last minute. But that only works if you’ve got the time and the deadline fits your schedule. When you get really busy, you end up thinking to yourself, “I’ve already shot this and sold it to the client; I want to do the retouching, but I don’t have the time to because I’ve got another shoot the next day.” And inevitably everyone wants everything delivered immediately, so you get to a point where you realize there is only so much you can handle. I’ve also heard stories about agencies getting burned by photographers who want to do their own retouching but are not really technically skilled with Photoshop and pre-press requirements. They deliver the file and then the agency has to source it out for someone else to fix.
Another option would be for the photographer to hire a freelancer, so the files can be worked on the next day while the photographer is shooting another job. That’s a possibility too. But again, then you’re relying on the availability of the freelancer. Typically if you find someone who understands what you want and how you like it, then you’re much more dependent on that person. If you call them up and say, “I need you to do this tomorrow,” and they’re booked for the next three days, then you might have to go to someone else whom you’ve never worked with before.
The third option is to have someone on staff full-time to do retouching, but then you have to be shooting enough to support that. Having someone in-house to do retouching is a great option for a photographer because the Photoshop work is a good second revenue stream, if you can find additional clients who only want retouching services.
The ebbs and flows for a postproduction studio run along the same lines as those for a photography studio. But when you’re a photographer specializing in a certain area, that’s the only source of income coming in, as opposed to this model with GreenBox, where we could be drawing from several sources. So even now when a lot of people are really slow, there’s always somebody working — and they need retouching services. That way you can becomes less dependent on just one circle of income.
If you’re going to start your own postproduction studio, it’s good to have a focus, an area that you specialize in, just as you should as a photographer. I’ve always felt that, if I were a client and I looked at someone’s portfolio and they had some fashion, they had some still life, they had some landscape, even if they’re all good, I really don’t have a clear picture of what they love, where their passion lies. But then I might interview someone else and they only have food — well it becomes obvious that person really likes doing food photography. And if I needed food photography done, I think I’d want to go to that person instead of someone who says, well, yeah, I do food photography too. And that directly translates to what we do at GreenBox Imaging.
No matter how photographers do it, I think it’s important that they always include retouching as a separate line item — I cannot stress this enough. Because no matter what you do with digital files, it takes time to process them and prepare them to be handed over to the client. Even simple processing, renaming, and organizing your images without any retouching can take some time. The big danger is if photographers include processing and retouching in their photography fee, clients start to think, why should I pay extra for it, it’s included. Just like anything else in business, it’s always a good idea to have it called out as separate charge, even if you’re doing it yourself.
Pricing for retouching can be all over the place, but it generally runs from $150 to $300 an hour from a postproduction house. In my experience, that is what agencies and design firms typically budget for retouching and postproduction services as part of a project. We try to look at it on a per-project basis and quote it that way, but in general if you go somewhere with your files, that’s the range that’s out there.
The client explains what they want and you try to estimate how many hours it will take as closely as possible. Sometimes that’s very difficult to do; you never know what’s going to happen down the line during the postproduction process. Maybe the designer goes through the image and gets it the way they want it and only then it gets passed on to the client. The client may say, “That looks great,” or they may have a bunch of changes, and those are the things that are unpredictable. All you can do is estimate as close as possible; then when we get to that point where we start running out of time, we notify the client and say, we have this much time left. The request you just sent is going to push us over, or it’s within the budget but anything after that we’ll need more hours added on. That’s all you can do, to keep the client informed of where they are money-wise and time-wise, and in the long run it only makes you more respectable as a postproduction studio.