The Log for a Promo Video Project


Some of you are getting into video production to add to your professional photography offerings.  As you’ve heard me say here and, in my workshops, video is an entirely new world for most still photographers, even experienced ones.  So, from time to time I’ll let you in on the processes and issues from a real video shoot; and here is one of them.   When things are smooth there is very little of educational value, but when it is more difficult it provides far better resource material for students.

This project was done as a “favor” for a friend to help his father boost his business.  Trust me you’ll be getting requests like this as video becomes more ubiquitous online and in sales and service websites.  But here is the problem you will face: I can tell you from lots of experience, there is an inverse relationship between the price charged for a project and the problems that will come out of the wood work to bite you.

The expensive gigs are planned very carefully, have full professional crews and set help, and even though they are often a lot of work, that planning and help means they tend to go very smoothly.  But as the money fades and parts of the production logistics have to be jerry rigged or corners cut, the problems escalate.  And free projects can often turn out to be the worst nightmares for some or all of the production elements.  Like no other, free projects will demand you be on your toes and ready to get creative with rigging and shooting and lighting and… well all aspects of it.  That’s all on top of the conceptual and aesthetic creativity required to produce good video productions to serve your client’s needs in the first place.  Those are hard on the treasury but great exercises to develop your creativity.

Remember, regardless of the price charged, from $0.05 to $50,000,  once you have agreed to do it at all, your name and reputation is now on the line and you need to give the production 100% of your skills, talents, and energies.  And remember too, this is not YOUR needs to meet, but the client’s.  You may or may not be able to pull a program for your reel from it, but that is irrelevant.  The only relevant thing, as it is in ALL of real commercial photography, is meeting the needs of the client… not yours.

So-o-o-o…  this late in March I shot the video for a series of episodes on barbeque tips and techniques for a delightful gentleman from Mississippi, LaMont Burns.   (Check him out at On his website you can see some of his older videos and it will be obvious why he needed something new.  He has operated his own BBQ restaurants specializing in southern style cooking and BBQ and now has his own proprietary BBQ sauce and marinade.  It was ultimately to promote sales of his product that the planned web site and video channel is designed.  These short 2-5-minute “episodes” are designed to air about every two weeks and provide tips and techniques for BBQ and southern cooking using his own products, of course.

Two “sets/locations” were desired to provide some variety:  one was to be indoors in a kitchen and the other outdoors and a bit more rustic.  This allowed showing the use of both standard appliances like stoves and also a clever indoor-outdoor grill.  But, remember, there was no money for this production.  Period.  So certainly, there was no money for a practical kitchen set on a studio or stage somewhere, so we had to use LaMont’s son’s kitchen.  Real kitchens, unless in a serious mansion, present major challenges as shooting locations: general layout was designed for cooking  and not for photography OF cooking.  The available space and low ceiling for lighting, talent, camera(s), and sound design issues for audio, are just starting issues.  It can go downhill from there.

With vinyl floors and hard cabinet surfaces, the small kitchen for the interior segments was very “live” and echo-y from a sound perspective.  I used a good shotgun mic on a boom very close to him but it still picks up some of the small room’s tinny bounce.  It turned out, however, that “live room” wasn’t anywhere near the audio problem we found when the “quiet back yard” for the exterior shots turned out to back up to a major boulevard and be on the flight path out of a local general aviation airport…  Oh well, if it was all easy anyone could do it, right?

Besides, the subtle “project” creep as it was slowly revealed to me, after I agreed to do a short video for a friend’s dad,  which became 19 segments, should have been an omen that it might not all go stunningly smooth and glitch free.  But every now and then it is important to do a project that pays in smiles and appreciation; it may be hard on the patience and the pocketbook but it is, I think, good for the soul.  If “Karma” is real, sometimes these projects will, I fervently hope, provide a few points in that regard.  And, for a teacher, they can provide some of the best educational “war stories.”

Well most of the time, anyway…  it will remain to be seen if this will turn out to be one of them.  I remain hopeful…   When I looked at some video he already had on his website and it was simply awful, I was relieved; at its worst, the segments we shot are, by comparison at least, awesome.  I’d prefer a more object criteria and evaluation of awesomeness, but, hey, sometimes you grasp at straws and latch on to the good news however you have to find — and spin it.

However, there are lessons to pass along for you guys seeking to move into the video production end of commercial photo work.  Unless you are just doing the incredibly boring but really simple “talking head” sort of project —  you know, where an “expert” presenter, often self-titled, who knows it all, is going to dazzle the viewers with their brilliance and therefore needs nothing but a planted camera (usually a DSLR) and they are good to go — you need help.  And when starting out, believe me you need some experienced and knowledgeable help.  But, with no money for anything there was no money to hire good crew help.  That is enough of a real problem for an experienced producer, but it can be deadly for one just starting out and trying to build their reel and rep.

Whether it is your first production or your ten thousandth one, good quality video has at least three major elements:  first the audio must be clear and understandable, second the lighting must be good and give enhancement and some spatial sense to the set, and then finally, the video itself needs to be sharp and clear and help with the sense of motion and pacing.  If motion isn’t an issue then do a still shoot; if it is, then it becomes the only reason to be doing it as video in the first place.  So learn to use it.

For videos with an on-screen presenter, the fourth requirement is that the on-screen presenter not only really knows their stuff, they need to be used to working in an environment where they may have to re-do some takes and need to be able to stop and start and duplicate the last action and dialogue as perfectly as possible or things will not cut together in edit.  That is a skill set that makes good talent worth their weight in gold on a set and which will ultimately be cheaper as it will save time in shooting and editing.

Each of those elements requires a special skill set on its own.  If you don’t have help, there are so many things to think about, all at the same time, that no matter how good you are, or whether or not you know how to do all of the things needed, the complexity of a real shoot will bite you and things will start to slip through the cracks and require either major editing fixes or perhaps, worse, can’t be fixed at all.

This project was a textbook example of that problem where the infamous Mr. Murphy and his law book was on the set and happily doing his thing.  The presenter, LaMont, was a wonderful guy; warm, approachable, and an incredible cook.  But he was not an experienced on-screen talent.  He really knew the topic and was a “ham” in front of the camera… but that is a very different thing.  For example, when multiple takes or some stops and starts were required, no two takes were anything alike in terms of narration, and without a script supervisor or producer paying attention or worse, as in our case with no script at all but LaMont doing it all as an ad lib delivery, the material presented a virtual nightmare for editing purposes and necessitated time-consuming but careful logging of footage, trying to find and cut sections together that flowed and more or less matched.

There is a reason for rehearsals and it is not for talent to learn their lines; that is something they should come to the set with.  It is for scene blocking and letting the talent and camera ops synchronize movements and expected action.  Again, THIS IS NOT STILL PHOTOGRAPHY!  But the talent arrived the night before and left the morning after so there was no time for rehearsals.  We did it all cold and on the fly.  And in places it shows.  Video is like that; to a much greater extent than stills, small issues find their way into the finished piece for all to see or hear.

This was done as a favor but a student, knowing of the project, asked what it would have cost had it been done “Straight up,” i.e. how should it have been budgeted for a proper quote and proposal?  With the benefit of hindsight, we know the actual times involved so do not have to speculate (though it turned out requiring almost exactly what I expected and would have estimated for out-of-pocket costs to the production company had it been a real gig).  San Diego, in terms of clients’ ideas about rates for any photo or video work is the cheapest, most unprofessional level I’ve seen anywhere in the country.  The rates in Denver in 1990 were far better than here today in 2018.  But it is what it is, and this is where the project took place so we will take some bare-bones low-end rates from this area for our estimates (if you are in New York or L.A. or Dallas, or even Denver, please don’t laugh.  And in any other venue, don’t use these numbers or no one will take you seriously.  In most venues students would charge more than this.)

# Item Rate Time/Qty Total Cost Notes
1 Producer/Director $350/Dy 2.5 Days $   875.00 The common “set boss”
2 “A” Camera Operator $250/Dy 2.0 Days 500.00 DP & 1st Shooter
3 “B” Camera Operator $175/Dy 2.0 days 350.00 2nd Shooter
4 Gaffer/Grip $150/Day 2.0 Days 300.00 Set lighting/equip control
5 Audio Tech $175/Day 2.0 Days 350.00 Set Audio/boom
6 PA $100/day 2.0 Days 200.00 General set help
7 Editor $50/hr 50 hrs 2,500.00 Real editors cost MUCH more
8 Equipment/kit Fees 300.00 Project 300.00 Cam/lights/audio/etc
9 Contingency 10% Expense $ 55.00 Generally 5-10%
10 Travel $.75/mile 141 mi 106.00 SD-Site-SD x 3 trips
11 Misc     .00 No misc was needed
12 Sub Total     $5,536.00 Costs to vid company
13 Profit for Video Co. % subtotal 25% 1,384.00 Fairly low percentage
14 Total Estimate     $6,920.00 A reasonable total bid

Well, those are numbers for a proper-sized crew and approach but with ultra-low-end local rates.  Even so, what was actually available with no budget was one person to be the director/DP/cameraman x2/gaffer/audio tech (that was all me) and a “producer” whose idea and concept it was but who, on set, helped prep the food and run the slate for me.  The “talent” was also the “client” so there is no line item for that though a good experienced spokesperson type talent would have been at least $200 -$500 per day + expenses (but would have saved a lot of editing time).

There is also no charge shown for pre-pre-production meetings and conference calls to set it all up.  Travel time, also not listed, is usually billed at ½ production rates.

Additionally, since I supplied all of the equipment including cameras, lights, and audio gear (#8) nothing actually needed to be rented so if you own your own gear that specific cost is optional for your quotes.  But, and this is important, if you do not put rental costs in your estimates and something breaks during the shoot and you have to then go and rent it, you will end up paying for it out of your own pocket.  A basic rule in corporate/industrials is that once the contract is signed, you cannot go back and ask for more money because you forgot something in the quote.  In this case, it shows a highly discounted rate for money that would normally go into my equipment maintenance account.

I also did my best to drive the two cameras (one for the “master” shots, the other for details and another angle since coverage could not be done single-camera-style to match the master shots) simultaneously by myself thereby defying the basic laws of physics (and with only marginal success at best) but it was a bad plan and the footage reflects it.  I also tried to be the audio tech at the same time.  That was an even worse plan and it definitely reflects it. What I also did not include, foolishly, was production insurance.  Shooting in someone’s ‘normal’ house is a recipe for some major liabilities.  Luckily nothing happened and we escaped disaster; but cooking requires heat and electricity so the potential for a problem is high.

All in all, a proper quote even in this area should have been about $7,500.00. and up…  almost anywhere else it would have been quite a few notches north of $10,000-$15,000. For the potential 95-100 minutes of programming designed to sell a product nationally.  So even with the rough spots, the “client” got a heck of a deal.

When all of the graphics get done and music bed laid in (also not listed in the expenses spreadsheet above) and pieces edited, I’ll post links to a few of them so you can see what we are talking about.

Meantime, here is the link to a “behind-the-scenes” or “Making of…” video pieced together from stills and video Stephen Burns did will the shoot was going on.







About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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