As we all know, these days anyone can make video: smartphones shoot 4K, optically stabilized footage, a GoPro can be tossed over a waterfall and film the whole thing, and action cam-equipped drones can capture footage that until now required a helicopter and a six-figure budget.
With pro tools readily available and used to great effect by non-pros, what makes us video producers so special? Now, more than ever, we have to do things beyond shooting exceptionally well if we want to charge appropriately for our work.
Having shot professionally for the better part of a decade, I have screwed up a lot. Maybe more than most. So, which mistakes were the easiest ones to prevent, and how did I prevent them from happening again?
Mistake #1: Leaving important gear behind
This mistake happened more after my first couple of years in business than it did at the very beginning: clients I was comfortable with and gear I knew inside out led to complacency. More than once I had to leave a shoot to grab SD cards from Best Buy or rescue my charging batteries from my hotel room.
You don’t make this mistake too many times before a solution is formulated. Nothing is more embarrassing or feels less professional than having to tell a client that – as they’ll hear it – their shoot wasn’t important enough to prep properly for.
The solution? I now have a master packing list of all my equipment, with checkboxes next to each item. When a new project is quoted, I use that template to build a packing list of what I’ll need on the shoot. Once the shoot is done, I add notes about what I brought but didn’t use, and what I’d bring next time, and it goes into the file for that client project.
Mistake #2: Thinking their event was my event
In my company’s early years I had a few really solid retainer clients, who brought me to their events around the world, had me shoot in their homes, and invited me for dinners with their families. Relationships are the most important aspect of running a business, and I was great at forming them, but didn’t always remember there was a line that could still be crossed.
A few years ago one of those great clients invited me to their staff Christmas party to shoot some footage for their company blog. I was happy to oblige and I was excited to attend the event. This was an event that the staff and their spouses looked forward to, and the company spared no expense.
So, I shot some footage. Drank plenty of wine. Had a few beers, maybe? Did shots with someone who worked at the venue. Then, I’m not so sure. I heard that I fell down a couple of times. I might have also pulled out some breakdance moves.
The next day I woke up on my couch still in my suit, iPhone smashed on the floor next to me, an annoyed wife, and a client who had a new perspective on their video producer.
Big mistake. Even when clients become friends, the business relationship still exists. If they’re celebrating their company’s success, or wrapping a big event, and they’ve included you, it’s an honor. Behave. Maintain a professional demeanor.
Remember: it can take years to build a strong relationship, and seconds to tear one down.
Mistake #3: Rushing the preparation phase
When my business ran into trouble for our drop in production quality I did a full assessment of our process. We used great cameras, edited on monster Macs, but workflow was clearly lacking.
So, I mapped out how I wanted projects to run. I inserted proper initial consultation meetings so I could really discover what the clients were looking for out of a video and so I could explain what they could expect (see mistake #4, not managing expectations).
I also knew I wanted detailed project notes, so I started a project file for each video that documents the results of every meeting and any further thoughts I have on a job. After the shoot I add to my project notes, tracking exactly what went into each video, what worked and what didn’t, so when similar projects come along I can quote more accurately.
The day before a shoot, I pull gear based on the gear list. Once I’ve got everything out I turn on each of my cameras, and do a settings check. In my project notes I will have jotted down how I want to shoot the project. 4K? 1080 30p? 60p? I preset the cameras, ensure I have extras of anything that could die – primarily bulbs and alkaline batteries. Then I charge all the batteries that are coming, and I prep memory cards by giving them a fresh format.
On shoot day, I pack all of the gear while checking it off on the list. At the shoot I double-check settings, properly white balance all of the cameras, and talk clients through the day.
If, after all of this, something goes wrong and a shoot is disrupted, I feel like I did what I could to prep. All I can do is make more notes and try to prep better for the next one.
Mistake #4: Not managing expectations
This mistake goes hand in hand with mistake #3, and it’s a simple fix.
Many of my clients are doctors, and most of them are at the top of the cosmetic industry. Plastic surgery or cosmetic dermatology clinics are busy places – or at least, the good ones are.
Trying to get time with these doctors is tough. Even though it’s their video being worked on, from their perspective it costs money for them to stand still. For this reason, many of our shoots are outside business hours, and quite often the set-up times will be negligible.
I knew I was doing something wrong when I was questioned about my setup. For this particular shoot I had been given five minutes to set up. We were filming in a room I had never seen. Given these factors, I had brought a DSLR on a monopod with a small LED and a shotgun mic. When asked about the meager setup, my only response was “this is all I can do in this amount of time.”
The mistake was not insisting on more setup time, or alternatively, explaining the impact that a rushed, minimal setup could have on our final product. It’s our job as pros to inform our clients as to what our needs are, and why.
Mistake #5: Shooting for free
The old “if I do this job for free, there could be tons of future work” video. I’ve done a few.
No matter how big the brand, how cool the office, how awesome a lunch they catered, this is what always happened: when there was no money involved I didn’t care about their video. There was no incentive to make something incredible. There was no incentive to make it quickly. There was no incentive to try to sell them another video.
You know why? They’re not good clients.
A good client will pay what you’re worth. They will know that there is real value in what you can do for them, and if they don’t, a good client will listen when you explain this to them. They will pay you for your time and expertise.
Some clients need to learn that using you is infinitely better than Dan from Accounting bringing in his DSLR from home. Sell your video service on the amazing value that you, a professional, brings to the table. Negotiate with that in mind, and don’t be afraid to walk away if it’s not comfortable.
Tell them why they need a pro, deliver good results, keep track of what you do, and don’t sleep in your suit.
Russ Fairley is a writer, educator and owner of Russ Fairley Productions, a turnkey video production company in Toronto. When he's not making videos he can be found walking his pointers or playing drums.
Bonus: Download a copy of Russ Fairley's Pack List here.