Introduction

Unless you’re intent on living on the streets, working side jobs, or are fortunate to have the support of wealthy parents and benefactors, most of us at one point or another have to ask ourselves – “what prices should I charge?” Pricing out and valuing your work is a great mystery.  If you look around the Internet and even ask others for advice, the amount of money – especially for artists, ranges a very wide gamut. The price point is very difficult to gauge with so many people out there. Of course to some degree, what you can charge is indicative of your skill level, but for the sake of this article I’m just going to discuss what an average businessman, freelancer, artist, and even photographer should be charging at the very minimum.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to use my experience as a freelancer for close to the past 10 years and running my company, LunarStudio. The same experience should apply to most people in a variety of different situations.

The Internet – The Global Price Mediator

At one point before the Internet grew in size and popularity, if you wanted a television, you would drive around town to various electronics store. The price would have probably remained relatively fixed. If you drove to a competitor in the same neighborhood, you might have found several hundreds of dollars in savings. If you drove even further – perhaps to another state – the price may have gone down or up several hundred instead. There really was no baseline comparison from place to place. Prices were more or less regulated to the availability and general income of where you lived.

Enter the shopping world of the Internet. No longer were people confined to the neighborhood electronics store. If you saw a television you liked at a physical location/store, you could come back home and do a search for that same TV online. In the Internet’s infancy, you could discover huge savings on the same exact product, perhaps even including free shipping and no taxes. Suddenly, you were aware that there were great deals to be had online. You saw what one company was charging at one location, and what another was charging in a completely different part of the country. This is comparison shopping on a larger, more instantaneous and convenient level.

The Internet had the effect of exposing exorbitantly high prices in one area, and showing “rock bottom” prices in another. Over time, the highs and the lows across the country evened out to a degree. Your local store started to honor TV deals that you could find out on the Internet. The boundaries originally set by a lack of information and geography started to evaporate. The Internet became the great price mediator.

Now you may be asking yourself, how exactly does this apply to your business? The same analogy applies to many of your services. As prices of goods around the country start to level off, the highs and lows of what you can charge has also been affected. Everything including average income and salary starts to average out.  In some parts of the country, there are still higher costs of living and major differences in salary, but these differences are going to eventually follow suit.

Let’s take for example two digital artists that work remotely off of the Internet. One is out in farm country – somewhere out in Oklahoma. We’ll call him “Artist A.Artist A has a very low cost of living. He pay $500/month in rent. Most of his bills tends to be relatively inexpensive for him.

Now let’s take “Artist B.Artist B lives in the heart of New York City. His rent is $2,000/month. The costs of living are generally much higher for him.

Let’s suppose that both of these artists produce a similar quality of work. Guess who has to charge more in order to keep up their living expenses? Artist B.

Unfortunately, Artist A can easily undercut the more expensive Artist B. On the other hand, is Artist A really doing himself any favors by drastically undercutting the more expensive Artist B? In the short-term, yes. It costs a lot less for Artist A to stay alive. But guess what – the prices of the TVs they were looking at earlier still remains the same now. Artist A in effect has to work harder to afford that television because he’s charging much less. Artist B also has to get more jobs in the door (because he’s charging higher prices) in order to compete with Artist A in order to buy that television. Both artists have made more work for themselves simply because more competition has entered the field via the Internet.

So what is the solution to this problem then? You can choose to wait out the “great Internet mediation” – as to how long that will take is anyone’s guess. We all have to wait irregardless. You could also try producing substantially better work and charge more, but there will always be people who don’t recognize better quality and simply go for the lowest prices. You could also perform lower quality work, and at that point it becomes a numbers game as to how many clients you can shove through any given door before they realize they’re getting substandard work. In essence, you’re still making the same amount of work. If you want quality – then you have to pay for it.

What the average person has to do (assuming that your skills are average in nature) is to find the middle ground – a happy medium. A price point which isn’t “too high” and not “too low.” As your skills progress, you should be able to charge more over time as your services come into greater demand.

The point is that you’re not doing anyone any favors by undercutting your fellow artist (or businessman) in the age of the Internet. In fact, you may be doing more harm than good. Ultimately, you need to provide a quality product with a quality service, and hope that makes all the difference. In a perfect world, we would all be charging similar prices, and only those that charge higher are producing better quality.

Comparing Others

So you have looked around the Internet and checked to see what other competitors and colleagues are charging. You have one relatively unknown person in the middle of nowhere trying to charge $25 for a photograph. On the other hand, you see another person with a little bit of better work charging $250. Which price should you charge? Perhaps like most people, you consider yourself an “unknown” too and are just starting out or trying to make ends meet. The first inclination may be to charge on the lower end of the spectrum – $25. But are you selling yourself short? Perhaps if you charge closer to $250, others will see your work as “more professional” or “more valuable.” It’s a tricky question with a seemingly tricky answer.

In order to answer this question, we can look at other various industries for a baseline number.

Take for example a plumber or an electrician. They can easily charge $100-$150/hour. If your electricity goes out or your toilet stops working – you have no real alternative aside from trying to fix it yourself. You’re more or less forced to pay those prices. However, there’s a reason why you pay them these rates. Even at those prices, I don’t see many plumbers and electricians living in mansions. The standard of living factoring in risk and reward (for running your own business) all averages out.

How about professional photographers? They’ll bill out $1,500-$2,500 a day. What is not apparent to the average person/onlooker is that they’ll spend a few days prior negotiating with potential clients, a few days in post process after a shoot, and a few days cleaning up all of their previous negotiations.

As for architects, how much do you suppose their companies bill out on a hourly basis? The average is around $125/hour. The principals? They can push $200/hour.

Now let’s take a look at my architectural illustration work. Running my company (artwork creation, 3D knowledge, self-education, marketing, invoicing, sales, etc.) is more complicated than any other job I’ve personally ever seen and requires multiple skill sets. What do you think I should be charging if I spend an hour’s worth of work on something?

You may say to yourself, “well, art isn’t a necessity.” However in my field, I argue that it is. My illustration work helps sell multimillion dollar buildings based on ideas and blueprints. If someone is planning to put up a $50 million dollar building and it all hinges on a pretty picture, do you think it’s worth spending $10,000 or more? It sure is. My work gets ordinances passed by town boards. It communicates to designers what something will look like even before it goes to manufacturing. And it helps fill spaces quickly. That’s a very useful service to people and companies.

So I’ll ask the question again – what do you think I should be charging? My work is more complicated than average and it is very useful. I know from personal experience that I’ve spent almost 10 years, working and studying 16 hour days, almost 7 days a week with no vacation doing this. Shouldn’t I gain some level of reward on top of all the energy and extra efforts I’ve put into my craft?

I’ll make the same point as I did in the previous section. You’re not doing yourself any favors by charging low. That only works for the short-term. The same applies for charging high unless you’re determined to produce a better quality and provide a better service. You need to find that middle ground.

Cost of Living Breakdown

Now that I’ve more or less made my argument that geographical location is becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s digital age, let’s assume that you’re an average professional artist living in a city all by your lonesome in an apartment. You’re single with no children. All you do is freelance for work. This “should” be the most common situation. Let’s tally up your expenses:

  1. Rent: $1,500/month or $18,000/year.
  2. Electricity: $250/month or $3,000/year.
  3. Heating (assuming it’s efficient): $250/month or $3,000/year.
  4. High-Speed Internet/Digital Voice/Television (hey, it’s bundled): $200/month or $2,400/year.
  5. Cell Phone with data access (most people have them): $80/month or $960/year.
  6. Car loan or finance: $300/month or $3,600/year.
  7. Groceries (we all have to eat): $200/month or $2,400/year.

TOTAL: $33,360/year.

This means that you have to make at least $33,360/year in order to just pay your bills. I’m not even factoring in credit cards, health insurance, and miscellaneous equipment expenses – that could easily add another $8,500 to that total. So let’s add in those items:

  1. Health Insurance (average Massachusetts plan): $300/month or $3,600 year.
  2. Credit card (you ran into trouble and have to pay it off monthly): $150/month or $1,800/year.
  3. Misc. equipment expenses (ie. a high end computer for graphics, software, repairs, .etc): $2,500/year
  4. Previous total: $33,360/year.

REVISED TOTAL #1: $41,260/year.

So we’re up to a little over$40,000/year. That’s not including 1/3 business taxes, 10%/annually in retirement savings, savings for your potential kid’s college education, and savings for a nice down-payment on a home. I like round numbers and I’m going to jump a few more steps to include these items.

REVISED TOTAL #2: $60,000/year.

That’s right. You need to make $60,000/year just to survive in a city by yourself. How do most people do it? They manage, but they often struggle to just keep their heads above water. It also general requires a dual income either through having roommates or through marriage. Add to this economic uncertainty such as the global depression in 2009, and you’re sitting on the edge. Here are some statistics as to the average income and salary within the United States.

I’m not trying to scare anyone here, but rather I’m pointing out that you should at the very minimum be targeting $60,000 year in 2010 just to earn a living.

How Much to Charge

Let’s say that we agree on $60,000/year as a target figure. How much does that mean we need to make per week at a minimum? Let’s say that you work 50 weeks out of the whole year. That breaks down to $1,200/week or roughly $4,800. Again, I like round numbers so you need to earn $5,000/month.

Let’s say that you’re an artist and you’re lucky to get two jobs per month that take a week per job. Each job would need to cost $2,500 in order to meet your target goal of $60,000/year.

Assuming (and this is a big assumption) that all of your marketing duckies are lined-up in a row and that you can manage to pull four jobs per month, then maybe you can charge $1,250/per job at the very minimum. At that minimum price point, you are really risking your own livelihood and future. Truthfully, you can’t just risk staying at the baseline, but should instead be focusing on getting ahead.

So. how much should a person charge? Realistically, you may only get two jobs per month – if that. Most artists don’t. Either you’ll need to seriously improve your marketing strategies and obtain more jobs, or fit the average quantity of jobs you receive per year into that $5,000 month target.

Guess how much most professional rendering artists at the top of their game charge per image? $4,000 on up. I’ve heard of figures on the order of $12,000 per image for the very best. They may spend half a month working on a single image, but that may be the only image they get. If they receive two or more, then they’re often happy. The next month they may have none. You’re doing yourself and others no favors by low-balling one another. All it does to serve in the long-run is lower the overall quality of work involved.

I’ve also heard of some well-known 3D studios charging around $10,000 per image. Is it highway robbery? Absolutely not. They’re simply trying to meet their overhead in a rapidly changing economy.

You may be saying to yourself, “haha, I don’t live in a city so I don’t need to charge nearly that freelancing amount” or “I’m married so that doesn’t apply.” I have news for you – pull your head out of your ass. We are living in a digital age now. Those boundaries and rules do not apply. It’s also a matter of time before the playing field is more or less leveled. There’s no reason why any of us should become complacent to simply struggle and “get by” on keeping that car of your running on fumes. If you value your work and hard-earned efforts, than that value has a minimum price tag you should try to meet. You need to change your mind-set. $2,500 per image at the very least is a good target goal when starting out on your own. It’s not always realistically possible, but you should keep that target figure in mind. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that you should be targeting over $4,000 per image in your mind. The more you value your work to be that figure, the more it will actually become to be worth that amount. Don’t sell yourself short.

Taking Your Practice One Step Further – Getting Ahead

So now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that you may be charging too little, I’d like to point out another angle. Pretend for a moment that you are an actual business with an employee. Not only are you taking your original figure of $60,000 that you had to make, but you also have to insure their salary over the course of the year. That figure alone could easily run $50,000 (or more) in a very technical field. You also wouldn’t simply want a helping hand – you deserve to make a profit for the additional risk and responsibilities you’re putting upon yourself. So you’ve basically more than doubled the amount of work you must do and charge in order to keep your head floating above water.

The artist needs to stop thinking of “me, me, and me.” Unless you have an extraordinary gimmick, luck, or style – that “fame” you might be seeking will often prove elusive. You need to take your ego out of the mindset of being the lone artist. Pretend for a second that you are a full-fledged company. Whatever charges you proposed in the previous section starts to quickly look small. Not only are you targeting that $4,000 mark, but you have to set your sights even higher than that.

Summary

I have many reasons why I wrote this article. In particular, I’ve seen many artists ask themselves over the years, “how much should I charge?” I’ve seen many crazy answers. I also speak from personal experience. When a little more than half of all small businesses fail within the first five years, I consider LunarStudio to be a success in that department. By helping fellow artists and businesses alike through healthy discussion about this topic, in turn I hope to raise my own standards and rates. If we all work together (and stick together) to help determine the lowest common single denominator any single one of us can charge, then we can prevent drastically undercutting one another which often leads to more harm than good. Artists and freelancers alike need to start valuing their work, time, and efforts and stop selling themselves short. As much as I don’t like thinking of our artwork “as a business” from a philosophical perspective, being a “professional artist” entails that we carry ourselves in a professional and respective manner.

cleo

31 Responses to What Prices to Charge as a Freelancer or Artist

  1. Is our work any different then architectural illustrations from years gone by? We tend to place the value in the software and not the skill of the person. I read and study a lot on composition, what makes a good image good, and this is what we need to focus on.

    The software is getting easier to use guys! We need to concentrate on the art of illustrations, this is were we’ll be valued in the industry. They will not know why our images are so nice; they’ll just know they are nice images.

    How can you place a price on skill? If you have skill you can charge good money for it. Let the less skilled illustrators charge what they want; you get what you pay for!

  2. cleo says:

    I think the software has definitely become a little easier – it’s still very difficult to learn. We also have grown in our own knowledge so it’s become easier to us that have been in this field for a while. Computers are a lot faster as well.

    I can’t speak for Revit – but programs like Max haven’t become any easier in the past 10 years. Slightly faster, yes. Easier, no.

    Photorealism takes a lot of skill. The actual art and “taste” aspect is not always something you can actually instill in someone willing to purchase rendering work. I think however people wrongly view realism from more of a programmatical perspective – nothing could be further from the truth.

    But I definitely agree with you in what wrote. I think it’s wise (and fun) to branch out from photorealism and try to come up with more stylized work.

  3. Scott says:

    I’d like to know the shciester of an electric company you’ve got. Even when I lived in southern California, in my over-priced apartment, my electric was never over $60-80 a month and that’s with a 4-pc renderfarm. If you’ve got a cell, you don’t need a land line. You don’t need that much heat, your systems run better in the cold. AC is an issue in the summer though. But that’s not 12 months a year.It can be done, you just have to have more money sense and drop your bloated sense of entitlement for high priced images.

    Living a bit more efficiently and not always saving for a kid you may not even have yet college fund, and/or screwing the retirement plan for a bit, and you don’t need to save for a home right away, you can drop your living expenses and therefore drop your billing rate. The PC costs, hardware and software, are one time costs. Not yearly. Unless you buy a new system every year and you certainly don’t need to stay 100% current with software updates for Max or Revit, or whatever. You also have to face that many freelancers work on pirated software. Yes, it’s the harsh truth.

    One thing we all need to face, most of the clients we will deal with will ALWAYS go for the lowest bidder. Right now, with this economy, price trumps quality. Living like you are practically homeless is what freelancing is about in the early years. You have to pay your dues and besides, freelancing is becoming far too overpopulated now since everyone has been almost forced into it. The competition is incredibly fierce. Clients have a pick of the litter and guess what they use as a benchmark? If you think it’s quality, you’ve deluded yourself.

  4. Scott says:

    Before I get flamed as some bitter husk of an artist, let me say this. I’m all for quality over price. I’ve lost several jobs to companies outside the US that charge around $200 for a render. The quality is downright awful, but the price was right. One thing that this industry will always struggle with is the fact that you can get just as good of an idea of what your building will look like from a 30 second sketch on a napkin as you will from a $100,000 render.

  5. cleo says:

    @Scott
    Masshole Electric?
    I have over 10 computers here (but leave most off unless necessary.) Dual monitor and a dual quad setup. Also a gf which never turns things off and is always washing clothing, running the iron, leaving her hair iron on, and blow-drying her hair. I’ve tried to quell the problem, but there is no getting through.

    I disagree about the cell. I hate cell reception. I think when you’re trying to be professional, crystal-clear quality is important. As much as we can be running out of our parent’s basements, most clients don’t like to hear that.

    As for heat, you need heat in the Northeast.

    “The PC costs, hard­ware and soft­ware, are one time costs.”
    No, they are not. I update my computers every several years to stay ahead of the curve. Also, you need to do the same with software unless you’re okay with consistently producing shitty work (which you may very well.)
    -I don’t recall saying yearly, but if you’re legit – than things like antivirus are on a subscription basis.

    “Unless you buy a new sys­tem every year and you cer­tainly don’t need to stay 100% cur­rent with soft­ware updates for Max or Revit, or what­ever.”
    -This is true – I don’t think I’ve ever said to the contrary.

    “One thing we all need to face, most of the clients we will deal with will ALWAYS go for the low­est bid­der.”
    -Not true. A lot of clients will select in the middle.

    “Right now, with this econ­omy, price trumps qual­ity.”
    -lol. Maybe you know something I don’t? Because that’s news to me.

    “If you think it’s qual­ity, you’ve deluded yourself.”
    -There will always be people that select quality over crap. Not as many, but there are. And besides, crappy work is at the end of the day – crappy work and crappy service no matter how low you think you can charge.

    “One thing that this indus­try will always strug­gle with is the fact that you can get just as good of an idea of what your build­ing will look like from a 30 sec­ond sketch on a nap­kin as you will from a $100,000 render.”
    -I disagree:
    1) I’ve never seen a $100,000 render. Bit of an exaggeration there? I’ve seen $12,000, but not $100,000.
    2) You can’t convince me for a second that a Sketchup model compares to a full-blown render. If that was the case, we would all (other than SU people) be out of business.
    3) I’m not trying to brag here, but perhaps you haven’t seen my clients. I’m just saying – you seem to know more than I do. So show me your list.
    4) P.S. I’ve seen napkin sketches. I’ve also seen really good drawings from some very big firms. And do you know what, they still come knocking on my door. So your point is moot.

    I’m curious about you. You’ve come on and basically attacked my premise. You talk big but you haven’t linked your portfolio. Talk is cheap. I want to see what your work looks like (non-personal work and stuff you did solo) so I can assess what content (or crap) you’re able to deliver – than I’ll determine whether or not you should be taken seriously.

  6. cleo says:

    @cleo
    Fyi, if you’re registered with the Vray Chaos Forum, you can see our discussion on this article here (it’s over 40 replies long.) I think most of us “professionals” are pretty much in agreement:
    http://www.chaosgroup.com/forums/vbulletin/showthread.php?48707-Article-on-How-Much-We-Should-Charge

  7. matt says:

    @Cleo
    Excellent post and argument… I’ve seen this discussion so many times on various forums but never has anyone made as clearly articulated an argument for a particular price.
    Thanks!
    Do you mind if I paste a link to this post on formZ and Maxwell Render’s forums?

  8. ScottS says:

    Whoa, slow down there tiger, I never meant to attack you. I was just merely offering counterpoints to your argument and show that there are some cost-cutting options. I’m not going to get into a dick measuring contest over our portfolios, but if you must http://velvetelvis.cgsociety.org/gallery/719137/. There, can I be taken seriously now? Not that you’ll think anything I do is worth while. You’re going into it with a biased view. Just because I don’t splay my work everywhere means I can’t be taken seriously? I won’t, however, give you my client list simply because I don’t want amateurs coming in and undermining my bids. Why do all of the work for someone else?

    Like it or not, Sketch-Up and Revit are taking some of our work due to it’s ease of use and almost, make pretty picture button. What my main point was, you gotta start somewhere. We all can’t be Neoscape’s right from the get go. If that means making deals with the devil and working in Sketch-Up just to get clients, then work your angle from there. No, Sketch-Up can’t compare to full blown renders. But that’s mine and your opinion, not the end bean-counting client! You might not want to believe it, but price is the biggest sales point. Why do you think you’ve lost bids? It wasn’t because other people were better than you, they were cheaper.

    You seem pretty bitter about this whole thing and it feels as if you only want to hear comments for your point of view, and you want nothing to do with counter-points. When I bid for projects, I don’t include the girlfriend cost either.

    Oh, and congrats on the CGArchitect main page plug. With publicity, comes counter-views. Is this how you react when a client wants to make a change to your render?

  9. cleo says:

    @matt
    Sure Matt. That would be great.

    @ScottS
    Look. The problem is that people are grossly under-charging because they may have the artistic skills, but lack fundamental knowledge on how-to make ends meet (some semblance of business “sense.”)

    My main point is that as a group, we have to set some standards simply to live reasonably and comfortably. Those rates are based on forward-thinking and current-thinking. I think the examples that I have given are fair and objective – and would accommodate most people living in similar economic situations.

    I wrote this article for several reasons:
    1) To help out the community.
    2) Increased traffic to the website.
    3) To “try” to level the playing field.

    I don’t have to share any personal opinions or information with anyone so take this as my opinion and free advice (albeit perhaps not the best.) Whether or not you follow my opinions/recommendations for a minimum value as to not undercut your fellow artists is up to you.

    My whole point in pulling out the “client” or “portfolio” card is to simply say, “hey, if you want to knock my opinion, look at my background first and then make your assumptions afterwards.” It’s not to put anyone down.

    Yes – I am pretty bitter when a scrub (not implying you but anyone that defends ridiculously low prices) comes along and charges dirt-low rates that devalue our work as a whole. Sorry, but it does tend to piss me off.

    Yes, people do have to start somewhere. And sometimes it does take a low price to get the first few jobs through the door. But eventually from a “career perspective”, one has to take simple economics into the equation and you can’t be working forever at minimum wage.

    “When I bid for projects, I don’t include the girl­friend cost either.”
    – Some day when you have a wife, kids, car payments, and rent (or mortgage) – I’d hope that you would take those things into consideration when trying to make ends meet. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.

    “Is this how you react when a client wants to make a change to your render?”
    – I charge them for it (if it’s not my mistake), and they don’t complain.

  10. Saturn says:

    I’d have to say that it is extremely tough out there. You both are very lucky to be getting any kind of work. In the southeast things are really slow and architecture firms are closing left and right.

    Cleo, I agree with what you are saying about quality. I do not think we should have to reduce ourselves to try to compete with China or India as it pertains to renderings and animations. Unfortunately, there are too many people out there that disagree. Those people are the ones that are not only shopping 3D artists but are also shopping Architects, Contractors, and everyone else in the design/construction community. They know that things are rough and that people will take a loss just to get the work in their office.

    Now I haven’t been doing the whole freelancer thing for a long time but I have discovered that there is a happy-medium as you described. I have had a FEW clients that do understand quality and are willing to pay for it. I have had A LOT of clients who only want a $500 rendering and are willing to go overseas to get it. In those cases I have done a $500 job. I write the proposals as such outlining the time spent in each phase of the job. If the client wants me to spend additional time in a certain phase, they pay me hourly to do so.

    The only time that I am able to charge $2500 a rendering is when I am contracted by an Architect to do so. This is because typically in the contact between Architect and Owner it is outlined in the scope of services. The Architect understands quality and can educate the owner about a quality product. Too few times do we the artist get the opportunity to give such educations.

    That being said, I believe that we as the design community have a right to ourselves and to each other not to under-value our abilities and services. However, if I have to do a job at a lesser value, then I will do so to put food on my table. But I will let the client know that he is paying for a $500 job and that is what he is getting.

    Thanks for the article.

  11. matt says:

    A few thoughts…
    Once upon a time when I was a freelancer, I used to provide quotes that separated modeling from rendering, which seemed to be an approach that clients appreciated and could understand. After they conveyed what level of detail they thought they needed by looking at my portfolio samples, I’d say “this job will cost ‘X’ to model a particular scene and ‘Y’ for each view rendered of that scene.” The first view was usually a higher cost than additional views if the lighting and entourage didn’t need to change. The reason I’m sharing this history is to make the argument that the artist can justify higher fees if the client can be educated to understand the whole process. FWIW, I charged 1500-2000 for a single image in 1996. That was pre-kids, pre-house, etc. :)

  12. ScottS says:

    Cleo, I’ll continue this on the Vray forum. But I think where the US and many other developed countries are on a steep learning curve is what exactly is a comfortable living expense. Do you really need $60,000 a year, or can you make it on $30,000 and be just as happy? Do you really need to 400″ TV or can you get by with 24″. Do you really need 9,000 cable channels or can you get by with free TV or basic? All of which, turn into price points for a freelance artist. I can tell you that a lot of the unemployed are learning this right now. Not that money isn’t nice, but it’s not everything. What you thought in the past was the poorhouse, now seems like the rich man’s domain after this recession eases.

    I think you are wanting to make Aston Martin’s, which is fine. Go for quality and a high sales price. You certainly get your worth for that. And honestly, it takes more work to establish yourself doing do, but in the end I think it’s more beneficial to you.

    But at the same time, you can’t get all pissy when Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, etc come along and outsell you by about 40,000 cars simply because they have a cheaper selling point. That’s Capitalism. Yes, they aren’t a nice fancy cars, or nice to look at and they won’t turn any heads on the street. But that $12,000 car will get you from point A to point B just the same as the Aston Martin.

    So I think we have to agree to have two different view points about this.

  13. cleo says:

    @Sat­urn
    I agree – the economy has thrown us all for a loop. But there’s only so much of this economic-downturn we can lament over. Otherwise, our business as 3D artists becomes unsustainable.

    I can understand and sympathize with doing these one-off jobs to pay the bills in the meantime. But at some point, we have to all start charging reasonable prices again.

    As for outsourcing – I’m running a web-design/experiment right now. I’ve had nothing but a disastrous experience up to this point. I will write more about that later.

    Also, I talk with a lot of principles on a daily basis. A few have had some experiences with outsourcing. Almost all of them told me it wasn’t worth the hassle, time-difference, and miscommunication. I’m not making that up. More often than not, they ended up spending more money in man-hours locally than if they just kept their work here in the States. But if you (and them) want to believe they can get similar work overseas, then feel free to believe that. A project or two later, those same architects and developers will come crawling back, crying on our shoulders.

  14. Saturn says:

    @cleo
    I absolutely agree. The amount of time the Architect has to spend with the oversea artist just to get a few aspects right is incredible. I have been involved in that conversation :).

  15. cleo says:

    @ScottS
    Look. My grocery bills don’t change. My Internet price doesn’t change unless I want to go back to Netzero. My car payments don’t change (and I don’t have an Infiniti, BMW, etc.) No – most things around don’t change – in fact, they go up. Five years ago I drove around this city in a used 1985 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. So please, don’t assume that I don’t know what it’s like to be that starving artist. I don’t come from a rich family and I didn’t get my parent’s support (unlike a lot of business owners.)

    No – $30,000 living in a medium-sized city here in the US and trying to run your own business with serious risks involved is [expletive.] You deserve to be compensated for difficult work, especially when running your own business. In my opinion, you should be making at least 4X that amount of money (but that’s wishful thinking.) What do you think VFX compositors in Hollywood make?

  16. ScottS says:

    I’ll have to agree with you on this. I think you and I, and everyone else, are going to witness the Renaissance of this industry in the next 5 years. Hopefully, people will finally realize that just because it comes from overseas, doesn’t make it better. In fact as a company, you need to sink tons of money to educate and train your outsourcers. I know of one company that sank upwards of 300k into an outsource in Singapore. But now, when the get assets back they are exactly right and need zero fixing in the main production house. A single home comes with pages of instructions and exact guidelines as to what is expected. Only after a large initial investment is the outsource paying off. So it doesn’t mean all outsourcing is bad.

    If you just give them products and say, “You. Make pretty.” You get horrid results, which in turn you have to fix in house, which in turn costs you even more money. Unfortunately, this is the US approach to outsourcing that I’ve witnessed firsthand.

    This economy has done a few things. One it has cleaned out all of the substandard companies. At the same time, the top tier companies have had to lay off a large workforce that’s now into the freelance market. With everyone demanding high prices, digital prostitutes can make a clean sweep. Think of it as stripping to pay your way through med school. We won’t do it for long, but we just need to get by.

    Though with most of us, if the freelance gig holds out, even when the recession lifts many companies may be strained to hire on people. Why work for the man again? It’ll be an interesting next few years, but there a lot more stormy waters in the bidding war ahead.

    Another poster nailed it. If you can educate the client, you can charge a decent rate. However, many clients are having a hard time listening past the absolute lowest price they can find. If you want to work on creative, one of a kind renders then you can usually educate the client and you are competing for quality. However, these can be tough to find and jobs may be few and far between. If you want steady work, you have to compete with price before you compete with quality.

  17. cleo says:

    Well, even the architects are getting somewhat frustrated and they’re feeling the outsourcing pinch as well. They’ve seen their work go overseas and come back in shambles. Most architecture firms are small – so they can’t afford to spend 300k to get another firm overseas “up to speed.”

    Another thing you’ll encounter is that some of these economies will catch up. How long did it take South Korea or Taiwan? Any country that doesn’t catch up to similar rates – I have to wonder if there’s something wrong with their system. The question is – how long?

    With Singapore, many of the people there speak english as the primary language. India is similar. However, I’m part Asian and let me tell you that the language barrier between the US and China is very steep. I think it’s difficult for people here to work with non-english speaking countries due to the language barrier.

    “Though with most of us, if the free­lance gig holds out, even when the reces­sion lifts many com­pa­nies may be strained to hire on peo­ple. Why work for the man again?”
    – This is no offense to anyone, but I find that most people can’t cut it or lack the discipline required. I’ve had my fair share of working with freelancers to know that most suck at it.

  18. Cleo:

    Excellent break-down of what freelancers need to consider when setting fees. Your post helps not only those in artistic professions, be all who have agonized over what price to charge. We have to stop low-balling and under-valuing ourselves.

  19. Ross says:

    Thank you for the great article!

    I’ve passed it on for others to read.

  20. Dan says:

    Overall, I agree with the aticle, I just think it calculates running costs, depreciation, investments requirede, education included (many years, including academic titles!), pension, (health) & insurance(s) and so on – even too low. I live in Germany, and IMHO you need about 80k$ (55k€) at least to make a living (without becoming rich!). I can’t imagine it’s really that much cheaper in the U.S. unless you forgot the taxes or so.

    The point for me is: Why should I stumble and try to compete with that high-level skill (that other artists also have) even for 5000$ a month? Is it worth all the hassles? If some chinese or indian guy thinks he can live for 1000$ a month, fine, let him do his job and let your customers be happy with his new friend.

    Somebody mentioned perfectly correct the lack of ‘business sense’, that is what all is about! I lacked it too. Later I started expanding my business to a wider field, doing web-design, graphic design, teaching and so on. The whole package is (by far) more reliable as a source for income then just the “3D-stuff”. Create more ‘value for the money’, give customers the feeling to hire somebody with taste, education and an open mind for different kinds of art. And go to the chamber of commerce, give courses, introduce yourself to important people, be a cosmopolite (all this is impossible to the ‘cheap 3D-prositutes’. I can just recommend everybody to open up his/her eyes and look for areas he or she can use skills in. In the end, it’s about your money and life-quality. Remember: The asians won’t care about us!

  21. cleo says:

    Thanks for the valuable input Dan. You have some good points about expanding beyond just 3D and applying those skills to different areas as well.

    From my own personal standpoint, $65,000 isn’t enough to live in any major city in the US. But, US people have to compete with others in the US where the cost of living is much lower. I thought by actually raising that “value”, people reading this article would have a harder time understanding the basic costs.

    Truth is, the amount one needs to makes need to be much higher for running your own business. I think twice as high because you’re going to have very slow years (like 2009) where it’s completely dead. $50 is a bare bones minimum, but it should be at least $100 in all truthfulness. There’s no reason why a plumber or an electrician should make more than what we do (no offense to those trades but this is difficult work.)

    Back in 1997, I was out in the Los Angeles area and a friend told me that “if you’re not making at least $100,000 a year here, than you’re not making it.”

    Coming from a smaller part of the US, I couldn’t even “wrap my head” around what she said. I was lucky to make $15/hour at the time (almost fresh out of school) and the average salary throughout the US was $30,000. But she was absolutely right concerning LA – you had to make that kind of money out there otherwise you were struggling. And this was back in 1997…

    It’s not fun to struggle – trust me lol. One year maybe – two perhaps. After five or even ten it gets old pretty quickly.

    @Karen and Ross. Thank you. When you write articles like this, you don’t know who’s going to read it or whether or not they find it useful (or even if people will agree.) I have to thank Jeff Mottle over at CGArchitect for posting this. You’ve made it all worthwhile.

  22. Great article, exactly what I have been saying in forums over the years, stop shooting ourselves in the foot! One of the reasons a lot of architectural firms are closing down left and right is that they have screwed themselves for so many years that they don’t make enough to set aside for a rainy day, do we really want to follow in their foot steps?

    Of course we won’t change the mind of the person who has no overhead and can work real cheap, but hopefully in 5-10 years the standards of living and expected compensation will level out and we will have a level playing field to compete on.

    As for people picking on the numbers you used, it is pretty ridiculous to complain about $60.00 a month for electricity, wait until you live in a house and it is $300-$400 a month….. Anyone can just insert their own cost and work it out.

  23. Tom Livings says:

    I think the $4k mark is hard to hit without a good understanding of how to hit it. You need to offer the client incentives to spend that money. I usually try to get around $4k for a ‘job’, but that usually entails more than just delivering 1 image. I’ll not work for less than $2k, its not worth the hassle. A low-balling client invariably wants their pound of flesh ten times over.

  24. cleo says:

    I agree with you Tom – that’s a perfect target. I also found the same issue – when people/companies are being frugal, they tend to expect you to jump overboard for every little detail. I hate to be negative openly or to generalize, but some of the most difficult jobs I’ve encountered were for the least amount of money. It turns into a hassle, even to the point where if they make enough changes, it can ruin an image on a deadline. It seems like the deeper the pockets, the easier people are to work with. It almost seems as if it should be the other way around.

  25. Tom Livings says:

    exactly. another trap is the ‘cheap first job’ for a client. a double edged sword with two bad edges. you need to establish the pay-scale and have the freedom (time) to really impress. the first job you do for a client should be over-priced if anything.

  26. Inspatia says:

    Oh man, this is a SUPERB article for all renderers/architectural illustrators who have been working their asses off to get somewhere with their hard-earned skills. Super helpful. I’ve been banging me head against the wall for years struggling with these issues. As I write this, I am quoting on a bid to a potential client (and a potentially great client who does super cool work, I might add.) I want to work with these guys so badly after a long dry period, but don’t want to do it for minimum wage. And yes, sometimes (especially with animation), you can paint yourself into a corner where- when all is said and done- you realize that you’ve been working 90 hours a week for about $5/hour.

    Thank you very much, CLEO, for writing this and giving voice to all serious freelance artists.

  27. Anon says:

    I really appreciate this article. I was recently hired as an in house renderer on a major project and have been so stressed out about my productivity. On day one they asked me how many of these views can you get done in 14 days? I said, 7, not even knowing what, if anything was already modeled, much less modeled or designed correctly. I estimated at first, that I would be able to turn out a rendering every two days. Of course, my employer and project team thought I would come in, “press the magic button,” and all of their hand sketches would be 3D & photorealistic in about a week.
    Well the scope and number of views continues to expand. I’ve been employed for a total of 21 work days and I have put out 11 renderings that have been through one to two redline reviews. I also designed and rendered 5 variations (3 views each) of a large design element during this time. Now I’ve been sent an e-mail requesting 3 more large scale renderings of new scenes and completely reoriented views due in a day and a half. Eek! I’d better get busy.

  28. cleo says:

    @ Inspatia Thanks. I tried to frame it as logically as I could and I hope it helped.

    @ Anon First, I always ask for plans and additional information. I can give someone a very rough estimate, but I hate to do that without seeing what I’m taking on. If they can’t provide you with the plans, then there’s a good chance that they’re not entirely serious about the process or that they’re just phishing for estimates for their own work.

    I always assume a baseline of a day minimum for modeling. Another day for lighting, texturing and rendering. And another day for changes. It’s not a perfect formula, but I think it’s somewhat comfortable to work with. It can vary – like I said, I need to see plans. Working with interior designers can be even longer as they made need specific items custom modeled.

    If it’s a model where the additional images only change angles, then I might be able to squeeze out two or more renderings comfortably in that time-frame. If it’s somebody else’s model, I might have to spend time fixing it.

    Of course, I could produce more but there’s always a balance which needs to be struck between quality, time and costs.

    If it’s 14 business days, I would have said 4-5 images. If you can bang out more and they’re willing to pay for it, then great. There’s a balance between telling someone what they’d like to hear, and taking control and telling them what it’s going to be like. Anyone worth their salt is going to be upfront and honest and be able to come up with some snap answers.

    When people call me, they are looking for something. I am the expert in the field and have control. If they’re looking for a five finger discount, they can go somewhere else. You see, with this type of mindset or “attitude”, I add value to my work versus being in an uncertain position. It’s a much better approach than looking at it like, “yes sir – I’ll do as you command.” You give people an inch, and they take a mile. You’re the artist and they are coming to you. Of course, you need something to show for that as well.

    Again, the number of renderings really depends on your quality and equipment. Highly realistic renders take much longer to process. If I was just working with something more cartoon-like or Sketchup, I’m sure I can really knock those out but that’s not the look I go for.

    It sounds like your situation is out of control. It’s “fine” when you’re 21 years of age with a ton of extra energy, no spouse or kids, live in your mom’s basement, and you don’t have a life outside of work. But as you get older, you’ll find that you need to keep your sanity by balancing work with stuff outside of that. You’ll hardly ever find someone in their 30s or 40s with a family working those long hours unless they’re truly desperate. When it’s time to clock out, they sure as heck clock out. It’s even worse when employers expect that younger people should put in the extra time and energy without being compensated.

    Sadly, you’ve probably created an unrealistic expectation that probably hinders the rest of us “normal” people (or at least the way it should be.)

    Working very hard, long hours under very unrealistic conditions can be viewed two different ways:
    1) Admirable.
    2) Foolish.

    Pick which number I think this situations falls into lol.

  29. Andy says:

    I’ve always struggled with how much to charge. I do a mix of 3d architecture work and digital illustration and I get one to two requests for FREE work in the latter field – per week. As though illustrators just live out in the street and eat grass and gravel.

    Plus I’ve tended to charge a lot less than suggested here (for smaller clients) but even then, I get some haggling. I even lost my only 3d client at the time because he gave me a house to do that was more complex than a previous design, so I added about 20% (to an already low fee) and he went on a rant and then totally dropped me. Never heard back since.

    One major player in this field, from the UK, said to charge what an image is worth, not how long it took you to make it. I think that’s good advice if you consider a client that’s selling an expensive property.

  30. cleo says:

    Hi Andy. Thanks for the comment. I hear what you’re saying and I think others in the digital fields feel the same way. There’s a lot more people working in 3D these days – not always with the best visual results but it has the unintended effect of lowering the prices all around as the bare minimum sometimes suffice for clients (just recently I noticed some horrible Sketchup renderings posted on billboards in Bali.)

    I flat out refuse free work except for three times in my career: one was an image provided for wounded Gulf War veterans, another for a university medical slideshow, and another was for an older person who had everything he owned destroyed in a storm.
    Aside from that, I treasure my free time as I hope most others do.

    As for “haggling,” one thing I’ve struggled with in the past was the feeling that if I didn’t lower a rate, that a client/job would pass me up. I think this can be a very poisonous thought process. At the minimum, you should be making a set amount to cover your time and expenses and ideally you should also be profiting. I’m finding it is actually much easier to just present a number and not think any further about it. They’ll either accept it, come back to you with a lower rate, or look elsewhere.

    When it comes to raising prices in a job that’s already underway, I rarely do so unless it’s going to take a significant amount of time (if I lose an hour, I usually don’t get overworked about it.) At that point, I explain it to my client that “X may take X amount of time due to your changes” and 9 times out of 10 most people understand. The time and costs involved with changes are part of the reason why I always provide contracts.

    As for residential illustrations, I find the money is very rarely there to support our industry. By nature, I find the amount of time to do our work and what residential is willing to pay at odds unless it’s a very quick job with little bells and whistles.

    This article was written a while back. Since then, the field has become more competitive (if you want to call it that) and plus the tools and technology being used have evolved at a rapid rate. Sketchup has definitely lowered the barrier of entry. However I think it helps to have sufficient experience, speed, and accuracy which is something most beginners to immediate level illustrators do not have. It’s just whether or not clients can recognize that advantage and are willing to pay more. In my recent work, I’ve seen one developer building a near billion dollar resort go through six different architectural illustrators in a matter of less than ten years (including a hold during the 2008 economic crisis.) At that point, I have to say that it’s not the fault of the illustrators, but rather the developers who don’t completely understand this process. Many people think this work is a simple “push of the button.”

    It’s my job to educate them to some degree as to what is involved and why the rates are the way that they are. However, if someone is going to try to nickel and dime you, I would say they’re not worth working with in the first place. I can usually spot people who are always trying to get the “best deal” out of someone else and avoid them like the plague whenever possible.

    The rates listed in this article need to be updated and raised. I’ve had little to no spare time to do so these past few years and I’m feeling confident that this is about to change (I recently moved, renovated, and got married.) This post was written “back in the day” when there were a lot of questions among artists and illustrators as to what they should charge and no one was publicly discussing these rates even on the 3D forums. Undercutting each other was becoming the increasing norm. With other countries such as India and China charging such low rates, this was quickly putting artists here out of business. I wrote this article back then merely as a guideline to help artists grasp some of the financial aspects of this work – what they would have to charge at a bare minimum in order to at least stay in the business and try to make sure everyone was at least earning a “living wage.” This article was picked up by CG Architect and it got the discussion rolling along.

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