Starting out as a commercial photographer in today's "low barrier to entry" world of photography is a very difficult undertaking. For every thousand aspiring commercial photographers, I'd bet ten to twenty make a living from their photography.
The task of getting work is particularly tricky when you are just starting out. The want of a substantial, established looking photography portfolio is where the new professional photographer can make their first and possibly career-defining mistake -- giving away their services for free or dramatically reduced pricing just to build a body of work. The resulting problem becomes, those clients and their colleagues now know what price you'll work for (trust me, the circles are small, and they all talk to other each other). So how do you set your fee for your first photo shoot?
Step One: Establish your own base fee. Also known as a 'day rate' or 'per diem' rate.
To establish a base fee, you have to know your cost of doing business. It's essential. And once you see how much money and time you've spent, asking for a fair price for your work gets easy.
The things you need to account for are: The cost of your photo equipment, accessories, rentals; computer - hardware and software; equipment repair; the monthly charge for your internet and mobile phone; office space rent; website design, hosting and domain registrations; vehicle expense - payment, insurance, maintenance; office supplies and furniture; postage and shipping; professional development and education; advertising and promotion, professional dues and subscriptions; business and equipment insurance; health insurance; legal and accounting fees; business licenses; self-employment taxes; utilities; travel costs and "misc" expenses.
The National Press Photographer has a great calculator that can help you with these. Check out the NPPA's Cost of Doing Business Calculator at their website. Once you have an idea of your day rate, you can apply it to the time involved for each project.
Step Two: Before giving a "ballpark" price, find out more about the project by discussing it with the client.
This accomplishes several things. For a realistic quote, you'll need to accurately know how much time is involved to calculate the base fee. Discuss the physical nature of the shoot. Where it will be shot, are there multiple locations, how much travel is involved, will you need more equipment or assistance in a stylist or a "grip". For example, can you shoot multiples without going to a new set (resetting lights). Build a tentative shot list that will help guide you through the time portion of the estimate. (And don't forget the time it takes for post-processing. It's generally accepted that for each hour of shooting time billed there is at least a half-hour of post-production. You can bill that at a lesser rate, if you like, and you can always hire out the post work and consolidate that into your CODB.)
Then discuss what the final imagery will be used for and what kind of budget they were looking at for this project. The usage for a large ad campaign is different from an in-house newsletter even though you may photograph it in the same, high-quality way. Set the usage rights in writing. Often, once the final result is seen, a client will want to use it in more places. If you've written in exclusive, limited usage rights, then when they'd like to use it for more properties you can negotiate another fee for those rights. It's the fair, accepted practice and it actually saves the client time and money because they don't have to go through the entire process again. For a large, national ad campaign, I charge two to three times my base fee. It's considered the industry standard.
Step Three: Prepare the Quote (also known as a proposal request)
Once you have figured out your expenses, time and usage, now you put it all down on the proposal request. Write down who the client is and all their contact info, including address. Describe the photography services you will be providing, in detail. Is it a corporate event, a product shoot, an environmental portrait, an annual report, what shots are expected? Put the shoot location(s) for the photography project, the date(s) and the time(s). Write down the usage rights! Are they exclusive or non-exclusive, limited or unlimited and how long are those rights granted? How many photos will be given to the client in the final product? And of course the service fee.
If the work that you have is good, and you present yourself professionally, even if you are starting out, you'll set yourself apart from the crowd. Photographers are notoriously flighty, don't be.