How to Create a Photo Project Budget

Photography Business, Tutorials

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Jaymi Heimbuch
UPDATED: May 15, 2024


Photography budgets only SEEM boring. In reality, they’re amazing for providing clarity and predictability for any photo project.

Let’s walk through budget essentials for stress-free photo projects, and how to customize a budget for conservation photography projects large or small.


How to get started building a budget for a photo project

Aaaahhh budgets. Not everyone’s favorite task. But when it comes to conservation photography projects, they’re essential.

Building a budget helps you out in a multitude of ways.

With a budget in place, you can:

  • Avoid surprise costs
  • Discover hidden tasks (such as applying for a permit or arranging travel logistics)
  • Understand when you need to fundraise, and what kind of fundraising to do
  • Impress (and reassure) important supporters or collaborators with how organized you are
  • Apply for the right grants more quickly and easily
  • Get a better handle on the timeline for your project
  • And much more

Budgets aren’t just for paid work or big projects. They’re important even for passion projects or smaller local initiatives. They’re important for short term projects and ongoing projects.

They’re, well they’re just a great idea.

So, let’s talk about how to put one together!

One quick note before diving in: What we’re accomplishing right now is a budget specific to creating images and deliverables for a personal conservation photography project.

A budget will look different depending on what it is for and who is seeing it. We’re covering all the basics you’ll want to address in order to shoot and show off a fairly simple project.

Even though this is an example for a basic budget, it will help you form a foundational budget for larger, more complex, or more specific projects down the road.


What you need to build a photo project budget

To get started, there’s a few things you need in front of you. Item numero uno is a spreadsheet. Whether your preference is paper or digital, get some grid lines in front of you so you can easily organize your line items.

The other things you’ll need in front of you are:

  • A list of your project goals
  • A list of your project deliverables
  • A list of locations you want to shoot
  • A list of the people you’re collaborating with
  • A list of the photography equipment you want/need for this project

You can pull most of these lists from your Scope of Work and Work Breakdown documents.

Don’t have those built yet? No sweat. Check out these articles:


Our Example Conservation Photography Project

To break down the primary components of a budget, let’s set up an example scenario that is super common among conservation photographers

Let’s say we live near a gem of a wetland. A wonderful diversity of species is spotted year round, and migrating waterfowl show up in the fall. We spend 3-4 days a week at this wetland photographing the sunrise activity. 

The wetland is overseen by the state’s DFW, but it is primarily cared for by a nonprofit 501(c)3 called Friends of the Wetland (FoW). 

FoW has a small staff of three dedicated people, and most of their work in trail maintenance, invasive species removal, habitat restoration, and wildlife monitoring is accomplished by volunteers. The staff members put their all into the work, and make do on a shoe-string budget. 

We know that not only is our enjoyment of nature photography made all the better by FoW, but the nonprofit also ensures the survival of the wetland, which is immensely important to the local ecology. We want to help. 

We launch a project that will document the species diversity of the wetland, and our community’s enjoyment of this special place. During the course of two 3-day photo shoots, we’ll craft a portfolio of images that illustrates the wetland’s importance to our wildlife and to our community members. 

The work will culminate in an exhibit at the state capitol building to bolster support for FoW, and raise funds that will allow FoW to renovate a wildlife observation deck at the wetland. 

With this project – and our list of goals, deliverables, people, locations and equipment – ready to roll, let’s build a budget so we start our work with eyes wide open about how much it’ll cost us to pull this off. 


Parts of a Photo Project Budget

This budget covers all the basics that we’ll need for our example project. Depending on your own actual project and what you want to accomplish, your budget may have fewer fields, or additional fields. The downloadable template I provide in this article can be endlessly customized to your projects. The numbers I put in there are relatively arbitrary. They’re just placeholder numbers. So please don’t use them as a reference for your own rates or estimates. 

To note: In my own budgeting I add a contingency fund for each section of a budget. However, you might want to have just one single line for a contingency fund. Either way, factor in an extra 10% or so (either 10% of the total cost of that section, or 10% of the total cost of the project) as a contingency fund to cover unexpected costs. And trust me, there will be unexpected costs. 


1. Photo equipment rental

The first goal of a photography project is getting images, of course. Take a gander at your project goals. Think about your shot list. What equipment beyond the gear you own are you going to need to pull off the images you want to create? Are you going to need special lenses, triggers, a drone?

All the needed equipment should go on a “to rent” list. Then, create a line item in your budget for each piece of equipment, and add in the cost of renting that piece of equipment. 

Let’s say for our project we need to rent a 600mm and a 16-35mm lens, plus a remote trigger set to get the portraits we have in mind. 

That’s three line items, each with their own cost. 

Enter a fourth line item for a contingency fund, and add in an extra amount (about 10% of your total rental costs) to cover any unexpected fees or insurance add-ons.


2. Custom equipment

As every photographer knows, equipment needs don’t stop at the camera gear. For a wetland shoot, we might want a pop-up blind, or maybe we need to DIY our own floating blind.

Each piece of additional equipment – down to the nuts and bolts used in building that floating blind – get a line item. Research the costs of each piece, and enter that amount.

Again, add a line for a contingency fund – about 10% of the total expected costs should do it.


3. Labor

We need to include covering our own time that we devote to this project. I recognize this feels odd. Aren’t we just trying to do some good in the ‘hood? Well, yes. 

A lot of people, especially when working on a passion project, feel guilty about taking payment for their contribution. You may be volunteering for your conservation photography project, but if you’re doing any fundraising to cover costs – either crowd-sourced, securing sponsorships, or applying for grants – you definitely want to factor in the cost of your labor. 

As conservation photographers, our labor is of value, and is worth investing in. 

Plus, often those investing in a project want to see the photographer compensated for their work. It adds a sense of professionalism and heightened level of quality to the whole project. 

So. Don’t. Feel. Guilty. 

And don’t skip this section, especially if you’re fundraising to cover costs and can factor this line item into a goal amount. 

For the labor section, I include:

  • An administrative day rate for the time spent at the computer planning out the project, coordinating shoots, making connections to get access to areas, filing for permits and so on
  • photography day rate for the days I’m actively shooting. This includes the time spent shooting as well as the time spent editing and processing images
  • deliverables creation day rate for the time spent at the computer designing, editing, and printing deliverables

When you create your work breakdown, you’ll figure out how much time you’ll need for each of these line items. 

For our example project, let’s say our work breakdown specifies:

  • 4 total administrative days spread out over the project 
  • 6 total shoot days for two 3-day shoots
  • 4 total deliverables creation days to make prints, caption cards, fliers, and donation sheets for the exhibit

Decide on a rate that feels fair to you, and add that in for each line item. 

4. Photo shoots

Next, we figure out what costs we will incur during our actual shoots. For our example project, our shoot cost are fairly minimal. We will add in line items for parking fees, gas or mileage rates, and meals.

However, for a project that takes you on the road or into the backcountry for a shoot, you might have a list that also includes: 

  • Assistant day rate
  • Guide day rate
  • Lodging
  • Permits

Add in anything you’ll have to cover during a shoot, and repeat this if you’re doing multiple shoots. 

In our example, we’re doing two 3-day shoots. So our budget will have a section for Shoot A and all its costs, and a section for Shoot B and all its costs. 

This makes it easier to track costs specific to each shoot, especially if the shoots have different tasks or goals that incur different costs. 

For example, Shoot A might be done with just us and our gear, while Shoot B’s image goals requires our hiring a boat driver, and renting time at an existing photo blind. So, Shoot A’s line items will then be different from Shoot B’s line items.  

See what I mean about keeping ‘em separate to make it easier in the long run?

And don’t forget that all-important contingency fund for both shoots! 

5. Photo project deliverables and distribution

Last but certainly not least is the section for our deliverables. This where all the “artifacts” of your work go – the actual physical things that come out of your project – plus the costs of delivering said deliverables. 

In our example, we’re doing an exhibit set up in a hallway at our state’s capitol building. So our costs include: 

  • 15 Prints mounted on foam core
  • 15 Display stands
  • Card stock for the caption cards
  • Fliers to advertise the event around the city
  • Brochures with donation sheets for people to complete at the exhibit

(The template budget I provide has example line items for other deliverables, such as a website, printed books to hand out to decision-makers, a multimedia production and so on. There are all kinds of creative deliverables that are amazingly effective for conservation photography projects…)

And there’s the cost of getting this exhibit up. Include things like: 

  • Gas/mileage
  • Overnight lodging
  • Meals
  • Parking fees

One last thing. Can you guess it?

Yep – contingency fund!! 

When you’re done with these sections, add up the total. Then, round up to get your actual estimated budget total. Always round up, because nothing ever comes out exact, and it’s better to budget high and come out under-budget than the other way around.

Voila! Your budget is done.

When you take the time to build a budget, you save yourself time and headaches in the long run. And really, it doesn’t take much time. Figure 2-3 hours of your day for making lists and researching costs… it’s not much of a time investment for ensuring something as hugely important as the success of your project. 

Anyone who is going to sponsor your project will want to see where their donation is going. Any grant you apply for is going to want this breakdown. And even FoW themselves might want to see the budget so they know exactly what you have in mind for the project. 

In other words, this is so worth it!



Jaymi Heimbuch


Jaymi Heimbuch is a wildlife conservation photographer, photo editor, and instructor. She is the founder of Conservation Visual Storytellers Academy ®, and is the host of Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. Her photography and writing have appeared in outlets such as National Wildlife, Audubon, BBC Wildlife, and National Geographic. She is Senior Photo Editor of Ranger Rick magazine.

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