The Organized Photographer:
How to create a work breakdown for a photo project
In the last article in The Organized Photographer series, we learned about creating a scope of work (SOW), with which you set the goals, expectations, and timeframes for a project. With the clarity of your SOW in hand, it’s time to jump in and start getting things done, right?
Well, not quite yet. The next step is breaking down the work into a detailed plan for how you’ll actually get things accomplished. Not surprisingly, this tool is commonly called a work breakdown.
A work breakdown is the ultimate to-do list.
It is a set of all the tasks that need to be done in order to complete a project. It might seem time-consuming and dull, especially when planning for tasks we’re familiar with, but here’s two critical reasons why it’s worth the effort:
1. Avoid surprises that can slow your progress
A small amount of time spent thinking through the necessary tasks reduces the chances of surprises as you go along. You’ll still have a few surprises, as that’s the nature of life, but with the majority of work identified, you’ll understand the impact of these surprises better and make better choices on how to hand them.
2. Control change rather than change controlling you
More structure upfront leaves more room for flexibility as you work your project. Getting this work breakdown done first actually allows you to be more flexible and creative while working on your project. A clear understanding of the work involved early on lets you make decisions with clarity and confidence. You now know if it will change the timeline or what your outcome may look like. You won’t be wasting time feeling lost or getting buried by unimportant tasks but focused on the ones that really matter to you. In other words, you stay in control, even when confronted with a change of plan or the unexpected.
A SOW and a work breakdown go hand in hand.
Think of the SOW like looking at a landscape from 10,000 feet up and seeing the mountain you’re about to summit. You do your scouting and decide on the spot where you’ll stake your flag at the peak. The work breakdown, in turn, is the actual trail map, complete with topography, landmarks, milestones, campsites, and everything else you’ll need to know and do to hit the summit.
Without a destination, you don’t know why you’re holding a map. And without a map, you’ll never find your destination.
So, how do you build a work breakdown?
Set aside an hour or two to create your first draft.
Put down what comes to mind
Follow a simple, straightforward template to get all the details you need in one place.
Don’t worry about perfection
Plan on revisions and more details as your project progresses. Know that you’ll sit down several more times to edit this document as you know more about the specifics of you project, so don’t feel too stressed or rigid about the process the first time through.
Crafting a work breakdown step by step
A fun project, let alone a successful one, means you enjoy what you’re doing and enjoy the results of your effort. A big reason something is enjoyable is because it goes smoothly, frustrations and unwanted stresses are minimized, and your progress goes as planned. A sense of control over what’s going on and being able to make quick, informed choices lets you focus on the fun and spend less time feeling yanked around or stalled.
Sitting down at the very beginning of your project allows you to take the wheel from day one. You set up your expectations and your parameters right away, which means you can relax into the work and free your creative mind to have fun with your project.
Stopping to write all of this out can feel like a huge burden. No one empathizes with that fact more than me. All I ever really want to do is dive into the exciting creative part of my work! After all, no one wants to let that super-stoked feeling of excitement burn out. But trust me, that feeling will almost certainly be replaced with anxiety, frustration, confusion, and other negative feelings if you don’t have this guide in hand. It’s worth the time.
An added bonus of doing this once is that many projects have enough similarity that you can recycle this work breakdown into the next project and just make tweaks on the specifics of the new project. Hooray for cut-n-paste!
I’ve created a work breakdown template that I use for nearly every project that I work on, and it is a more comprehensive document than a typical work breakdown needs to be. I pull in aspects of my SOW as well as all my tasks, budgeting, and links to other spreadsheets I need to reference so I have a thorough go-to document. It keeps me highly organized so I can stop worrying about puzzle pieces and just focus on my photography. You can utilize this template, or simply craft your own documents with the pieces I outline below.
My ideal work breakdown starts out with three components also found in my SOW, but which might need to be customized for this document.
The objective you write out here can be the same as the scope you wrote out in your SOW, or you might need to craft a new objective specific to this particular work breakdown.
If your main project is big and involved, a work breakdown can address just a single component of the overall project. For instance, if you’re running a calendar fundraiser for a nonprofit, you’re tackling a pretty sizable project! You might create one work breakdown for the shoot, another for the design and printing of the calendar, and a third for the fundraiser itself. When you write out your shoot work breakdown, your objective needs to be more specific than your SOW, so you’ll craft an objective specific to the shoot.
This too can be pasted in from your SOW, or made to be more specific if you’re working on a particular chunk of project.
Deliverables are the actual things you are creating for the project, the products of your work. What is it you are handing over to a client, gallery, publisher, etc when you are done with this project? List them out in this section.
You can leave this broad, such as if you need 15 images for a portfolio to turn in with a pitch. Or it could be more detailed such as listing out exactly which specific images you need to create for a story assignment. It’s up to you and how you’ll feel most organized during your project.
3. Out of Scope
Just as you need to write out what you are doing, it’s important to note what you are not doing. This prevents your project from snowballing into something too big or too vague to accomplish.
Think of it like building a coral with modular fencing. You can change the shape and size of the coral at any time. But you get to decide when and how that shape changes. Detailing what you are and aren’t doing from the beginning allows you to thoughtfully, logically, and strategically change the shape and size of your coral, if you want to, as the project unfolds.
What exactly goes into the “out of scope” section? Say you’re working on a story about a particular species. In this section you can note down what you aren’t going to include in that story – such as the natural history of other species living in the same ecosystem, or certain behaviors of that target species you don’t feel are pertinent to your finished product.
This is the core of a work breakdown.
When you start in on a project, it’s really easy to tick off the obvious tasks of A, B, C, and D. Yet there are a whole bunch of tasks that are involved in accomplishing each of A, B, C and D. Your work breakdown is your opportunity to sit down and really think about all the little things that go in to accomplishing a task. With this attention to detail comes a realistic idea of how long it will take you to accomplish those seemingly straightforward tasks.
Here’s an example of how quickly a single task can reveal itself to be a list of tasks when you take a closer look:
You need to set the schedule for completing the photography portion of a story assignment. That seems like a slapdash job: just look at your calendar and pencil in some dates to get out into the field and shoot.
But, you also need to reach out to your contacts in the field to make sure they’re available on those dates. That requires emails and/or phone calls. If you need to travel, you need to set not only shoot dates, but also travel dates. You have to book your flights, rental car, hotel. You might need to research or set up other travel accommodations, such as boarding your pet or getting a house sitter. You need to get your gear organized and packed and possibly rent equipment. And so on. That quick field work becomes several days of prep work in addition to the field work. And we haven’t even gotten to the editing and post-processing yet…
Looking at these detailed and necessary tasks, it’s far easier to see how much time you actually need to dedicate toward the photography portion of your story, and thus how you need to schedule out your work.
Note that you aren’t creating new work for yourself by being detailed. You’ve always had to do these various things. You’ve just never really thought about them, or factored them in, which is why the feeling of rushing, or being overwhelmed, or dropping the ball on things pops up in projects.
Now you can actually see these “little” tasks, you can predict them and schedule them, and you can avoid being swamped or surprised by extra work you didn’t even realize you were doing.
Again, the great thing about doing this once is that you can recycle it into other projects. It gets easier and easier every time you do it!
This step is also pure gold for a project for another reason: You are building a map of not only what tasks you have to do, but also an understanding of how much time they’ll take you.
For example, you’re creating a pitch to an editor you haven’t worked with before. You might look at the task “Write and send pitch” and think, “Oh I can do that in a day.”
But you haven’t worked with this editor before and need to make a good first impression. When you do your work breakdown with the detailed tasks, and figure out how much time you really need for each of the necessary tasks to accomplish the pitch, you may discover that it is actually about a week’s worth of work to do an excellent job on the pitch.
An outline and first draft might take you half a day, when you factor in thinking about the concept, taking breaks, coming back to it to hone it some more, and so on. If you want to get feedback from a colleague or friend about the pitch before finalizing it, that could take another day or two depending on their schedule. Then you incorporate the feedback and finalize your pitch, which is another couple hours of work.
In selecting your portfolio of images to provide with the pitch, it might take a day to narrow down your selects from 100 that you think are beautiful to the 10 the editor actually wants to see. It takes another couple hours to arrange them into a particular order that best tells the story or flows right for a viewer, or tweak them in post-processing. Then you might want to send the portfolio to a colleague for feedback and that’s another day or two. You need to write captions and keyword if you haven’t already.
All said, that one day of work could actually take about a week.
A work breakdown provides a great assessment of the real amount of time you’ll need to complete a deliverable. You’ll go into scheduling tasks with your eyes wide open, and have a very realistic schedule for a project as a whole.
When you have a realistic vision of your project’s workload, you are not:
- being inundated with unexpected tasks
- drowning in everything you have to get done
- realizing with dread that you won’t meet your deadline
Rather, you have room to breathe.
5. Cost Estimates
I like to include cost estimates in my work breakdown for two reasons.
- It’s just practical to know how much you’re going to need to spend and how to budget for expenses.
- It’s a strategic way to suss out tasks still flying under the radar.
By working on costs, I often figure out what additional resources I need to access in order to accomplish my project.
For example, if I have to budget for rental gear, it reminds me that I need to research exactly what gear I need to rent, what other accessories I might also need to rent, that I need to get online and price out, schedule the rental, and even add the days of shipping onto my timeline so I know when I’ll have the rental in hand and when I need to send it back. All these are tasks I might have overlooked if I didn’t remember the budget line item.
You might realize you need to submit an application for a permit, contact an additional person for access somewhere, and so on.
Through this practice, you’re minimizing obstacles one by one! There’s always going to be things you didn’t account for – surprises, plans falling through, things you will have to be flexible about. But you’re getting way ahead of that curve right now.
After outlining your tasks as thoroughly as possible, the next stage is putting together a timeline for accomplishing them.
This is where you make sure no cart ends up in front of any horses, none of your ducks are out of their rows, and other animal-oriented metaphors that might slow you down.
The best trick for tackling this is to look at your due date and work backward. Assess how much time it will take you to get tasks done, and assign dates accordingly.
Here’s an example:
Your portfolio is due in 10 days. It will take you one day to sort and keyword your images, one day for post-processing, and one day to do the final curation for the portfolio. Now you know you need to finish shooting in 7 days. If you need two days of shooting, and a day of travel on each side of the shoot, then you know you need to finalize your travel details and pack your gear within the next three days. Turns out you need to get cracking if you want to meet that deadline!
As you build your schedule, you may find that you don’t actually have the time to accomplish everything. Don’t panic. There are at least three ways to handle this:
- Go back through your task list and rejigger some items, or delete what isn’t mission critical.
- Go back into your deliverables and adjust how much you’re trying to create in the time you have allowed. You might need to let go of a few things you’d like to produce, but just won’t have the capacity to complete right now.
- Adjust your deadlines now, before you even get started. Move back the due date until you can complete everything. It’s better to alter a client’s expectations at the start than to disappoint or frustrate them by changing a due date right before you’d promised materials.
Scheduling is really where the “map” comes together. You can see the realities of your project, and renegotiate your plan until you have a clear path from point A to point B.
And in between A and B? You have the freedom of mind to be your most creative, focused, energized and professional self throughout your project!
7. Other links
One last thing to add is actually the first thing you should see on your work breakdown – a table of contents with anchor links.
Anchor links allow you to click on a section listed in the table of contents and jump immediately to that section within the document. You don’t have to waste time scrolling, which is important since this document can get fairly long. A table of contents with anchor links is easy to create in Word, Google Docs and other programs.
It’s difficult to understate how helpful it is to start any project (or every project!) with a SOW and Work Breakdown. This can be done for big goals, small shoots, and everything in-between. Use these two tools to maintain energy, clarity, creativity and joy in a project from concept to completion!
Now hold your camera like a football and yell “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose!”
Next up in The Organized Photographer series we’ll tackle crafting smart budgets for photographers, from assignments to holding workshops.
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