New Photographers: Signed Contracts Needed at the Start of Every Project

“He Walks Dogs” by Damian Gadal from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I recently heard a question from a new photographer. They are new to the business and focused on building their brand and rapport with potential clients. Their question was, “Should I have a contract on hand at the beginning stages of my business?”

My response was an emphatic: “Yes!”

Photography Contracts: Every Job, Every Time

A contract is a relationship management document. It puts everyone on the same page about what each side is giving and getting and sets the expectations about how each side should behave.

I tell my photographer clients to never accept a job without a signed contract, this applies even to TFP shoots (trade for photos). Your contract should outline what the client is hiring you to do, how/when you’ll be compensated, how the client can use the images, and who owns the copyright. It should also have terms that address how problems will be resolved.

If the Prospect Balks at a Contract

If you have a prospective client who says they “don’t think a contract is necessary,” turn and run. This raises to red flags for me: either they don’t understand how the business works, or they have devious reasons for not wanting a contract that could bite you in the butt in the future.

One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was, “You never regret the client you didn’t take.” I have had no regrets about declining a representation when a client balks at how I do business. Every time I decline one of these clients, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.

Don’t Worry that Requiring a Contract will Push Clients Away

Don’t worry about being perceived as “pushy” my holding firm that a contract is required. You can be polite and respectful while say, “This is how I do business. If you don’t want to sign a contract, that’s fine, but you won’t be working with me.”

You set the rules for how you work with clients. If they balk at your contract (assuming it’s reasonable), they shouldn’t be your client. A reasonable client would expect you to require a contract. A person with any business acumen won’t want to work with you without one.

Let the prospects who don’t want contracts to self-select out. If you have problems with a client at the beginning of the relationship, it’s an indicator that they will be problematic throughout the project.

If the prospect asks for a referral to another photographer, I recommend saying, “All the reputable photographers I know won’t take on a client without a signed contract.”

It’s Cheaper and Easier to Prevent Legal Problems than to Fix Them

This has been proven time and time again in my legal career. When a client comes to me with a business dispute, one of my first questions is, “What does your contract say?” When my client doesn’t have a contract, I have to piece together the terms of their agreement from emails, text messages, and the parties’ actions. Often my client spends more just having me piece these things together than what it would have cost them to have a custom contract template made.

Additionally, in a dispute, it’s much easier to create a demand letter than references the terms the other side agreed to and back them into a corner where they have to try to defend the indefensible rather than assert what the terms of the agreement are from the assembly of bits and pieces of communications and actions that the other side can more easily debate.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you need help with your photography contracts and managing client expectations, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common questions professional photographers face, including what terms to include in every contract template. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list to stay in the loop, and get first dibs on discounts!

Photographer Disputes: What Happens If You Don’t Deliver

https://www.flickr.com/photos/76377775@N05/8560939745
Las Fallas Valencia Spain Angry Woman” by Keith Ellwood from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

As I was researching photographers’ legal questions, I stumbled onto a question posted by an upset client: “The photographer hasn’t given me my photos. It’s been six months. What can I do about that?”

Whoa! That sounds exceptionally bad. I’m curious how complex this project was and when the photographer said they’d deliver images to the client.

I don’t know the circumstances regarding this person’s situation, but here’s what could happen if a client is unsatisfied with your work, or worse, you fail to deliver as promised.

Check the Contract’s Dispute Resolution Provision

Whenever anyone comes to me with a business dispute, like “They didn’t pay me,” or “I didn’t get what I paid for,” the first question I ask is:

What does your contract say?

Your photography contract should have a dispute resolution provision that states how disputes are going to be resolved, where it’s going to be resolved, and which state law governs the agreement.

One of the most common dispute resolution clauses I put in photography contracts says if there’s a dispute, the parties will try, in good faith, to resolve the matter within 30 days. If that doesn’t resolve the matter, then the parties agree to resolve the matter is a court located in Maricopa County, Arizona, and the agreement is governed by Arizona law. (I recommend Maricopa County and Arizona law because that’s where I’m located. You don’t want to pay for your lawyer’s travel expenses if you don’t have to.) I usually include a clause that says the losing party must pay the prevailing party’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

Regardless of what the contract states about resolving disputes, my first step in most disputes is sending a demand letter that puts the other side on notice that further legal recourse will be sought. This letter lets the other side know that the offended party is serious and willing to fight, and it gives them a chance to resolve the matter before it will be taken to the next level.

Report to the Attorney General’s Office for Consumer Fraud

You may not know this, but your state’s Attorney General’s Office may have a forum to submit a consumer complaint and report suspected fraud. Arizona has this, and it’s not a fun process to go through the subsequent investigation, which could include being subpoenaed for a deposition under oath and/or having a claim for fraud filed against you. If a court found that you committed fraud, it could have devasting consequences for your business, including your ability to be a professional photographer. Taking a client’s money and failing to provide the images could easily be an act of fraud.

If a client wanted to pursue this option, they don’t need a lawyer to file a consumer complaint. They can go online and get the form themselves. The Attorney General’s Office would foot the bill for the investigation, and likely expect to be reimbursed by you if you lose or come to a settlement. Conversely, if a consumer complaint is filed against you, you should hire a lawyer to represent you.

Bad Review

The least problematic a dissatisfied client could do is leave you a negative review on Google, Yelp, or Facebook, or they could post about you online on their social media accounts or their website. As long as everything they post about you is true or their opinion, it’s perfectly legal.

Hopefully, you never find yourself in this type of situation, but if it happens, please don’t ghost your client. Keep the lines of communication open as you work towards a resolution. One of the most common complaints I hear from customers is that the person they hired stopped responding to emails, calls, or texts, and so they felt like they had no choice but to ask a lawyer or the state for help.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you want help with the business or legal side of being a photographer, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common problems professional photographers face, including contracts, copyright, and managing client expectations. Please add yourself to this exclusive list for updates on the course and helpful information leading up to the release.

Lawyer Responds to Photographers’ Problems

“Photo Shoot” by Cliff from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, I saw a thread in an online photography group that started with a simple question: “What problems do you face as a photographer?” After reading hundreds of the responses, I wanted to respond to some of their problems as both a lawyer and an entrepreneur:

Competition – Other Photographers Offering Half the Price

My first thought when I read this was, “There’s a good chance it’s also half the quality.” You never want to be in a race to the lowest price. Instead of worrying about price, focus on what makes you different from the competition.

If someone wants a cheap photographer to document their once in a lifetime event, like their wedding, that’s their choice. If I were facing a client who said, “I can get someone to photograph my wedding at half this price,” I hope my response would be something like, “This is your special day. You have to choose who you trust to capture these moments for you.”

Personally, I have no problem when a client self-selects out from working with me if they don’t want to pay my rate. It’s better that they decide that early and go with someone else.

This problem reminds me of a sign I saw in a tattoo parlor: “Good tattoos aren’t cheap. Cheap tattoos aren’t good.” The same is likely true for photographers.

Clients Don’t See What We’re Worth

Part of being an entrepreneur is educating prospective client about the value we bring. It’s not that skilled photographers cost so much, but they’re worth so much. Some of the ways you can do this is by having a high-quality portfolio and a stellar reputation.

Remember: You’re not just taking photos; you’re creating an experience – every interaction from the first “hello” to the final deliverable. Your ability to take and edit photos are important, but so are the way you carry yourself, how you communicate, and your creativity, work ethic, and confidence in your skills. All of those things add or detract from your value as an artist. You want to be in a position where people want to hire you, not just any photographer.

I had a similar situation when I hired the designer who created the logos for Scarlet MavenTM and Lights Camera LawsuitTM. I could have used a discount service like 99 Designs or Fiverr, but I didn’t want to entrust a stranger with this task. I wanted to work with Square Peg Creative and Dina Miller. I’d seen and loved the way she created. I was willing to pay extra for that experience, and the resulting logos that I love.

How to Tell People I’m a Proper Photographer

The best way to tell people that you’re a professional photographer is to act like one. Create a business entity, a website with a portfolio, and contract templates for your services. If you want people to take your seriously, you have to act like a professional.

Speaking of Contracts

Contracts are relationship management documents. Once a client signs the contract, they are bound by its terms. Whenever there’s a problem, you can refer back to the contract and the terms they already agreed to. This is where you can put information like,

  • The deposit is non-refundable.
  • The photographer chooses the best images to show client. The client will not get raw images.
  • There’s no guarantee you’ll capture every image the client was hoping for.
  • The client is not allowed to edit the final images. This includes adding filters or stickers or cropping the images.

There’s a video I recommend to almost every entrepreneur called F*ck You, Pay Me, that features a graphic designer and his lawyer talking about how they use contracts to make sure the client pays per the contract’s terms. The suggestions work for many types of professional creatives.

Clients with High Expectations and Low Budgets

While many people don’t like talking about money, it is a topic you want to discuss early in the vetting process by either giving the prospective client your price list or asking about their budget. Don’t be afraid to be frank with clients who have expectations that are way beyond what they can afford. Tell them what they can afford based on their budget, as well as what you could do if they are willing to pay more so they can make an educated decision about what they want.

Clients Who Try to Negotiate on Price

In the photographer-client relationship, they are hiring you. You get to decide what is and is not negotiable in your contract. If your rates are not negotiable, be clear about that the first time they ask.

In my practice, I hand pick who are my pro bono clients and who gets a discount. That’s my call, not the other way around.

Here’s a tip I saw from another photographer: Make your prices all-inclusive. Don’t list separate prices for shooting and editing, because it opens the door for clients to try to haggle on one or the other.

Companies that Want You to Work for Free or Magazines that Want to Use Images for Free

Oh, it’s so cute when people want you to work for “exposure.” You get to decide how you respond to those requests. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Exposure is not a currency that my landlord accepts.
  • I can’t pay my mortgage with exposure.
  • People die of exposure.

Chasing Payments

Ideally, you want to create a photographer-client relationship where it’s easier to comply with the terms of the contract and pay on time, than not. Many photographers charge a non-refundable deposit to book a shoot or event and require the balance to be paid in by the day of the shoot or event. At the latest, I don’t recommend a photographer provide proofs unless they’ve been paid for the shoot.

You also want to have terms in your contract about cancelled appointments, late payments, and non-payments, so that you set yourself up to get paid what you’re owed in a timely manner.

Are You Free Next Week?

You can put the information about how far in advance a prospective client should expect to book you near your contact information or in your FAQs if you have them.  

People Assuming You will Photoshop them Perfect

This problem reminds me of Christian Siriano on Project Runway when he said, “I’m not a miracle worker, lady. I can’t make you have an ass!”

In talking with your client, set some expectations about what Photoshop can and can’t do. Assume your client doesn’t know anything about photography, unless they are a professional photographer themselves. You can educate your clients by showing them before and after images so they can see the type of edits you’ll be doing for them.

It’s ok to have fun with it, if that’s your style, by saying things like, “If you’re 5’2”, I can’t make you 5’10”,” or “If you have a ‘dad bod,’ I can’t transform you into Thor.” On the softer, more realistic side, remind your client that it’s your job to capture them looking their best, not like someone else.

Bonus Tips from my Experience as Model: Posing

Several people said they had problems with posing models or giving direction. As a model, my response is, “Don’t be afraid to try.” You’re the one behind the camera. I can’t see how I look.

If you give a model a pose and it doesn’t create a good image, try something else. I won’t know if you didn’t get the shot you wanted. I’ll think you have lots of ideas.

It’s ok to think out loud and say things such as, “I like how this light is hitting your eyes, let’s try this.”

I’ve you are afraid you won’t remember the ideas you wanted to try from other images, bring notes to the shoot. It shows you’re prepared, and thinking about what types of images might be best for me.

Learning how to pose models and give direction is something you develop over time, with practice, and watching others. Unless you’re doing some extreme work, no one is going to die. And don’t forget – I can’t see how I look, so as far as I know, whatever you’re trying is brilliant.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you’re looking for help with the business or legal side of being a photographer, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common problems professional photographers face, including contracts, copyright, and managing client expectations. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop, and get additional helpful information leading up to the release.

How to Give a Discount on your Photography Services without Discounting your Value

The Belly Dancer with the Fans” by mmockingbird from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Sometimes photographers, like all service providers, want to provide a discount for their services. Perhaps it’s for a friend, someone you’ve always wanted to work with, or an organization you know can’t afford you and you want to help.

Nothing Wrong with a Discount

There is nothing wrong with offering a discount for your photography services, whether it’s a special one-off or a promotion that’s available to any client.

The challenge is you don’t want to cheapen the perceived value you provide. When a person buys an item at a cheap price, they may have lower expectations about it and will perceive it as less valuable than a similar product that performs the same function but costs twice as much. You don’t want your clients to discount the value you’re giving them, even when they get it at a discounted price.   

Have you noticed that it’s often the clients who are getting the biggest discounts who complain the most? I made that mistake once. I quoted someone an exceptionally low flat fee to do their contract because I thought it would be an easy project. The nitpicked so much and requested so many changes, that by the time it was done, the amount I made per hour of work was laughable. (This was also the client who taught me to put a cap on the number of edits I’d do on a flat fee project. If they wanted more edits after that, they had to pay hourly.)

Always Show a Photography Client your Value

Even when you give a client a discount, always include your standard price and then the discount. Being a professional photographer is two jobs in one – you’re an artist and an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur’s job includes educating clients and prospects what you are worth. Photography clients are not just paying for your time, but also your talents. Remind them about the value you bring to the table, regardless of what they’re paying.

This tactic is not offensive.  You see this when you buy things online. The website always starts by posting the price and tells you how much of a discount they’re giving you and the price you’re getting.

How to Write an Invoice or Contract with a Discount

This is how I’d write an invoice or payment section of a photography contract that includes a discount:

Sitting Fee:                       $200.00

I-Like-You Discount:           -$75.00

Total Sitting Fee:               $125.00

You get to choose what you’re going to call your discounts. I encourage my clients to be creative and include their personality in their contracts, but you have to decide what works for you.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you need help with your photography contracts and managing client expectations, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common questions professional photographers face, including how to explain these concepts in plain English. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop. (Psst! People on this list also get first dibs on discounts!)

Can I Shoot Here? Photography Rules at Public Events

https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnrabbit/8660242398
“The Lights of Simian Mobile Disco” by John Rabbit from Flickr
(Creative Commons License)

Public events present fantastic opportunities for photographers to take captivating photos, but before you pull out your camera, you need to understand some of the legal do’s and don’ts of shooting in public.  

What is “Public?”

What is public versus private is a challenging question for some people to comprehend. There is a difference between being “in public” and being on “public property.” Many places where the public is invited to be, such as shopping malls, convention centers, fairgrounds, and stadiums are in public because you’re in a place where many members of the general public can see you, but you’re still on private property, and can be asked to leave if you’re breaking the rules.  

Even when events are on public property, like street fairs and events at public parks, these areas are like private property for the purpose of the event. The organizers likely obtained an event permit from the city, part of which gave them permission to enforce stricter rules regarding photography than what you would have to follow if you were merely walking down a public street.

Their Event. Their Rules.

When you want to shoot at an event, try to find the photography rules. When you enter the event, look for notices. Many times, the organizers post a notice that says by entering the premises, you agree that the event organizers can take your picture and use the images for any purpose. These notices do not apply to you unless you are a photographer hired for this purpose.

Here’s where you can look for information about whether you can legally take photos at an event.

  • If the event is on private property, look for a list of rules on the wall. Many shopping malls and stores have rules that prohibit shooting photos or video on the premises.
  • If you are attending a sporting event or concert, check the back of your ticket. If there is fine print, that is likely a contract between you and the event or venue, which may include terms about taking photos.
  • Check the website for the event or venue to see if they are specific rules regarding photography at the event. Many times, this is in the frequently asked questions (FAQ) section. If the event is out in the open, like at a park or fairground, I would not expect there to be rules that prohibit photography, but I have seen “No Photography” signs on vendor booths at art festivals where artists were selling original works.

Rules of Thumb for Shooting Photography in Public

Here are some general rules when taking photos at public events.

1. Don’t be creepy. Don’t stare at people, follow them around, or act like a stalker. I’ve heard about this type of behavior at cosplay events, including a few years ago at Phoenix Comicon where someone shot video of women without their consent, and posted a compilation where the purpose was to objectify them. (The video has since been removed.) Now, it’s more common to see rules at these events that include a zero tolerance policy for this type of behavior.

2. Ask permission if you can take someone’s photo. This is particularly true if you’re taking photos of someone else’s child.

3. Be ready for questions from security, ushers, and/or event attendees. If you are using a high-end camera when most people are using their smart phones, you may raise suspicions. This is especially true if you or the person you’re shooting are doing anything abnormal.

As a former gymnast, I like to do handstands. When my friends and I went to an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game, I decided to do in the stands. We did it right before we left: I kicked a handstand, my friend took the picture, and we immediately walked up the stairs to leave. As expected, an usher stopped us as we reached the top. I was ready for him to say we needed to leave, but thankfully he was curious to know what we were doing.

Handstand at the Baseball Game, June 2010

4. Remember, if you don’t have a model release, you likely can’t use the images that contain identifiable persons for commercial purposes, including marketing yourself, without the risk of being accused of violating the person’s right of publicity. (Check your state’s law to see what the rules about publicity rights are before you take photos of others, especially strangers.)

5. When you are taking photos on public property – not at a private event, know the applicable laws. You may encounter people who make false statements about the law, and you have to correct them.

For example, Improv AZ has organized the No Pants Light Rail in Phoenix every year since 2009. It takes place on the public light rail system with the general public, and we have official photographers who ride with us, sans pants, to document it. One year, we encountered light rail security who tried to tell one of our photographers that he couldn’t bring his camera on board, because it would be a violation of the law. We stood in the door of the light rail car – one foot in the car, one foot on the platform – which forced the door to stay open, so our photographer wouldn’t get left behind. We explained the law to the security guard and asked him to call his supervisor, who confirmed that everything we were saying was true, and we continued with the Ride.

The best way I can encompass the rules for shooting photographs at public events is Be Aware, Be Thoughtful, and Make Good Decisions.

Lights Camera Lawsuit

I’m creating an online course called “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography,” that will address the legal issues most pertinent to professional photographers, including many of legal issues related to event photography as well as contracts and copyright law. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop. (This venture is separate from my law practice, and this list is completely independent from the Carter Law newsletter.)

When a Client Threatens to Leave a Bad Review

https://www.flickr.com/photos/yazuu/3053549142
Angry Guy by Adrian Tombu from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s the scenario: A client hired you for a photography job, which you did, and you provided the deliverables on time. The client is unhappy with their photos, threatens to leave a bad online review if you don’t give them their money back.

What do you do?

You’re a Photographer, Not a Miracle Worker

Your client has put you in a difficult position. You have to work with what you’re given from the client. You don’t want to be insensitive, but you can only do so much. It may be impossible to give the client images that match what they envisioned in their head.

Many times, part of being an entrepreneur involves educating and managing the client’s expectations. Based on the client’s complaint, it may be prudent to review the images and see if there’s anything you can do, perhaps suggest additional edits than what they hired you to do or explain that this is best you could do given the constraints of the situation.

Ask Yourself the Difficult Question

Ask yourself the difficult question: Did you screw up? Do you owe this person additional edits, a re-shoot, or some type of compensation? If so, admit it.

As Peter Shankman says, “There is no greater lover than a former hater.” If you make a mistake, admit it, and make up for it, that person may become your biggest cheerleader.

Go Back to the Contract

When dealing with an upset client, having a well-written contract can help you resolve the matter and remind the client about what you both agreed to at the outset of your working relationship.

If the client is upset because you didn’t provide an image of certain pose, show them the provision that says there are no guarantees that they’ll get every pose or image they hoped for.

If the client wants to see all the images you took during the shoot, show them the provision that says you’ll only be showing them the best images and that they won’t see every image you take.

If the client says they shouldn’t have to pay because they’re unhappy, remind them that they hired you for your time and skills. Payment is expected if you fulfilled your obligations under the contract.

Hopefully, you have a photography contract that anticipated common complaints and addressed them accordingly.

You Can Always Cave to their Demand

Whether you give this person their money back is a business decision, not a legal one. You may decide that the best course of action, regardless of whether you think it’s warranted, is to give this person their money back and move on. That’s your call.

I recommend you decide in advance, just for yourself, the circumstances under which you’ll give a refund. Many photography contracts state that there are no refunds or that they are given only in rare specified situations.

If They Leave a Bad Review

If the client follows through on their threat and leaves a bad review, respond to it in a polite and respectful manner. You can say you’re sorry they’re upset and invite them to contact you directly to discuss it. (Many times, how you respond to a bad review isn’t about the upset client, but rather it’s an opportunity to demonstrate to anyone who reads it that you take client concerns seriously.)

In a perfect world, you’ll have enough positive reviews that one bad one won’t tank your average. But if you’re just starting out, one negative review could have a substantial impact on your score. You may want to invite happy customers to leave reviews about their experience to bring your average back up.

Lights Camera Lawsuit

I’m working on my first online course called “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography,” which will be released by my second company (separate from my law practice). Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with

tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list if you want to stay in the loop. (This list is completely independent from the CLF newsletter list.)