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!

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!)

Clarify What Your Photography Client is Buying: Prints vs Digital License

“Shooting the Dress” by Garry Knight from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Professional portrait photographers generally need at least two contracts when working with a client: one for the sitting and one for the deliverables. For the latter, make sure the client is crystal clear about what they are, and equally important, what they are not buying. Having clarity on the front end will prevents problems on the back end.

Assume Clients Don’t Understand Copyright

Part of your job as a professional photographer is to educate your client about the basics of copyright and how it applies to images you’ve been hired to create. Many people assume that they are allowed to take a print, scan it, and share online or via email.

In my pre-lawyer life, that’s what I thought. I spent plenty of time in the computer lab during my undergrad scanning photos. There was even a bulletin board dedicated to the photos that people left in the machine.

This is still an issue for Joe Average people. Here’s a real question that recently came across my screen: I hired a photographer to take family pictures. I want to share them online and with extended family. The photographer says I can’t do that. Why?

I suspect this person bought prints and not a digital license, or they have a license but it doesn’t include an allowance to distribute the images.

As a risk-adverse lawyer, I would put specific verbiage in the contract that states what the client can and can’t do with the photos, including that only the digital version the photographer provides can be used to share the images with family and friends, probably in bold print.

This serves two purposes:

  1. It protects your copyright, and
  2. It maintains the quality of your work.

It’s also a good idea to include the information about your socials so they can tag you. (Good clients give credit their photographer when posting images online, even if they’re not required to.)

What the Client gets with Prints

When a client buys prints, they are buying the tangible object – the picture on whatever medium it was printed. They are buying the thing. They are not getting the copyright right or any copyright rights (unless that’s part of the contract they signed).

The limits of what someone can do with a print are similar to what they can do if they bought a book. They can display it, sell it, give it away, destroy it, etc. What they can’t do is make copies of it.

Scanning a print is making a copy. So is taking a photo of the photo.

I’ve seen people do this at amusement parks. They don’t want to buy the photo the park took of them on the rollercoaster, so they take a photo of the screen where the image is displayed – so they take photo of the photo. When I’ve seen this happen, the teenage clerk usually says, “We’re not supposed to let people do that.” Now you know why. 

What the Client gets with a Digital License

What a client can do with a digital license depends on the limits within the license itself.

Whoever owns a copyright has the exclusive right to control if and how the work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. If I were writing a license for a photographer, I’d address all five of these rights – including “perform,” even though that’s not a verb we typically use in regards to photographs, but I’d rather be thorough.

Most of the time, the photography licenses I draft are for a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license. It also addresses whether the licensee is allowed to use the images for commercial use. Sometimes the photographer requests additional provisions, like one that says the licensee isn’t allowed to alter the images, which may include cropping.

Following the license provision, I often add a sentence that states all other uses of the images must be approved by the photographer in advance.

Solution: All Print Packages Include a Digital License

One way to address this issue to require clients to purchase a digital license when they’re purchasing prints. The client won’t have to scan any images if they already have digital versions.

When you first meet with a client to discuss their needs, ask them about what they want to do with the final images, including how they want to show them to others. If you hear a client talking about how they can’t wait to share the photo with family/friends – clarify what they mean and make sure purchase a package that suits their needs.

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. (Note: This venture is separate from my law practice, and this list is completely independent from the Carter Law newsletter.)