What Makes an Effective Photography Contract Template

“Photographers” by Mark Fischer from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the most common questions I get from photographers is, “Where can I get a good (free) contract template online?” I’m sorry to say that I have yet to come across such a resource that I’d feel comfortable recommending to anyone, but I can tell you what I look for when I review these documents.

Contract = Relationship Management Document

The best way I can define a contract is it’s a relationship management document. Its purpose is to put everyone involved on the same page about their responsibilities and how you will address certain problems if they occur. Contract manage expectations and allow you to hold each other accountable to the promises you made.

When I write a contract for a client, I try to walk through the interaction between the people involved during the relationship created by the contract and consider potential problems that might occur.  

Here’s something to note about contracts: Whichever side writes the contract, does so based on their best interests. The drafter is looking out for their interests, not yours. I write the same type of contract quite differently depending on which side is my client.

Photography Contract Review

When a client asks me to review a photography contract template, these are some of the provisions I expect to see in a quality contract:

Parties and Scope: A contract should be clear about the who, what, where, and when between the parties. A third party should be able to read the contract and understand who is party to the contract and what their responsibilities are.  

Consideration: “Consideration” is legal term meaning an exchange between the parties – what is each side giving and getting. In photography contracts, it’s usually trade for photos (TFP) or payment for images.

Deliverables: I would expect a photography contract to clearly state what the model/client is getting from the photographer as well as any limits on what the model/client can do with the images.

Copyright Notice: The contract should state who will own the copyright in the images – the photographer or the model/client. If the model/client is getting the copyright, I’d expect them to have to pay more than if they were just getting the images and a license to use them in certain ways.

Model Release: If you want to use the images for marketing purposes or to make money off the images in other ways, you will probably need a model release.

Problems and Worst-Case Scenarios: How are you going to deal with common issues like cancellations, no-shows, refund requests, and late payments? Those all should be addressed in your contract. What about rare but bad problems, like the files from the shoot are stolen, corrupted, or otherwise destroyed before you can make a back-up copy? You may want to address the worst-case scenarios in your contract too – usually in the “force majeure” section.

Dispute Resolution: If there is a problem between the parties, how will you resolve it – mediation? Arbitration? Litigation? Some other way? In what county and state will this occur? Which state law applies? In some states, you must specify that the non-prevailing party has to pay for the prevailing party’s attorney’s fees, otherwise the court won’t likely require this.

Boilerplate Terms:  There are some provisions that I include in nearly every contract I write, like waiver, severability, modification, and entire agreement. These are the provisions that can have a substantial impact on your relationship with the other party but are often left out when a lay person tries to write their own contract.

No One Size Fits All

A contract template is a starting point for a contract with a model/client. There may be times when you need to revise it to fit the needs of a project. Additionally, you will likely need different templates for portrait work and event photography because the issues the contract needs to address are different.

There’s nothing wrong with using a contract from the internet as a place to get ideas for contract terms and how to phrase provisions, but I’ve never seen a contract template that someone got for free online that I would approve as written.

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Model Release and Regret

“Subway Ballet” by J Stimp from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently, I received an email from a photographer (not my client) who had a question about the validity of model releases. As I understood the situation, he hired a model (over age 18) to do a photoshoot at his studio. The model was photographed nude for at least part of the shoot. The model signed a model release and was paid for her modeling services.

After the photoshoot, the photographer censored some of the images to comply with Facebook’s rules and posted them online.  The model saw the images and was upset. The photographer asked me if the model had any authority to force him to take the images down.

The Rules of Model Releases
Model releases are standard in the photography world. In most cases, the photographer owns the copyright in their work from the moment the photo is created, not the person in the photo, and the model owns the right to publicize their own image.

The model release transfers the model’s right to publicity in those images to the photographer, which allows the photographer to use the images per the terms of the release. Usually, when I write a model release or a model release template, the model gives the photographer permission to use the images in any way and for any purpose, without restriction.

In general, once the model release is signed, the model’s given up their rights. If the model later regrets signing it, there may be nothing they can do to “unring that bell” unless the photographer is willing to negotiate another agreement – such as a copyright assignment where the model purchases the copyright rights in the images from the photographer.

Think Before You Sign
If you are a model, read the model release carefully. Never sign the release without reading and understanding it. Many of them allow for unfettered use by the photographer, including the right to license the images to others. Treat the images as if they are going to end up all over the internet, on billboards, on products or marketing campaigns you hate. Chances are, that’s not going to happen, but it could.

I write not just as a lawyer, but also a model myself. On a number of occasions, I have written and signed my own model release. Models may give up substantial rights when signing these documents, so it’s not a decision to make lightly.

What Could Invalidate a Model Release
Even if the model release was written by a lawyer and appears to valid on its face, there are situations where a model release might be invalid due to the circumstances surrounding the shoot:

  • The model was minor (Depending on your state, minors may not be able to sign contracts or they can withdraw their consent upon reaching the age of majority.)
  • The model was an adult but lacked the capacity to enter into a legally binding contract. (These people usually have an appointed guardian to sign for them.)
  • The model was intoxicated. (In general, intoxicated people can’t enter into valid contracts.)
  • The model was forced to sign the contract under duress. (You can’t get a valid contract if you use threats or force to get someone to sign it.)

There can also be instances where the photo in question was taken outside the scope of the model release and so the model release does not apply.

I get questions every day about photography, image rights, and copyright. If you are a photographer or model (or aspiring to be one), it’s imperative that you understand these issues. Many disputes can be avoided with well-written contracts and accurate information. I’m constantly doing work in this area, so if you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, you can contact me directly or check out the other posts and videos I’ve done on the legal side of photography. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Legal Issues with Open Photoshoots

Parkwood Photography Studios, used with permission

Last week, I went to an open photoshoot/happy hour at Parkwood Studios. (They have a gorgeous space!) It’s a free monthly event for photographers and models of all skill levels and experience. There was an area set up with lights where anyone could model and shoot photos. The purpose is to give everyone an introductory experience working with a model in a studio environment. There was not a model release or TFP agreement for this event.

I went to this to network and to model. As a lawyer, I knew what I was getting into in regards to copyright and image rights. Of course, my analytical brain couldn’t stop strategizing what I’d do to integrate legal protection and information without disturbing the spirit of the event.

Who’s At Risk, Who’s Protected
There are three groups who should be interested in protecting themselves at an open shoot: the models, the photographers, and the studio. If I represented a studio that hosted an open shoot, I’d recommend having a release that states the studio is not responsible for anyone’s behavior. If there’s a dispute between a model and a photographer, that’s an issue to be resolved between the two of them.

One of my images from the open shoot. I look like a action hero.

Model Release and Copyright Notice
Even in the photography/modeling industry, a lot of people do not understand copyright and image rights. In an open photo shoot, the model and photographer exchange their time, talents, and the opportunity to practice their respective crafts. Unless stated otherwise in a written agreement, whomever took the photo owns the copyright.

The expectation at these events is that photographers and models exchange contact information so the photographer can share images with them, and that the models are allowed to put the images in their portfolios or share on social media. I suspect the studio would also want a license to the use any images taken at the event that they receive or that are posted to their social media to promote future events or the studio.

No Guarantees
The one of the complaint I heard from past events is models saying a photographers who took photos of them never sent any images. While that is poor form, the only way I can think to legally work around this is to have a “no guarantee” clause. There’s no guarantee the photographer will send the model photos and there’s no guarantee the photographer will get the shot they want.

Code of Conduct
Since this is an event for all experience levels – including fledglings – I recommend having a code of conduct that applies to everyone and the studio’s equipment. This would include basic things like “Always ask permission before touching a model,” “Don’t touch the lights or any equipment that’s not set up for use at this shoot,” “Give constructive feedback,” and “Be respectful – we’re all here to learn and have fun.” A lot of these are common sense, but it’s good to state the obvious for people for whom it might be their first time shooting in this type of environment.

For studios like Parkwood that host regular events, I suggest creating reusable poster-sized copies of the rules and release and put it on the door leading to the photoshoot area with a notice that says by entering the room, you agree to these expectations. For anyone who wants to shoot photos or model, put a clipboard with a dated copy of the agreement and a signature page where everyone must agree to the rules before they’re allowed to participate. This serves multiple purposes:

  • It gives photographers and models experience with reading and signing these agreements.
  • It creates expectations and helps avoid conflict for all involved.

I get questions every day about photography, image rights, and copyright. For anyone who works as a photographer or model, it’s imperative that you understand these topics. Many disputes can be avoided with well-written contracts and accurate information. I’m constantly doing work in this area, so if you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Model Release for TFP Photo Shoots

Photo by Joseph Abbruscato, Used with Permission

Photo by Joseph Abbruscato, Used with Permission

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of participating in an open photo shoot at a junkyard in Wittmann, Arizona. Dozens of photographers and models converged on this location to shoot around all day in and on the various broken down vehicles and other surroundings. It was a great event to meet other of photographers and models, and to work with the unique aspects of this setting.

As we entered the junkyard, there were 2 large neon green handwritten poster boards that reminded us that we were entering at our own risk, cameras were in use, and that our picture may be taken without our knowledge. Additionally, they said “If you do something stupid we know where to bury you” and “Don’t do anything you don’t want your mom to know about.”

These signs were brilliant and hilarious, but incomplete given that this notice was the closest thing we had to a model release for this event. As a model, I knew what I was getting into; but as a lawyer, it made me cringe.

Photo by Bob Johnson, Used with Permission

Photo by Bob Johnson, Used with Permission

What is TFP?
This was a TFP photo shoot – Trade For Photos or Time For Pictures depending on your definition. As I understand it, this means it was an open and free event where models and photographers could meet, shoot, and without any money changing hands. After the event, both sides will have had the experience, and the model will get images.

This particular photo shoot was announced as a TFP photo shoot on Facebook without any additional documentation. Without a written contract to the contrary, the photographers are the copyright holder’s to every image they created that day. The models have no copyright rights to the work, not even a license to use the images in their portfolio unless they get that permission from the photographer. Since the models didn’t sign a model release, the photographers can’t sell any of the images they created without risking violating the models’ right to publicity.

Writing a Simple Model Release
An effective model release does not have to be long, complicated, or filled with legalese. It can be a simple contract that everyone has to sign prior to entering the shoot that lays out the ground rules for the event. The model release should clearly state what rights the models give the photographers and with the photographers give the models in return – such as a license to use any image from the shoot in their portfolio or online with an attribution.

The release for this particular event probably should have included a liability waiver given that we were climbing in and on broken down vehicles and surrounded by broken glass and gagged metal. We all should have been required to sign off that we were responsible for our own actions and wouldn’t go after the owners of the junkyard or anybody present in the event that we fell or got tetanus.

I wrote a simple one-page model release for a swimming pool photo shoot last summer that every model and photographer had to sign with their contact information. This put everybody on the same page from the beginning of the event, including the acknowledgment of the “No Jerks” rule, and since everyone provided their contact information, it was easy for models and photographer to connect after the event.

The next time I see an invitation for an open TFP photo shoot, perhaps I should offer to write a simple release for the event, especially if I’m going to be a model there. If you have a question about copyright, model releases, or photography rights, please contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.