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10 Critical Points for Strong Photography Contracts

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This post is part of a series called Freelance Photography.
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As you begin to make the jump from amateur to professional, it is extremely easy to overlook the business and legal side of photography. However, if you're getting paid for making images, it is important that you protect yourself with a basic contract. Today we'll briefly go over some types of content and considerations that should be in your contract so that you can be sure that you're on the right track to a professional career.

Seek Professional Council

To be clear, it should be noted that any advice in this article should be seen as general suggestions and not the professional advice of a licensed attorney. The content below is meant to provide basic ideas and considerations, all of which should be proposed to a legal professional before being implemented.

This is also not an exhaustive list. Contract law is a complicated topic and the subjects mentioned below are just a starting point.

Do I Really Need a Contract?

Rendering professional services, especially in the creative arts, is a tricky business. With any job, there is s0 much that could go wrong. Camera equipment failures, natural disasters, moody clients and illness are just a few of the factors that can work to turn a perfectly planned day into an absolute mess.

Contracts make things formal, which can be both positive and negative. If you're working with someone you don't know, they'll appreciate the formality and the fact that you're professional enough to provide a contract that offers protection for all parties involved. However, if you're working with close friends or family, the presence of a contract may be seen as a lack of trust and therefore appear offensive.

I simply can't stress enough the importance of requiring a contract for any event that you have agreed to take on as a professional. In some cases, contract should even be drafted for pro bono work. If friends or family take offense, stress that a contract will genuinely improve the situation for everyone and that you're not accusing them of being flakey or dishonest.

A simple question to ask yourself when faced with the decision to draft a contact is whether the potential for regret is higher for making the contract or neglecting it. You'll almost never regret providing yourself with the extra protection of a contract but there are a million possible scenarios that will leave you regretting not having that protection on paper.

With this information in mind, let's take a look at ten things that everyone should consider when building their photography contract.

1. Basic Information

The first thing you need when outlining your contract is the standard photographer/client identification and contact information. This information will be provided by both you and the client. Keep in mind that all of this doesn't need to be custom-printed in the contract, but can be filled in by hand upon signing.

For your side you'll need, at least, your name and/or the name of your business, the business address, the proper state and county, your relevant contact information (name, address, email, phone) and fields for you to sign and print your name. You might be tempted to wonder why you would need any of this information (you already know your phone number) but remember that the contract is for both parties and not just you! No matter which party is looking at the contract, they should be able clearly see who the other party is and how to contact them.

On the client side, you'll need much of the same info: the client's name(s), address, phone number, signature, etc. You should also include the date, time (which we'll discuss more) and location(s) for the shoot.

2. Hours of Work: A Firm Start and Exit Time

 

This is something that I didn't personally think was necessary until I went without it. I wanted to be considerate and to let my clients know that they since they were holding up their side of the bargain by paying me, I would shoot for as long as they needed me. This sounded like good customer service but wound up being a convenient way for clients to take advantage of me.

I shoot a lot of weddings and generally consider around eight hours of shooting to be more than enough to capture both the shots that I need and those that I know the bride and groom will want. But without including a firm stop time in the contract I found that people like to party well into the night at the reception. Partying clients loosened by the joys of alcoholic beverages aren't easy to get away from. They tend to try to pull you back into the fun.

After a few 12-14 hour shoots, for which the prices were set considering an eight hour day, I decided that my policy of staying as long as the client needed was a bad one. You simply need to give yourself a clear and agreed upon exit time. Specifically state in the contract what both the start and stop time for the shoot are and what the charge will be for any additional time spent at the location. That way when the client begs you to stay for a few more songs, you can kindly remind them that you don't mind the extra work if they don't mind the extra cost. Odds are, they'll decide that 200 shots of people they barely know doing "The Electric Slide" aren't as valuable as having some spending money on the honeymoon.

3. Price

Speaking of cost, another thing that you'll want to include in the contract is the overall cost of the shoot. This will obviously be different for every photographer. Some charge a flat rate, others charge by the hour and there's even room for a hybrid of the two (bill a flat rate up for a set amount of time, then hourly after that).

It's always good to be as specific as possible when it comes to money in a contract. Friends and strangers alike will have selfish motives in monetary exchanges and you don't want to get caught up in an argument about a supposedly verbally agreement. This can end very badly for you (once again, I learned this the hard way).

As indicated in the previous tip, you want to carefully consider all of the scenarios that should and shouldn't add to the cost of the agreement and spell these out in the contract. For instance, if you deliver the photos and the client demands that you spend more time in post-processing or requests a few extra images of someone special, state how much it cost in the contract.

Just remember that the phrase "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it" is your mortal enemy when planning out a contract. Anything that isn't explicit stated is a potential headache down the road that can cost you both time and money to resolve.

4. Terms of Payment

You might think that this sounds redundant in light of the previous tip, but the terms of payment are actually quite different than the mere consideration of overall cost. Again, you're simply avoiding stress and problems in the long run by making sure the terms of the payment are clearly stated.

The terms of the payment are simply how the payment will be delivered, who it will come from and when it is to change hands. Typically, photographers require a deposit. If this is the case, it should be stated in the contract how much the deposit will be and its due date (make sure you write out a receipt when the client makes the deposit).

Likewise, the rest of the payment should have a clear due date after the event. To make sure the dates actually mean something to the client, a late fee is often established. Spell out that the client will pay a certain amount for every day that the payment is late and what happens in the event of a complete failure to pay.

Topics like these aren't fun to think about and they absolutely aren't easy to discuss with a client without sounding like a money-grubbing jerk, just remember that anyone worth working for understands and appreciates a high level of professionalism.

5. Deliverable Items

Many photographers set their pricing and the specific items to be delivered based on pre-built packages. This is typically three to five different arrangements that gradually increase in value, time and the number of items received by the client (digital photos, prints, albums, etc.).

The benefit of creating packages is that they're often structured very specifically so that both parties know what they're in for. You definitely don't have to build or abide by preset packages if you don't want to, but keep in mind their advantages and try to make up for that loss of specificity in another way if you decide to go without them.

Every contract should clearly state what you, the photographer, will provide to the client. This usually takes the form of a minimum number of photos that you commit to giving to the client. This can be twelve or twelve hundred depending on the event and your style of running a photography business.

Another very important consideration is exactly how the photos will be delivered to the client. If you expect to hand over a DVD of digital images and nothing more, make sure your client knows it. Likewise, if you plan on only providing printed images and not granting your clients access to the digital originals, you should definitely make it very clear in the contract. Whatever your policy may be, just make sure that, when everything is said and done, your client can clearly compare what you've given them against what is outlined in the contract. Only promise what you absolutely know you can deliver, anything extra should just be a bonus.

One final piece of advice in this area: Make sure to state that your deliverable items are contingent upon the client performing certain actions and cooperating with you. You shouldn't be liable if the client's neglect leads to a compromise of what you promised. For instance, if you agreed to take photos of a bride getting ready for her big day, but she doesn't make herself available at this time, you were denied the opportunity to hold up your end of the agreement and aren't liable for that exclusion.

6. Delivery Date or Time Period

Another thing that new photographers can easily forget to include is a specific time period when the client can expect to receive the photos. This can be a complete disaster if you don't account for it beforehand.

Imagine that you're the client and you've set in motion big plans for the photos, you're going to feature them prominently at some event two weeks after the shoot date. Surely two whole weeks is enough for anyone to simply hand over some photos right? However, a few days before that event you call your photographer only to find out that they won't have the images ready for another six weeks! Enraged, you immediately call up your brother-in-law, Bob the lawyer, to help sort the situation out.

If this situation sounds like a contrived one meant to scare you, it is. However, the simple truth is that you don't ever want to be on either end of a situation like that. Further, problems like this are easily avoidable. All you have to do is clearly state the range of time within which you will do your job and prepare the photos. The period of time that the situation merits will differ from photographer to photographer and isn't nearly as important as simply making sure that you and your client have reached an agreement and put it in writing.

Just recently I spoke with one photographer who allows four to six weeks for delivery and read about another who promises images the very next day! If you're unsure about it, err on the side of caution and give yourself more time than you need.

7. Long-Terms Image Rights for Both Parties

If a client pays you to take some photos, who owns the resulting images? You took them, so they are in fact your work, but the client purchased them, which also implies ownership. It's a sticky situation to say the least.

Some photographers are crazy protective of their work. They would never dream of giving out high-resolution digital images for fear that clients would use them to order prints through someone other than themselves. Furthermore, who knows what a client will do with your work without your permission if you let them? It could end up on a stock photography website without your knowledge or consent!

On the other hand, some photographers take a relaxed approach. They let clients have all of the original high-resolution digital images and even encourage them to look elsewhere for getting them printed in the future, thereby cutting themselves out of the profit loop in the long run and possibly opening themselves up to legal issues with the misuse of those photos.

I won't tell you how to construct your copyright agreements for your images, this is something very personal that photographers need to decide for themselves. However, I will tell you that, whatever you decide, it needs to be clearly stated in the contract.

The problem that I think most photographers struggle with is the assumption that most people understand how photography businesses work. You work with this stuff every day so it might feel like common knowledge, but it's not. Your average Joe doesn't know about photography copyright laws and the general conventions for what is and is not allowed. You have to explain these things both verbally and in your contract so that everyone understands who has what rights regarding the images.

If you're with how this looks in a contact, a typical agreement might state that the photographer retains the copyright for the photographs but also grants non-exclusive use of them to the client.

8. Policies on Other Photographers

This one seems fairly random and even arguable, but in truth in can become a major problem and should be a consideration for every event. These days, lots of non-professionals have a really nice digital SLR with a reasonably good lens that they pack around to family gatherings, social events and the like. If you've ever run into this at an event, you know what a hassle it can be.

I was recently the second shooter for a wedding where, during the ceremony, the hired photographers (including myself) were practically tripping on other people taking photos with their big, expensive-looking cameras. This had several negative effects. First, the client received fewer quality images because we had to dodge all of these extra "photographers" and try to make sure they weren't in our shots. Furthermore, the other people with cameras complained as we jumped in front of them to capture an important moment, despite the fact that we were the only ones actually hired to do so!

Another important aspect in this argument is the idea that having all of these other people shooting the event lessens the impact of your own work. To be fair, you should be good enough to stand out, but you are hired for your talent and shouldn't have to deal with competition on the date of the event.

As the originator of the contract, you get to decide what your policy is on other photographers, and it may even change from event to event. If you don't mind other people shooting but want to make sure they avoid specific places so they aren't in the way, make sure your client understands where those places are and can guide their guests accordingly. Likewise, if you prefer, you can state that guests can't have any cameras that require interchangeable lenses.

Most of the time, this isn't something you can enforce very well. You can't exactly walk up and yell at any guy with a Canon Rebel! However, simply having it in the contract lets your clients know your thoughts on the subject, which is often enough to make the event go much smoother. It also provides you a modicum of protection when your picture of the first kiss turns out to be a photo of the back of some other photographer's head.

9. Failure to Comply Clause

You'd love to think that, no matter what, you'll be where you promised to be when you promised to be there. But we all know though that crazy stuff happens. You could get into a car accident, someone close to you could have an emergency, your memory cards could be eaten by a bear. There are a million possible things that could hold you back from coming through on your end of the agreement and such a scenario should be covered by your contract.

This is one of those situations where you really want to make sure to protect yourself so you don't end up getting sued for vast sums of money. A typical agreement might state that, in the event of an emergency, equipment failure or other unforeseen circumstance, you will return any money given to you up to that point but claim no further liability beyond that.

Clients might get a little nervous at this part of the agreement, and that's understandable. You are interested in the necessity of protecting yourself but in doing so it might appear easy for you to jump ship at the last minute with no penalty, thereby leaving the client vulnerable. Be sure to read the next tip for more on this.

10. Mutual Protection

Most of the information and considerations above have been pretty one-sided. This article's primary goal is to make sure that you know how to protect yourself as a professional photographer and to show that a well-written contract is one of the best ways to do that.

However, every good contract contains considerations for both parties. Who would want to work with you if your contract lets you get away with whatever you want while the client is forced to take on an unhealthy amount of risk?

Your contract should be mutually beneficial. When your clients read it they should be able to clearly identify several points where their own interests are being accounted for in addition to yours. This may mean making a few concessions and leaving yourself slightly vulnerable. It makes it easier for a client to sign a contract when they see you're taking on some risk as well.

Ultimately, photography clients just want to know that you're going to do your absolute best to provide them with fantastic images. If upon reading your contract, they feel that this is true and you are satisfied that the interests of both parties are addressed, your job is done.

Sample Contracts

With all of the necessary considerations, preparing your own contract can be extremely intimidating. The good news is that it's probably easier than you think. One of the best ways to wrap your mind around the subject of photography contracts is to take a look at a few. Follow the links below to see what others have done and decide what components you should mirror in your own endeavors.

What's In Your Contract?

To sum up, contracts are a boring, stiff, and mostly unpleasant part of being a professional photographer. However, they are a vital component of your business and help ensure your long-term well being and your clients happiness.

As stated above, this list is by no means exhaustive. There are many more clauses and considerations that could be included in a photography contract. Help us out by leaving a comment below with your own tips about constructing a contract. How do you protect yourself and your clients?

Photo Credits: Jesse Shapins, Richard Cawood, Alexander Boden, Hilde Vanstraelen, Don LaVange and Richard Busch.

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