Photography is a serious business – Do you sign a written contract with your client?

Article by: Harika Chanana






Photography is a serious business – do you sign a written contract with your client before starting an assignment?

Once you begin to make a jump from an amateur to a professional, it is very easy to overlook the legal side of the photography business. If you are getting paid for making images, it is very important to protect yourself with a basic contract or a written agreement between you and the client. The aim of making a contract is to make sure that you are on the right track of your professional career.

Do you really need a contract?
Rendering professional services in a creative field can be a tricky business. A contract can make things formal which can be both positive and negative. If you are doing business with a person you don’t know, then he will appreciate signing a contract as this will make things quite transparent for the both of you. Also an agreement will offer protection for both the parties. However, if you try signing a contract with a close friend or someone you may know, they would find it offensive and may feel a lack of trust. If a friend or family takes offense, stress that a contract will genuinely improve the situation and that you are not accusing anyone of being fake or dishonest.
There is just one question you must ask yourself before avoiding making a contract; Whether the potential for regret is higher for making the contract or neglecting it? You can never regret providing a contract but there are a zillion possible scenarios that will create room for regrets of not having it in paper.

What should be the ingredients of your contract ?

1. Introduction to the client & contact information:
The first thing that you need to do when outlining a contract is a standard client identification and contact information. This does not necessarily need to be custom printed, it can even be handwritten. From your end, you will need your name /nature of business, business address, contact information. On the clients side you need pretty much the same information.

2. Hours of the work:
In the beginning when I started my career as a photographer, I did not know the value of this point. It came to me in the hardest way possible. Initially I thought that if a client is commissioning me for a shoot, I would shoot for as long as they needed me as I wanted to be a good service provider. However this turned out a convenient way for customers to take advantage of me. I learned it the hard way but trust me always put the number of hours clearly on paper. ( eg 10 hrs). It has to be very clearly stated in the contract, the start and the end time. What happens if the end time is pushed up during the shoot? There obviously needs to be an overtime charge which should be applicable. The overtime should be charged in proportion to the the charges as per the 10 hr shoot. With this clause coming in, I’m actually looking forward to working overtime and the client is not! So it works both ways.

Speaking about the cost, you might just want to attach another document which would serve as the quotation or an estimate for the shoot which is attached along with this contract. There are some photographers who charge a flat rate while there are some who charge by the number of hours. It is a good idea to be very specific when it comes to money. Clients who may be in a relation with you may just seem to have a selfish motive in monetary exchanges and you don’t want to get caught up in an argument about a supposedly verbal agreement. This might just end up badly for you. Also if you have promised to deliver a certain number of images for a certain amount, but your clients need a few extra, then your contract must clearly state that extra images comes for extra cost. Remember to be specific when it comes to numbers.

4. Terms of Payment:
You may feel this sounds redundant after having discussed the above rule, however the terms of payment works very differently from the overall cost. Again this needs to be on paper to avoid unnecessary stress and problems in the long run. The terms of payment are simply; how the payment will be delivered, who will it come from and when it is to change hands. Mostly, photographers require a deposit, it works like an advance. The percentage of the same should be clearly stated. Also the balance amount that is due on the client after the shoot, has to have a certain due date. To make sure that the due date actually means somethings to the client, a late fee is often established. Also spell out in the contract that what happens legally when the balance amount is not paid at all by the client. Topics like these aren’t funny to think about and they are not easy to discuss with clients as well. However just remember that anyone worth working for understands and appreciates a high level of professionalism.

5. Items to be delivered:
Items that need to be delivered are based on pre-built packages. For the benefit of both the parties, the photographer should clearly state in the contract what will the photographer provide to the client. This would include the commitment of minimum number of images to be delivered to the client. The number can vary from 50 to 1500 depending on the event and your style of doing the photography business. Another important thing to consider is that how will the images be delivered to the client. Mention very clearly in the contract about your intentions of delivering all the files in a DVD or prints or both. This will help the client to compare what is promised to him and what is delivered to him in reality. Hence, it becomes very important for the photographer to promise only what he will actually be able to deliver.

6. Date of delivery or time period:
It is very important for a photographer to mention the date and the time frame within which he will be able to deliver his work to the client who is commissioning the shoot. This will help the client to have a realistic expectation of the time frame within which the photographic material will be delivered to him. By putting this point in the contract, it becomes very clear for the client and the photographer about the delivery dates. Also, now it becomes mandatory for the photographer to deliver the images as per the target date outlined in the contract. There are some photographers who might take two weeks to deliver the material but some may actually take just a day ! For me, 6-7 working days works out fine.

7. Long term image rights for both the parties:
If the client pays you for certain images, who owns them? You took them so they are your work but the client purchased them which also implies ownership. Its a sticky situation to say the least. Some photographers are very protective of their work. They would never give out a high resolution digital files to the client in the fear of its misuse. For example, photos being used in stock without the photographers knowledge or consent. While there are many photographers who have a relaxed approach. They would give out the high resolution files but state in the contract the legal consequences of misuse of pictures. It would not be possible for me to tell you how to construct your copyright structure as this is a subjective call. However whatever you decide should be on the contract. The problem arises when photographers assume that everyone understands how the photography business works. A typical agreement would have “that the copyright is retained with the photographer but also grants non exclusive use of them to the client”

8. Policies on other photographers:
This one is quite random and can get arguable, however the truth is that it can become a major problem and should be a consideration for every event. Today, a DSLR camera is very easily affordable by a regular hobbyist. Even the most ordinary kit lens can give a decent result in image quality. If you have covered an event before, you will know what I am talking about. Recently I covered a wedding and I was hired from the groom’s side while beside my team there was one more team shooting from the bride’s side. There were many instances where we both were fighting to be at the same spot to the get the best angle. This leads to consequences like dodge extra to get the best spot or sometimes risking a miss of the perfect angle which in turn results in ‘not the best picture’ for that moment. Also, another important risk factor would be guest using a DSLR camera at the wedding. This could come in the way of your work as well. 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. The contract could outline this point very clearly about other photographers. You could make it clear that no other professional photographer should be hired except you. Also, that no guest must shoot with DSLR’s that support interchangeable lenses. However, this might not be possible all the time, especially at weddings. Hence, you will have to be a little flexible here.

9. Failure to comply to the clause:
I know you would love to think that you are a hero and will perform everything as per the outlined contract perfectly. But we live in a world where accidents do not give a notice on its arrival. You could meet with one at the road that day or your camera batteries could be eaten by a dog, your best friends mother could be hospitalized. There are a million situations that could hold you from coming through your end of the agreement. This is one of those type of insurance where you have to get yourself covered. A typical agreement might state that “in an event of emergency, equipment failure or other unforeseen circumstances, you will return any money given to you up to that point and you should have no further liability beyond that.” Your client might get a little nervous at this point but it is understandable. You should be interested in the necessity of protecting yourself.


10. Mutual Protection:
If you must have noticed, most of the points listed above are one sided. The primary objective of this write up is to make sure that you know how to protect yourself as a professional photographer and a well written contract is the best way to do that. However, every good contract must consider for both the parties. After all 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 all the risks. Therefore, your contract should be mutually beneficial to both. When your clients read through the contract they should carefully be able to identify the points listed in their favor. This may mean making a few concessions and leaving yourself vulnerable. This makes it easier for the client to sign the contract.

On an ending note clients just want to know that you are going to make the world’s best images for them. If upon reading your contract they feel that this is true and are satisfied that the interests of both parties are addressed, your job is done!

So happy contracting!

Don’t forget, its important.

(2) Comments

  1. ashutosh

    How do you give contract a legal shape. I am sure a contract on a simple piece of paper signed by both parties will not be eligible in the court.

  2. Anjali

    hey Harika, your article is helpful. Thanks. but i agree with Ashutosh. ur answer cud help us.

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