Photography contracts aren’t something that all of us are familiar with us. Some photographers swear by contracts and won’t do a job without them; others have never even heard of the idea or maybe the idea of getting one is overwhelming. If you aren’t using contracts yet, you might be interested to learn why they are so important – and why you might be shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t have them.
One of the foremost reasons to have a contract in place is to ensure that you get paid for your work. Your contract will set out how much you will be paid, when you will receive the payment, and when your part of the work is determined to be done.
If you have ever faced a client who did not pay up for months and months, you will know how much of an impact this can have. A contract does not replace an invoice, but it does set out terms ahead of the work being completed. This means that your client must pay according to your terms, and the contract says when it is appropriate for them to do so.
If you choose to not have your client pay upfront (before their session) you may have come across clients who ask you to make endless edits and changes before they will pay you. Some will almost hold your pay to ransom, demanding more and more work to be done before they are satisfied. A contract can also help to ensure that you get paid after the first round of edits is sent in, whether the client is happy with them or not. This means that they can ask for changes afterwards, but you will still get paid. Overall, it should also make the situation a bit more amicable.
One thing that some photographers may worry about is when they manage to upsell a client. When you have a contract, does that mean you can’t add more services to the project during or after it finishes? No, it doesn’t! You can reissue the same contract with changes, make a second contract with additions, or just add the extra services to your invoice if you feel you can trust the client to pay fairly.
With a contract in place for your photographic work, you will be able to have more confidence about when your money is coming in, so you aren’t left clutching at pennies to pay the bills because you have a long list of late payments.
Protecting your rights
As a photographer and a creator of content, you have certain rights. It depends on your country of origin and the country in which you took the photographs, as different places around the world have different copyright laws. However, in essence, we can usually say that you own the copyright to the pictures that you have taken.
Some clients may expect that they can use your photographs for whatever they like after you have provided them. For example, you might charge editorial rates to a company that wants products photographed for a magazine feature. However, if you then saw your images being used in advertisements, you might understandably be very angry: you would have charged them commercial rates if they had specified this usage.
But when did you agree the usage? Did you have a verbal conversation? Did it get mentioned in passing by email but never agreed to? Did you ever bring it up at all?
By having a signed contract which agrees the usage rights presented to the client, you protect yourself in a number of ways. First, if they use the images in a way that was not agreed under the contract, you could successfully charge them for extra use – or take them to court if they refuse to pay. Secondly, it means that you unequivocally retain the copyright. It is not passed over to them because they have bought the photographs, and everyone is clear on that.
This might not seem like a big deal if all you do are portraits and seasonal sessions – but wait until one of your clients uses the images to advertise their local, family-run business. That’s when you might start to have a problem. With a contract in place, you avoid all of the hassle and everyone knows where they stand.
Creating a legal basis
If you do have problems with clients using the images in the wrong way, refusing to pay you, or so on, your contract provides a legal basis on which you can challenge them. This means that you would be able to take them to court for the money owed, and you would have a good chance of winning.
With a verbal contract, there is no proof that any agreement was made unless you have independent witnesses, and even then a judge may throw it out. With a written agreement such as a series of emails, you also have less of a legal basis. But with an official contract, signed and dated, you have a much better chance of being able to get what you are owed in any situation.
It also works the other way around. Should a client attempt to sue you, you will have the legal documentation to defend yourself with. Hopefully you will never need it, but imagine this scenario: you put together a wedding package that contains 100 images and an album, and then your bride tries to sue you for not handing over all of the images you shot. In this case, a judge would award in your favor because you have the contract stating the limitations of what your client paid for.
When you are having your clients sign your contracts, this is the best time and way for you to lay out all the things you want to communicate with them before, during, and after your shoot. You may talk with your clients about the contents of your contract, which will ease their minds as well as yours since there will be much better understanding for what is going to happen.
For example, you might have a system set up where they get to choose 20 images out of 40, and then they can choose to purchase extra images for an additional fee if they’d like to. This will set you and your client up for success since they know what to expect. Otherwise, they might get angry and wonder why they can’t have all 40 images included for free.
Another example, if you are shooting a wedding and a guest is harassing you, you have the right to leave the premises if you are fearing for your safety. But if you don’t have this in your contract and you didn’t communicate this with her, what will the bride think if her photographer just vanished on her big day? It’s a good idea to include all the ground work in your contracts and communication for the most success and to avoid any misunderstanding.
Photography contracts are more likely to help guard against the what-ifs than to impact your daily business. But if you don’t have them, there is likely to come a day when you really, really wish you had.