Other commercial photographers often ask me how I handle different contractual aspects with regards to my clients to protect both parties involved on a photo shoot. So I thought this subject would be a good one to write about. There are a lot of matters in terms of taking a photo assignment from a client to be considered, which, if not discussed up front, can lead to misinterpretations, perhaps even false expectations on both sides, and ultimately problems for the photographer.

So creating a good standard set of service contract terms to go along with your written quote can be challenging and I hope to help remove some of the mystery here and fill in some of the major gaps where problems often occur.

Back in the day, I learned about some of the issues I am going to discuss from a very helpful handbook called “The Big Picture”, which was written by Lou Jacobs Jr. The book was published in 2000 and I think it is already out of print unfortunately. In addition, it was released right before the digital photography revolution and before commercial photography started going heavily digital. So it really didn’t even cover a lot of what we are dealing with now as digital commercial photographers in terms of file delivery, retouching issues, etc.

What I think will be the best and easiest thing for you to use to help fine tune your own standard services agreement will be for me to go over the main areas of consideration which I feel photographers should address with their clients and should be covered in a photography service agreement in order to avoid the most common potential conflicts. I have narrowed it down to what I consider the 12 most important points. So let’s get started:

1 – Length Of Shoot. If you typically quote based on a daily rate then I suggest you clarify in your photography services agreement how many hours of shooting constitutes your daily rate so that there is no misunderstanding about how long you are prepared to shoot for under the agreed fee. The same applies for half day rates if you also quote in half day rates. But if you charge on a per shot basis then you don’t need to worry about this issue as your quote will be based on a rate for a certain number of shots anyway.

2 – Equipment To Be Used. I would suggest specifying what type and the resolution of the digital camera equipment you are going to use to shoot the job with so that the client knows what the exact resolution will be of the digital photographs you are going to provide them with from the shoot. You should also clarify if the cost of the equipment you are using is already covered in the cost of your quoted photography fees. Specifying the type of camera also helps to avoid any misunderstanding if you shoot the assignment with say a 35mm DSLR when the client was expecting the job to be shot with a medium format camera and a digital back for example. Normally, unless it is mutually agreed in advance that there will be an additional cost for some equipment rental, it is usually assumed that your fee already includes the cost of any camera or lighting equipment to be used to carry out the shoot. But I always add this clause in just to put the client at ease that there will be no additional costs for equipment.

3 – Usage Rights. I would suggest stating what type of usage right are going to be granted with the pictures you will provide the client and who will ultimately own the copyrights to the images you will be creating on the shoot. There are various types of usage rights that you can offer, but the most common are “first rights” and “all rights or buyout rights”. You may also limit the rights to a certain type of usage and/or period of time known as “onetime rights”. I don’t want to get too much into the different types of rights here or attempt to give legal advice on this matter, but one should do some additional reading on usage rights for photography to better familiarize yourself with the different types of rights available if you aren’t already familiar with them. There is also another type of rights called “Work For Hire”, which I feel should be avoided as it is very unfair for the photographer. So the main point here is to understand the different types of rights that you can offer your client and clarify with the client what types of rights you are going to provide them with. You may also want to clarify if the client has the right to resell rights to the pictures or not as clients sometimes try to recoup some of their photography costs by reselling their rights to the pictures to other parties.

4 – Deposits. I would discuss with your client the issue of an amount of advance payment up front. A 50% deposit and booking fee is a pretty common practice. You should also discuss whether the deposit is refundable or not if the client decides to cancel the job after already paying you a deposit and fixing a date with you for the photo shoot, as you stand to suffer an opportunity loss if the client cancels a photo shoot last minute and then asks for a refund of deposit. You may want to further state that the photo shoot date will not be fixed until the client has paid the deposit. This is important in a case where the client has not paid you a deposit yet, you then accept another shooting assignment on the same day from another client who does pay you a deposit, and then later the first client is unhappy that you are no longer available to do the job on the specified date because you have taken on another assignment instead. So if you inform the client in your quotation that the shoot date isn’t fixed until the receipt of deposit then there is no misunderstanding as to at what point the booking has been accepted by you. It also means that essentially your quote is not fully binding upon you until your receipt of the deposit.

5 – Expenses. If a big portion of your quote is for expenses, for example airfares for you and your assistant, hotels, etc which the client is expecting you to pay in advance out of your own pocket, then I would suggest requesting the typical 50% deposit for service fees plus an additional amount equal to 100% of the expenses to also be paid to you up front. This way the only amount still due to you the photographer after the shoot is merely the 50% balance of the photography fee.

6 – Balance Of Payment Due. I would then discuss how the rest of the payment will proceed after the shoot is carried out. With first time clients I often won’t provide the full high resolution images to the client until I have been paid in full for the job. This helps ensure a timely payment of the balance due on photography fees after the shoot. A good method is to provide the client with low resolution images as evidence to the client of a successful shoot right after the job is carried out and then provide the full high resolution images to the client only after the balance due to you on photography service fees has been paid in full. I would also add a clause to say that the final payment will include any additional mutually agreed expenses that may arise and are mutually agreed to after the agreement has been signed. If for example you have to pay for any other out of pocket expenses which arise later, and weren’t covered in the original quote, then you want to clarify that the client will be responsible for those additional expenses and that the additional expenses are to be payable at the time when the balance of your photography service fee is paid to you. The same goes for a situation where perhaps the client hired you for a 1 day shoot, but then decided to change it into a 2 day shoot after they already signed your quote for a 1 day shoot. The fee for the additional day of shooting should be paid together with the balance due from the original quote.

7 – Payment Due Date. It is good to specify a payment period for the balance due. Perhaps 15 or 30 days after the shoot is carried out. If however the client requires the images earlier than that then the client can pay the balance due on fees immediately after the shoot and have the high resolution images provided to them as soon as possible.

8 – Form Of Payment. It is good to discuss how payment will be made, for example by check, bank transfer, or other arrangement and to clarify who will be responsible for any transfer fees, tax withholding, possible currency exchange rate fluctuations, etc.

9 – Delivery Of Photographs. I would discuss how the full resolution images will be delivered to the client. Whether on a CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, thumb drive/flash drive, portable hard drive, via FTP server, or some other means. And if there are any costs involved with purchasing the media or transmitting the media (for example an overseas client who requires the files to be put onto a thumb drive and to be delivered by rapid courier) then who will be the one to bear the additional expenses. If you agree that the client will pay these expenses then you may want to include an additional fee for this in your quotation. Lastly, you may not need to put it in the agreement itself, but it is good to discuss with the client prior to the shoot if they want you to deliver all of the images that you will be shooting or if they want you to do a first edit down to a certain number images, or just to provide them with a low-res copy of all the images initially for the client to make their desired selection from.

10 – File Delivery Types. You may also want to go as far as to clarify what type of high resolution files you will provide the client with. Whether it be JPG, TIF or the actual RAW files. Some photographers do not like to provide RAW files for personal reasons, or even provide TIF files because of the large file sizes involved. So it is good to discuss this in advance so that the client understands what to expect and knows what you are planning to provide them with. Sometimes a client wont even want the full high resolution images and may want the deliverable images reduced down to a lower resolution for a specific usage like web usage perhaps. But if this is the case they will usually discuss that with you up front.

11 – Retouching. I saved this one for next to last because this is a big issue. Back in the days of film this was not something that needed to be addressed. You simply processed the film and delivered it. Nowadays client’s often expect some form of post processing and/or retouching be provided as a part of your services fee. If this issue is not discussed clearly on a case by case basis then the photographer could end up doing a lot of extra unpaid work that wasn’t agreed to just to satisfy the client’s expectations. Sometimes clients will just want you to deliver the RAW files and not do any processing. So then it is not an issue. But in most cases the client expects the images to at least be color and exposure balanced and sometimes retouched. I would clarify what you are going to provide in this regard and, on the issue of local retouching on a per image basis, the extent of the retouching that you will provide. I would state how many images from the shoot you are prepared to retouch within the scope of your stated fee and how many images you will simply color and exposure balance or if you will color and exposure balance all of the images from the shoot being provided. This way the client doesn’t expect you to retouch hundreds of images that you were not expecting to have to do. I would also consider adding in an additional fee for retouching if you feel the scope of the retouching work required by the client is very extensive. The main point here though is that if you are silent on this issue then you as the photographer are often the one who stands to lose.

12 – Formalizing The Agreement. Very important is to make sure that if you provide the client with a set of written standard terms like this that the client signs off on confirming that they accept the terms. You don’t want to have problems later where a client says that even though you provided them a copy of your standard terms that the client did not see, read, and/or accept them. In this case the client could try to claim that your additional terms and conditions are not binding since they did not sign off on them. If you put the terms and conditions right into your written quote though, and the client signs the quote, then that is perhaps the best way to do it to ensure the client has signed off on everything.

One last point you might want to discuss with the client is the issue of archiving. I normally store all the images from a shoot for the client for at least a couple of years and sometimes longer in case they require a copy of the files again. But if you don’t typically keep client work for a long time then you might want to discuss this issue with them in advance. There have been times where clients have had hard disk or server issues and lost all of the images I sent them from the shoot. So in those cases they will be happy if you have kept a backup that you can provide them a copy of. This issue doesn’t arise that often, but if you aren’t prepared for it, and you have deleted all the images from your archives, and the client has a system crash, you could find yourself with a very unhappy client if you can’t provide them with a replacement copy of the images.

Well, I have covered a lot of information in a short amount of space here. So hopefully this is useful in helping to draft your own services agreement and standard terms. If you have any questions on the points I addressed or any that I haven’t addressed please feel free to comment and ask.