In the creative world, contracts can feel so … constricting. You got into photography to capture a moment, not write a contract, right? Plus, half the time contracts are nearly illegible in how they are written, using language jokingly called ‘legalese’ to confuse and intimidate customers. That’s not the vibe you want to put forward.
Despite the fears and hatred of big, bulky contracts, well-written contracts are actually better for everyone involved. Contrary to popular belief, a good contract is just as protective of the customer as it is the vendor (that’s you).
The best part is that contracts don’t have to follow the exact same template every time. You can customize your contracts to include whatever works for you. If you’re worried about using stuffy, outdated templates, don’t worry - there’s no legal requirement to use them.
What’s a contract?
Put simply: a contract is an explanation of what you’ll be doing, the terms of how you’ll be doing it, and the customer’s obligations, if any. All parties involved then sign the contract to acknowledge they’ve read, and agree to, the content of the contract.
There may be rounds of negotiation with contracts - for example, if a client doesn’t want a certain clause included - and eventually, you’ll get to a signature. Once you have that contract signed, you’re ready to work.
The best parts of a contract:
- Make it really clear what you’re providing.
- Are transparent about fees you’re owed so there’s no question later.
- Have other terms and conditions that let you spell you how you work.
- You can include or take out whatever you want! You’re in the driver’s seat.
What to include in your contract
If you’re worried about your contracts seeming like aggressive legal documents, start with an intro page written in your voice. On this page, include:
Client information (name, email, phone number, and address) right at the top
Human-tone note about how excited you are to work together.
All contracts need to include the key details of the engagement. For photography, that means specifying:
- What you’re doing: For example, a wedding photoshoot of the families. This is usually a number and tied later on to your fees. In most cases, it will be a number of delivered photographs and edits.
- Timelines of your project: Include hours on the day of the shoot plus any other dedicated time you’ll be spending with the client (intro meetings, etc.). This is particularly helpful for project management later on, since stating things upfront will make it easier for you during the shoot. Plenty of project management courses and project management tools are available to help you organize your time and present polished timelines to clients.
- Editing timelines: The more clarity you can provide here on turnaround times, the better. Don’t worry, we’ll cover emergencies a little later on.
Clarity of roles and key details
Clarifying the roles and responsibilities of all parties is one of the best parts of a contract. It keeps you protected if the client doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain and lets the client know what they can (and can’t) look to you for. Even though you want to provide great service to your clients, you’ll want to be clear about what you are there for.
- The jobs you do for the client: This may be as simple as stating that you are the photographer, but not outfit consultant, set dresser, etc.
- What may be done by an assistant or team member: If you have a team that you bring to shoots, you can clarify roles. If you’re not sure about whether additional help will be necessary, you can simply “Reserve the right to bring a team member.” Just be clear about who is paying for that person’s time - it’s not fair on the client if they don’t know ahead of time and agree to the price.
- What’s expected of the client: Depending on the shoot and your agreement, the client may need to provide something. This could mean their own clothes, a set, specific lighting, or even specific photography equipment if they have special requests. Whatever it is, write it out in the contract.
- Clarify who you are to one another: This section will likely read the most ‘legalese,’ but it’s necessary to be clear that you’re a third-party contractor (or vendor), not an employee. This section further reinforces that your contract is what guides the relationship, not anything else.
- Contact information for all parties: While you may have included information in your intro page, make sure to copy it all here - and include your own detailed contract information - so everyone has easy access to it.
As a photographer, you’ll have to deal with many different work environments. What do you do if a client is a storm-chaser, for instance? Given the nature of photography work, you could end up in real danger. This section clarifies all the rules of your work environment. It’s important to think this section through - it is likely your biggest defence against unsafe work.
- Policies for outdoor shoots: You may not minding standing in the rain, but the client would have to provide, at their expense, a cover so your camera doesn’t get soaked. Or you reserve the right to end a shoot at your sole discretion if the weather takes a turn for the worse.
- In-client-home policies: Sometimes you’ll need to go to the client’s home for a shoot. This is not unusual, but you should be clear about what you require and won’t do in a private setting.
- In-studio policies: If you have a studio that clients come to for shoots, you should be clear about the studio rules (things around wearing shoes inside, touching materials, non-disclosure for what they may see in the studio, etc.).
- “House rules” for working with you: This section serves as a reminder of your general house rules such as if you don’t shoot nudity, that people must be respectful, that your equipment is expensive and shouldn’t be touched, etc.
Costs and expenses
This section is all about the money. To run a successful photography business you will want to make sure your finances are in check. While getting the money comes from your photography invoice, the contract is where everyone agrees very clearly to the fees and terms of the project.
- Photography rate/project costs + applicable taxes: You should include what amounts to an invoice for the total project. Break costs down into their essential forms, meaning rate X quantity = price. Do this for whatever elements are included in your project, showing line-item totals. Then give a subtotal, the amount of applicable tax owed, and a final total. If you’re not sure how to present this (or run analytics for your own business on the backend), data visualization courses can provide a lot of insight.
- Payment terms: If you charge anything upfront as a deposit, say so here. Further, state payment terms (industry standard is usually to require payment due within 30-60 days of the invoice date, but you can agree to whatever timelines you want).
- Triggering event for the invoice: This is what needs to happen for the invoice to be sent (i.e. “Invoice will be sent upon delivery of final proofs”). Tip: Make the triggering event something you have control over, not the client (for example, don’t say that you’ll send the invoice when the client is satisfied - that could be never).
- Refund policy, if any: If you have a refund policy, add it here. Or, if you don’t offer refunds, say so.
- A la carte additional items, if any: If you provide additional services not included in the project but discussed, put them here as an a la carte option. Only put things here that you’d be willing and able to do on a moment’s notice, since the client could simply email you and request the additional service.
- Termination clause: Write out what happens if the client cancels before the shoot - how much they owe you, etc.
- Expenses for the project: Any expense that will be billed back to the client. If there are none (i.e. everything is baked into your price), you can state that so it’s clear.
- Policy on expenses incurred but not pre-scoped: Sometimes you’ll have additional expenses for a project. Be clear about the process of making them billable. The most common is to say expenses must be approved, in writing, before they are allowed to be billed to the client.
Releases and protective clauses
This section is all about covering your butt, both legally and professionally. A lot can happen in a photography shoot, so including these elements in your contract can keep you safe. While most of these clauses apply more to corporate clients than personal, it’s a good idea to have these included as standard in your contracts.
- Model release: Either provide your own or make clear that you take no responsibility for the models and the client “warrants” (gives their word) that all models in the shoot have signed the necessary releases.
- Property release: Like people, you need permission to use a property’s likeness for a photoshoot. Even a client’s private home technically requires the owner’s (your client’s) express permission to be used as a set.
- Indemnification: This is a fancy word that means a simple thing: the parties won’t hold each other legally liable for anything outside of the contract (and each party handles their own liability). So if the client’s kid breaks a vase at a venue you’re shooting at, it’s 100% their responsibility to pay, not yours. If the venue comes to you for payment, you can cite the indemnification clause and redirect them to the client.
- Photographer exclusivity on the shoot: You may or may not be the only photographer at the shoot. Whatever the case, state it clearly in the contract.
- Non-exclusivity for you as a vendor: This clearly states that you’re allowed to take on any work you deem fit and are not bound by non-competitive work clauses such as not being allowed to do photography for any banks once you’ve had one bank client.
- Non-solicit clauses: This clause is about protecting your client. It should state that you agree you will not solicit their clients or try to hire away their employees during the shoot.
- Non-disclosure agreement/confidentiality agreement: This is a mutual clause where you both agree to keep the details of the project and contract confidential.
- Your failure to comply/emergency clause: In this section, explain what recourse the client has if you are unable to fulfil your end of the bargain (for example, if you fall ill the day of the shoot). This could be everything from a reschedule to a full refund or finding another photographer at your expense -- put in whatever policy you are able to work with.
- Damages clauses: You should include two kinds of damages clauses - what happens if the client damages your materials and what happens if you damage client materials. In most cases, both clauses would simply say the offending party is responsible for replacement value.
- Reshoot clause: Be upfront about your reshoot policy (if you even do them) and any associated fees. This clause also usually includes a section for what happens if the reshoot is your fault (i.e. you didn’t deliver the agreed-upon work) versus the client’s fault (i.e. they simply want another shoot).
Ownership and usage rights
Ownership of creatives is a sticky point with any creative entrepreneur. You’re getting paid specifically to sell your legal and moral rights to the content, but you can still protect yourself.
- IP assignment: This clause states who owns what, and when. Be as detailed as possible here, including who owns negatives, who owns reproduction rights, and when IP transfers from you to the client (tip: write in your contracts that IP transfers upon payment in full, meaning if the client doesn’t pay you then they won’t own the copyrights agreed upon).
- Client usage rights: Depending on your negotiations, your client may have different usage rights for different materials. Be clear on things like how photos can be used, specifically calling out if you are doing photography for the client’s personal versus commercial use. In many cases, you can charge more for commercial-use photoshoots since the client will be profiting off your creativity.
- Clients editing post-production: Detail if the client is allowed to edit photos themselves and, if so, by how much. Most photographers either don’t allow clients to edit post-production or charge a higher fee to give clients that right.
It’s almost funny, but legal-add ons are like the contract’s legal protection. These clauses help ensure the integrity of the contract so that if you ever end up in a dispute about it with a client, they can’t simply ‘rip it up’ and refuse to pay.
- Survivorship: This clause says two things: that the contract survives the individuals who signed it and applies to their successors and executors; and that the rest of the contract survives any one part of it being struck down by applicable laws.
- Choice of law: This clause is agreeing to what legal code you would use to judge the validity of the contract. Typically, this is your country or province/state of residence. This clause is to avoid an unscrupulous client taking you to court in a country with more favorable laws to their claim.
- Notice of change: This clause details how changes can be made to the contract (a common notice is just that “all changes must be agreed to by both parties, in writing, and signed via a formal addendum.”
- The right to counsel: A common argument in court is that a client didn’t understand the contract and therefore is not bound by it. This line - that the client agrees they’ve had the opportunity to seek legal counsel to understand the contract - protects you against that argument.
Contracts are what you make them
Each part of every contract is fundamentally up for conversation, negotiation, and debate. Just be sure to get all this done ahead of time. Once you have the signatures, you’re off to the races and expected to complete the work in good faith.
If you’re not sure what to include in any of these clauses, re-frame it as a question to include in your sales process. For example, if you don’t know whether to say your client can or can’t edit the pictures, ask them if they intend to. If they say yes, you can choose whether that’s something you want to do and add any additional fees to your proposal so you’re compensated for selling those rights.
If your client demands that you use their contract instead of your own, use this article as a reference point to make sure all adequate protections and inclusions are in the contract.
Don’t be afraid to politely, but firmly, let the client know what additions you may need or clauses from their contract removed in order to proceed with the work. If you’re going down this route, it’s best not to ask them to make changes, but to provide the changes you want and request they reflect those changes in the contract.
Contracts can be daunting, especially if you’re not familiar with ‘legalese,’ but remember the intent behind all contracts is to clarify expectations and protect all parties. If you start with that, you can usually find your way through the haze. Good luck!
Disclosure: Content in this article is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice in any way.