About a year and a half ago I read an eye-opening article by renowned wedding photographer Gary Fong. He got himself involved in defending a hapless wedding photographer who was threatened by a client for damages of $300,000, possibly even more. The client had claimed damages for lost memories, wherein he claimed that the images this photographer had taken were poor. In a letter He demanded that this wedding photographer refund the agreed contract price and threatened to ruin the photographer if he failed to pay up. There were reasons for this photographer to feel intimidated. The client / groom was an attorney and an influential one at that.
The mistake that the photographer did was that he had no signed contract in place. Everything was verbal and that gave the groom / client the opportunity to exploit the loopholes in the US legal system. The aim was to bleed out the defendant, entangled in a long and potentially bankrupting litigation process, ending in public humiliation and even possible jail term. The defendant, had financially no way to maintain the out of pocket expenses if this dispute had lasted the full course, something that was enough to take away his sleep. Read more about the case here.
If this sounds like a client from hell, it could very well happen to you. You could be at the receiving end of such a career-threatening letter yourself. The client could ask you for damages more than your net worth, something that you could never hope to pay up. All the more reason why you should pay attention in making a well-documented contract. One that covers all the bases and leaves nothing to chance when it comes to what’s expected off you as a wedding photographer and what you are going to deliver to your clients after the wedding.
But before we move any further let me write this caveat. This article is not meant to be a legal piece of advice. Nor is it going to substitute professional legal advice that you would get from an attorney. You should take this as a general guideline only. Seek professional help whenever you are in doubt.
Excuses For Not Having a Contract in Writing – I am not a Man of Law!
There are a number of excuses for not having a contract in writing. You don’t understand legal terms and terminologies and don’t want to spend hours and days in this futile exercise, with little headway. After all, you’re a photographer not an attorney! This is probably the most used excuse. Let me ask you something – if you had to pick between spending time now to get a proper contract in place and spending sleepless nights later on worrying whether your career and your life’s over for good, I bet you will not think twice before picking the first option.
We are Family!
Often a newbie photographer requisitioned by family or friends to shoot a wedding don’t realize that this seemingly innocuous and helpful gesture can become a source of big headache later on. Even if you are shooting pro bono you don’t want to get involved in an ugly war of words later on. I know, getting a written contract to photograph your cousin’s wedding is next to impossible. I couldn’t ask mine and I’m pretty sure he won’t talk to me for the rest of his life if I ask him for it. It is the same thing as asking for money when you are asked to photograph a wedding in the family. If you are confident about your capabilities and don’t expect too much of a repercussion, even if you goof up a few shots, then go for it. But if this is going to be like a regular feature – one or two family weddings every year, I suggest you have a contract in writing. We had published a detailed article before on the topic of being asked to work for free. There is a section on how to handle requests from the family to photograph for free. Some of those points are relevant here.
The Bride / Groom is a Friend
When the bride or the groom is your friend the situation really isn’t that different to when you are photographing a family wedding. Except, in this case you never know if the better half of your newly-wedded friend is going to make things sour for you later on. Much like in the case stated at the beginning of this article. The bride was a friend of the wedding photographer. Don’t put your career at stake because of your friendship. Always get a contract signed in advance if are asked by your friend to photograph his / her wedding. This is regardless of whether you are going to charge your usual fee or shoot for free.
Taking Legal Help Always Helps
Getting legal help in getting a full-proof contract readied is a good idea. It saves you from the troubles of having to tackle the legal jargon yourself. Plus, your attorney can point out issues that you may had overlooked when preparing the contract yourself. You can take legal help in getting a standard contract readied. If you are going to do wedding photography on a regular basis, this will be a one-time investment which is going to give you dividends for a long, long time. Getting a legal hand to prepare the contract, however, isn’t cheap. But the benefits, to reiterate, are long-term.
What to Put in Your Contract: Pricing
Let’s skip through the mandatory contact details, addresses and venue information. Those are important but self-explanatory. What’s more important are the deliverables. So, let’s discuss that. Last year a newly-wedded couple in Texas got into a disagreement with their wedding photographer over an extra charge that she did not mention or forgot to mention in the contract. What was mentioned was a ‘40 page 8.5 x 12 storybook album with up to 80 images.’ What was not mentioned was that the storybook album did not come with a standard album cover and that the couple needed to pay extra for that.
Imagine the surprise of the newly-weds who, having already spent $6000 towards full price, were asked to fork out additional $150 for an album cover. They expected that a wedding album should come with an album cover, by default. The photographer explained that an album cover is a subjective thing and it requires the approval of the couple before finalization. There are a million different designs to choose from and pricing depends on the design chosen. Thus, the cost and the design was not included in the original contract.
While both arguments were fair, the mistake that the wedding photographer did was that she did not have this clearly spelt out in the contract. What this ended up into was an additional amount which the couple did not expect to fork out after the wedding. She, however, claimed that she did mention the extra cost part during an earlier meeting, but it was mentioned verbally and not written down on paper.
If you offer a list of products / services, including some which are a part of a ‘standard package’ and then a bunch of services / products that are not part of it but can be selected á la carte, including their pricing and details in the contract and clearly mentioning what’s included and what’s not is the best way to go. If there are any subjective choices, like album cover, prices of which depends on the choice of the client and therefore not included in the overall package price; mention those too. If you offer enlargements, extra album pages, extra edited photos or even soft copies on a CD along with print release, for an extra price, do make that clear in your contract. You can annex your price-list as an annexure for your clients to refer to in case they want to add anything extra later on. Also mention, anything not stated out clearly in the contract is chargeable. Don’t let assumptions and imaginations creep into a written contract.
To put it very lightly, the subject of extra work is extremely dicey. It comes in varying forms. Sometimes a beginner photographer is coerced into doing it and being gullible as s/he is s/he does it for free. Sometimes a photographer, just because s/he is already at the venue may be asked to stay around for a little longer. ‘Uncle Bob is on a roll, Jim why don’t you take some fun photos of his dance moves?’ It is good to see your client is having fun and late night parties with guests running high on booze are often that way. But that does not mean that you should join in, especially at the cost of your professional time. If you are asked to photograph that’s even worse, because you would be required to edit those images later on – more professional time spent for nothing in return.
The question is how do you avoid getting sucked into a black hole of fun and frolic and the associated task of spending professional time editing images for free? Simple. Use a tightly worded contract that defines your start time, end time and total number of hours of professional photography work actually offered. That means, when you arrive at the venue and are ready to shoot, your clock starts and it ends say 8 hours later. You may consider an hour here and there because, to be honest, on a wedding day it’s complete chaos. Your clients, likely the bride and groom, are already stressed out on their big day. The last thing that they need is a grumpy wedding photographer who keeps reminding them that the clock is ticking.
On a wedding day nothing ever happens on time and then at the end the pace picks up leaving you huffing and puffing to cover everything on the pre-decided shot-list. Basically, you have to keep pace with the tempo of the wedding as it progresses throughout the day. Mention how many hours you normally put in for a standard wedding. If your client wants you to stay till the last guest has departed mention in the contract that you need to be compensated for the extra hours. Also mention the price for extra hours worked.
Every wedding photographer has a style of his / her own. Very rarely would someone promise a 1000 finely edited photos of the wedding day. The number if more like 200. If you have all the shots that you need you can pack up when your contract hours are done. If you are asked to photograph beyond the normal hours gently remind your clients that they will have to pay not only for the extra hours but also if they want to have edited pictures from that session.
Sometime a client request can be peculiar, such as – turning back the years on the bride’s mother to ‘patching-up’ the receding hair-line of a certain important member of the family.
“John you have Photoshop right? This shouldn’t take much time?”
Having a separate clause in the contract that deals with these special edits is the only way to safeguard your time and the possibility of having to work for free. If such requests come in after the wedding when you are on a tight schedule to deliver the final edited images, gently point out to the clause for special edits in the contract.
Travel, Accommodation and Incidental Expense
Location weddings are a hot trend. More and more couples prefer to fly out to an exotic location with their family and friends to have a closed-knit event. Why not? This is the best day of their life. They also fly out their favorite wedding photographer with them. The problem is who pays the bills.
If you have to travel out of town to shoot a wedding, the expenses of travelling and accommodation are usually paid by the client. Clients book flight tickets or pay gas money in advance for the photographer and his / her assistant to travel to the location. They also book the hotel room where the photographer will be put up for the night. Have these mentioned as a part of the agreement and ensure that the clients are aware of this when the wedding venue is likely going to be out of town.
Venues sometimes impose limitations or restrictions on the photographer. This may include the number and type of lights that can be used, external power units or cables etc. There could be any number of restrictions imposed on the photographer, which puts him / her in a position of disadvantage where s/he cannot carry out the duties as a wedding photographer. This can seriously jeopardize the shots that had been planned and even choreographed in advance. It is fruitless for the wedding photographer to negotiate with the venue manager about this. It is the responsibility of the wedding planner. If there is no wedding planner involved then the client must take care of this.
RAW Images and Final Delivery of Edited Images
One of the cardinal mistakes that wedding photographers do, and was done by the concerned photographer in the case I cited at the start of this article, is that they deliver the RAW images of the shoot to their clients. The RAW images are your property. They don’t belong to the client, not even after they have paid you in full.
Consider this, you commission a sculptor to sculpt a statue of you. The sculptor does that and delivers it on time and you pay in full. Would you ask him to hand-over the rest of the raw material that he chiseled out the statue from? Would you ask a chef to hand over the leftovers from the kitchen after you had your meal and paid in full? No! Then why would you hand over the RAW files to your clients? The RAW files are not finished products, the retouched and edited JPEGs are. The quality of the RAW files can easily boomerang on you and establish that you can’t shoot! You know why I say this. RAW files are never quite the same thing as the finished JPEGs.
Similarly, you are not liable to deliver all the images that you shot at the wedding to your client. You can certainly show them a selection of the best images. I would avoid showing them all as some of them could be under-exposed, poorly framed or even downright bad. Make a selection of the best images, retouch them before showing them to your clients.