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The PRO-Files: Are You A Photographer Or A Banker?

As the story goes, the father of rock ’n roll himself, Chuck Berry, was tired of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous promoters back in the 1950s so he instituted a policy of getting paid—in cash—before he ever set foot on stage. In this way Berry ensured he would always be paid for his work. There’s a lot to be said for this approach. It’s definitely one way to ensure you won’t be working for free. 

Sony Artisan Michael Rubenstein says getting paid up front is, in some cases, just a matter of good business sense. "If you think you might get screwed,” Rubenstein says, "get your money up front. It certainly makes it easier, because you don’t have to chase people. In fact when I have overseas clients where I know that there’s no way I can sue them if there’s going to be an issue, I get paid up front. I haven’t gotten stiffed by anybody in a long time. If ever.” 

With that philosophy in mind, here are five situations in which getting paid up front makes a whole lot of sense for a photographer. 

You’re Working With New Clients

New clients, particularly when they are based far away, are ideal candidates for paying in full prior to the shoot. Just because a client’s office is halfway across the country doesn’t mean they’re trying to burn you, but it does make it easier for them to do so if it is, in fact, their plan. With a coastal photographer serving a Midwest client, for instance, it becomes harder for the photographer to simply walk into the customer’s office when the bill is long past due. A great way to collect from extremely overdue clients is to show up at their office and ask, in a friendly but deliberate manner, to have the matter resolved immediately. Clients don’t usually want any sort of hubbub in their offices, so a lunatic photographer standing in the lobby and demanding to get paid is not high on their agenda. That means there’s a little added pressure, I’ve found, that comes from simply showing up and requesting a check. That becomes next to impossible when the client is 1,200 miles away. Whether your new clients are across town, across the country or even overseas, reasonable clients understand this challenge and are often willing to pay part or all of their fee prior to the shoot. Try putting this language in your bid or basic photo contract so that there are no surprises when you get the job and ask about sending an invoice.

You’re Working Without A Contract

Always get it in writing. That’s sage advice for photographers—or really for anyone in business, especially if a large payment is involved. Because “a lot” is relative, if it’s a sum you’d likely miss, get a contract that spells out your terms of payment. If you want to guarantee you’ll never get burned, getting a contract for every job will go a long way. No contract, no work: that’s the ideal policy. The problem is, that ideal policy doesn’t always hold up in the real world as it would mean many photographers end up passing on a lot of otherwise well-paying jobs. So instead we take the risk of working without a contract for clients who didn’t plan ahead and need their work completed asap! It’s still a good idea to try to get a signed contract from a client in these situations, but it may be an even better policy to simply get paid up front. 

While it may not be advisable to work without a contract, depending on the type of work you do there may be situations in which it’s impractical to have anything other than a verbal agreement prior to the shoot. For instance, a corporate event photographer my get a call just a couple of hours before an event is to begin and a frantic marketing associate is simply asking for a rate and the rights and can you be there soon! Yes you can, but you should most definitely be sure to get paid up front. You should enable your bank to receive and process credit card payments to your business checking account—usually set up via your accounting software, but it can also be as easy as signing up for Square payment processing for your mobile phone. If you institute a hard and fast policy of getting paid prior to the job, understand that there will be situations in which you have to make a tough decision: do I take the risk of doing this job when I might not get paid? That’s when it’s time to trust your gut—or simply fall back on your policy and apologize but stand firm on your requirement. If they need you bad enough, they’ll find a way to pay. Once you take the job without payment up front, you run the risk of not getting paid.

You’re Fronting A Lot of Expenses

Whether the client is a longtime favorite or brand new, there are many circumstances when it makes good sense to ask for partial payment before the job. This could be the case with big budget productions that require a large cash outlay to pay talent and crews, or to handle the pre-production and production expenses. On a job with $20,000 of property and talent expenses, should you be expected to front that money, paying those bills within 30 days, while allowing your client to wait 60 or 90 days to pay for your own services? I don’t think so. Instead, ask for a 30% or 50% deposit on big productions. Clients understand that your little one-, three- or five-man shop shouldn’t be expected to front tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, so they understand deposits. If you’ve got enough time, consider a payment interval where you collect 33% 30 days prior to production, 33% five days prior to production and then you’ve got two thirds of the total fees in hand before the production initiates, so you know you’re at least not going to get stiffed. If a client pays a significant deposit, they’re likely to pay their eventual balance due—particularly if they want to get their hands on those pictures. I put standard language in my contract requesting a 50% deposit in order to initiate production, and more often than not the client will remind me to send an invoice in order to accept their immediate credit card payment. If someone wants to send you money, you need to do whatever you can to take their payment immediately. A bird in the hand and all that.

You Lose Leverage When You Deliver

With certain types of jobs, like weddings, for example, the photographer loses any leverage for getting paid once the shoot date has come and gone, or once they’ve delivered the image files from the shoot. In cases like this, it’s always best to get paid up front so that you’re not—as Sony Artisan and wedding photographer Mike Colón said, “I just decided I don’t want to be a collection agency. They can use their credit card if they can’t afford it, but they’ve got to pay up front. Colón recently explained to us that he has a payment plan in place that not only ensures photographer and client are on the same page about important event details, but which also ensures the photographer has been paid in full by the time the wedding day rolls around. He asks for 50% at the time of the booking in order to reserve the date; this deposit is refundable or not, depending on the language the photographer uses in his contract. Then the remaining balance is due 30 days prior to the wedding day. In this way, there’s plenty of time to iron out the particulars of getting paid long before the wedding day. Plus, by securing a 50% deposit at the time of booking, clients are much more likely to come back and pay the remaining balance rather than forfeiting their deposit. It’s a little bit of psychology that ensures a near 100% payment rate and, frankly, makes it easier on the photographer and the client by having everything spelled out ahead of time. 

The Voice Inside Your Head Starts Yelling At You

Sometimes you just get a funny feeling about a client. Maybe they’re a little too much of a sweet talker and you just feel like you’re being set up. Or maybe it’s a client in a category where you’ve been burned before; for instance, maybe whenever someone says they want you to shoot their band for a new CD. If your gut is sending you signals, trust your gut and get paid up front. Put the language in your contract by default and you won’t have to nervously explain to a client that you’re enforcing this policy because, frankly, they make you nervous. That’s never going to go over well, but by having the language on the paperwork in the first place, the request for payment won’t ever come as a surprise to the client. Unsurprised clients are generally, in my experience, happy clients. 

Demanding payment up front won’t always make you popular, but it will keep you from being ripped off. And honestly, anybody who balks at paying for your services, well, they’re probably not the kind of clients you need.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.