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Most photographers learn the hard way how to write photography contracts. Many start by cobbling something together and then, through job after job of trial and error, they refine their contract to help protect themselves (and their clients) by having all the details right there in writing. That’s how Sony Artisan and world-class wedding photographer Mike Colón did it. And when we asked him to share some thoughts on wedding contracts, he did us one better: “Maybe I should just pop open my contract and run through it with you?”
“Obviously a contract needs to be legal,” Colón says, “and in my mind it needs to be clear and concise and simple. And it needs to be fair. So that when the client reads it they’re not feeling like they need to get a lawyer to look at it or anything like that. I try to make my contract as fair as possible and as clean and simple as possible. Create a contract that is fair and you won’t get a lot of people coming back and wanting to make changes. You want to make the closing the deal process super easy and the contract is one of the barriers for them to want to close a deal. If they feel like it’s too wordy or too one-sided they might fight you on it, so that’s why the language in my contract is very fair. You want to make the process, especially the booking process, you want to make that really easy and so they don’t feel like they’re going to be screwed.”
Colón’s contract is three pages total. He starts with the client’s name and contact information—as much for his own records as anything—and he makes a point of differentiating between the client and the bride and groom.
“The client might be different from the actual wedding couple,” he says. “I might have the contract with the mother of the bride, for example, or the parents of the bride. So, I’ll put ‘Relating to the wedding of…’ and then the bride’s and groom’s names and contact information. Sometimes I’m actually dealing with the wedding planner and they’re doing the contract and writing me the checks and they’re invoicing their clients for it. The client and the actual wedding couple might be different, so they’re separated here.”
Next Colón defines the date of the wedding and the location of all events, followed by a description of what services and products will be included.
“That’s like ’10 hours of coverage, two associate photographers, engagement session, an album holding 75 images, describe the album…’” Colón says. “It’s simple and clean, just one-line descriptions of the items. It might say high-resolution digital negatives if you want to include that. I include it if they order an album.”
After outlining what is included, Colón includes the specific fees for the event. “I put what it costs plus sales tax and outline that for them,” he says. “I make it bold so it’s easy to see. Then I spell out the payment policy in the next section. It’s really important because I think some photographers become collections agencies after the wedding so I always take all the money up front before the wedding happens.”
Colón says clients pay a 50% deposit upon signing the contract, and that’s what locks the date in. In fact, he says, it’s crucial how that fee is described.
“It’s really important to call it a Date Reservation Fee,” he says, “not a Deposit. Because a deposit, technically, can mean they can get it back. This is a fee that I charge in order for me to reserve the date because I’m turning away other work. So I make it really clear: ‘A non-refundable 50% Date Reservation Fee of $X will be paid upon signing of this wedding agreement. The client will pay the remaining balance of $X at least 30 days prior to the wedding date specified above.’”
Requiring payment in advance of the wedding day is industry standard and a tremendous protection for wedding photographers. “When I first started out I was flexible,” Colón says, “and people were like, ‘Can I pay you on the day of?’ And then I’d be standing around at the end of the wedding, awkward, asking them for money. And then they forgot their checkbook… It’s horrible. It’s not the way I wanted to do business. Plus, I’ve had the experience where people didn’t pick up their proofs because they didn’t have the money, so they’re waiting until they save up the money. So 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 says he would send a reminder email to check in as the 30-day deadline approaches, but in most cases he doesn’t have to because so many customers pay before the deadline. They just want it taken care of. The few who forget receive a reminder and he doesn’t remember the last time a wedding day arrived when he hadn’t been paid in full.
“I’ve already gotten 50%,” he says. “They don’t want to waste that because it’s a large amount. So it’s very rare. They’ve got to understand that you’re not going to show up if you’re not being paid. That’s the beauty of having this in a contract: you’re not doing the work and hoping to get paid, you’re always getting paid first.”
When it comes to additional expenses—travel costs, for instance, for destination weddings—Colón tries to incorporate expected items in a per diem that is built into the original total already listed on the contract, but just to cover the possibility of unexpected expenses, he includes a clause that reads, “Reimbursement of the applicable airfare, hotel, per diem, foreign permits, transfer expenses incurred by Mike Colón in performing photographic duties subject to any stipulations herein will be billed to the client after the wedding and must be paid prior to receiving any items or products from Mike Colón.”
“Sometimes if I know there are going to be a few tiny expenses,” he explains, “I leave a couple of the bigger ones as well so I don’t feel weird invoicing them for 50 bucks or something. Then it doesn’t look like you’re awkwardly nickel and diming them.”
Next Colón spells out his meal policy. He thinks other wedding photographers will be especially keen on duplicating it. “Photographers tend to get forgotten on the wedding day,” he says, “and if they do get remembered it’s often a cold sandwich, or a soggy tofu sandwich with a cookie in the back room, far away. You’re about to pass out from 10 hours on your feet and you’re back there, missing the father-daughter dance or something like the cake cutting because you’re too far away and you didn’t even know it was happening.
So Colón’s meal policy states: ‘Mike Colón and his assistants will be provided with a hot meal on any event longer than five hours. Seating arrangements for the meal must be made so that Mike Colón is near the event activities to ensure proper coverage. If a meal is not provided, Mike Colón and his assistants will need to leave the premises to eat and there’s no guarantee on the amount of time he will be away from the event.’
He explains, “Feed me so I can do my job. I want to scare them a little. It’s like, ‘If you don’t feed him, he’s going to leave and go find some fast food ten miles away and we might not have a photographer for that amount of time. Sometimes you have to remind the planner or remind the bride. ‘We should probably eat while you’re eating so we don’t miss anything important later. We aren’t going to shoot pictures of you chewing so this is probably a good time for us to eat.’ ”
Next is the clause that says “Exclusivity and Authority.” Sometimes a photographer will wander onto the property, hired by the florist or someone trying to impress the wedding planner or an overzealous uncle or maybe even a videographer who is making life difficult for the photographer.
“I’ve found that to be really annoying,” Colón says, “so I put this in my contract: ‘Mike Colón will be the sole professional photographer employed for the wedding day and will have priority over any other photographer or videographer in connection with the wedding and positioning of cameras and equipment.’ That way I can basically say, ‘You can’t be there.’
“It’s really just if push comes to shove I can still be the boss,” he says. “And also it’;s important to make everyone aware that uncle Bob can’t be shooting over my shoulder all day, or the planner can’t bring out another photographer. I’ll bring an extra assistant to shoot details in order to get overall exclusivity. I also take care of wedding planners and with an extra assistant for a big wedding that I know is going to get featured somewhere. I want the planner to know that I’m going to get their wedding published and get them exposure and I want them to bring clients to me because of that. If it’s their biggest job of the year, I want them to bring it to me because they know I’m going to get it published.”
Next up on Colón’s contract is cancellation, and this, he says, is especially important. “’If client cancels the services herein contracted,’” Colón reads, “it says IF I’m able to contract another wedding of at least equivalent value, I’ll refund what they paid me. However, if there’s a deficiency of the value of the new booking relative to this agreement, I’ll retain the sum of the deficiency and refund any remaining balance. That’s being fair. If I can book another job at the last minute with someone who wants to pay less, I will give you a refund minus the difference.”
Colón says making good on this policy is a great way to gain referrals from happy customers—as well as repeat business. “Here’s an extreme, but true story. I had a couple break up,” he says, “and I gave them their money back because it was so soon that I hadn’t had any calls and I hadn’t turned anybody away. I gave it back to them just in good faith. And they called me back when they got back together and they hired me again. I was under contract with them for four or five months and then they broke up again! By then I had turned away several jobs so I deferred to this policy and said if I can book something, I’ll give you a refund. I ended up not booking an event so they called me and said, ‘Well, can we have you that day for a family reunion? Because a lot of vendors didn’t give us a refund, we’re going to do a family reunion.’ So I shot that for them. They even had the wedding cake there; it was kind of sad and weird for the bride, but they got a great family portrait session.”
The Importance Of Meeting Expectations
Next the contract spells out specific coverage the client wants in order to ensure the photographer knows about specific shots the bride and groom want to be sure to get. It also says, “All of the photographs taken by Mike Colón will be made at his professional discretion,” which gives him creative control.
Colón has an overtime clause that spells out an hourly rate for overtime, with the hourly fee taking effect after 15 minutes of the said hour begins. “It’s good to have that in there,” Colón says, “because you don’t want them taking advantage of you and if you’re there for 10 hours that turn into 14 hours, it can be really rough. So I have something that spells it out. You just want them to respect your time and guard against being taken advantage of. They’ll keep you there for one last shot, when there’s three guests left because everybody else went home.”
Next up is limitation of liability, which stipulates that the photographer’s entire liability to the client for any breach of the agreement, claim, loss or injury is limited to a refund of the amount paid for services. It also says what will happen in case of an emergency, or an illness or injury to the photographer that prevents him from photographing the wedding.
“It’s important,” Colón says, “because every bride will ask about it. My contract spells it out like this: ‘In the unlikely event of personal illness or other circumstances beyond the control of Mike Colón, a substitute photographer of high qualifications, subject to the acceptance of the client prior to the event, may be dispatched by Mike Colón to fulfill the obligations of photography herein contracted. In such a case, if the client declines Mike Colón’s sending of the substitute photographer, client may elect instead to terminate this agreement and receive a full refund of the date reservation fee paid to Mike Colón.’ So if I get sick and they don’t like the photographer I provide for them, I have to give them a refund. And I think it’s fair.”
Colón says this is what business insurance is for too. They may want to sue you, saying your illness ruined their whole wedding, so now you’ve got to fund an entire new wedding. Having a clause that limits that liability is crucial for those photographers who aren’t interested in funding entire replacement weddings when things don’t go exactly according to plan.
The next items on the wedding contract are about the deliverables. Colón spells out when proofs will be delivered, when albums will be delivered, a clause about acceptance of orders to encourage the couple to order their album within one year of the wedding day. Otherwise, according to the contract, the photographer is no longer obligated to provide an album. But it’s a complicated issue, Colón says, since actually receiving an album is a key determiner for happy customers. Happy customers make referrals, and that’s very good for business.
“It’s called acceptance of orders and retention of originals,” Colón explains. “It says, ‘Mike Colón owns and retains original images produced in connection with this agreement. However, because of limited controlled storage facilities and for liability reasons, they will not be retained by Mike Colón more than 12 months after the wedding.’ So if my house burns down and my cloud storage company goes out of business and all my files are gone at the same time, and I have no record of their photos… I’ll only have to go to court with clients from the last 12 months.”
Colón says one couple celebrated their tenth anniversary by finally ordering a wedding album. That money was long gone, he explains, and the labor-intensive process would’ve taken several days, not to mention that prices have risen significantly in 10 years. If it happened tomorrow he would ask for a reinstatement fee to cover the cost of labor and materials to put together the album. It’s easier to ask for when it’s spelled out in the contract.
“Although I might reinstate it for them,” he says, “I’m not obligated. If I do, I’m a hero and, hopefully, they’re even more impressed. The clause also helps to protect from unhappy clients because, believe it or not, when a client doesn’t have the finished product in their hands, they’re not a happy client. Even if it’s their fault!”
Colón realized how essential delivering albums is when he was chatting with a bride who had worked with a photographer whom Colón admired. Was she ecstatic with the result, he asked? Not really. She didn’t have her finished album, even though it was because she had never completed the order. It was practically an epiphany for Colón, who immediately began working to determine which of his customers had incomplete orders.
“I decided that I didn’t care how long it would take,” he said, “I was going to get an album in everyone’s hands. I spent thousands of dollars getting them done, but then the referrals started pouring in from those old clients. I realized it was no wonder I wasn’t getting referrals from some of my past clients. They weren’t happy!”
The last section of his contract, Colón says, covers rights of ownership and reproduction. “It’s to make sure that they know I have the copyright,” he says, “and they can’t publish anything or use anything without my permission. It’s a bit like a model release. The one key term in here is ‘the client agrees to hold Mike Colón harmless against any and all claims arising from any published images.’ So I can publish images from the wedding and if a guest wants to sue me, they would actually have to sue the bride and groom because the bride and groom gave me permission. The contract specifically states, ‘Client understands and agrees to the following: Mike Colón may reproduce, publish or exhibit a judicious selection of photographs as samples of this work to be shown to prospective clients and for instructional or institutional purposes consistent with the highest standards of taste and judgment.’ I don’t have to go contact the client and get permission, I can just send an image and I have a signed release built in to my contract.”
As a high-profile wedding photographer, Colón is regularly hired by celebrities who, understandably, are not likely to agree to the terms regarding copyright and reproduction. “For celebrities,” Colón says, “this section gets crossed off. I would never send this to a celebrity because it just wouldn’t fly. It’s almost the reverse; I retain copyright, they get all the rights. That gives me some ability to publish images. Anything that they publish, I can publish. And for anything I request to be published, they have to give me an answer within a certain amount of time or I can go ahead publish it. They could say no, but if they don’t answer me—that’s usually what happens, they don’t answer me—then I can proceed and publish it.”
It might be nice to think that all you ever need are good intentions and a handshake, a contract is an essential part of doing business. It should be seen as a device to get everyone involved onto the same page as far as expectations and, as Colón stated at the outset, just to be fair.