Photographer Horror Stories: I Didn’t Use A Contract With My Clients

Photo by Andy Vu

It has happened to the best of us. We book a new session, shoot beautiful images and deliver them in a timely manner to our client. The exchange seems to go just as planned until an unforeseen bump appears in the road. Our client is dissatisfied, asks for more images or maybe wants the RAW unedited files – each a huge issue for any photographer to deal with. Resolving such problems would prove to be simple, had we only used the one document guaranteed to protect our professional business: a contract.

We asked a few fellow photographers to share their experiences of shooting without contracts to demonstrate the importance of having such a guideline and document for each and every project you photograph – no exceptions.

One fellow photographer shared a story that occurred when shooting a project for a close friend:

“7 years ago one of my closest friends asked to hire me for an avant-garde editorial-style maternity boudoir/nude portraits at sunrise in the woods. I figured since it was one of my closest friends, we didn’t need a contract. I didn’t want to charge my friend, so I charged her a nominal fee of almost nothing. The shoot went amazing and I mentioned how excited I was about the output and using these in my portfolio, she said it was fine.  She then revealed that she planned on using these portraits in an exhibition and publishing them in her dissertation book. She demanded to have the raw files (which I gave her) and then sent me an email with an 8+ legal letter threatening to take me to court if ever claimed to own the copyright or use the photos in any way, claiming that it was a work for hire. I tried to compromise by suggesting transferring some copyright to her, but she wanted to be credited in the book and exhibition as the sole artist. My lawyer friend suggested that I let it go to court since there was no contract, but I was a broke student and legal threats from a former close friend were draining and traumatic. I never ended up using the photos even though they are still some of my favorite work. Needless to say, I use contracts now. Even a simple photography contract would have been enough to save me from this trouble since we would not have moved forward with the project had we not been able to agree prior to the shoot. Lesson learned.”

It’s important to remember that a contract needs to touch bases of expectations, shoot details as well as final deliverables.

“Starting off, I didn’t have a contract that stated how long I kept the original RAW files for. Months go by and I was met with a client who wanted different pictures of her kids, though I presented her with quality pictures that exceeded the amount originally promised – I did not have a contract to fall back on when I told her I did not have the original files anymore. Luckily nothing came of it, but I added in that information right away after that.”

Another photographer explains the problems that can arise due to expectations of clients:

“I’m a wedding photographer and some clients have unrealistic expectations about the pictures I need to get. I often get requests after the wedding like, “Do you have any pictures of my brother’s friend’s son?” It’s usually a casual question since they know I don’t deliver every photo I take, but just in case maybe I had a salvageable picture of them. In my contract, I have a clause that says, “The photographer will not be held liable for failure to deliver images of any individuals, events or objects.” It’s never escalated before, they’re mostly just asking out of curiosity but the contract does help protect me.”

Creating a standard photography contract is the best way to lay out the guidelines and basis for what the shoot will entail and what you will deliver to your client. It is important to realize that every shoot, no matter if it is paid or unpaid, for a stranger or for a friend, must include some form of a contract. This document is not only important to legally protect your business, but to protect yourself as a photographer.  To start building your contract, be sure to search and review other photography contracts available on the Internet in order to have a better understanding of what to outline. SLR Lounge offers a great basis for what should be included, you can find it here. It is best to use these as a starting point and alter as you see fit.  Before your next shoot, creating a contract – it is truly necessary for all future work you pursue as a professional photographer.

Do you have any stories of not using a contract, but realizing you should have created one? Share with us in the comments below.  

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