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

The biggest mistake a photographer can make, is to forget to use a contract with their clients. Read and learn from the mistakes of other creators with these photographer horror stories.

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. If we had only used the one document guaranteed to protect our professional business: a contract.

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Photographer Horror Stories

We asked a few fellow photographers to share their experiences of shooting without contracts. In order to demonstrate the importance of having this document for each and every project you photograph. 

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.  And, then revealed that she planned on using these portraits in an exhibition and publishing them in her dissertation book.

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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.”

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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.”

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Always Create A Contract

Creating a standard photography contract is the best way to lay out the guidelines for what the shoot will entail and what you will deliver to your client.

It’s 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.  

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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’s best to use these as a starting point and alter as you see fit.  Before your next shoot, create a contract. It’s truly necessary for all future work you pursue as a professional photographer.

Do you have any photographer horror stories of not using a contract, realizing afterward that you should have created one? Share with us your experience on social at @h_collective