in the past week i've had multiple people reach out to me for advice on their wedding photographer's contract. Not my own clients, but other people just wanting my opinion on the 'norm' and typical things to expect in a wedding photography contract. most wedding photography contracts are about 9 pages long, and it can be a daunting task to look them over.
I kept finding myself repeating the same theme over and over- 'trust'
I'm going to let you in on a little industry secret. wedding photographers live in perpetual fear of being sued (and their professional and business lives ruined) by things they can not in any way, shape or form control or have power over. The photographer did the best possible job she could but you didn't like the expression you made in this photograph? sue her. you wanted sunset photos but it rained? sue the photographer. you wanted a photo of aunt mildred, but aunt mildred refused to be photographed on the wedding day? sue the photographer. it was humid and your hair frizzed up and you can see it in the photographs? sue her.
(insert mild panic attack for photographers around the world)
We live in so much fear that when a client asks a (reasonable) question about the contract, instead of explaining it (like a reasonable person) we take it as a sign of a bridezilla or a difficult client and we RUN. we run far and fast away.
but that creates a deep chasm, and doesn't allow for honest discussion about important parts of a contract that really should be discussed out in the open.
And, furthermore, we all truly get it. because for every scary lawsuit we hear of an innocent well-meaning very talented photographer getting sued by a bride or groomzilla, we also hear about a flaky wedding photographer who not only took off with the couple's investment but also their photographic memories that cant ever be replicated.
it is a big. big. deal. equal to, if not more so, than the quality of the photographer's work.
If you are a client, and you have a question about the contract, you have every right to ask your photographer to explain it. and if you are a photographer reading this- you need to NOT have 'RUN!' be your first instinct, but come to the table with the understanding that for some, this is the first major contract that they've ever signed in their life as an adult. a little bit of kind, patient, education goes a long way, and just because someone is asking questions does not mean they are a bride/groomzilla. it means they care about your work.
lets talk about some industry standards that you can expect to see in your wedding photographer's contract, so we can alleviate a little of the discomfort. i need to add a disclaimer that this is NOT legal advice in any way, and I am not a legal expert or lawyer. This is also not my legal contract- but more a (normal person) explanation of some common topics. I also need to disclaim that these common items may not be true for all photographers. And of course, your photographer (and lawyer) are the best people to ask if you have a question about your specific contract.
- Will I get all the rights to the images?. yes, and no. you'll get all the rights that you 'need'. this is a discussion about Copyright vs Printing releases. though you are paying for a photographer's services, the images you receive are not actually 'yours'. Your photographer will not be handing you the copyright to the images. the copyright always belongs to the photographer (meaning 'the artist who took this photograph and to whom this photograph belongs to is X photographer"), however you may likely be purchasing the printing rights. this means that while the photographer still owns the rights to the images, he/she is giving you the allowance to make prints or copies at the establishments of your choice. when a photographer says "high-res images available for purchase" or "high-resolution images included" what she means is "you can have a big file of this image that you can print at your leisure, and i will give you the printing rights to that image so you don't get hassled at the printer" she, however, will still be the photographer of the image, and retain the copyright. SOMETIMES, sometimes, there IS a copyright transfer to the client. this happens occasionally with celebrity weddings, where the couple wants every right to the images, and doesn't want the photographer to ever post the images online or have any right to the images whatsoever (usually for privacy reasons). this comes at a pretty penny (xx,xxx.xx dollars) so for the grand majority of the population the printing release/rights is all that they ever need or want. it seems a bit weird, but that's how copyright law works. you have to think about it this way: you're not paying for someone to give you images of your wedding. you're paying for the service of someone to photograph your wedding, for their abilities as an artist, for their professionalism and experience, and for their style of work. you're paying for the ability to have access to the photos of your wedding and print them at your leisure. But, you're not paying for the inherent ownership and rights of the photographs themselves. which is good, because it saves you tens of thousands of dollars (you thought regular wedding photography was expensive- try getting a quote from a photographer with a copyright transfer, THEN you'll know what expensive is!). So while it saves you some money, it also comes at a small price. the photographer will be able to post the photos to her website and blog and social media outlets. she may make prints for promotional materials. the photographer is okay with loosing out on tens of thousands of dollars from a full copyright transfer because it means she can continually update her portfolio, submit to publications, and have fresh material to show. without that, her business would fail, which is why full copyright transfers cost so much. If you do not want your images posted online, you must tell your photographer before you sign the contract, and you can expect to be charged for that luxury. it's not to be considered a punishment, or an 'additional' or 'extra' cost- it's the price wedding photography would cost under normal circumstances if photographers always handed over the ownership of the photos to the clients. since this is really overkill, and most people don't have tens of thousands of dollars laying around for something they don't really need, wedding photographers just generally assume, as a starting point, that clients will not need or want a FULL copyright transfer, and will be fine with just the printing rights, and a significantly lower cost (about 4k-12k instead of 20k-60k)
- They are MY images, i paid for them, so why cant i edit them to how i want them to look? so, as we've now learned, they aren't actually your images. This also means that you can not edit the photos yourself. and yes, this means even on instagram. you only have the rights to PRINT the photos- as is- not make changes. to put it in perspective, you wouldn't hire a painter to paint a canvas, then bring it home and make your own changes and adjustments, then hang it in a gallery with the original artist's name listed. Now, a photographer is never going to know (shhhh) if you take your images and edit them to whatever YOU want, and hang them on your wall or put them in an album (wink wink). however.... it would break my heart to know that a client of mine did that. I studied photography for 4 years, and got a fine art degree. i studied color- just straight COLOR- for an entire semester. i have put 7 years into this industry absolutely perfecting my tones, ranges, and style. if the lab sends me back images that have even a SLIGHT color cast to them, i would pay out of pocket to have them re-scanned to match perfectly. it is painstaking. i can not impress enough how much we care about the quality of imagery we deliver to our clients- because it is our name (literally) and reputation that goes directly on it. and so, if i were to see a client of mine throw an instagram filter over it, or run a crappy photoshop action on it, my heart would SINK. even out of just basic respect for your photographer... don't alter their imagery. Not to mention, it can severely damage our business and create brand confusion. my style lacks 'vintage effects', saturated colors, heavy vignetting. So if a client were to re-edit my work in that style, and a potential client who was thinking of hiring me for their wedding next year saw it, she will likely assume that is the quality of work i deliver, and go elsewhere. That would effectively loose me thousands of dollars in business. i have never had to experience this with any of my clients, but i know many people who have. (another reason why i have the best clients in the world! thank you so much for respecting my work!)
- What happens if a last-minute emergency happens and you can't make it to the wedding? most reputable photographers have a huge wide trustworthy network of peers that they can call on in a moments notice if an emergency occurs. Contrary to popular belief, if a photographer can not attend a wedding on an emergency notice, the funds are not generally transferred back to the client. The photographer will generally secure the services of an alternate local photographer to stand in for her during the wedding. 'WHAT?' i know that's what you're thinking. let me tell you why this is in the clients BEST interest. 1) the network and camaraderie of wedding photographers runs deep. we all live in constant fear that something terrible should happen and we wouldn't be able to attend a wedding. if ANY of my wedding photographer friends were to post an emergency posting to an online forum that she needed someone, i would ask no questions (except the address) and be there faster than you can say lemony picklepants. we would ALL do this for each other, because we have a trust built up. The alternative would be that the client would have to start from scratch and call around to random photographers on their wedding day. additionally, any photographer the client called would be weary to go shoot a wedding that a different photographer was already under contract for, and would wonder why the contracted photographer wasn't the one making calls to find someone to stand in her stead (as is the norm in the industry). I suspect it would be very difficult for a bride/groom to secure a last-minute wedding photographer the day of the wedding. So, let the photographers use the vast network they have to make sure they are getting someone GOOD and responsible there. Secondly- the original contracted photographer would still be able to edit the photos in her style, and complete the contract, so the final product delivered would be as close as humanely possible to the client's original plan. 3rd- by keeping you as their client, it BEHOOVES the contracted photographer to find the best possible replacement to stand in her stead during this emergency because it is her name and reputation at risk, as she is still your client. she is going to want to go ABOVE AND BEYOND. She would likely consider paying out of pocket and dipping into her savings to find an even better and more expensive photographer than herself because she fiercely does not want this to reflect badly upon her business- this emergency that she could not help or predict. Finally, this whole thing about trust. photographers are humans, and we have the right to be treated as such. Emergencies happen, even at the worst possible timing. and if you hire a wedding photographer you trust will do everything in her power to be present and fully capable (and if she cant, to find the BEST possible option with your best interests at heart) then this whole topic is a mute point. and, it just needs to be said. Reputable wedding photographers are in this industry for one reason: we love love. we love documenting it. we get emotionally attached to our clients. we shoot a low number of weddings per year- we aren't churning them out, we aren't in this to make a fortune. our worst nightmare? an emergency happening and missing your wedding. i mean, we even invest in 10 thousand dollars worth of backup equipment so we wont even miss a SHOT, let alone miss the entire wedding. though you hear nightmare stories online about flaky wedding photographers, You should rest assured that the grand majority of us will do everything in our human powers to be there, for no other reason than we care about you on a human level. Lastly.... consider hiring a second photographer for added backup. that is the BEST assurance that you can have.
- My wedding is cancelled. What now? generally speaking, if your wedding is cancelled close to the wedding date, you will not be able to recover any funds previously paid to the photographer. the photographers have already purchased all of the items they will need for your wedding, paid second shooters, assistants, purchased travel, spent time in meetings with you, planned out timelines, reserved your date, and turned down other weddings for that date- loosing out on thousands of dollars in revenue. If the wedding is just rescheduled for a different date, most photographers will make every reasonable effort to be available on the new date. Just like our clients understand that we are humans and emergencies happen, we understand that our clients are human and emergencies happen that may force them to change the date and therefore we will have essentially held two dates for one client and loose out on revenue and business. we are human, you are human, and there is a big level of trust that occurs between us.
- Full payment BEFORE the wedding date? yep! standard across the board. anywhere from 30-60 days before the wedding the full balance is due. I, myself, have 60 days as the lead time because most of my weddings are destinations and i want to make sure all of my travel plans are perfectly in order and I'm not waiting until the last minute to book a flight and hotel for the wedding (obviously, for the best interests of my client). People sometimes feel hesitant about this common condition, and I completely understand why. it feels a little scary to offer full payment for services that have yet to be rendered. let me explain why this is so. the retainer you initially pay your photographer is not meant for wedding-day-photography costs. it is meant merely to hold and reserve your date. it may seem like a lot of money just to ensure you have a photographer, but when you consider that the wedding season is really just 4-5 months long, and photographers book an ENTIRE year's worth of work into those 4-5 months, it feels pretty darn good to make sure you have one date on lockdown. the full payment covers the photographers expenses to and from the wedding, any equipment she may need, payment to secure her crew's attendance and services, her time with you in timeline meetings or site visits or any other meetings. These items, of course, she needs payment before the wedding to secure her safe, and professional and complete arrival (of course, right?). but we also want full payment from our clients before the wedding because it is very very easy for clients to become 'over-the-wedding' after the wedding. they have moved on. Other things can also happen- the one and only time I ever bent the rules for a client on this i was burned badly. she never paid before, and i was getting REALY nervous. my contract stipulates that if no payment is received, i am not under contract to attend the wedding. but of course I DID, because I was not going to leave her photographer-less! what kind of person would I be?! i paid my second shooter, my assistant, our travel to florida, hotel rooms, film, processing, meals, car rentals- all out of pocket. she promised to pay on the wedding day. i had to ask for payment that day (which was SO tacky and terrible and i never want to ask a bride on her wedding day to write a check ever again) but she had forgotten her checkbook. I went home and began the hours of work on her wedding images, but never saw a check in the mail. come to find out she had annulled the marriage soon after the wedding, and we were left to foot the bill in it's entirety. Yes, i could have sued for the amount she owed- but I could never do that to one of my clients. Never. If I were a big corporation, this would be no big deal. but, 99.9% of photographers are teeny tiny businesses, and a trip like this can do some damage. So, you can see how the trust really needs to go both ways.
- Why can't my friend photograph the wedding for her new business too?- most wedding photographers will state that they are the sole photographer being asked to document the event. A common situation we run into is where the client has a friend who maybe is thinking about getting in to wedding photography and wants to do some photos of the event, so she is going to tag along. this is problematic for a couple reasons. There are already going to be hundreds of iPhones and iPads out snapping pictures of you, and the more cameras there are the more like the paparazzi it feels, and the less connection your photographer can have with you. The more chances there are that you'll accidentally be looking at the 'wrong' camera when your (paid) photographer snaps the photo. the more chances that a beautiful epic shot will be ruined by a guest standing in the way with a camera. If your friend wants to get into wedding photography, i (promise) i'm really nice and am more than happy to grab coffee with her and answer any questions she has. I also hire assistants for most weddings I photograph and am happy to consider taking her on for your wedding. But, my primary concern is being able to deliver the best possible product to my clients, so that has to come first.
- What's with the Warranty Disclaimer?- did you know that due to the subjective nature of photography the photographer may not even be able to guarantee specific shots taken? There are lots of things outside the control of the photographer. the weather, the inability to get photos of certain people due to their unwillingness to be photographed, the lateness of the wedding party, the rules and restrictions of the venue, etc. of course, we will all do our best to get everything you dreamed of, but this is when having trust in your photographer is key, and an understanding that everyone is human. more on that next...
- What is the Artistic License? photographers contracts will also have a paragraph in there about how photography is a subjective art form. How a photographer interprets a scene may be different than how the client would have interpreted it. it may also talk about how the photographer's work is always evolving, so images shot at your event may be different than her portfolio of images (which is a good thing). it may also talk about how a photographer will not 'copy' specific shots (hello pinterest photo ideas!) but interpret the wedding in her own style as the day unfolds.
- Images delivered- your photographer's contract will likely have a paragraph about the final images that are delivered. it will likely say that the images delivered may not include all the images that were shot at the wedding, and the photographer has the right to only deliver the images that are credible as professional in quality and consistent with the photographer's portfolio. This means that while you may want to see every image from the wedding, the photographer is definitely going to cull out the duds. though we like to imagine every time we click the camera we produce gold, that is definitely not the case. the shutter release button is sometimes clicked when the camera is facing the ground, or someone blinks or sneezes mid-photo, and sometimes we need a few test shots before we get the winner. The gallery of images we deliver will not be watered down with those inevitable duds, the portfolio you will have will be the strongest set of images that present you in the best light possible- a gallery you are happy to share with friends and family that is a beautifully edited depiction of your wedding day.
- Unauthorized Access to Images- your photographer's contract may have a clause in there about the risks involved with putting images online, even in a secure, password protected gallery. an online gallery is really the most convenient for a client and photographer, but of course, nothing is quite safe online. So, if privacy is something you're worried about, then ask the photographer if she would consider printing the photos in proof prints instead of having the photos online for you to choose from. of course, this will likely be an additional cost, and if the photographer is unable to use the images in her portfolio or online then you will need to discuss a possible copyright transfer (which will likely also be quite expensive).
There are lots of other things the contract will likely discuss. a description of your wedding photography package and what all those items entail, info about albums, design and delivery of albums, how long the process will take, a disclaimer about how photos fade and discolor over time, limitation of liability, idemnification, etc. but, the topics above are the ones that most clients have questions about or need additional explanation for. I hope that helps you and your photographer have a good understanding of the wedding photography process so no unexpected bumps occur along the way!