There are two purposes of this article. First, to convince you that no matter how small your business and how infrequently you photograph weddings, you should always have a wedding photography contract governing the expectations for each job. Secondly, it will guide you in drafting your first wedding photography contract using my current photography agreement as a template. This article is written for novice photographers and second shooters (hoping to break out on their own) and is not meant to assist seasoned professionals with more complex requirements. While reading, please keep in mind that I’m not a legal professional; this is written from the perspective of one business owner sharing advise with others.
A wedding photography contract is a must-have
Wedding photography is an industry with low barriers to entry and potentially high rewards on investment. All you need is some will, a camera or two, and the ability to sell yourself (or undercut everyone’s price, if that’s how you roll). This can lead to situations where many inexperienced photographers rush to find work but don’t take the time to plan their businesses, set hard expectations, or protect their (and their clients’) interests if things go awry. Whether you’re laying the groundwork for a successful business or earning vacation money on the weekends, a wedding photography contract is indispensable.
What is a wedding photography contract?
A wedding photography contract is a formalised sales and service agreement between you and your client that is enforceable by law. At a minimum, it should establish expectations for details such as date of service, payment schedule, and copyright ownership, but typically goes into precise details. A contract is considered a meeting of minds; you and your clients agree “to the essential terms and [are] both of the same mind about what the agreement [is]” (source).
In Ontario, verbal agreements are just as valid as written ones; however, in practice, they are much more difficult to enforce if disputes should arise due to contradictory claims. Stated otherwise: verbal agreements are much more difficult to prove. Written contracts help protect you and your clients from broken promises by being an authoritative record of your rights and obligations.
Why is a wedding photography contract significant?
I’ve been a regular lurker on the Photo.net wedding photography forums since starting my business, and during that time, I’ve noticed a predictable pattern amid the help requests in their archives (which, incidentally, are a treasure trove of practical business wisdom). When users seek advice regarding a dispute or disagreement in the photographer-client (and sometimes, a photographer-photographer) relationship, there is often a notable absence of a contract to govern what they agreed to (assuming they agreed to anything, even verbally).
Even free work requires a wedding photography contract
A wedding photography contract is also necessary for amateur wedding photographers who aim to bolster their body of work and gain experience by providing unremunerative work. Such agreements can firmly establish copyright ownership, promotional use, licensing, printing rights, and whatever else you may wish to include (for which the sections below will be helpful).
While I don’t condone most types of free work, it’s sometimes a necessary evil if you have no other means of getting your foot in the door. So a word of advice: be wary of your agreements.
First, if you’re applying for work at an established wedding studio and they request a free trial to determine if you meet their standards, go for it, but do not sign any contract that transfers your image rights to the studio without compensation in the form of hard currency. Under no circumstances should confirming the quality of your photography and suitability for their studio require forfeiting your image rights. If they need the copyright because they wish to send some of your images to their clients, then they should be compensating you for the privilege. Anything less is unscrupulous conduct.
Then, there’s the matter of client assumptions. I’ve read several frustrating stories that go something like this: an amateur photographer decides that she want to break into wedding photography and offers her services for free to a couple with whom she’s acquainted. She hopes to use the photos to start a wedding portfolio but neglects to tell this crucial point to the couple, who think of the offer as a kind gesture. After the images are done and delivered, the bride politely but firmly tells the photographer that she cannot use their wedding photos online because they’re “private individuals” and don’t want such intimate details of their lives published on the internet for anyone to see. Despite having the right to use those images for self-promotion as part of her portfolio, the photographer ends up empty-handed because she doesn’t want to face the ire of an unhappy first “client”. Such unfortunate situations are avoidable. Clear communication of intents and a well-worded wedding photography contract that details promotional use and public display of the images will help prevent this from happening. At a minimum, it will save you time by avoiding couples that won’t even give you the small consideration of a public portfolio.
Drafting a wedding photography contract without a lawyer
You don’t need to a hire an attorney to write a valid wedding photography contract. You can save a significant amount of money by either purchasing a standardised contract template, writing your own or by compiling clauses from other wedding photography contracts.
Purchasing a wedding photography contract template
The most straightforward option for obtaining a viable wedding photography contract is to buy a contract template. Several companies sell photography-related agreements that cover a comprehensive set of eventualities and provisions. Despite being the most comfortable option, it’s by no means uninvolved. For instance, you cannot buy a contract, add your company name, and start using it worry-free. Because template contracts are generic by design—it’s what allows them to appeal to a broad audience—they may run afoul of local laws and conventions, which may, in turn, nullify the agreement or cause it to be unenforceable in court.
Writing your wedding photography contract
If you’re not intimidated by the idea of writing your wedding photography contract, this may be a good way of writing precisely the agreement you require. Many people are intimidated by contracts because they frequently feature idiosyncratic legal terminology or convoluted sentences and paragraphs. There is no duty to mimic these qualities of Legal English. You can make it user-friendly from the onset by writing everything in simple English. Drafting it yourself doesn’t make it any less valid than when a competent lawyer writes it.
This is an involved process and requires extensive research into the exact terms and conditions you need. Think of the most common scenarios and ensure that you account for them. Feel free to skip ahead to the second half of this article, which covers some of the more common clauses found in wedding photography contracts, what they mean, and why they’re included.
Compiling a wedding photography contract
It’s entirely possible to put together a wedding photography contract that uses straightforward English to explain the terms of service. Because wedding photography isn’t complicated work, you may piece together a valid document using the (more or less) standard conditions found in other wedding photography contracts. That’s right; I’m suggesting using pieces of found contracts of other photographers to create your own.
Is this a legitimate approach and does it violate copyright? Contracts and legal documents are entitled to copyright protection. Taking another photographer’s contract verbatim and changing the names, dates, etc., would undoubtedly violate their copyright; it would also constitute plagiarism. However, borrowing a clause from one photographer’s contract, another from a second photographer’s, and so on, and furthermore, updating the wording for clarity, simplicity, and your business practices could make it sufficiently original. Additionally, your new contract could now become subject to copyright protection as a compilation.
Writing a hybrid wedding photography contract
If you’re willing to apply your mental faculties to the extent necessary to ensure that a compiled contract does not violate copyright or plagiarises other works, then it’s probably sufficient enough to constitute an original document. In that regard, the safest and most honest approach is to use a hybrid process of writing an agreement using other contracts as templates by which to organise the flow and structure of yours.
Have a lawyer examine your contract after completion
Despite the preceding section, I recommend hiring an attorney to go over your draft wedding photography contract. This is an entirely reasonable investment to make because whether you buy it, write it yourself, or Frankenstein it, chances are, there may be clauses or passages that conflict with local laws and need to be brought into compliance. A conflict with local requirements may lead to problems if a dispute should arise. Notwithstanding the agreement, if the terms of a particular contract are illegal, they will be unenforceable. (For example, in Ontario, “no pet” clauses are common in tenancy agreements. They’re also wholly unenforceable because of the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006 specifies that any provision in a tenancy agreement that bans pets is void.)
Provisions to include in a wedding photography contract
WHO ARE THE PERSONS PHOTOGRAPHED?
As a wedding photographer, your contract should define who you’re responsible for photographing, how you’ll be capturing those images, and what guarantees you provide in regards to this. For example, my wedding photography contract states that I’m “engaged to capture and provide a photographic documentation, as interpreted by Pavel Kounine Photography, of the persons participating in the event, namely the clients, and their family, friends, and guests in attendance”. The “as interpreted by” part allows for the creative freedom my style requires without being beholden to or burdened by more traditional expectations of wedding photography.
Furthermore, this portion requires clients to identify anyone they want me to photograph, provide me with group photography shot lists, and assign someone to help corral the group members. The latter is a useful stipulation even if you have a hired assistant because whoever the couple selects will have the advantage of being familiar with family members and guests.
DOCUMENTARY WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY DEFINED
I’ve discussed what is documentary wedding photography before, and I’ve compared it to candid wedding photography, too. But how do you define it contractually? My wedding photography agreement defines it as photography of the event and its “key persons”, as interpreted by me. Furthermore, I specify that because I cannot control every aspect of the wedding (it’s an uncontrolled event), I don’t guarantee the capture of every single event and happening.
CLIENT REQUESTED PHOTOGRAPHS
Almost every couple I’ve worked with has made some request for a specific photo, type of shot, pose, or angle. In my opinion, requests are reasonable and welcomed, but almost never guaranteed. For your formal agreement, describe how you will handle them and under what circumstances you will not. For example, if overcast weather spoils a request for group portraits at sunset, you should bear no responsibility. Couples that hire you for your available light aesthetic should not be angry if the venue has abysmal lighting that forces you to use flash.
The complete and prompt cooperation, willingness, and availability of clients and guests is never a certainty, and your contract should account for this. You should not bear any responsibility for circumstances that affect your work but are beyond your control.
Imagine the surprise and awkwardness of competing for space with another professional wedding photographer. Not only would this throw you off your game, but their presence could legitimately hurt your results. Your contract should state that you’re the official and exclusive hired photographer for the event. Furthermore, you should bear no responsibility for missed opportunities or ruined images caused by the photographic activities of anyone else in attendance. Some wedding photographers may use this section in an attempt to limit photography by everyone else, especially during ceremonies. I recommend against this on practical grounds, but I’m also opposed to unplugged weddings in general.
What if you’re ill, incapacitated, or facing a catastrophic emergency and can’t make it to the wedding? If you have a plan in place, you’ll arrange for another similar (or better) wedding photographer to cover your absence. However, the couple hired you to photograph their wedding. Include a provision that allows you to assign a qualified employee or subcontracted wedding photographer in your place should the need arise. You may choose to reimburse the couple for the inconvenience, especially if the hired subcontractor charges a lower rate than you were paid.
PHOTOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS AND SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
Think of almost any location and chances are pretty high that someone has been married there. However, many of the most popular places for wedding photography require permits. Does your wedding photography service include making arrangements and obtaining permissions and legal permits, or is this the responsibility of the clients (or their wedding planners)?
Additionally, it’s the couple’s responsibility to provide you with a correct schedule of events and the corresponding locations and addresses.
METHOD AND SCHEDULE OF PAYMENT
You should always have a section that outlines your payment schedule. If your business operates like most wedding photographers, your payment schedule will consist of at least one retainer and balance. When are these paid? Is the retainer paid at the time of reservation or shortly afterwards? Are there multiple deposits leading up to the payment of the balance? When is the balance paid? Moreover, what happens to orders for extra services and products made after the wedding? How about overtime payments? What is the consequence of having overdue accounts? Do you charge late fees or collect interest on the amount owing? Do you pass it to collections? State all of your decisions and policies with regards to these matters.
PHOTOGRAPHY SCHEDULE AND ADDITIONAL COVERAGE
Do you offer all day wedding coverage or is it limited to a specified number of hours? In general, your invoice or order page should specify the level of coverage the clients have ordered. Your wedding photography contract should stipulate how that coverage is scheduled throughout the wedding day. Does your time start upon arrival or upon setting up? Is the total number of ordered hours consecutive or can your time be split into portions throughout the day? When does it end? How do you handle requests for additional coverage (i.e. overage fees: requests for extra coverage beyond the initial order), what does it cost, and in what increments of time is it charged?
DEFAULT BY CLIENTS
What happens if the clients breach the terms of the agreement or fail to make a scheduled payment leading up to and including the balance? Is the agreement terminated or do you allow several days for the clients to remedy the problem? If it’s the former, what happens to the retainment fee you have already collected? Do you keep the retaining fees as liquidated damages? Your policies and agreement should not be so harsh as to be punitive because a court will not enforce them.
WHAT IF THE WEDDING IS CANCELLED?
If you photograph enough weddings, you’re bound to encounter clients that end up cancelling their wedding plans. These can be outright cancellations or cancellations with intent to reschedule. Either can happen for a variety of reasons that I won’t discuss here; regardless, it’s necessary to protect the financial interests of your business in such circumstances.
The most effective way to protect yourself against loss is by implementing non-refundable reservation payments. There is much layperson debate in photography forums about whether these non-refundable fees should be referred to as deposits or retainers, with the majority consensus siding for the latter because they believe that deposit implies an ultimately refundable sum. Although my contract refers to the reservation fee as a retainer, the real power of the term stems from the reason why it’s non-refundable. Here’s how it appears in my agreement: since I “will reserve the time agreed upon in this agreement for the clients and will not make another reservation for the specific time frame, retainers are non-refundable even if the date is changed and/or the event becomes cancelled for any reason”.
Example: wedding cancellation
A couple had reserved my services ten months in advance. They took advantage of a discount I offer couples who pay the total fee upfront as the retainer. Four weeks before the wedding, I was contacted by the bride-to-be; she explained that they cancelled the wedding and plan to get married in a private ceremony during a vacation several months henceforth. What was to be their original wedding day was now going to be a private house party. She wanted her money back. Unfortunately, in the intervening months, I had turned away several requests for the day they had initially reserved (a Saturday during a long-weekend) and had little hope of rebooking it in the short period remaining. I reminded her that the retainer is non-refundable and offered to photograph their party, so the situation was not a total loss for them. She agreed. A week before the party, she cancelled outright.
Example: wedding cancellation and rescheduling
A couple had reserved my services one year in advance. Three months before the wedding date, I was contacted by the bride-to-be; she informed me that the groom’s father had passed away and that they’re cancelling the wedding and will reschedule to a future date to give the family time to grieve. (To be honest, had they cancelled the wedding altogether, I would have provided them with a full refund given the circumstances.) However, as they implied that they wished to engage me for a future date, we agreed to cancel the current wedding photography contract; their original retaining payment was kept as credit towards future service. The wedding was eventually rescheduled and that credit was applied to the new total.
Dealing with a wedding photography cancellation is rarely a simple process. Sticking to the letter of your wedding photography contract, while permissible, is not necessarily the best approach. Excellent customer service sometimes involves bending the rules and trying to salvage the relationship. In the first example, I attempted to mitigate the couple’s loss by offering to photograph their house party, despite that not being the service for which I was hired. Since they had already paid for my time, I reasoned that they might as well get something of value for it. Ultimately, they declined the offer by cancelling that as well.
The second example demonstrates that your wedding photography contract must have a structured plan for cancellations that involve rescheduling. How far in advance of the wedding date can a couple cancel without owing you the balance? Do you accept cancellations by simple requests or do you require a written form that releases you from the contracted date? If they request a date change, do you expect the signing a new wedding photography contract? What happens if your pricing structure has changed in the intervening timeframe—do you charge them your original rate or your current one? What happens if you’re not available for the new date? All of these questions must be accounted for and presented clearly. You should also have the supporting documents necessary for releasing you from the existing wedding photography contract.
What is your business’s position on copyright; do you retain them or transfer them to your clients? (Hint: most wedding photographers in most situations retain copyrights to the photographs they capture.) I strongly advise having language that states you own the copyright to the photographs you capture. This is a bit of redundancy because in Canada and the United States contracted service providers are automatically the copyright owner of the works they create. However, stating this explicitly in your wedding photography contract leaves your clients with no uncertainties or room for creative interpretation of the law.
Despite this, couples engage photographers because they would like to have and share those photographs. Knowing this, what usage and reproduction rights are you granting them? I give my clients “a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable, royalty free license to reproduce and/or display the pictures”, so long as it’s not for commercial purposes. This gives them the right to make prints, share on social media, and send them to family and friends.
This section covers the photographic usage rights you retain as the creator of the work. Most wedding photography contracts will feature a general model release granting the photographer sweeping rights for using their clients’ likenesses in advertising, display, website promotion, photographic contests, trade shows, photography books, window displays, studio display, magazine advertising, and so on. In comparison, a limited model release confines the photographer to a limited list of explicitly stated uses. I recommend having a general model release. Even so, a limited model release in your wedding photography contract may be useful when dealing with clients who are concerned about the use of their likeness in specific media and other online forms of display.
A model release is only necessary where the identifiable persons’ endorsement of the services is implied. Moreover, your clients’ model release is not a model release from their guests; if you plan on using any of your photography in advertisements, ensure that the only people identifiable in the images are the clients. Read more about how wedding photographers share photos.
EDITING, RETOUCHING, ENHANCEMENTS, AND ALBUMS
This provision (or set of provisions, if you choose to split them) concerns the degree to which you edit the photographs and what those edits include. For instance, it’s advisable to have a statement describing what is agreed to constitute correct colour reproduction. Is it your interpretation or will you be trying to mimic reality as closely as possible? What type of editing do you include in your standard service and what would constitute extras? I recommend sticking with the basics such as contrast, white balance, and tonal adjustments, and considering everything else an added extra. You wouldn’t want to include “blemish removal” as a service only to discover that your clients interpreted that as meaning blemish removal from every face in every photograph you deliver. Do you provide additional retouching for prints or albums ordered from you? What’s the album design process—is it hands-on with the client selecting the images and providing you with the order they wish them presented, or do you take the initiative to design the album independently and limit the clients’ input to the final approval? How many revisions do you include in the standard fee and what constitutes extra work? What does it cost? Do you ship physical products to the client or have them collect them from your location?
TURNAROUND TIME FOR PRODUCT
Do you offer a fixed completion schedule for your services? What happens if you can’t meet this obligation due to circumstances beyond your control? My wedding photography contract provides no guaranteed turnaround time for completion of service, although I do state that I will make every effort to deliver images and products within a reasonable timeframe. (Despite this contractual claim, my website states that I take around four to six weeks for digital image turnaround, and I stick to timeline religiously.)
LIMITATION ON ARCHIVING
How long are you willing to guarantee the safe storage of your clients’ wedding photographs? My wedding photography contract specifies that clients release me from all responsibility to store their pictures upon delivery of the images.
You should have a clause specifying that you are acting as an independent contractor and that your wedding photography contract does not form an employment agreement. There are numerous reasons for having an independent contractor clause.
EVENT FOOD SERVICE
It’s common courtesy to provide wedding contractors with a meal during the wedding dinner reception. I recommend formalising that courtesy into a contractual obligation in your wedding photography contract. If you have any dietary restrictions, the clause should include them. A meal requirement should only come into effect after a specified minimum timeframe—it would be unreasonable (and impractical) to require a meal if you’ve just been hired to capture the ceremony.
Lastly, you should consider what constitutes appropriate seating during meal time. My contract requires that I be seated with guests and not at a “vendor table” (unless the vendor table is in the guest section). This is a purely practical consideration meant for the benefit of the clients because some venues’ vendor tables are in far-off corners of the main dining area or entirely different rooms. While this may work for the musicians, it puts a significant restriction on a wedding photographer’s capacity to perform—you can’t capture what you don’t see.
Your wedding photography contract should have an indemnification clause. This boilerplate provision amounts to a promise by your clients to cover your losses if they do something that causes another party to sue you.
LIMITATION OF LIABILITY
This monster of a clause is found in most wedding photography contracts. Despite its intimidating word count, it describes a simple idea: the maximum legal responsibility you’re willing to accept as part of your wedding photography work. For example, what should be the limit of your financial obligation to your clients in the following circumstances: you’re involved in a serious automotive collision en route to the wedding and cannot perform (and cannot summon a replacement); your equipment suffers a mechanical failure, and you cannot capture the remainder of the event; on your way home, your equipment and memory cards are stolen from your car while you’re paying inside the gas station. Depending on the situation and extent of the loss, the practical answer lies somewhere between (but not) nothing and the total cost of consideration, that being the fees you were paid. Since the clause describes the limitation of your liability, the language works to establish the maximum limits. In general, a boilerplate limitation of liability clause is enough to cover most circumstances; even so, I recommend including language that specifically targets and nullifies the notion of a wedding being recreated, re-enacted, repeated, and re-shot at your expense. Although a tightly worded wedding photography contract cannot prevent someone intent on suing you from trying, it can help allay the worry such a situation would involve.
At this point, I’d like to remind you that it’s essential to heed my advice from earlier in the article about having an attorney review your wedding photography contract. Make sure the document complies with local laws and conventions, especially with regards to liability.
The last clause in my wedding agreement is a general statement of different yet essential ideas for which I can’t justify discrete provisions. One is that the clients are jointly and severally (together and individually) liable for their obligations, including in circumstances where a commitment is made by one in the others’ absence.
Is time of the essence in your agreement? Do verbal agreements form part of your wedding photography contract? What constitutes written communication?
Lastly, you should have a severability provision, which states that if parts of the agreement are illegal or otherwise unenforceable in court, that the remainder of the contract (that being the legal and enforceable part) should remain in effect. In principle, this ensures that one flawed clause does not nullify the entire agreement.