wedding photography retainers payments

Wedding Photography Retainers & Payments

Wedding Photography Retainers and Payment Schedules

Photography is a hobby for many people, but what differentiates a hobbyist from professional photographers? Money. You’d be hard-pressed to run a business without generating revenue or income. In today’s post, I’ll discuss wedding photography retainers and payments. This is the heart and soul of what turns wedding photography from a casual hobby into a business. To start, I’ll explain why almost every wedding photographer requires payment of retainers to reserve their time, why they’re always non-refundable, and why this is right. I will then discuss different approaches to payment schedules, including information on when the balance is due, and how to handle overtime hours.

A couple has contacted a wedding photographer and met with her. They’re ecstatic about her work, satisfied with her photography reviews, and ready to hire her as their wedding photographer. What are the next steps? There are two: first, they must sign an agreement (the contract) that describes the services they’ve chosen and their prices; second, they must pay for those services.

Wedding photography payments and retainers go hand-in-hand

Most wedding photographers’ contracts have clearly defined photography payment schedules. These describe the number of portions the total bill will be divided by and when the payment of each portion is expected. If our wedding photographer is running a responsible business, she will require that her clients provide her with a wedding photography retainer at or shortly after the couple signs the work agreement. In most circumstances, the initial retaining fee forms the first of several payments.

Wedding photography retainers and why they’re non-refundable

At this point, it’s important to define what a wedding photography retainer is and why most wedding photographers consider them non-refundable. A retainer—which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a deposit—is a fee paid upon signing the wedding photography agreement that retains the wedding photographer’s service for a particular date or period. In exchange for the retainer, the wedding photographer agrees that they will not pursue other work for that particular time; in essence, they reserve the specified period exclusively for the clients at hand, regardless if a higher paying opportunity arises.

The purpose of the wedding photography retainer is to minimise the opportunity cost of a cancelled wedding. Very basically, an opportunity cost “is what a person sacrifices when they choose one option over another”. Weddings may be cancelled for a panoply of reasons. None of them changes the fact that the wedding photographer has allocated her time—her primary resource—to one couple at the exclusion of all other potential work. If a wedding photographer forgoes requiring a retainer, turns down other possible clients, and then has her contracted clients cancel their wedding, her opportunity cost is the price of a wedding—she has lost that income potential. This would be an example of a poor business practice. Charging a retaining fee upfront (and stating that it’s non-refundable and explaining why) minimises her opportunity cost by the amount of the wedding photography retainer.

WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY RETAINER Payment schedules differ among photographers

While the absolute minimum number of payments is one (being the total, paid upfront if she’s savvy), the maximum remains undefined. Most wedding photographers I’m familiar with implement two, three, or more scheduled payments leading up to the wedding day. These are likely spaced 3-6 months apart based on what makes sense for each individual business. Each successive payment contributes to the retainer previously collected and is similarly treated as non-refundable. The reasoning behind such a strategy is that as the wedding day approaches the opportunity cost grows. A wedding photographer is much less likely to rebook a cancelled wedding one month from the date than six months from the date. How a wedding photographer chooses to split and schedule their payments is typically based on their business experience and involves a careful balance between minimising their exposure to risk while maximising client convenience.

When should the wedding photography balance be paid?

Shrewd wedding photographers take every possible opportunity to reduce their exposure to pecuniary risk. Although most of it exists as the possibility of a cancelled event, it’s vital to acknowledge the risk of not being paid for completed work. An effective way to reduce such uncertainty is scheduling the payment of the balance sensibly.

Whether it’s one month, two weeks, or seven days out, I recommend collecting the balance before the wedding day. Collecting payment on the wedding day is undesirable because it could result in embarrassment, annoyance, and later-than-expected departure as people scramble to find the whereabouts of the cheque or cash envelope. Collecting payment after the event is discouraged in all circumstances barring one, where overtime was requested by the client on the day. In any situation where the balance or overtime payment is due after the wedding takes place, always collect payment before delivering the images. While the likelihood of default by clients is lower than the probability of a cancellation before the date, the overall financial risk is greater in the former since you experience opportunity cost and uncompensated labour.

It’s also important to keep in mind that clients face risks too, such as the risk of an absentee photographer. A payment schedule that minimises a wedding photographer’s exposure to pecuniary risk will maximise the client’s, and vice versa; it’s an inverse relationship. Keep this in mind when instituting your policies. The best approach is a careful balancing of interests. Despite this, be prepared to lose a client or two to disputes over your payment schedules. A perfect solution does not exist. (Note: to be fair, the risk is always greatest to the business owner; unlike clients, wedding photographers do not have the luxury of personal recommendations, reviews, and portfolios by which to judge the dependability of potential clients. When paying by credit card, clients also have the benefit of a credit card dispute process.)

A personal exchange about wedding photography RETAINER PAYMENT scheduling

I’ll end this article by including an email exchange I had with a potential client last year regarding wedding photography retainers. The context is that after two months of dithering and with less than two weeks to go until their wedding day, they decided to hire me until they discovered I would need to be paid in full upon signing. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t hired.

Potential Client: “[I] just wanted to discuss the payment structure a bit further. I don’t feel fully comfortable paying the 100% before the event, let alone delivery of photos. Can I inquire about the logic of your payment structure?”

P.K.: “The logic is that the wedding day is the worst time to collect any sort of payment. Everyone involved is typically too flustered, nervous, etc., that things are forgotten. When I started out and before instituting this rule, [I] found myself in several situations where cheques were left behind or had to be written on the spot. All of this resulted in my having to stay later than planned because the people writing the cheques weren’t keen on interrupting their fun to worry themselves about paying me.

“I understand that the vast majority of my clients are honest people and wouldn’t be so thoughtless. However, my handful of bad experiences has coloured the way I do business, which strictly involves minimising my exposure to such risk. Similarly, if overtime hours are requested on the day of the wedding, no photos are released until all outstanding payments have been settled. I’m happy to say my system works flawlessly: I’ve never had a late payment or no payment since its institution. Paying all fees [before the wedding day] means that the uncertainty and embarrassment of having to ask for money on the day, or worse, after the images are released, is no longer on my mind and I’m free to do my work, and you and your family are free to enjoy the celebrations without any awkward interruptions.

“With that said, this is one of the few points on which I am not flexible.”


  1. tom ewing says:

    If a photographer requires full payment up front for the total cost of services, can the photographer spend any of the prepayment before the wedding date, excluding funds designated as retainer?

    • Paul says:

      Are you asking from the perspective of practicality or best accounting and bookkeeping practices? In Canada, there’s no professional body that regulates how photographers hold their clients’ retainers. This may be very different in other parts of the world. If it’s similar where you live, know that if you decide to spend the retainer, and you somehow fail to perform due to a fault of your own, and your wedding photography contract states you’re responsible for refunding all fees paid, then you’ll have to return the retainer, regardless of whether you’ve already spent it.

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