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What’s in a good wedding contract?

A solid wedding photography contract, along with back-up equipment and insurance, is a true sign of a wedding photography professional. Not having a solid contract in place before taking on a paid assignment is a no-brainer business killer.

Photographers, if you aren’t as confident in your contract as you should be, creating one isn’t as difficult as it might sound. There are some great resources for photographers out there to assist in the process. You get what you pay for, keep in mind. I suggest the wedding contracts sold over at Photographer Toolkit, which contains separate versions of contracts in a Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat PDF formats specifically designed for wedding photography, associates & assistants, and portrait photography. They are worth the $125 investment.

We took a step further and invested in our own creative talent with a graphic designer to create a document we are proud to hand to wedding clients. And yes, it aligns wi th our branding, down to the very font and color. Confession: it’s six pages and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

After all, once a bridal couple hands you a retainer, the peace of mind of holding a tangible document to show for the investment is priceless for both parties.

A few general suggestions about writing a good wedding contract:

More detail is better. Not only does it help clarify, if helps the bridal couple answer photo-related questions regarding wedding planning, like payment, timeframe, album design process, and image use. That can prevent last-minute, back and forth emails. And on the legal side, if the contract is used in a court, the photographer bears the responsibility for addressing most of the issues that protect their assets.

Avoid legal jargon. You don’t want to create a scary document that will chase clients away as you explain every line of text. Make it readable, understandable and don’t be afraid of putting a little warmth, humanity, and humor in it.

Hold your turf. Be firm, be consistent, and be fair. If there is something that the other party wants in the contract, speak up. Brides: if there is something in the contract that makes you uncomfortable, speak up. And if you end up re-writing their contract to fit your needs, find another photographer. Photographers: get a professional contract and don’t let a bride re-write your contract, unless, she’s an attorney and agreed to an exchange of services… which isn’t a bad way to go.

Protect your interests. No one contract will meet the needs of all photography businesses. A commercial shoot with have a very different contract wording than a family portrait session. However you choose to write your contract, have an attorney familiar with local laws and your type of photography business to review your contract.

To help you out, here’s a list of 20 topics we address in our wedding contract:

1. Retainer, not deposit. They are two very different things. Explain the difference.

2. General info. Who, what, when, where, how long… cell numbers, addresses, email, ect.

3. Products & services. Describe it in detail. Determine what is taxed and what is not.

4. Exclusive photographer. Very important! You don’t want another paid photographers surprising you on the wedding day. Disastrous.

5. Retainer & payment. Get paid with retainer in advance, everything due 30 days prior to day. Industry standard.

6. Cancellation & postponement. What happens with the retainer fee if the wedding is called off?

7. Copyright & Reproduction. We value the work we make and don’t want it stolen or accidentally misused.

8. Model release. Don’t use/market/sell/blog images you don’t have permission to use. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, it can’t hurt to get permission. Never publish an image without proper permission. If you are shooting and blogging about kids, you’ll need parent permission.

9. Photographer substitution. What happens if you get hit by a bus the morning of the wedding (knock on wood)? Who’s gonna cover for you?

10. Pricing subject to change. 2007 ain’t 2012. Jut as gas, milk, and health insurance aren’t getting cheaper, production costs and labor rise, too.

12. Release of digital negatives. What’s it gonna cost for a new set of images on disc… not to mention the time it takes to dig back into the archives and find them?

13. Archiving of digital files. Who is responsible if the Big Quake hits? Be clear on how long you will keep the images after all assets have been delivered, otherwise clients may assume your photography business is also a free long-term data storage warehouse.

14. Proof vs. custom print. There’s a big difference between what comes out of the camera and the final image that makes it into the album. Ensure clients understand what they are getting with their digital negatives and their album. Managing client expectations improves understanding and makes for happy clients and business owners.

15. Officiant & venue restrictions. If the officiant restricts all photography during the ceremony, make sure you know about it in advance. Temples often restrict photography during bat/bar mitzvahs ceremonies. Do your homework and talk with your clients in advance.

16. Requested photos / shot lists. Photographers should never 100% guarantee a shot. Photographers, while you might think you nailed a wedding, but if several key images were missing that the bride knew she was getting. Brides: long shot lists kill opportunity to capture authentic candids, so trust in the professional you hired to shoot your wedding.

17. Artistic License. Covers what it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important.

18. Event Food service. Healthy blood sugar = better pictures!

19. Shipping & handling. What if the client moves out of state after the wedding… who pays?

20. Photography planning time. This is a part of the contract many photographers neglect. We use the wedding contract to layout our expectations and carve out the time needed to shoot the event and earn an ‘A+’ job. If the weather isn’t cooperative, or the limo breaks down, with a contract detailing expectations, you should still be able to earn a solid “A.” If you shoot formals, solid buffer of time will help to recover from a missing groomsman, a ring bearer temper tantrum, or wardrobe malfunction. We’ve seen it all.

One final tip: when you send out your contract via email, send it as a PDF so changes can’t be made without you knowing about it.

Extra credit: Photographers, if you are hiring a second shooter or assistant, it’s a good idea to get in writing stating the terms of usage, copyright transfer, limits of liability, and all that grown-up business stuff. There is an important distinction between a contractor and an employee when it comes to responsibility for withholding payroll taxes, worker’s comp, etc…. not fun to your pocketbook if you get audited, and many times the government will rule not in your favor if there is nothing in writing. John Mireles wrote a great article detailing the difference between an independent contractor and an employee.

Written by R.J. Kern

R. J. Kern is a wedding photographer based in Denver, Colorado and is an award-winning member of the International Society for Wedding Photography (www.ispwp.com) and the Artistic Guild of the Wedding Photojournalist Association (www.agwpja.com). By balancing emotion with dynamic energy, his work packs gregarious spirit, crisp light, and dynamic color. A “Macgyver” of creative lighting, R. J.’s photo bag is packed dozens of light-painting tools which he uses on almost every shoot. Kern-Photo (www.kern-photo.com) has partnered with Pictage since 2006.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!