Three Simple Steps to Keep You and Your Clients Happy

Starting out in commercial photography is a daunting prospect, especially for those who are more creator than entrepreneur. I was one of these people, and I'd like to share some tips that are very easy to implement that could save you from a lot of headaches down the road.

Don't Assume Anything

When beginning a career in the commercial world, we aren't going to land any major brands like BMW or secure large government contracts. We need to start small, and usually, this means local businesses. One thing to keep in mind is that local businesses or sole traders are also starting small and might also be inexperienced when negotiating for professional photography. I think that when you approach any project with this assumption, regardless of whether or not the prospective client has experience in the matter, then you're already ahead of the game. 

Never assume that your client knows anything about professional photography, licensing of images, or copyright law. Don't assume that ol' Betty "Danger" O'Sullivan knows nothing about usage rights before she gives your photos to the national tourist board to advertise her local tea and cake stall to an international audience, and equally, don't assume that Mark "my Clio is just a young Ferrari" Sharkey knows not to use low-res files for his cringey business cards that everyone throws away (but not before noticing that pixilated dog's dinner of a headshot).

I made the mistake of assuming these things 1.5 times, and it will never happen again, because it almost turned into a complete disaster. I'll tell you why it didn't end up a total mess later, but for now, use "assumption is the mother of all screw-ups" as our theme for today's article.

Not the Ferrari guy. This guy is actually cool. I used Dylan Patrick's awesome Fstoppers tutorial to achieve this look.

Tell Them What You do

Be clear that you don't just saunter on up and snap a few shots. I've lost count as to how many times I've heard something like "well, you have a professional camera" or "you need good equipment to capture this." If these types of comments happen in person, I kindly explain how I go about creating an image.

After that, in my email proposal, I will explain my process in more detail, and why it's better than, for instance, HDR photography — I use Airbnb's style of editing as an example. I should preface this by saying that I really appreciate Airbnb's photography system. It's efficient, well monitored, and their style guide is the best I've come across at this level. That being said: "while Airbnb have hit the sweet spot regarding cost-reward for their aesthetic, unfortunately, you will almost never get a clean window view. I can give you that view, and people will flock to you. It takes more time, but with my expensive high-powered flash and my computer wizardry, you'll be the envy of your cul de sac," I explain. Then they almost feel bad for not paying me more — at least, that's what I aim for. 

Sometimes I'll send them a link to a "before and after" page or have a side-by-side image of an HDR photo versus a manual exposure blend. I received some great advice from a member of my professional organization (IPPVA) a while back to simply create a PDF detailing exactly what goes on behind the lens. It saves a lot of time rather than having to explain what you do in each proposal, and it also works as a great marketing tool. Alternatively, you could create a version for a blog post which you can then link to at the end of an email.

Cozy, contemporary speakeasy-styled nook in a restaurant.

Get It in Writing

Contracts are important for a lot of photographers, especially commercial ones, but when small businesses or sole-traders are presented with a 5-6-page document of legalese, then one might spot a wave of cynicism/confusion wash over them. I might be wrong on this, and I would encourage anyone to tell so me in the comments, but I don't feel it's necessary to require a client who's only going to pay you a once-off fee of $200-$300 to sign a contract.  

What I certainly would not encourage, though, is a verbal agreement. This can go wrong in so many ways and can result in both you and the client being very unhappy with the exchange. 

Instead of a stuffy document or a friendly exchange of ideas, what I simply do is write everything down in an email to send to the client before a shoot is arranged. In the email, I will simply ask the client to read it, and to reply as to whether or not they are happy to go forward. If they reply in the affirmative, then we have now entered into a contract. What might I put in this email? Here are some key points that I will hit:

  • My interpretation of what the client has asked of me.
  • How many photos are to be delivered or how long the shoot will take.
  • The date of the shoot.
  •  My fees, including a deposit, and what is to happen in the event of a cancellation.
  • A turnaround time.
  • How the photos will be delivered and in what format.
  • Exactly how the photos are to be used, including a clear statement saying that I retain all the rights and that the client cannot resell or redistribute the images.
  • I usually offer one free review per image, i.e. if the client is unhappy with something, then they can ask me to change it. I am fully aware that this could offer up some new and expensive problems, but I'm always sure to try to limit expectations in this regard. Recently, one client asked me if I could put woolly coats on the recently sheared sheep that were grazing outside a window. I politely told him that that was next to near impossible to do in a reasonable manner. He was fine with that.

I don't get into license fees with small businesses. You can disagree with me all you want on this, but in rural southwest Ireland, I would be laughed out the door. Not the case with larger businesses, which do exist down here, but for my bread and butter there's no point. 

Long exposure of a hotel entrance for a timber engineering company.

Stay Professional and Courteous 

This might come naturally to some, but to others, the temptation to get angry at a less than honest client might be too much. That's why I would advise anyone to stay as calm as can be, at least until they have all the details. I say this because things do get lost in translation, verbally and in text, so getting mad might be a one-way ticket to disaster. I'm not talking about being verbally abusive, I just mean being argumentative. Some clients genuinely don't know if they've done something inappropriate, and once you start berating them, there could be no coming back. I speak from experience, and I could have avoided all of it if I had taken my own advice outlined above.

What happened: One of my photos was given to another business without my permission. I was furious. When I said it to the client, they claimed that it was to promote their own business, as we had agreed. I took issue with this, because because that was blatantly false; it was clearly advertising this third party solely. I got a little heated, but I gave the client the benefit of the doubt. Instead of making my client go to the third party with cap in hand, I let them save face by giving the other business a watermarked image. Not ideal, but I did it to keep things smooth. After all, I need to take a portion of the blame for not being totally clear and for assuming that they knew basic copyright law. Things were shaky for a time, but because I kept it cordial, I was asked by the client to shoot another part of the project. That experience might have been a red flag to some professionals, but to me, it was just a reminder to get everything in writing. Once it's clear, there's no arguing. Fast-forward to now, and that client has referred me to others. 

Yes, I was an idiot for not getting everything in writing, but thanks to some sound advice from the people around me, I was able to step back and look at the big picture. I've less hair, but I've learned something valuable. I am wiser, balder.

Hotel bar scene, taken for a timber engineering company.


Have all your ducks in a row before you fire off that proposal. Know what you want, and make sure that the client knows exactly what they are getting.

What are our reader's views on commercial contracts for beginners? Have you ever lost the plot with a client? We would love to hear about your views in the comments.

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Patrick Lux's picture

Hi Mike, I totally agree with having everything written and transparent. But I also have the experience that some client who are u experienced think that this sounds more complicated like some other photographers do it. They think just by the other not saying it that doesnt apply to if they work with them (sorry not mothers tongue, if unclear ask). Usually appears in terms of usage rights. What do you think?

Ivan Lantsov's picture

You confused boychick! ~

I don't feel it's necessary to require a client who's only going to pay you a once-off fee of $200-$300 to sign a contract.

What I certainly would not encourage, though, is a verbal agreement.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

For those, confused, there is 3rd paragraph. The essence starts at "what I simply do is write everything down in an email..."

Mike O'Leary's picture

Please read the rest of the article, Ivan. There is a reason why I wrote "sign" in italics. Apologies if I wasn't clear enough.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

not italic, is same as rest of writing, my inglish not good but I know difference!

Mike O'Leary's picture

Apologies. I was sure that I had put it in italics. If you are still having difficulty comprehending what I wrote, please read the following:

I don't get the person to sign anything, nor do I solely rely on a verbal agreement. I write my terms in an email, ask them to read it. If they are happy with my terms and agrees to hire me based on my terms, then we have entered into a contract without either of us having to actually sign any formal document.

Is this clear, now?

Greg R's picture

Email is fine Mike O'Leary, once they meet you on location that is an agreement.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

is bad business not to have writing contract but you do for you think as best
good luck boychick!

Mike O'Leary's picture

An email, like the one I mention, is a legally binding agreement.

I''m not going to get a once-off client, who's only going to pay me $250 to sign anything, it will (and has) scared clients away when I mention it. Now that I don't mention it, I haven't had any problems since using just the email method. If I was to take your advice, I would definitely lose clients. It might be different where you're from.

I do get a bigger, commercial clients to sign a contract.

Greg R's picture

Question regarding the copyright. What is the big deal on this? We had a commodity real estate photographer over emphasize that he requires his watermark on his photos and we told him the MLS doesn't like advertising on the photos and he was quick to make a big deal by sending us photo copyright law jargon - this turned off my wife. And he also set parameters on how long we could use property images (only until the close of escrow) and can't use them for social or anything after that (common man). Spoke to a friend of mine who is a real pro shooting for brands like Puma and Red Bull and he said I hate photographers like that -they ruin it for the real pros. And so we never used that photographer again - your photo is not going to end up on Better Homes dude. Chill. You rubed us the wrong way with your inconsequential no residual copyright photos. From a consumer perspective, the whole copyright thing is petty at low fidelity use. I get it, I can shoot video of an athlete, he posts it on social, and Ford wants to use, but Ford will ask who shot the video, real paying brands know.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Personally, I'm not a fan of watermarks in general, and not allowing you to use them on social sound a bit strange to me, but the property market that I work in (Ireland) is vastly different to yours (US?), so I can't make an accurate judgment on the photographer's conduct — although it does sound like he was over the top.

What I can say is that he might be getting bad advice from some online courses/resources/message boards. If you're starting out as a pro with zero experience in commercial photography, it can be extremely daunting. There's a ton of information out there and it can be hard to sift through the bull. For instance, when I was starting out, I was told by a couple of people to watermark everything I put up on the web because anyone can just steal my images. Thankfully, I looked into it a bit more myself and quickly realized that no one was going to want to steal my below average (at the time) work. And if someone did, I would just need to decide if it was worth chasing them.

I would note, however, that a "close of escrow" clause is common, and makes perfect sense. If the new buyer decided to re-sell the house, using the same photos, then the estate agent would make more money, so why shouldn't the photographer also be able to make more money? It is, after all, the photographer's work that gets the attention of potential buyers.

As for your last point, I'm not convinced that brands would contact the photographer. It has been shown in the past that some have used material that they haven't paid for. These cases have ended up in court and cause undue stress to the creators. Take even my example in the article: another business was able to use my work to advertise their business without paying me. They could just plead ignorance, although I'm certain that I could have asked for compensation. If I had decided to pursue the business for payment, it would have gotten very messy, that's one of the reasons why I compromised. It all would have been fine if I was just a bit clearer in setting my boundaries.

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