Photographers Need to Seriously Consider Their Longterm COVID-19 Contingencies

Photographers Need to Seriously Consider Their Longterm COVID-19 Contingencies

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a considerable impact on the photography industry, and (at least in the United States), it is not clear when a permanent return to normalcy can be expected. Photographers need to develop contingency plans to deal with ever-changing conditions and scenarios as we move forward.

The coronavirus pandemic has created immense difficulties for many photographers. After the initial wave in March and April, states began to reopen to varying degrees, but following that, the rate of new cases has increased again, and many states are in various stages of increasing restrictions. 

For example, here in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, we are currently at a level three (of four) emergency.  This is based on evaluating seven risk factors:

  • New cases per capita
  • Sustained increase in new cases
  • Proportion of cases that are non-congregate cases
  • Sustained increase in emergency room visits
  • Sustained increase in outpatient visits
  • Sustained increase in new COVID-19 hospitalizations
  • Intensive Care Unit bed occupancy

When the state announces its today (Wednesday, July 15), there is a good chance that Cuyahoga County will be upgraded to the highest emergency status, level four. This will trigger a new stay-at-home mandate and force numerous closures again. What is particularly unfortunate is that many photographers began to restart their businesses after the initial restrictions began to ease. Wedding photographers have been especially hard hit, as their work is highly dependent on the availability of venues, restrictions on crowds, etc., and given that weddings are planned months or years in advance, it is impossible to know what sort of situation the pandemic will place us in when the date rolls around. As such, it is crucial that photographers plan contingencies for how they will handle various levels of restrictions going forward, from rules on large gatherings to full-scale shutdowns.

It Is Not Your Job to Advise on or Enforce Mandates

As the photographer, there is a good chance guests and clients will turn to you regarding things like mask usage. Within the confines of your private studio, you can set ground rules, but when shooting a wedding in something like a public venue, you should not enforce or advise on mandates, as this can open you and your business to a lawsuit. 

Monitor Public Health Guidelines

This is one of the most important points. As the situation continues to evolve, the safety guidelines regarding it also continue to evolve. Be sure to regularly check in on the latest guidelines from your state and local governments both for your own safety and to ensure that you are running your business and shoots in a legal manner. 

Check Venues

State and local guidelines represent the minimum level of restrictions at a specific time. Many venues may elect to enact stricter rules for safety or business reasons. For example, restaurants are allowed to be open under limited capacity here in Cleveland, but many have elected to stay closed simply because the margins are too thin to make the business profitable when running at reduced capacity. Be sure to check in regularly with any venues on their current guidelines to avoid any mix-ups or issues. 

Consider Reworking Your Shoots

Depending on the type of work you do, where you do it, and how much it relies on venues or services that could be affected by changes in protocol, you may want to consider ways in which you can reduce reliance on those. For example, consider moving engagement shoots to outdoor locations for the time being. 

Have Financial Plans in Place

As we have seen, when it seems we have passed the worst and things can begin to reopen, resurgences can happen. If you haven't already, now is a crucial time to evaluate your finances and how you will handle things should the pandemic cause mass closures again. 

Prepare Your Contracts Appropriately and Communicate With Clients

Most clients generally understand that these are extreme times fraught with uncertainty, and as such, maintaining a bit of flexibility is both helpful and simply a decent thing to do. That being said, even during a pandemic, there will be difficult clients, and it is more important than ever to have secure contracts that both protect you and your business and help to ensure a smooth and informed interaction that leave both you and your client happy.

For example, one situation a lot of wedding photographers are encountering is this: they took a deposit from a couple for a wedding date in 2020. The date was then moved to 2021, either by choice of the couple due to increased restrictions precluding them from having a ceremony and reception the way they wanted to or because of state mandates. However, the new date chosen in 2021 was one the photographer had already booked for another couple. Is the photographer obligated to refund the deposit? Should they? How about if you and your client agree on procedures for protecting the health and safety of yourself and guests at a venue, then your client fails to properly enact those precautions? Are you obligated to stay and risk your own safety, or can you leave the premises? 

Have a plan in place for situations you might encounter due to the pandemic.

It is time to consider all the possible scenarios you can encounter and have a plan that aligns with your finances, good business practice, and your personal well-being in place and to be sure that language is in your contract. It probably would be a good idea to consult an attorney to make sure your contract is properly done as well, and of course, be sure clients known what they are signing on to once you have decided your contingency procedures. 

Protect Your Health Above All Else

This is undoubtedly a very difficult time for all creative professionals, with a lot of financial insecurity and constantly changing conditions forever threatening to undermine attempts to return to some semblance of normalcy. You may be worn out from the months of precautions and uncertainty, but don't let your guard down. Protect your health, the health of your friends and family, and the health of your clients above all else, as no job is worth dying for. 

The text in this article does not constitute legal advice. Consult a lawyer for any questions or guidance.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I just saw a short video ad for the new Bronco featuring Jimmy Chin. Now that's the way for a photographer to make a little extra money during the pandemic!

Now do an article but replace "cases" with "deaths"... the button pushers are now panic merchants

I've done one portrait shoot in the last 4 1/2 months, and am suppose to do one this coming weekend. However, as the rates rise, here in California, I'm having second thoughts.