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.
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.
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.
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.
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.