By Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.
Once you’ve acquired the skills and artistic voice to launch a boutique photography business, it should be easy to price jobs and write detailed, binding contracts for a limited number of clients. I’d like to be able to report that high-rolling clients are always agreeable, easy to please and flexible, but my experience proves that a gentlewoman’s oral agreement is no more valuable than the paper it’s written on.
A raft of specific paperwork should accompany big-money events and portrait commissions. No client likes surprises, so prepare for situations that are otherwise guaranteed to cause aggravation, escalate costs and lower satisfaction, such as location weather conditions or inevitable change-order fees before, during and after the job. The photographer without safeguards could become the victim of his own job, scrambling to meet each new client demand and to maintain his trust.
For weddings, you have to find out who’s the boss, the one who makes the hiring decision, controls the event in progress, writes the checks for it all. Is it the mother of the bride, an event planner, the bridal couple together? With the potential for interacting with multiple players, be prepared to peel away layers of relationships to reveal the info and gain the cooperation you need.
Quoting a price before knowing the scope and pertinent details of the event is usually disastrous. The first must-have paperwork is the complete job information, beginning with the date, time, place and number of people. Save minute details like clothing options and the color of the tablecloths for later information gathering. At the point of sale, what you really need to know is the significant participants’ tastes and relationships to one another, the purpose of the photographs and how they’ll be displayed or made into gifts.
Doing business is all about the client. Get people to divulge their feelings and expectations so you’ll know how to meet their needs and become a trusted problem solver who fulfills their dreams. Think in ranges of cost; build your suggestion for the right package in logical steps and in terms of finished products and enhancement services. Avoid shocking the client by quoting a high price up front if you haven’t established your value in the mind of the client (as through your reputation and personal referrals).
Before your wedding clients sign here, make sure your contract is as trustworthy and valuable as they hope their marriage will be. Image ©Sara Frances Photography
A customized signed contract with the client is the second must-have paperwork. PPA (Members Only Download page) and ASMP can provide guidelines to cover the details. Many photographers use a letterhead style of contract, but I prefer to use a printed contract form that includes details about the contacts, dates, services, prices and payment schedule. Don’t gloss over anything. It’s fine to use a second page if necessary.
Tip: Everyone wants to alter the print count, album size, retouching or enhancement requests in the course of a job. Change orders can cost you dearly if you don’t spell out your policy in advance. We do it verbally as we present the contract, and point out where change order terms of the policy are printed in the document.
The wording of a contract must be precise. Get professional legal advice—for a boutique business, a lot of money rests on accuracy and completeness. Include dispute resolution terms in your contract only on the advice of your attorney. One size does not fit all for this or any other policy of your franchise of one.
Tip: Binding arbitration for dispute resolution used to be commonly recommended, but in my experience, and what I hear from other photographers, binding arbitration can be both costly and biased against the business in cases of disputes typical with photographers, such as quality and contractual obligations.
Must-have paperwork number three is insurance for location gear, in addition to cameras, computers and production printers. Equipment life expectancy is a couple of years now, so any loss will have a costly impact. Since I own my own business-zoned building, I need "brick and mortar" coverage for the structure and contents. Coverage for injury and damage to property of others, both on the premises and on location, are typically included at low cost. The Hill & Usher agency, with whom I’ve worked for many years, has a division devoted entirely to photographers. They provide a simple equipment spread sheet to make scheduling easy. PPA members can also access PPA-sponsored insurance services from Seabury & Smith.
Tip: To protect our precious digital assets, we have backup copies on multiple hard drives in different locations. Images files on DVDs are kept in fire-rated filing cabinets—not a perfect solution, but a buffer against typical wind, water and fire hazards.
The boutique photographer is open to errors of both omission and commission, otherwise known as malpractice. For members, PPA indemnification coverage and consultation with the law firm of Howe & Hutton is like having a little gold brick sitting in your safe deposit box.
Tip: Medical insurance is on everyone’s mind in this election season. For boutique businesses, a C-corporation structure can be an excellent option, because in many states, medical coverage for the principals can be fully funded by the corporation.
Even if you have just 10 to 20 clients a year, your franchise of one needs a collection of other paperwork. Most important in this fourth group of must-haves is computerized invoicing. On my Mac, Pages word processing software provides customizable business templates, including math formulas in the cells. Clients seem to pay quicker with a clean, clear bill. I use an in-house price list, allowing me to quickly reference product sizes, quantity and enhancements. I don’t share this menu of prices with clients, except for few basics like small reprints, senior packages and add-ons. Other necessary paperwork includes order forms and album layout designs. I like the simplicity of analog forms for my small client population, but studio software can certainly work just as well.
Tip: Apple’s address book, e-mail, calendar and word processing are all integrated with each other and with Photoshop and my iPhone. The one-touch contact with every client, vendor and colleague makes business life fun.
Copyright and permissions are the fifth must-have paperwork. With the ease of digital copying and sharing of images, the public doesn’t know or disregards copyright laws. And don’t forget to get your clients’ permission to display or publish images of them and their families. An e-mail with read-receipt encryption is a good way to create a paper trail. Clients who demand total privacy may insist on elimination of any studio usage whatever.
I find that giving the client a release that allows limited personal or corporate image usage rights makes sense for my high-dollar boutique by eliminating my responsibility for storage and for fulfilling requests for little gift prints and accessories that take too much time to be profitable for me.
Sara Frances and her business partner and husband, cinematographer Karl Arndt, own Photo Mirage in Denver, Colo.