FAQ: Navigating Contracts and Model Releases for Wedding Photography

I received this message in my inbox earlier last week:

Dear Ben,

I recently volunteered to shoot a wedding for free because I realize I’m still in the beginning stages of building my wedding photography portfolio. Because it was for free, I never bothered to draw up a contract; it was essentially a favor I was doing for my friends (actually, my friend’s friends…but that’s neither here nor there at this point). I recently shot their engagement session and found it to be a productive session. Shortly after posting their images up, I received a letter from the bride/groom demanding to have those images taken down.

I’ve complied with the request, because I don’t want any headaches between now and their wedding. What should I do moving forward?


Confounded & Contract-less


Well Confounded & Contract-less, as you probably may have learned already: ALWAYS HAVE A CONTRACT. This always applies, even when you’re doing the job for free. This is to protect yourself, your clients as well as the handling of images you will produce during that photographer-client relationship.

When I first started my photography career, I was only bit once and learned my lesson quite quickly after that. Because I wasn’t a “bonafide” photographer at the time, armed with only a prosumer camera and a paltry portfolio, I didn’t feel like I had any right to demand my clients to sign this, this and that. I remember driving 250 miles to shoot this session only to find myself getting stood up and looking like a complete idiot without anything to show for it. No retainer deposit, no contracts…NOTHING. That’s when I realized I was NEVER going to fall for this EVER AGAIN.

Contracts set expectations from the very beginning, even if you’re doing the booking for free. Clients know exactly what they will get in return for hiring you, and that you’ve committed to be there on their special day. At its very basic foundation, the contracts should identify all parties involved, deposits, deliverables, cost of services and a model release. And while we’re on the subject of model releases…

Ben Lau at Ben Lau Photography at work.

Always get the model release.

90% of our business is derived from referrals and social media outlets, and many of our clients already know that their images will be used in the traditional channels of social media marketing: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc). We remind our clients of only one thing: if we were never able to share our images online, they never would’ve found us, either directly or indirectly. Granted, there are plenty of photographers out there who would gladly honor watertight privacy agreements (ie. celebrity wedding photographers), we just don’t happen to be one of them. The only exception is if we missed something (father of bride making contorted a face in the the background), so under those rare instances we would happily oblige. But the truth is: we very, VERY seldomly miss anything :). We remind our clients that our primary jobs as photographers is to capture our subjects in the best light possible. If there is no trust that we’ll be doing the right thing for them, then there isn’t a strong enough foundation for a good working relationship. Without that foundation, we can no longer guarantee that they’ll get the kind of images they fell in love with in the first place.

Regarding free sessions, I’ve personally never done them. Even when I was a newly-budding photographer, I was still working my tail off to produce some the best images I could possibly create. We were charging $200 a session, and it was a nominal fee for our labor and cost of deliverables. Though we were barely keeping our business in the black by doing these sessions at such a low rate, we treated every sessions like it was the frigg’n World Series by swinging for the fences at every chance. If we were going to fail at in this business, it wouldn’t be for lack of passion.

But if you are to provide your services for free (or for waaaay under market, for that matter), I would still recommend getting a contract and shooting like the superstar you knew you were born to be. By offering your sessions for free, you’ve already lowered your barriers to entry, thus opening up a gazillion cans of worms (a topic discussed in great detail here). What you’ll need to do at this point is to correct the situation by (re)setting the expectations (via a contract) and make sure everyone is on the same page. The contract will allow you to appear more professional, and set the expectation that you’re to be treated as such. Without this written agreement, expectations are vague and either party will just end up feeling jilted in the end.

But congratulations on taking your first steps into the world of wedding photography! It’s not going to be an easy road, but I can promise you it will be a rewarding one.

Hope this helps and keep those cameras click’n!

Ben & Karis

PS – I took the first train available after Hurricane Sandy and found myself arriving to an apocalyptic suburban NJ on Wednesday morning. We immediately packed up the SUV and drove down to my parent’s house in Baltimore to wait until our power in NJ is restored. We remembered to take our computers and hard drives (but left the wires, because we’re that frigg’n GENIUS), so there will be lots of non-photo posts coming up next week! But everyone’s safe and sound, and we look forward to sharing some awesome images with you guys soon!

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Northern NJ, NYC documentary Wedding Photographer, Educator & All-Around Nice Guy

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