This is a un-sugarcoated look into what life is really like when you walk away from the steady paycheck and enter the world of being self employed. I will be sharing my experiences, thoughts, and anything else that comes my way as I navigate the waters of being a full-time photographer. To see the rest of the articles in the series, click here.
Defining and Adhering To Studio Policies
Owning and running a photography business, be it full-time or part-time is hard work. You have to market, network, take meetings, write emails, edit, and somewhere during your day you might actually make a few photographs. Truth be told, I spend more time dealing with the business side of things, than I do making images, and that’s ok with me. I knew once I established my business I would have to dedicate a large part of my time to administrative tasks.
With that said, I would like to touch on a topic which is not often written about, but extremely important to your business success: creating and adhering to your studio policies. Throughout the article, I’m going to use wedding photography as my example, because that’s what I know best, but all the topics I’m going to touch upon could be applied to other genres of photography.
When I first started my business, I knew I needed to set some standards or policies to run my business by, but honestly, I had no clue what to do the right way or the wrong way. For example, should I offer discounts to clients? How much should I charge for a retainer when booking a client? What terms should I have in my contracts? Not having any friends at the time that ran successful photography businesses, I flocked to the Internet for knowledge.
SLR Lounge had a lot of great resources to help me get started and a quick Google search also lead me to other blogs and websites with even more information. All that initial guidance was great and helped me, just like I’m trying to help you in writing this article, but in the end, the best teacher is experience and time. Over the years, I’ve had to make changes to my business policies, and I still make changes as needed. Below, I’m going to share with you some real world examples of the policies I’ve had to create and adhere to, no matter if a client likes them or not.
Three Important Studio Policies
Let’s get this out of the way right now, clients are going to ask you for a discount at one point or another and you need to decide early on if you want to offer them or not. There are photographers that claim that discounts devalue you and your brand and there are also photographers that use discounts all the time with great success. I personally fall somewhere in between. I don’t tend to discount my services, but there is a time and place where I do.
I offer a discount on products such as albums or prints periodically throughout the year. I don’t advertise them publicly and only send those discounts to current and past clients, never to the general public. To me, I see it as more of thank you for being a client, by offering a five to ten percent discount on a wedding album or print more than a discount to drum up extra cash. By offering these discounts to my clients, it also helps to keep my name on the tip of their tongue and they tend to refer me business because of it. It’s a discount like this that I feel can help your business more than hurt it.
I also offer a small discount on my wedding albums during the booking process. I have wedding packages that include albums at a discounted rate because I want my clients to purchase an album to remember their wedding day, plain and simple. I know there is a lot of money being spent planning a wedding and if I can offer my clients a break on their total investment to get a beautiful album in their hands, I’m all for it. This mentality has helped me, not hurt me.
I will never offer a client a discount if they straight up ask for one. If they are coming to me to get the best price possible, I’m not their photographer. I’m one who believes that if a client wants to work with you, they will pay your fee, plain and simple. Why should I give them a discount? My rates are what they are because I need to charge that amount to run my business and live my life. I didn’t pluck my rates out of the sky hoping they would sustain my business and myself. I spent countless hours crunching numbers to figure out what I need to charge, and I make changes as needed. I value my product and the services I provide a client and all that comes at a price. You don’t walk into Tiffany & Co. demanding a discount and expect them to take you seriously, do you?
You need to find what works for you, but it’s not a sin to offer or not offer discounts, just find what works for you and stick to it. If you do offer discounts, be prepared to offer them to all your clients, because clients might refer someone to you and mention the discount you gave them and that new client might expect the same.
2. Lowering Your Deposit For a Client
When booking a client, we all tend to require a non-refundable deposit and signed contract to reserve a client’s date or session with us. I use the term retainer, because it holds a little more weight, legally, in terms of having to provide a refund if a client cancels on you, but that’s a discussion for another day. Either way, one policy I have for my business is that the retainer is non-refundable and is a set amount of money that I will not change for any client for any reason.
Every photographer chooses to set an amount they want up front and I’ve seen deposits range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. I personally charge a $1,000 and that amount will probably change in the future as my rates go up. $1,000 is the amount of money I feel comfortable receiving to take a wedding date off my calendar. Why? Well in the event the wedding is canceled, there is good chance I will not be able book the day with a new client. I need to be compensated for taking a day off my calendar. It’s not personal, it’s just business. If a client cancels their wedding I feel bad for them, but I also just took a hit financially myself for the reasons I explained above.
I recently had a potential client ask if I would be willing to accept a lower amount of money as my retainer. I explained professionally why I would not and, in the end, did not book that client. While I would have liked the business, I refused to go against the business policies I’ve created. Asking to change terms of your contract opens the door for clients to start demanding more changes. It’s the classic, if you give them an inch they will take a mile.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you will need to make changes to your contract for certain clients, but when it comes to money, I have terms that I stick to and will not change. I highly suggest you do the same. We are running a business, not a fly by night operation that we will change our terms for any client who makes a demand.
Have you ever done a paying job without a contract? I sure hope not, because if so, you’re gambling big time. In a perfect world, both photographers and clients would never sue one another, or go on national TV claiming a photographer was holding their wedding images hostage over having to pay an additional $150 for an album cover, but that’s not the case and so you need contracts. I’ve never done a paying job without a contract. (I did a few of my first jobs for free because I didn’t have a contract made yet, but really wanted to work with those clients).
Photography contracts can be minimal or extensive, and can cover terms such as when payments are due, down to requiring a meal if you’re shooting a client’s wedding. I can’t really tell you exactly what to write into your contracts, because I’m not a lawyer and we all run our business differently, but don’t feel bad about having an extensive contract that clients must agree to when working with you.
My contract has terms of payment, a model release, and delivery times, for example; along with a slew of other terms to protect both clients and myself. No matter what you do, make sure you are comfortable with the terms of your contract and can explain each term to a client if they ask.
If you’re just starting out or are someone who has not put much thought into your contracts, I highly suggest talking to a lawyer or checking out thelawtog.com. This is not a shameless plug for The Law Tog, but a recommendation from someone who has paid for and uses their contract templates. Their contracts are written by a lawyer and tailored to our needs as photographers. So, if you have no idea where to start with a contract or need a better contract, I cannot recommend The Law Tog enough.
When it’s all said and done, you need to create business polices that you’re comfortable adhering to with not just your clients, but yourself. While not fun, every strong business has policies in place that they follow. Just because you’re a creative doesn’t mean you cannot think like a business, because at the end of the day, as professional photographers we are businessmen and women first and photographers second.
Till next time, keep shooting, building your business, and embrace the hustle!
CREDITS: Photographs by Chris Nachtwey have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.