Don't be an ass, get a contract.

Don't be an ass, get a contract.

f/5.6, 1/125 sec, at 25mm, 100 ISO, on a Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL

Over the years I have found that there are a few common mistakes that newbies and veterans alike make. The newbie often makes them out of inexperience, and the veteran sometimes out of pure motives and good will, but they are mistakes all the same. I want to share some lessons learned with you, so you can learn from my past mistakes.

Most pros worth their salt work under a contract with a client. Most pros know that contracts spell out both your rights as a photographer as well as the rights of the client, protecting everyone involved. A contract clears up all the guess work and spells out the expectations put on you as the photographer and the expectations you have on the client. It spells out who owns the images once they are delivered. The old adage about assumptions and what happens when you make them is very applicable here. Don’t leave yourself open to becoming that ass. This may sound like a no brainer to most of you, but when it comes to pro-bono work many photographers go into the arrangement without a contract; I urge you to treat pro-bono work in every way the same as your paying work.

Call me selfish or stingy, but I don’t like doing pro bono work. Lots of reasons, the main one is it takes up my time and resources and is never free from my side, only theirs (see David DuChemin’s wonderful post called The Illusion of Free). But we all get asked to do it and at times it really is a good thing to do. But just because you are doing something for good will or the greater good of mankind doesn’t mean you should let your guard down.

I am sure we all have done it. We’ve shot a gig without a written contract, only a verbal agreement. You say, “But it went well.” Sure, this time. But one of these days, out of the blue, the whole thing is going to go south on you. I have the scars to prove it; most NGO photographers do. Getting a formal contract on paper for pro bono work is a simple and important thing to do, but often over looked.

While I am on the topic of often overlooked things, another mistake is to use only the client’s model release forms. What’s that you say, it is a model release. Hello!, that was for the clients best interest not yours. Get your own. Assuming your contract allows it, you may want to use those images later for your own work. So even before the shoot you have to make it clear to the client that you will not shoot the images without your contract and your model release signed. Make your expectations of how you will use the images clear and in ink.

In short, even when shooting pro bono get a contract and a release to protect yourself and your images.

My normal agreement has several variations and go something like this:

  1. If the client pays me the agreed daily rate, plus expenses (travel, lodging, food etc…) they have complete rights and ownership of the images shot under the brief. Anything shot in the location not pertaining to the agreed upon brief will be mine. This is so I will have the freedom to shoot for myself while on location and not fear losing non-contracted images to the client. In this scenario, the client then controls the use of the images under the brief and I have a clear written statement that gives me limited use, e.g. self promotion.
  2. If they do not agree to any of the above conditions, and this happens more often than not, then a new contract is negotiated at a lower daily rate and I retain more rights to the images. After this I might agree to give them unlimited use, but not exclusivity. This is dangerous, though I have done it many times. Why would it be dangerous? What if I take a picture of a pretty little girl and the client sees the value of this image and uses it everywhere. No problem, it is their right. But, then I try to submit it to my stock agency. The stock agency looks at it and loves it, but it is all over magazines with XYZ NGO in their latest ad campaign. The photo has already been branded and is of no value. It might work the other way as well. The agency uses the image and it starts to sell and be seen. Then XYZ NGO now wants to use it and it becomes a mess, as they have rights to it. So this is not always the best scenario. But if they can’t pay full rates you might want to consider finding alternate arrangements to come to a win-win deal.
  3. Always, when shooting any model, whether they are professional or just some friend you hired for the shoot, get your own signed release if you are keeping the images. It has been said before that a release is really only needed if the images will be used for commercial purposes. So technically there is no need for a release for any documentary or feature work. However, to be on the safe side it is always better to default to a signed release if there is any question. Better to have the release on file than find yourself hamstrung later. Quite frankly, most NGOs will require use of one of their own releases, as it fulfills the requirement of their legal department.

I hope this is a help and a reminder to even one of you.

I am preparing for a trip to the US on Sunday. So the posts will be light this week and more than likely non-existent next week.

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  1. jasono

    How does clause 1 work? Do they get to pick form the pool of images or that you have your selections laid out to them?

  2. Matt

    Jasono- It kinda varies. But if the client has a producer or someone along for the shoot giving direction then there is a good chance they get everything I shoot or was instructed to shoot that fits the brief. If I am by myself shooting, then I will send them everything that I feel fits the brief.

  3. jasono

    One more question, and a maybe silly one, how do you start writing a contract? Do we need to start with all those legal mumbo-jumbos or it can be laid out in plain English? Thanks:)

  4. kate

    I’m all on board with getting signed model releases for some of my work. But do I have to go to a lawyer to get one? Or is there a generic one that I could tweak myself?

  5. Matt Brandon

    Jasono – There are a lot of way to do this as well. The best is to work with your client and come up with a contract that both of you can live with. Then asked your client to write it up. Many NGOs have some sort of legal department that will handle things like this. But the fact is any written agreement is better than nothing. It may not be strictly “legal” but it has helped you communicate to your client your needs and helped you hear and understand theirs as well.

    Kate – there are a lot of places on the net to download model releases. I just Googled “model release and came up with some of the ones below. Several of these are branded, so all you need to do is reword them for your name or company.

  6. Gavin

    Wise words Matt. Pity that we have to take such an official view for Pro Bono work but as we both know from experience, it’s definitely the best approach. Thanks for writing this, it’s a valuable lesson.

  7. Jeffrey Chapman

    We should probably think of contracts as being more about clarifying expectations and stipulating results than simply about payment. Pro Bono or paid, it’s always a good idea to have expectations clearly agreed upon by all parties before shooting. Unfortunately, I’m definitely guilty of shooting with nothing more than a verbal agreement or a (far too) simple email agreement. Your blog post will now stick in my head as a great reminder to get a contract. Thanks, and enjoy your trip stateside.

  8. Matt

    Why Gavin, I have no idea what you are talking about!

    Jeffrey- I think you are spot on as my British friends would say. Unmet expectations can be the nail in the proverbial coffin.

  9. Chris Ward

    I like how Jeffrey phrased it about clarifying expectations.

    Matt, it does seem like you have a few stories up your sleeve…

  10. Vanessa Jackman

    An excellent article and reminder Matt.
    On the pro bono side of things, I used to do a fair bit of legal aid work in my previous life – crikey, it was some of the toughest work (both time wise and client wise) I had to do….

  11. Vanessa Jackman

    An excellent article and reminder Matt.
    On the pro bono side of things, I used to do a fair bit of legal aid work in my previous life – crikey, it was some of the toughest work (both time wise and client wise) I had to do….

  12. KIm

    Agreed wit everything you’ve said about photographer’s negotiation.
    Have you found the contract, which can be used as template contract for photographer?



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