ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

The Devil is in The Details

By September 29, 2015 March 31st, 2016 Strictly Business Blog

If you’re a professional photographer and aren’t business savvy or have a partner who is, you’ve most likely signed a bad contract. If you have, you are not alone. Even the greatest rock group of all, The Beatles, signed a few bad contracts in their day because they didn’t bother to read them. Instead, they put their trust in their business manager, Brian Epstein, until Brian’s untimely death in 1967. Who knows if Epstein had the Beatles best interests at heart? It depends on which version of history you read. The record industry is full of examples of musicians who signed bad deals. So is the photo industry.

I’ve been asked to sign many intimidating, lopsided contracts over the years, and almost every time, I was told the contract was not negotiable. That usually proved NOT to be true, but only when I was tenacious enough to question egregious clauses.

Never work without a written contract, not even for people you know well. When things are spelled out in a written agreement and all parties agree, you minimize problems and misunderstandings.


  • When presented a contract – READ IT– you’d be surprised how many photographers I know who don’t. If you don’t understand a clause, then seek guidance of someone who does.
  • When crafting your own contracts – be clear and specific. Who is responsible for doing what and when? Timeframe is another important point to stipulate but many forget to include it in their contracts.
  • Outline payment amount, terms of payment, deliverables and their deadlines. Who is responsible for what? Casting, locations, post-production, talent costs, kill fees, weather postponements, and ownership of the work and rights are all critical components.
  • Get any changes in writing. There are always changes – a shot is added or they need another day. Changes need to be acknowledged and signed off on.
  • Update your contracts. Our industry is rapidly changing. Take out what’s no longer relevant and update your contracts to reflect current needs and morés. For example, when frame grabs from video became good enough to use as still images, I added a clause in my video contracts that prohibits the usage of frame grabs as still images unless they’re licensed separately.


  • Don’t use boilerplate contracts you don’t understand.
  • Don’t over-complicate a contract. When I hire crew, I keep the contract simple and specific to the particular needs of the job.
  • Don’t do handshake deals with friends and family members (or anyone else for that matter). When my daughter and I worked on a film together, (She captured the audio and also shot some stills) I drew up a contract where she maintained ownership of her intellectual property, but granted rights to the film production company, in perpetuity for anything used in the film.
  • Contracts should be negotiated. Don’t think you need to agree to all the terms on someone’s contract, even if you are told; “all the photographers sign it.” If it’s not in your best interests – try to change it or walk away.

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