Like most things in photography…it depends.
What type of photography you do, what your business model is, and what type of clients you deal with all factor into answering this question.
But in general, you should be collecting as much of the payment up front as you feel comfortable with.
I recommend 50% upfront and 50% on delivery for most shoots (family portraits, senior shoots, etc), but don’t ask for so much for a wedding if you’re a high-dollar photographer. Maybe $1,000 upfront for a wedding and the balance on delivery.
-Jim Harmer, Improve Photography
This is a great start, but in order to run your business effectively, you need to know why that is an effective approach and how to modify it based on your own needs.
So let's look at a few specifics, starting with the big mistake many photographers make that can cost them a lot of money…
Deposit vs. Session Fee
This is the big mistake that most photographers make.
No matter the type of shoot, you should collect a fee upfront to hold the date.
BUT, this fee is NOT a deposit, because in many states a “deposit” is always refundable.
Instead, you are charging them a fee to hold the date they want. You are being compensated with money and in return you agree to stop advertising to others for that date. You are giving up other business opportunities to give that time slot to someone. That has a value to you and you need to charge for doing that.
In contract law terms, this is a bargained for exchange of value that both sides have agreed to. Not just a deposit paid for services not yet rendered. You should take some time to familiarize yourself with the laws in your state or country regarding this or consult an attorney if you don't know where to find this information.
More importantly, you want to make this clear in a contract with your client. In most (possibly all) cases, no matter what the law is about deposits, you can make it explicit in the contract that the initial fee is non-refundable. This is a bargained-for agreement for you to stop advertising your services for a particular day. Please link to our photography contracts package, which include this language in there, and the contracts are only $15.
Of course, you are free to make the terms more client friendly if you think it will help your business. It is common to see terms that allow for the fee to be refunded (or partially refunded) if they cancel early enough (usually specified in the contract as a specific date or a specific amount of time before the shoot date). You just want to make sure that time frame is enough for you to fill in the date with another shoot so you can keep your business running.
Wedding and event photographers are being paid to cover an event (and frequently do some amount of on site portrait photography as well). So your payment structure needs to reflect this aspect of your business.
For a wedding or event you most certainly need some payment before the event. There are a few reasons for that.
Holding The Date
Weddings and other events are usually booked long in advance.
You need to keep this in mind when structuring your booking fee. Do you usually book weddings more than six months ahead of time? Then you better not be giving full refunds to people that cancel a month in advance because you know the chances of refilling that time slot with a last minute wedding is pretty slim. On the other hand if you shoot other types of events and know that you can get another gig with 15 days notice, then you can afford to be more generous with the grace period.
The way I would suggest structuring this would be a three part payment plan. Whatever the full payment for your wedding package would be…divide that in three.
- The first payment should be due upon booking.
- The second payment should be due between a few months before the event.
- The third payment should be due after the event but prior to you ordering any prints or albums.
The first two payments should be enough for you to cover your expenses and make enough profit to keep the lights on in your studio. Then you can require the third payment prior to spending any money on prints or albums. For a wedding, that probably means sending a reminder invoice after the wedding and expecting to be paid when they get back from the honeymoon (or sooner if a family member has paid for the wedding).
I would avoid collecting payment on the wedding day. They have enough to worry about that day and showing up telling them you need your money or no photos is a really quick way to get bad reviews and no referrals. You want to be the one helping them avoid stress on that day, not causing it.
This is a little different for corporate events because they expect to be writing out checks to all the vendors on the day of the event, but you should still be doing it in a way that makes for a good client experience.
If you planned out the payments properly, then you shouldn't have to be pushy with that third payment beyond some gentle reminders because you have more than covered expenses up to this point. That leads to a good client experience and probably more referrals.
You are going to have costs to cover an event or wedding and need to account for those costs.
Even if this is your first wedding and your business bank account is currently zero, you shouldn't be going into debt or using credit cards to get what you need to cover the event. You can read more about building up your kit as a professional here.
You need to look into things like second shooters, assistants, permits if there are on location portraits included in the day, specialized gear that you need for this event, and anything else that you need to produce good work for this event. You should have a general idea of these costs before you even meet with the client and incorporate them into your structured fee.
This is an aspect of pre-payment that a lot of people overlook. Until you have money in your hands, you don't really have a shoot booked.
Sure, you could have a contract that requires them to pay eventually and if they back out last minute you can sue them in small claims court for the fee. But the court filing fee alone, not to mention the time spent, the bad publicity, and the potential for lawyer's fees all make this a terrible business model to rely on.
Once someone hands over some money, you know they are committed to having you as their photographer. They have some skin in the game at that point. A lot of people might sign a piece of paper saying they want you to shoot their wedding even if they aren't sure, but very few people will hand over some cash if they aren't sure.
One of the best things about portrait photography is that you can get very creative with your business model and marketing because a portrait shoot itself does not typically require a huge time or money investment (there are exceptions of course).
For a portrait session, you really should have a “session fee” that must be paid in full when booking.
How much that initial fee is and what to include in it will depend on how you run your business.
Digital Delivery Business Model
Do you just give your client the digital files from the image and leave it at that?
You're probably missing out on a lot of income but that's not what we're talking about here.
If you are giving the client all the digital images, you should be charging a significantly higher session fee than a photographer that sells prints (more on that below). You can break it up into a booking fee and a final payment that is due prior to delivery or you can have them pay it all up front.
The deciding factor should be figuring out how much you need per session to be fairly compensated for the time you spent shooting and editing. That should be your session
Print Sales Business Model
I've already written a few articles on the benefits of print sales and in person sales so we won't go into that a lot here, but I don't think there is any debate that it's the best way to go for portrait photographers.
As a photographer that earns income from print sales, you can afford to be more creative with you session fee. You can make it lower or even give away sessions for free, knowing that once people see your amazing work, you'll make sales on the back end.
The way I currently have my fee structured is a session fee that includes a credit towards prints. I require a client to pay the entire session fee up front.
I do it this way for two reasons.
First, I want clients to feel like they can get all they need with the session fee. The print credit included with the session fee is slightly more than I charge for two 8×10 prints. So if someone just paid the session fee and used the credit, they would feel as though they received a complete product. I don't want people coming away from a session with me feeling like they were tricked into spending more than the session fee in order to get anything.
But second, it is structured that way to ensure they are in the mindset of buying prints from the very beginning. If you go to my website, you'll see a mix of images and mock ups of those same images hanging on walls. During my initial meeting, I talk about print sales. Every step of the way, the client is reminded that the ultimate goal is print sales, and the pricing structure is part of this.
Commercial/Headshot/Fashion/Real Estate Photographers
This is a really broad category but I put them all together because these genres usually deal with digital images exclusively rather than prints.
Also, more often than not, these types of photographers are compensated either by the hour, by the job, per image, or a combination of all three.
I don't want to spend that much time on these types of shoots because the terms can vary widely and are largely dependent on the bargaining power of the client hiring you. You might be able to negotiate more favorable terms with a local store than you would with a large corporation.
But the general lessons above still hold true. Make sure you have your expenses covered and are compensated for the time spent.
If you are interested specifically in headshot photography, check out this pricing guide.
Get paid up front. Your time has value and if you are going to commit that time to someone, there is nothing wrong with asking to be compensated not just for the time itself, but also for setting that time aside for someone.
Know the laws in your state or country regarding deposits and fees.
Structure your business model and fees in a way that takes pressure and stress off of you AND your clients so that you can focus on a good client experience and developing a relationship with them that doesn't always come back to getting paid.
I'd love to hear what experiences you've had with the topics covered here or any questions you might have. So leave them in the comments below…