Photography Contract Basics

The first photography contract dating from 2,600 B.C. (Okay, not really. It's a land sale contract) - by Marie-Lan Nguyen

There are two types of people in photography: Those who get a signed contract before they set foot on a customer site, and those who are going to get burned because they don’t.

Every small business owner should understand contracts and how they work and that’s especially true in photography. You don’t have to be a legal expert, that’s why your lawyer gets the big bucks, but you need to understand them well enough to know when you need one and the basics of what goes into it.

It’s really a bigger topic than can be covered in a single article. The best advice I can give you is to go to your local community college, where almost every one will offer an evening course on contracts for small business owners. Or, at a minimum, get yourself a book on the subject and spend some time familiarizing yourself with the basics and put together some basic boilerplates.

A good contract doesn’t have to be War & Peace, delving into every conceivable aspect of human behavior, just cover the high points.  One of those high points should be a section that says if you have to sue to collect payment that you can also collect attorney fees.

Contract law varies between countries and even from region to region within countries, so make sure you understand the peculiar issues specific to your area. At a minimum, most contracts have to have the following:

The act being contracted for must be a legal activity. The biggest myth I run into is people who think you can mitigate criminal liability by pointing to a contract if you get caught. BZZZT! Wrong. If the contracted activity is illegal, your contract is void and you can be held responsible.

Two or more parties empowered and legally able to enter into a contract. Minors cannot enter into contracts and, if someone is signing for a business, they have to be authorized by the company to obligate the company in contracts. Getting the janitor to sign your contract is probably not going to be valid.

Some consideration. Something of value has to change hands. That can be money, an exchange of services, or almost anything that can be assigned a value.

When you need a contract is almost any time you’re going to be accepting an assignment as a photographer. Sometimes your liability insurance will require you to be under contract before they pay. So, when you watch your Canon 5D MKII or Nikon D7000 tumbling in slow motion horror from the balcony ledge, the insurance company is going to want to know if you were there working or just taking pictures on your own time.

Photography Contract Specifics

Photography contracts have issues that are unique to the business and need to be spelled out in advance. Probably the biggest issue today is who owns the copyright to the photos? In the old days when there was a film lab and later a print lab, it wasn’t unusual for photographers to hold the copyright to images indefinitely. Today that’s becoming more rare. In the digital age customers expect to take their images with them on disk and be able to do what they want with them. Photography is increasingly “work for hire” meaning the customer owns the copyright to whatever you produce while under contract.

Make sure you have that understanding in writing up front. You might be able to trap an unwary customer with limited use rights, but if they later get mad about it, that’s the last you’ll ever see of them. You won’t build a thriving business on misunderstandings.

Model Releases

If you want to use the likeness of an identifiable person in a commercial advertisement, whether they’re are a professional model or not, you’ll need a signed model release.

This is a different situation than merely taking their picture which, technically, you don’t need permission to do if they’re in a public space. Taking their photo and using it for commercial purposes are two different animals.

When in doubt, it’s always better to get a release. When the subject is a minor, you’ll need a release signed by a parent or legal guardian.

Other types of contracts in photography include:

– Independent contractor agreements
– Portrait contract
– Sport Action contract

If you search around on the web, you can find examples of the type of contract you need and there’s also software available for your smart phone and computer tablet that produces releases and contracts right on the spot.

Location Scouting

Don't expect location scouting to be this easy - by Richard Webb

On a recent TFP shoot with a dozen other photographers and selection of models, I received an important lesson about location scouting: Don’t over-think it.

We were all milling around with the models and I walked down the block to start getting an idea of what kind of locations we had to pick from. I was only away for a couple minutes. When I got back everyone else was already out shooting. They had ducked down a back alley behind some remodeled apartments and found a perfect location: Public access, a mix of sun and shade, bold colors, interesting shapes, and a eclectic mix of old and new architecture.

Those are all good qualities to keep in mind when scouting locations, but not the only ones.

Public Access

Like many things in photography, there is more than one school of thought on this subject. There’s the “get permission” crowd and, on the other side of the coin, the “seek forgiveness” types.

For most streets, sidewalks, parks, beaches, and other public places, you don’t usually need permission, provided you’re not hauling a ton of gear or blocking sidewalks or building access. If it’s just you, your subject, and a flash on a bracket, I’ve never had a problem. I can usually get my shots and move on to the next location before anyone even bothers to notice. If you’re constantly changing locations, there’s rarely a problem.

If you’re hauling a lot of gear, need to set up lights and need a power supply, you might want to look into whether you need a permit. Most photographers don’t do this, but if you’re doing a big shoot, it’s worth asking. Start setting up floor lights and a generator on a sidewalk or in a park and you’re going to attract a lot of attention.

Private Property

This is where it gets sticky. Some of the best locations are abandoned buildings, rail yards, junk yards, and other semi-industrial areas. For abandoned buildings it’s frequently difficult to find the owners or the original company may be out of business.

The get permission types will find a the perfect location and seek permission to shoot there from the owners or owner’s representatives. I’ve been pretty successful getting permission. The usual point of contact will be a realtor and I’ve been able to work out using industrial buildings and luxury rental properties in exchange for pictures and video. I’ve also had success working with nightclubs during off hours, yacht rental companies, resort companies and others in constant need of promotional pictures.

If the shots are for use in a commercial context or microstock images and the building is at all identifiable, you’ll need a signed property release anyway. It also helps if you can show the property owners you carry your own liability insurance and offer them a liability waiver.

The seek forgiveness types will sneak in, shoot like crazy, and hope they don’t get caught. Apologetic ignorance is their shield and, to be fair, the vast majority of the time pleading ignorance, apologizing profusely, while offering to immediately pack up and leave works. The cops really don’t want to write trespassing citations, especially if the area is not well marked with signage. Most of the time they just want to make sure you’re not tagging the property or wrecking anything and if you’re polite and right on your way, they’re content to let it go.

Sometimes you can’t really tell and, in those cases, I’m with the seek forgiveness crowd.

Keeping Track of Locations

The best time to scout locations is as you’re about other business. Use your cell phone camera to make notes about locations you happen across. I also carry a bound notebook in my car all the time for making notes.

A spreadsheet is a great way to keep track of your location finds because you can add notes, pictures, contact information, and owner information in one place and keep it all organized.

Lytro cameras lets you focus after you have taken the photo

Lytro, a new camera start up, is trying to make the biggest change in the photography world since the 1800s. Instead of taking a traditional photo that just captures one plane of light their camera captures the entire light field in one shot, this allows you to adjust the focus after a photo is taken. The camera is built on research from the mid-1990s called light field technology, where 100 cameras were required in the same room to produce the same type of photo, Lytro is able to recreate that effect and fit it into your pocket.

The Lytro camera uses a microlens array sensor which captures more light data, from many different angles. Then that data if sent through powerful software that allows you to switch the focus point. In addition the camera is much faster than traditional cameras, there is no shutter lag or autofocusing device, this allows you to take photos faster.
(click the image to set your focus point)

The camera also gives you the feeling of 3D, by reorienting a photo after it is taken. You are also able to take photos in much lower light than regular cameras. When you take a traditional photo you have one opportunity to set the depth of field, while light field camera takes a lot of photos from different locations and angle which allows it to produce this type of image.

The company has raised $50 million to bring their new light field camera to the market. There is a big risk that this might be too much innovation and that consumers will not buy the camera if the price is too high. There is no word on how much the camera will sell for, but they say it will be priced for the “Consumer market” and should be out by the end of the year.

What do you think, is this just a neat feature, or the next innovation in cameras?

(Via NYT and TechCrunch) updated: discussions, pricing from amazon and other retailers, and more

We updated last night, the new release includes: discussions/comments on comparisons and cameras, prices from more retailers including and B&H; Photo Video, more detailed comparisons, and new cameras.


Every comparison page and camera page now hosts a discussion forum powered by Disqus!

For example, you could discuss the Canon T2i vs T1i (two of the hottest SLRs from Canon), or discuss the Nikon Coolpix P100 vs. the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 (two super zoom compacts that record HD video).

Individual cameras also get discussion pages, so you could for example discuss the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10 (a great travel zoom feature 12x zoom in a compact body).

As our discussion pages mention: the intention is that these be used to discuss the cameras (your opinions on them), and but not for feedback on Snapsort, please discuss Snapsort itself at our support community.

Improved Prices

Snapsort now includes prices from, the marketplace (e.g. 3rd party stores selling through Amazon),  B&H; Photo Video, Calumet Photographic and more.

We’re excited to have these great stores on  Having more options means you can find the best place to buy your camera for you, whether that means a store you trust, or a store that has good shipping and/or return policies, or just the store with the best price.

Our pricing pages for SLRs now give some indication as to what lenses each kit includes or doesn’t include, by showing an illustrative graphic.

Finally, through and their marketplace, we now have a fair number of used and refurbished listings. These are clearly marked.  Buying used can be a great way to buy an older camera or get a great deal on a new camera.

More Detailed Comparisons

Our comparisons now consider a few more features including: the size of the camera, the frames per second they record video at and for digicams their best aperture at full zoom.

For example, when comparing the Canon Rebel T2i vs T1i Snapsort tells you that “The Rebel T2i records at a slightly higher frame rate” pointing out that the T2i does 1080p video at 30fps where as the T1i only does 20fps.

As another example, when comparing the Canon Powershot SX1 vs the Panasonic Lumic DMC-FZ38 Snapsort tells us that “At full zoom the Panasonic DMC-FZ38’s lens captures slightly more light (0.7 f-stops)”.

New Cameras

As with most of our updates we’ve included new cameras that have been recently announced or released.

Snapsort now includes a link from the main page to show you some of the most recent cameras.

New Logo

We’ve also got a new logo now! Updated: Popular Comparisons and More

We’ve made another minor update to today!

Here’s what’s new:

1. Popular comparisons on the main page

The welcome page on now features the 6 most popular comparisons by users!

Right now it looks like its quickly become dominated by SLR-SLR comparisons, though for a while the Canon G10 vs Canon G11 was quite popular, and you can see the Canon G11 vs Canon S90 on this screen shot.

2. Popular comparisons for each camera on comparison pages

On each comparison page, we now show 6 popular other cameras that each of the two has been compared against, so you can see what other people have been comparing that camera to.

Here is a screen shot showing the current popular cameras that people have compared against the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1.

3. Quick access to launch a new comparison

We’ve added a comparison search on the top right of the comparison screen, which we hope will make it faster/easier for you to change one of the cameras in the comparison, say you’re comparing one particular model against a number of other models.

4. A laundry list of small fixes including:

5. Small tweaks to the SnapRank algorithm

Point and shoots used to have an unfair advantage against SLRs, that has been improved now, but it still needs work.

6. Added a slightly humorous page to show you if you try to compare a camera against itself 

Try it!