I’ve been asked a couple of times through email about the usage of contracts in real estate photography. What do I use for contracts to bind my Realtors to my services? As a real estate photographer, how do I protect myself from an agent that may not pay for the services I provided? What about exclusivity or maybe agreeing to reserve a day of the week for an agent on retainer?

No Contracts

For the most part, I don’t operate my business with contracts. I don’t utilize contracts simply for the fact that in my opinion, they add more work to both sides of the transaction than is necessary. If I require agents to sign a contract for each shoot that means I have to prepare the contract and they have to be bothered to sign it. When all I’m doing is providing MLS photos for a property listing, it doesn’t make sense for me to go through the trouble.

Protecting What?

What exactly are you protecting yourself from when you have a contract for real estate photography? Contracts could be used to bind the Realtor to your services in an agreement to pay for the services if you are worried about not being paid. However a couple hundred bucks just doesn’t seem worth the hassle of a contract. Additionally, if the Realtor doesn’t pay, you simply wouldn’t schedule another shoot for them until their account is paid in full. You place the risk on your side, but you are only out a minimal amount of revenue and the client will be happy by not being hassled by a contract.

5134654297_cb4487f426_mInstead of trying to think of a way to protect yourself after something unfortunate happens (like giving photos to a client and then not receiving payment), put your thinking cap on and come up with an idea to prevent the situation from happening in the first place.

Payment Before Photos

One of the best things I ever did when I first started my business was to require payment before the Realtor receives the photos. I knew this was going to be a challenge. Digital media is so accessible and it’s easy to just throw it on a computer and email it. I figured agents would probably want to see the resulting photos before making the requested payment. Kind of like shopping for clothes. You don’t pay first, and then hope for the best once you see the clothes you blindly bought!

What I do is I batch export all of the photos in a smaller sized format, fit inside of an 800×600 window. I then stamp my logo on top and make it quite noticeable. It’s big enough that the agent wouldn’t be able to steal the photo and use it without seeing my logo, but it’s also not so obtrusive that the client can’t get a good look of the photo. Here’s an example:

real estate photography watermark

Showing the client the above image allows them to see your work and be confident in making the requested payment. If they don’t like the end result, great, figure out a way to fix it so both of you are happy, but the client won’t receive the images for as long as you haven’t received payment.

Setting Expectations

I’ve briefly talked about it before, but it’s important to set expectations up front when on-boarding new clients. Letting new clients know how you operate and what to expect will not only help you stay out of sticky situations in the future, but it’ll also show new clients that you mean business. You simply want the best for everyone, and a successful business relationship will only be maintained if both sides respect each other’s duties.

Along with outlining your cancellation and reschedule policies in a new client welcome email, also let them know about how you operate. What should they expect when you arrive at the property? What does it cost for the services they are most likely going to request for all of their listings? What is your turnaround time for the services you provide? How and when do they make payments for scheduled photo shoots?

Contract Usage

In my “bread and butter” business I don’t use real estate photography contracts, but I think there are some valid instances where you might want to draw one up.

  • Commercial Work
    • If you find yourself shooting commercial, whether it be for a retail business’ website or commercial property listings, usually there is going to be a higher service fee attached to the work provided. In these instances I would come up with a contract to let the client know when payment is expected, when delivery of the photos is due and what rights they have regarding usage of the photos.
  • Portfolio/Designer Work
    • Similar to commercial work, these shoots are going to be priced higher than your daily real estate photography shoots. The work is more valuable because the designers, builders and contractors are all going to be using your photos for continued marketing of their business. It’s important they understand where they can/can’t use the photos, especially a designer who may wish to submit the photos to magazines for publication. I completed a shoot for a stager who created the “model unit” of a couple of apartment complexes, and she herself was hiring me and not the apartment complex. So in my contract with her, I stated very clearly that usage of the photos was for her only. I didn’t want the photos to go to the apartment complex and have them fill units by using my photography, without paying for the privilege.
  • Exclusivity/Retainer
    • A big broker might want you to only shoot for them in a specific area. Being exclusive to an agent in a given area requires a contract. How long are you going to be exclusive? How much work must they provide for you to continue being exclusive to them? Another option Realtors might present to you is being on a retainer. If they are busy, they might request one day out of the week that is reserved for shoots only for them. For the same reasons as being exclusive, you will want a contract outlining how long the retainer will last for and what happens when no work is provided for that retainer.
  • Delayed Payment
    • Please don’t do this. But if you find yourself in a situation where you are producing images and are not requiring payment until a later date, then write a contract. In the last four years I did this one time, and I’ll never do it again. I agreed to provide $500 worth of photos and video for a property listing with the payment coming at the time of closing. Obviously the sale of the property is outside of my control. Many factors (hello PRICE!) play a huge role in the sale of a property and shouldn’t limit your ability to receive pay for your work. In my case, I specified in the contract that I would either be paid at closing, or after 6 months, whichever came first. The problem is the agent kept the home on the market and I didn’t feel comfortable requesting payment with the property not selling. The property did eventually sell, but it was a full year before I received my payment.

My Experience

I have only had issues with clients three times that I can remember.

One agent always had an issue with making the requested payment and she always requested the photos, with a promise that payment would be made “in a week”. After getting fed up with chasing her down for payment time and time again, I finally “fired” her. That relationship simply wasn’t worth my time, so I declined to schedule any further shoots with her.

A new client who was referred to me by a trusted existing business relationship also gave me issues. He had placed a lockbox on the door and promised to provide the combo to me prior to the day of the shoot. I sent him multiple emails, including the morning of the day of the shoot, and didn’t receive a response. I called him on my way to the property and gave him ample time to provide the code to me, which he did not. In order to get to my next scheduled shoot on time, I had to leave the property.

I billed him for the cancellation by not providing me access to the property, and I never received the requested fee. However he never contacted me again for a photo shoot, and that’s perfectly acceptable because he isn’t the type of client I want to align myself with.

Shooting real estate photography for busy agents that continue to bring us repeat business is what keeps us afloat. In my last instance of trouble, I had showed up to a property that clearly wasn’t ready for photos. This particular agent always has the property ready so I was extremely surprised to see it in disarray. I contacted the agent and she apologized, stating the seller apparently wasn’t as prepared as they led the agent to believe.

In this case, the agent gladly paid the cancellation/reschedule fee because she values me and my time. She knows I booked that spot for her and drove to the property only to find out I couldn’t shoot it. It was a complete waste of time for me, so the least she could do is pay the fee to help recoup the costs of my time/travel.

What About You?

Do you use contracts? If so, when? Have you ever had an instance where you think a contract helped protect you, or maybe if you had a contract you would have been better off? Share in the comments below!