Do You Need Contracts for Real Estate Photography Shoots?

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!

Want to share? Have at it!

40 thoughts on “Do You Need Contracts for Real Estate Photography Shoots?”

  1. I appreciate the information, and you have valid perspectives but your discourse on no contracts makes me a bit apprehensive. It seems as though you’re implying that presenting a contract to a client would in fact alienate the prospective client(s) and possibly cause you to miss a job. How can one truly be comfortable operating without a reference of terms and conditions that would essentially protect yourself as well as the client?

    • The protection you are given via a contract in this business/industry doesn’t offer enough protection to outweigh the hassle of having contracts. If a new client doesn’t follow through with an appointment, I’m out a couple of hundred bucks, and I never see them again. That’s a rarity. Now if I were running a business like a staging company where I had inventory being placed and left in a home, I would have contracts to make sure anything that gets damaged by the homeowners is fully replaced when the sale of the home is complete and I remove my items. The amount of money and time that goes into each appointment in this business is so minimal that I don’t see the point in having contracts for every shoot. If you were to go on a commercial shoot and you have thousands of dollars in play, then that would change my opinion on having a contract.

  2. What about liability? If something is broken during the shoot (window, cabinet, etc.), or if someone is somehow injured (trips over a jib, light cord, etc.)… albeit highly unlikely, wouldn’t a contract be safer for all parties? I am interested in this side of the business, but liability, especially with aerials now in the mix, seems important.

    • I carry $2 million in liability insurance just for that purpose. If I break something, if someone trips over my equipment, etc, I’m covered. My insurance specifically does NOT cover aerial. In fact I’m not even sure if you can get that covered? If you can, it might be pretty expensive? I think as a business it’s important you cover yourself and have the necessary coverage in place for a disaster. I think that’s best handled through insurance though, not a contract. It shows you are more responsible if you put the burden on yourself (through insurance) than if you put the burden on your client. For example if your contract stated you are not liable for any damages, that doesn’t send a good message to your client. But this is just my way of handling things, and it’s important you do what YOU need in order to be comfortable operating your business. You may feel comfortable having insurance AND a contract, and that’s perfectly acceptable. 🙂

      • I’d like to avoid contracts, so I really appreciate and respect your approach. Do your real estate clients ask to be additionally insured or require insurance certificates? The aerial coverage I’m looking into is called Aerial Pak by Hill & Usher. Since RE photography is new to me I’d like to have all my ducks in a row, so to speak, prior to soliciting business. The aerial component is a nice add-on feature that I can offer, but not unless I can prove coverage. There have been far too many “drone” horror stories in the news lately.

        • Not a single client has ever asked me about insurance coverage. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t care, or if they just assume that I’m running my business with appropriate coverage. I think a lot of them also think that what I’m doing is so minimal (just a tripod and a camera) that they aren’t worried about insurance/coverage. However for me personally, I need coverage because I know if some freak accident happens, I need to feel comfortable that I can take care of it and my business isn’t going to be lost. You’ll need to talk to an insurance agent about aerial coverage as I haven’t looked into it. I would imagine it might be a little tricky.

  3. I have not started working as a real estate photographer yet. I am still gathering the baseline knowledge before I take the next step. I have a (semi) successful photography business and I thought I might be able to supplement with some real estate work. I came across your website today and I just wanted to thank you for taking the time and energy to put all of this information in one, easy access, place….and for FREE!! You should at least put out a “tip jar” 🙂
    Thanks again!!

    • Thanks for the kind words Rob! I have affiliate links through Amazon (mostly on my Equipment page) that give me a tiny percentage of sales. If you end up needing to buy any of the equipment I use feel free to use those links and it’ll “tip” me a bit. 🙂 Good luck adding real estate photography to your business!

  4. What do you do in the event that a listing gets handed off to a new realtor and they request the photos you shot previously for the original realtor? Do you charge them the same price? I had one tell me that they paid the original realtor already for the pictures and requested that I send them to him at no charge.

    • I actually just recently had this happen! So let me answer the standard version.. If an agent contacts me and wants to purchase photos because they have taken over for a listing, I would charge full price. Why should I charge a discount, when they probably aren’t discounting their commission? And if they are, shame on them! 🙂 The usage of those photos is going to the same purpose – to market the property of the home. So I should get paid the full amount, again, even though it requires no work from me.

      Most likely that new agent probably won’t be your client. This happened to me just the other week. A regular agent of mine lost a listing, and she contacted me saying AgentB is taking over the listing, and AgentA is going to sell the photos to AgentB. I said I apologize, but that’s not how the licensing works. You purchased the photos for YOU to market the property. It is unfortunate that the listing has been taken over by AgentB, however I retain the copyright to the photos and agents are not allowed to sell my property. If AgentB wants to use the photos, please have him contact me so he can purchase them directly from me.

      Want to take a guess if that agent ever contact me? He didn’t. Most likely because he knew he was going to pay full price, he’s not a client of mine, and he probably had photos done cheaper elsewhere.

      If you are dealing with two really good clients, I would be careful in being too strict. It’s one shoot, one payment. A relationship with a Realtor is worth more than this rare occurrence, where photos are going to be bought for a second time. Really think about your position before you make a decision, and make sure it’s best for you long-term, not just the quick payment.

  5. I got a wealth of knowledge from reading your article. What much do you charge your client for cancellation fee if the house isn’t ready, or if the door is locked and you are not able to take the pictures on your scheduled time?

    • Good to hear Josh! I have two fees that are charged:

      1. $75 – Cancellation/Reschedule within 24 hours of scheduled appointment time and I haven’t made a trip to the property yet.
      2. Full Shoot Amount – If I show up to the property and can’t access it, or it gets canceled for some reason when I get there, etc. The agent pays full price because I could have filled that spot with another paying shoot…and now I have lost income plus my time. A rescheduled attempt is billed as a full-price, second shoot.
  6. Lance,
    Thanks for the tips. i’m transitioning into more RE photography. I did look into aerial insurance and it is in the $1500 – $2k/yr. range which includes indemnification and equipment. This quote was from Hill & Usher for photographers.

    Some insight for those shopping:
    Drone Liability Coverage:
    UAV – unmanned aerial vehicle
    1yr. – $1,500/$2500 ded. owned property(drone & camera is not covered takeoff, landing or in flight)
    $0 ded liablity
    $0 ded. bodily injury

  7. Lance,

    I’m sorry but I have a huge problem with this, I have been in the industry for over 30 years now and I don’t open my camera bag unless I have something in writing and a deposit. I have learned the hard way that it is worth the “hassle” of signing contracts, contract spell out what is expected from both sides from not just price but cancelations, copyright, and penalties for non payment. You say a couple hundred is not worth the hassle is irresponsible and bad business, again I learned long ago that I am not a non-profit, a hundred here and a hundred there adds up real quick. Even if you don’t do a individual for each property, you should have a blanket contract with the realtor or broker setting what is expected on paper. God willing I have not had to go to court, but friends who have told me that Judges don’t like verbal contracts.

    • I disagree, but that’s the great thing about running our own businesses, we can run them however we feel necessary! For me if someone doesn’t pay, I lose $200 and they don’t get put on my calendar until they pay. In the 5 years I have done this, I haven’t written a single contract, and I’ve been out…maybe 3 shoots? And those 3 shoots aren’t regular clients who I earn my money with. They are always new clients who end up flaking out for some reason or another. For new clients now, I require full payment up front for their first shoot but I don’t sign a contract or anything. They receive an email that states appropriate usage for the photos and expectations for working with me. But because this business is built mostly on relationships and repetitive business, there’s no need for me to deal with contracts – instead I focus on the positives of not making it a nuisance, and spend my time/energy building strong relationships with clients who don’t have bad intentions.

      • I don’t think you understand, contracts or any written agreement is the first and last defense for the business owner. If something goes south and nothing is in writing, you the business owner have very little recourse. Now it is great that you have had such great luck, in my own experience I have had maybe three or four times not having a contract has caused problems in 30 years. That said I have had times where I am glad I had something in writing, as well as my client, because there are people more than willing to take advantage of us, and be honest there are some real sleazy agents out there. I don’t like telling people you have to sign this piece of paper which spells out what should be common sense, but it is part of doing business and my business and reputation is EVERYTHING to me.

        You say that you only build strong relationships with clients with good intentions, but not everyone has good intentions, add to that if they know you don’t require a contract the chances that someone will take advantage of you is greater. It is very Pollyanna to think that you will only deal with honest and reputable clients, in my years I have had many that started great only to show their true colours down the line. If you think it is not important to have the things in writing ask the agents if they sell houses on a hand shake, though days are gone, no agent worth their salt would go into ANY agreement with their client without something in writing.

        You also seem willing to write off $200 and expect that they will pay when you don’t book them again, I am not sure about your market but in this area there are more then enough photographers willing to be hired. So an agent could make the circuit and not pay for at least a year. We also had the fun this year of a bitter cold winter from January to March, everyone saw a drop in at least 30% of their business, so writing off even $50 was not really an option as many of us were dipping into reserves and praying for a mild spring.

        I think my biggest challenge is that you are teaching others as an expert in the field, not taking into account the concept that not everyone may have your good luck. It is irresponsible to tell people that they do not need a contract just because you think it is a hassle or have never had a problem. My advice is to have something in writing to cover you just in case, which is what a contract is for, so that if the organic fertilizer hits the air circulating devise you have some recourse to protect you.

        • One of the great things about the Internet is I can share my opinion and my experiences, and you can too. And people will choose which route they want to go. I never said I was perfect, I never said this is how you are supposed to run your business. This is how I run mine and if you choose to run it like I do, great! If you choose other ways to run your business, great! My hope and goal of this website was to create a place for real estate photographers to see how I do things and hopefully help them along the way.

          Your insight from many years in the industry is something people can learn from and I’m sure whoever is reading this will appreciate your input you have inserted into the comments. 🙂

        • “I don’t think you understand, contracts or any written agreement is the first and last defense for the business owner”

          That comes across as very condescending. He’s aware of the basic concepts of contracts. Thanks, Tips.

          As was pointed out, everything here is just an opinion. I happen to agree that if the subject comes up just once or twice every few years, then it’s not worth the hassle over such a small amount of money. It takes time and energy by both parties to get contracts signed, and I feel more time and energy is spent just doing that than the dollars make it worth. You may lose money once in a blue moon, but you lose time by sending and ensuring contracts get signed, every time. Add all those minutes up on both sides (the client spends time reading the contract and returning it) of the equation and the math just doesn’t add up for me. If it does for you, knock yourself out. I thought this was a very good article and I appreciate what’s written here and I take it for the opinion that it is.

      • Hi Lance,
        I stumbled upon this conversation thru a search for “RE photography contract templates.” So incredibly helpful! I know this conversation is quite dated, but I just wanted to say thank you for putting this out there. I am going to look into the other information you have on the web as well. I have been doing photography for 17 years; mostly weddings, portraits and events. I recently opened up a “Photique” (catchy word that means I’ll do pics and retail) near Yosemite National Park. It’s a very small community in the town of Groveland, but next to a large HOA with a lot of custom homes and lots and lots of realtors in town are excited that I’m here. Anyway….you saved me a couple of my precious hours with your great advice. Thanks!
        Roni Lynn
        fb Roni Lynn Photography
        ig ronilynnpix

        • Awesome, glad you are finding the info useful Roni! Remember just because I say it doesn’t mean it’s how you should run your business. As evidence by the comments to this post… haha But it’s how I do it, and what works for me, so take it for what it’s worth. 🙂

  8. Great article, thanks for taking the time to write it.

    Do you know where I can download a template of a contract?

    My commercial client is asking for one.

    Thanks so much

    • No I am sorry I don’t know of one off the top of my head. Perhaps you could check out PPA, I bet if you become a member they have contracts for you to use.

  9. “Most likely that new agent probably won’t be your client. This happened to me just the other week. A regular agent of mine lost a listing, and she contacted me saying AgentB is taking over the listing, and AgentA is going to sell the photos to AgentB. I said I apologize, but that’s not how the licensing works. You purchased the photos for YOU to market the property. It is unfortunate that the listing has been taken over by AgentB, however I retain the copyright to the photos and agents are not allowed to sell my property. If AgentB wants to use the photos, please have him contact me so he can purchase them directly from me”

    You said those words in a response to someone’s query above, but yet, you say you don’t do contracts? When you start talking about who has what copyright to what picture, then, the way I see it….is yes…. copyrights made a necessary evil. Otherwise, you’re going to find yourself staring at pictures ( & I’m talking the most excellent ones you have taken) on the cover of some touristy magazine, highlighting the house you took pictures of so many years ago, being used as bait to get said tourist into their town as a resident. So, that being said…..would it NOW be beneficial to have contracts, because as we all know….just you telling the RE agent ( or ANYONE you go into agreement with, for ANYthing) that “Hey, you have the rights to these photos as you see fit.” I don’t think I would want to see the sweat of my brow being splashed on the cover of ANY touristy magazine or ANY OTHER form of media, unless it was ME who gave them permission to do so. This is the whole argument behind pirated videos & music, BTW. So, doesn’t the same apply to RE photographers. But at the beginning of the article… you DID say you don’t run YOUR business utilizing contracts, that’s not saying a “no contract” policy is good for EVERY RE photographer, right?…or no?

  10. Hi,

    thank you for your article. I also do it for my photography: first getting paid than give the pictures to the client. However I’m afraid of being sued for something. There are many things you can do wrong as a real estate photographer, like you edit the picture in a wrong way: the potential clients come over to see the house you were photographing and they figure out, that it looks different as on your photo. F.e. the color of the ground was different or through a great perspective they didn’t see a hole in a wall. This leads to wasted time for your clients for coming over. And they oder your agent sue you for taking wrong pictures. What do you do in that situation?

    Best regards, Sonia

    • That is a very extreme situation that I don’t foresee happening. If it did, I would question thd weight of the contract based off my personal experience in US court, where the contract was deemed irrelevant (in another field, not real estate photography).

  11. Thanks for some excellent advice on Real Estate Photography. I take real estate photos for a friend who is an agent. Her agency wants a proposal from me to take shots for all the agents! Very excited.
    Enjoyed 😉 reading all the comments here.

  12. Thank you for this great article, I agree with you and if my photo ends on the cover of a magazine, all I would claim for is that my name is included as the author- which all magazines usually do anyway. I would benefit muchmore from business generated by the marketing exposure than by claiming a fee. Just my two cents.


  13. Very good discussion from Lance and all those leaving comments. FWIW, I intend to begin some small scale real estate photography for a friend/real estate agent without the encumbrance of written contract (beyond invoicing). But if my skills and reputation lead to much more work, or more involved work, demanding significant portions of my time, that’s when written contracts become important. As much as I trust my friend, I do not trust the general real estate agent pool to be as fair with me as I will be with them.

    I think I agree with both points made that risking a couple hundred bucks is not worth much legal hassle, but risking a 30 yr reputation certainly is. Since I probably don’t have 30 years left, but wish to leave a legacy of skill and professionalism, I’m clearly in the middle ground.

    • Good points Rick! Glad you found the site and enjoyed the discussion. It’s definitely a “do what works for you” question!

  14. This is the situation that I find myself in. RE photography has turned into the biggest part of my business. However, I am currently down 30% over this time last year. After some research, this is what I have found.

    I photograph a lot of spec homes for agents selling for builders. That kept me very busy for a while. Once I noticed the drop, I realized that the agents are using images that I have taken of a spec home to sell the same model in at a different location. This is really cutting into to my gross income. Unfortunately, there is no contract. I know that I own the image and have the right to ask the agents to take those images down. But now I risk alienating the very agents with whom I have established relationships. In some cases it has amounted to a few thousand dollars per agent.

    Any advice?

    • Never thought of that Rick, very interesting indeed. I don’t know that I have ever experienced that, but at the same time I haven’t researched/looked! I mostly shoot lived-in properties. If they are vacant, somebody moved out. So they aren’t builder/spec homes that are brand new.

      If you have areas that are being built out I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all to create a contract. Or maybe some type of verbiage that you attach to emails that states when you schedule a shoot with me, you agree to the following terms. And state that photos are for the sale for that specific property only. I would even give an example, that photos are not to be used for other spec homes in the future that have the same finish outs/layout. Photos will need to be re-taken at the new property, or the old photos can be re-licensed. This way agents are clear from the beginning of your stance.

      Sorry you are going through that, hopefully you can work something out that makes you feel comfortable and doesn’t provide push-back from your current agents.

  15. With regard to contracts, I think I will take a hybrid view. I suggest contracting once with an agent or agency for 5 years that covers all of your shoots. I would not cover pricing. Lay out the rules regarding staging, use of photos, cancellations, etc. I would include that neither party is obligated to future performance, however, if you do hire me for further shoots this contract applies. If you are a PITA or I move or whatever, I am not obligated to work for the agent/agency again if I so choose.

    That might be enough for some people.


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