Deposits vs. Retainers – and why you need them
Have you ever been stood up by a client, or had them show up to the session and say they would have to send you the money later? Y’all, in my earlier days of running this photography business, I have been in those shoes and if you have too then this blog post is a must read for you!
A definitive deposit or retainer plan is an essential contract policy for a successful photography business. You know your time is money! Almost every photographer has had a terrible experience with absentee clients, procrastinators, and no-shows; with these clients, you have most likely lost out on other business opportunities – you know, the family that you had to turn down because you were booked? They wanted to show up for that session that you were just ghosted at.
To help protect yourself as a photographer, it is essential to your business success to clearly establish your deposit/retainer policy in your contracts. You must establish a refund policy that works for you. This encourages the client’s understanding that your time is valuable and gives your client a financial motivation to show up for the shoot. I haven’t had a single person cancel on me since implementing this into my business, reschedule due to illness? Sure. But totally cancel and lose their retainer money? Nope.
So what are the differences between and retainer and a deposit? Simply, a retainer is a fee paid in advance to a you, which secures the right for your client to have your services when they are required. Typically, retainers are not refundable. You either use them within a given period of time or lose them. A deposit is a payment made by your client to show good faith that they intend to complete his end of the transaction, with the balance being paid on a future date. Here’s a main difference: deposits can be either refundable or non-refundable.
You can decide to have a refundable or non-refundable deposit/retainer. Whichever you decide, just make sure it is included in the signed contract!
The Law Tog writes that “Generally, while non-refundability language is a key contract inclusion, we recommend the use of the terms “retainer” or “fee” when non-refundability is desired.” However, they caution “to think twice about using retainer in your photography contract, however, because this definition has often been interpreted by the courts as having a meaning specific to the practice of law and does not carry over in a substantive way to the photography business.”
Having learned the hard way, I recommend you check with your contract lawyer to determine the best way to protect yourself and your business with non-refundable retainers or deposits. I will never show up to a session or wedding again not having been paid prior.
My most common practice these days is to have the session or wedding paid in full before I ever leave my house. Typically, with a wedding, the balance is due a full calendar month prior to the wedding date and although I do not do as many family or senior sessions any longer, they must be paid in full one week prior to the session.
Just remember, you do what is right for you and your business – use common sense and common courtesy to make sure your clients know they are taken care of and that their selection of you as their photographer means the world to you. Life gives us lemons, y’all – illnesses and emergencies can (and will!) happen.
Magan Ward is a photographer, wife, mom of 3, and educator to fellow photographers. She has an unhealthy obsession with Chick-Fil-A mac and cheese, and has a bit of a love affair with dry shampoo – something she tried to avoid for years until the pandemic of 2020 occurred rendering her dependent upon the waterless revelation that saves her time, something now used to instead apply nutella to waffles for tiny humans.
Putting that Masters in Education to good use, Magan enjoys teaching her fellow photographers and online entrepreneurs the ins and outs of building a business that they love…and occasionally sprinkles in some encouragement for Mamas, because life with littles is just plum hard sometimes.
You can grab her free list of favorite tools for entrepreneurs here.