Photography may look like a sunshine-and-rainbows job from the outside, but sometimes there are less comfortable topics we have to bring up with our clients. However, does that mean these conversations have to be awkward?
So you're looking to have an engagement photoshoot and have found a photographer whose work you love, and you think they'll be just perfect for the job. Except when you go to book the date with them, they ask for a "retainer fee" upfront - what's that all about?
A retainer fee, sometimes called a session fee or booking fee, isn't something we mean to scare you with. We get it! Doling out a hundred dollars upfront to someone you've never met in person is uncomfortable and daunting. What if they were to take your money and ghost you? What if you end up not fully satisfied with your photos? Though most of my posts are usually warm and fluffy, I want to take a second to talk about the back side of the business. Again, not because I want to scare you, but quite the opposite - I want to make you feel more at ease about what your photographer's policies are all about!
Liking this topic so far? You might also like my blog post on photoshoot locations!
The easiest way for me to explain what a retainer fee is for, is to put you in the shoes of a photographer. Let's say in this scenario, you are a photographer that doesn't take a booking fee upfront.
You've just been reached out to via email by a client (or worse, you've been reached out to on a freelance platform like Thumbtack, which charges you a fee for each Lead you get!) and they're looking to book an engagement photoshoot with you. You talk through pricing options and locations with them, they've picked out a date and time, and everything really seems to be all set.
During the week leading up to your appointment with them (it's on a Saturday, which is popular!) you get a couple other customers interested in booking you for that same date. One of them was even a small wedding ceremony, which could've been a higher price tag! Unfortunately you had to turn them away for the date that they needed, as you already had someone scheduled. The day before you have your photoshoot, you check in with your client. They reply back that they're all set and they'll see you tomorrow.
Tomorrow comes, and at 4 p.m. you head out to a town which is 43 miles from you and about an hour drive with traffic. You arrive at the park address they gave you, and text them to let them know you're there while you find a bench to sit on. You don't get a response, but you're not worried; they're probably just on their way and can't text while driving. About fifteen minutes go by, and at this point they're definitely cutting into their session time. You try calling, but you're sent straight to voicemail, so you leave a brief message letting them know where you are in the park and that you'll stay a while longer in case they're stuck in traffic.
After about a half an hour, which is basically what their entire session time was supposed to be, you realize they aren't coming. You've just driven an hour out of your way, spent a half hour waiting for them, have an hour to drive back home, and have wasted about 80 miles of gas.
It's not a pretty picture, pun intended! Maybe your client will eventually get back to you in a couple days with an excuse, or maybe you'll be ghosted and never hear from them again. Maybe they even decided their cousin could do it for half the price. Regardless of the reason, you've just suffered a lot of monetary damage and a lot of valuable time wasted.
As scary as we realize it is to collect an upfront retainer fee from you as a client, we hope you can see why it's just as scary for us to not take one! There are countless possibilities of how our business can suffer without booking fees. As seen above, a photographer can lose miles worth of gas traveling to a client who decides to bail. We can also lose a lot of our time on several different levels - the time we spend driving to clients and waiting for them, or even the time we spend chatting with them about their plans and ideas for the shoot. Some photographers even schedule complimentary meet-ups with their clients for bigger events like weddings!
And finally, it's important to take note that what a retainer fee is doing is reserving a specific time and date slot for our clients. Remember in the example above, the photographer actually had other customers reaching out for that same time slot, but were turned away. Imagine that maybe one of those other clients would have followed through with their appointment, instead of disappearing!
So from the photographer's end, you can see that the retainer fee is a big part of what protects us from having our gas, our time, and our money wasted. But what about from your end, as the client?
At first glance, it may seem like the retainer fee only benefits the photographer and not the client, but there are a few subtle things you can gain as well! For one, if a photographer takes a booking fee, more often than not it's a sign that you're getting a professional who knows what they're doing. They know their worth, they know the business, and they're not afraid to risk losing a client due to the retainer fee - meaning they likely are successful enough in their business to only be taking serious clients. That's a good sign of their quality!
As well, this retainer fee is, after all, a retainer. This fee is what reserves your spot for a specific date and time, so that the photographer halts all advertisement for it and turns away other clients. It also somewhat legally prevents the photographer from simply taking a better candidate over you, and ditching your appointment. It binds them to it. It's also good to note that the retainer fee is not an "extra" fee - much of the time, you'd be paying the same total price anyway for your shoot. Usually, it's just the photographer taking part of your grand total upfront. It keeps you both accountable to each other!
And finally, it's worth looking at all of this from a logical perspective. Assuming your photographer has a pretty established online presence - they have a website, a Facebook page, an Instagram, a Google business listing, or any other online profiles, it's likely that they want to keep their reputation clean. In today's online world, it's pretty easy to call someone out for bad business practices. We've all seen it - reviews on Yelp claiming a restaurant waiter never once checked a table, a contractor who did a really nasty job repairing a roof, or even Facebook users leaving comments on a product advertisement that turned out to be a scam.
Inevitably, if you have something bad to say about a business, it's usually not hard to publicize your experience. So if your photographer turns out to be a bit shady and tries to ghost you after taking your money? There's likely a place you can leave a public review, however it's also likely that this "photographer" may not have been a real business after all, as most established photographers want to give clients absolutely no reason to tarnish their ratings. Research thoroughly first!
However, in saying this I want to emphasize that, as a small business myself, please always make a good attempt to reach out to your professional before taking out your frustration in their reviews. On both sides, the photographer and the client should always make a fair effort in communication to avoid misunderstandings. This can lead to unnecessary stress, blame, and can hurt a professional's reputation permanently. If it can be avoided, it should be.
But I digress! I hope this blog has helped you understand a little bit more about your photographer's policies, and that retainer fees don't have to be scary at all. Ninety-nine percent of any photographers I've ever met just want one thing - to take pretty pictures and make our clients smile. We just want to be protected along the way!
If you're looking for any proposal, engagement, maternity, or family-related portrait photography, contact me today! I service New Haven, Fairfield, Hartford, Middlesex, Litchfield, and plenty of other regions around Connecticut!
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Just a little spot where I try to offer helpful tips and insight on how to achieve your best photo session, and also some occasional art discussion as well!