What is a retainer fee for photographers?

Photography is a hobby for many people, but what differentiates a hobbyist from professional photographers? Money. You’d be hard-pressed to run a business without generating revenue or income. In today’s post, I’ll discuss wedding photography retainers and payments. This is the heart and soul of what turns wedding photography from a casual hobby into a business. To start, I’ll explain why almost every wedding photographer requires payment of retainers to reserve their time, why they’re always non-refundable, and why this is right. I will then discuss different approaches to payment schedules, including information on when the balance is due and how to handle overtime hours. If you need advice on your wedding photography, check out our photography packages and services at Wild Romantic Photography.

A couple has contacted a wedding photographer and met with her. They’re ecstatic about her work, satisfied with her photography reviews, and ready to hire her as their wedding photographer. What are the next steps? There are two: first, they must sign an agreement (the contract) that describes the services they’ve chosen and their prices; second, they must pay for those services.

What Is a Retainer Fee?

A retainer fee is a non-refundable deposit to hold your spot for a session or wedding. These retainer fees can vary in price depending on if it is a portrait session or a wedding. Some portrait sessions require anywhere from $25-$100+ deposit down depending on which photographer you use. The same can be said with weddings. Weddings usually require a $500 deposit or half of the total cost of the photography services for the wedding.

Floating around the internet are comments and questions about this, and clients not entirely sure what the purpose is. Sometimes also referred to as a “Deposit” or “Booking Fee”, the correct term is retainer fee. It refers to an agreed sum of money paid to secure a professional’s services for an agreed-upon time-frame.

The difference in these terms legally means that a retainer fee is non-refundable. Deposits or booking fees can be challenged as refundable, although you would most likely be spending much more in court costs and lawyer fees to retrieve it. Don’t be that person.

In most instances of unforeseen circumstances, retainer fees are refunded – or should be for the sake of humanity & kindness. So D.O., be that person who is kind and compassionate. 

The retainer fee encompasses a few entities:

  • When a vendor books you for a date and time, that means they cannot book another client for that date and time. If you cancel or no show, we have lost business that could have been filled. No matter the amount, I discovered early that if someone pays a retainer fee, they will hold their appointment. 
  • The retainer fee is also paying for the time of your photographer. Regardless of if you pay for your session or images, we have still come to our job and would like to be paid for that time.

When Should I Pay the Retainer Fee?

What is a retainer fee for photographers?

Great question! As soon as possible! The last thing you want is for your photographer to book someone else the day of your desired event or session.

Although most of it exists as the possibility of a cancelled event, it’s vital to acknowledge the risk of not being paid for completed work. An effective way to reduce such uncertainty is by scheduling the payment of the balance sensibly.

Whether it’s one month, two weeks, or seven days out, I recommend collecting the balance before the wedding day. Collecting payment on the wedding day is undesirable because it could result in embarrassment, annoyance, and later-than-expected departure as people scramble to find the cheque or cash envelope’s whereabouts. Collecting payment after the event is discouraged in all circumstances barring one, where the Client requested overtime on the day. In any situation where the balance or overtime payment is due after the wedding takes place, always collect payment before delivering the images. While the likelihood of default by clients is lower than the probability of cancellation before the date, the overall financial risk is more significant in the former since you experience opportunity cost and uncompensated labour.

It’s also important to keep in mind that clients face risks too, such as the risk of an absentee photographer. A payment schedule that minimises a wedding photographer’s exposure to financial risk will maximise the Client’s, and vice versa; it’s an inverse relationship. Keep this in mind when instituting your policies. The best approach is a careful balancing of interests. Despite this, be prepared to lose a client or two to disputes over your payment schedules.

A perfect solution does not exist. (Note: to be fair, the risk is always most significant to the business owner; unlike clients, wedding photographers do not have the luxury of personal recommendations, reviews, and portfolios by which to judge the dependability of potential clients. When paying by credit card, clients also have the benefit of a credit card dispute process). Check out our range of wedding photography for your wedding day.

How Can I Pay for the Retainer Fee?

Different photographers accept different methods of payments when it comes to retainer fees. Some go through PayPal, Square, Stripe, or Venmo, while others prefer cash or check. However, if you do pay by card, there is a possibility you might have to pay an additional 3% convenience fee depending on the photographer you decide to hire.

When photographers use services like PayPal or Square, 3% of any payment given to them is taken out so that businesses like PayPal or Square can also get paid.

Let me give you an example! Let’s say you have a retainer fee of $100. Of that $100, 3% (or $3 in this case) would be taken automatically to cover the cost for online services, like Square, leaving the photographer with $97 instead of $100. That is why there is always a possibility of a photographer charging a convenience fee (like an additional 3%) to cover those costs.

So, Why Do You Have a Retainer Fee?

Awesome question! As mentioned above, when you pay your retainer fee, you are securing your spot on the photographer’s calendar so that they will be at your session or event to photograph it. In my early days of being a photographer, I had many no-shows. I would drive to a location 1-2 hours away, and my clients wouldn’t show up. Not only was I wasting time that I could have spent doing something productive like editing, but I also went through a ton of gas that was never compensated.

Payments and Retainers Go Hand-In-Hand

Most wedding photographers’ contracts have clearly defined photography payment schedules. These describe the number of portions, the total bill will be divided by and when the payment of each piece is expected. If our wedding photographer is running a responsible business, she will require that her clients provide her with a wedding photography retainer shortly after the couple signs the work agreement. In most circumstances, the initial retaining fee forms the first of several payments.

Retainer Fees are Standard in Wedding Photography

A retainer fee may be a new concept when you’ve just started looking into hiring a professional wedding photographer, but the practice is standard in the wedding photography industry.

Other Professions that use Retainers

You are probably already familiar with the retainer fee, as it often conjures up a lawyer’s image, the result of cultural training arising from movies or T.V. shows with lawyers as the central characters. Of course, with lawyers, even retainer fees can get complicated with flavours like “security”, “advanced fee”, and “evergreen” retainer fees. However, for the sake of argument, I would like to point out several other professions retainer fees. Here’s a shortlist:

  • Doctors – sure doctors who practice “Boutique Medicine” use retainers — learn more here.
  • Bankers – their retainers are upfront fees charged to clients, even if “the deal” eventually doesn’t go through.
  • Freelancers – software engineers, web designers, copywriters, consultants, and all use retainers, allow them to pay the bills while working on and waiting on assignments.

Wild Romantic Photography has the best range of services of wedding photography Yarra Valley. Check them out here.

Wedding photography retainers and why they’re non-refundable

What is a retainer fee for photographers?

At this point, it’s essential to define what a wedding photography retainer is and why most wedding photographers consider them non-refundable. A retainer—which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a deposit—is a fee paid upon signing the wedding photography agreement that retains the wedding photographer’s service for a particular date or period. In exchange for the retainer, the wedding photographer agrees that they will not pursue other work for that specific time; in essence, they reserve the specified period exclusively for the clients at hand, regardless if a higher paying opportunity arises.

The purpose of the wedding photography retainer is to minimise the opportunity cost of a cancelled wedding. Very basically, an opportunity cost “is what a person sacrifices when they choose one option over another”. Marriages may be compensated for a panoply of reasons. None of them changes the fact that the wedding photographer has allocated her time—her primary resource—to one couple at the exclusion of all other potential work.

If a wedding photographer forgoes requiring a retainer, turns down other possible clients, and then has her contracted clients cancel their wedding, her opportunity cost is the price of marriage—she has lost that income potential. This would be an example of poor business practice. They are charging a retaining fee upfront (and stating that it’s non-refundable and explaining why) minimises her opportunity cost by the amount of the wedding photography retainer. 

What Does it Mean when someone is Retained?

Once you’ve retained a service professional (by paying the fee and signing a contract), you are officially BOOKED. That professional would take him or herself “off the market”, so to speak, meaning they would not make it known that they are seeking work in a particular time-frame. 

Once the retainer and signed agreement are turned in, I would be unavailable to anyone who inquires about your wedding date. So, any other potential client who may be interested in a package that is even BIGGER (or smaller) than the one you chose would be turned away if their wedding date happens to be the same day as yours. Planning your dream wedding and don’t want to miss out on the special moments on your big day? Worry no more, Wild Romantic Photography has you covered.

Why Non-Refundable?

Consider this: if the retainer fee was refundable, and for some reason, the Client decides “at the last minute” to request the money back — perhaps the wedding was cancelled for some reason — then the professional photographer would have no income for the previously agreed upon date. If this were to happen several times, you can be sure the professional photographer would soon no longer be in business.

If you’ve ever hired a professional photographer, you’ve likely been sent a session agreement or contract and been asked to pay a retainer. Retainer rates vary from business to business, but I charge a $100 retainer for regular sessions and $750 for weddings. Most of the time, it says the retainer is non-refundable. 

Seems a little unfair, huh? And as a client, I see why. But there’s an excellent reason behind why photographers, and many other schedule-based businesses, are charging retainers to reserve your appointment.

The fee goes towards your total, but that I retain should you cancel. Because here’s the thing, when you book your session, the photographer reserves that date and time just for you. That means they are likely turning away other clients for that same time, and they are taking time away from their family to photograph yours. While that’s the nature of the job, many sessions do occur on weekends, so while photography may seem glamorous, it’s a lot of busy weekends away.

For weddings, most couples book me 12-18 months in advance.

As a business model, you can see why if a wedding gets cancelled, it can mean bad news for a photographer relying on this job for their income. If your marriage gets annulled for any reason, your photographer has to account for and offset the losses their business incurred from you cancelling your wedding. Remember, they’ve stopped marketing this date as available, so they’ve probably turned away other couples who were interested in this date.

Wedding photographers have two seasons; wedding season (the busy season) and booking season (the slow season). The odds are slim to none that they’ll be able to rebook that date, and any other couples that were turned away have booked someone else (you know, since we said we were unavailable).

Photographers spend a lot of time before the actual wedding investing in your date. 

Email communication, in-person meetings, timeline assistance, engagement sessions, client gifts, coordinating with your wedding planner (among other things) keep us busy. We don’t just show up on the wedding day with a camera and no idea what’s coming. We invest in your experience, and those costs were still incurred if a couple decides last minute to cancel their event. Retainers also encourage couples not to cancel because they found someone cheaper or chose to hire a friend who is just starting their business and will do it for $200. Oh, trust me, it’s happened.

Wedding Photography Retainer Payment Schedules Differ Among Photographers

While the absolute minimum number of payments is one (being the total paid upfront if she’s savvy), the maximum remains undefined. Most wedding photographers I’m familiar with implement two, three, or more scheduled payments leading up to the wedding day. These are likely spaced 3-6 months apart based on what makes sense for each business.

Each subsequent amount contributes to the retainer previously collected and is similarly treated as non-refundable. The reasoning behind such a strategy is that as the wedding day approaches, the opportunity cost grows. A wedding photographer is much less likely to rebook a cancelled wedding one month than six months from the date.

How a wedding photographer chooses to split and schedule their payments is typically based on their business experience and involves a careful balance between minimising their exposure to risk while maximising client convenience.

Looking for a Mornington Peninsula wedding photographer? Look no further! Wild Romantic Photography has you covered.

A personal exchange about wedding photography retainer payment scheduling

I’ll end this article by including an email exchange I had with a potential client last year regarding wedding photography retainers. The context is that after two months of dithering and with less than two weeks to go until their wedding day, they decided to hire me until they discovered I would need to be paid in full upon signing. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t hired.

Potential Client: “[I] just wanted to discuss the payment structure a bit further. I don’t feel fully comfortable paying 100% before the event, let alone delivery of photos. Can I inquire about the logic of your payment structure?”

P.K.: “The logic is that the wedding day is the worst time to collect any payment. Everyone involved is typically too flustered, nervous, etc., that things are forgotten. When I started out and before instituting this rule, [I] found myself in several situations where cheques were left behind or had to be written on the spot. All of this resulted in my having to stay later than planned because the people writing the cheques weren’t keen on interrupting their fun to worry themselves about paying me.

“I understand that the vast majority of my clients are honest people and wouldn’t be so thoughtless. However, my handful of bad experiences has coloured the way I do business, which strictly involves minimising my exposure to such risk. Similarly, if overtime hours are requested on the wedding day, no photos are released until all outstanding payments have been settled. I’m happy to say my system works flawlessly: I’ve never had a late payment or any payment since its institution. Paying all fees [before the wedding day] means that the uncertainty and embarrassment of having to ask for money on the day, or worse after the images are released, is no longer on my mind. I’m free to do my work, and you and your family are free to enjoy the celebrations without any awkward interruptions. If you’d like to work with professional photographers for your wedding, book with us at Wild Romantic Photography.

“With that said, this is one of the few points on which I am not flexible.”

To Summarise

By Paying the Retainer Fee:

  • You are paying for my promise to come to shoot your wedding on the day of your wedding (plus any pre-wedding engagement session or post-wedding after-session).
  • I will turn down other potential assignments for your wedding date.
  • you understand that if your wedding is cancelled (or rescheduled), the retainer will not be refunded

Exception: The only time a professional might refund the fee is if something unforeseen occurs and he or she cannot carry out the promise to work.