Working With Non-Refundable Retainers

Pricing, Videos

Being a wedding photographer is so cool – we get to play a big part in a client’s wedding day! It’s a very relational job and having a personal connection with your client will make your images better. However, on the other side, we are dealing with thousands of dollars, and have professional policies and systems in place when it comes to retainers and payments is essential.

In today’s video, Working With Non-Refundable Retainer Fees,  I’m chatting with you about my process for collecting a 50% retainer fee for every wedding booked. Some of the questions I address include:

  • Is the 50% negotiable? 
  • Why do you need to charge a retainer fee? 
  • What happens if a wedding is cancelled or postponed?


Holding Wedding Dates

On an average week, I receive 3 inquiries, which adds up to nearly 200 inquiries a year. I only take on about 20 weddings a year. Meaning, only 10% of the brides who email will actually lead to a booking. Wow  – that’s a lot of wedding dates and potential bookings flying around! In order to be clear in all of my communication, I must be upfront about what constitutes a booked wedding.

Unfortunately, I am unable to hold a wedding date for a bride while she is deciding. For a popular summer Saturday, I’m likely to have at least one other request. For this reason, I only consider a wedding booked when I’ve received a signed online contract and a 50% non-refundable retainer.

Ever had two brides email the same week about the same date and been stuck in a sticky situation? My pre-written email templates walk through the entire process for this scenario, and many others. Snag them in the shop!

Cancelled Weddings

In the unfortunate case a wedding is canceled, the retainer fee is indeed, non-refundable. I have to protect my business and my profits, so refunding the fee isn’t something I’m able to do for the client. For example, if I booked a wedding for next August, well in advance of the date. Unfortuantely the couple calls off the wedding only 3 months before their date. In the span of those 7 months, I have turned down other inquiries for that same date, because I was ‘booked.’

Now, when that August date comes, sure I won’t be shooting a wedding that day, but I will only be making 50% of the photography service cost. (The non-refundable retainer.) My entire business year and plan was based on making a certain amount of income and now I won’t be receiving the final payment.

These situations are tricky. Please keep in mind – there is smart business policies but there’s also compassion. You have to go with your gut and what feels right. In cases of terminal illnesses in the family, infidelity in the engagement, etc, use compassion and do your best to protect your business while protecting the client’s opinion of you!

Ultimately, we want everyone who interacts with our business to leave with a position impression of our brand. Be kind in all of your interactions, and be sensitive when weddings are canceled in all communication.

Postponed Weddings

I have a special clause in my contract for this, because I understand sometimes that life circumstances come up unexpectedly. Perhaps the couple still wants to use you as their photographer, but they need to postpone by a year due to family illness or work circumstances.

My contract specifies with more than six months notice, I will apply the retainer to another wedding date within 12 months, based on my availability. If the couple would like to keep their retainer, they need to work with my schedule to apply that to a wedding date I’m available. If I am not available with the wedding date they choose in the future, they forfeit their retainer fee.

Why a 50% Retainer?

The idea of a non-refundable retainer fee is to hold the client accountable for following through on their contractual commitment to using you for their wedding photography. If the retainer fee was $500, there isn’t as much money on the table – it ‘feels’ less binding. I’ve found most photographers tend to charge 50% retainer, so for the most part, my clients have zero issues with this.

I have made exceptions, especially if the couple’s chosen wedding collection is expensive. They are also putting money down on the venue, the wedding dress, perhaps the caterer, and I understand the financial stress involved. I have worked out 25% to book and 25% within another 3-4 months and that’s been no problem for me.

As a side note, if you have a client that is questioning your 50% retainer rule I would be upfront with them. Let them know this is your business policy, and has always been your business policy. Sometimes, especially when you are getting started a wedding photographer, clients may have the tendency to look upon you as not as ‘legit’ a business as their venue, perhaps. If they can put thousands down on their venue deposit, you can ask the same. If the client continues to push back on the retainer fee you are requesting, it’s probably a wonderful sign to you they are not your client. It’s not going to be worth the hassle of working with them for the next year! I would hold firm to your policy and if they would like to walk away, let them!

How to Work With Non-Refundable Retainer Fees in Your Photography Business by Jamie Delaine


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