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Why You Should Always Get Paid Up Front

November 3, 2011 Business, Negotiating & Sales 4 Comments

Written by: Charlie Borland

Have you ever had a client buy something from you and then not pay? If you have not then you are very lucky.

I got a call a two years ago from a small ‘one-person’ calendar publishing company who had seen my work around and needed some pictures for next years calendar.  We talked briefly about what he needed and he threw out some names of other photographers he had worked with, names I knew.

I sent him thumbnails and he picked two shots for the calendar and we settled on price.

I next sent him the two high resolution versions by ftp and followed two days later with an invoice.

A year and a half later I FINALLY got paid. Was I stupid by trusting a total stranger? Yep! These situations make me want to quit trusting the client and instead ask them to trust me. So I’ve changed my strategy, demanding as much as I can to get paid up front and here is how I handle it now.

The Markets

These days in a tough economy, there are more than a few that keep their business’s going on someone else dime and for the outdoor photographer, this can mean the difference between staying in business and not.

I should mention that we all have well established clientele like large publishers with solid reputations who have their methods of payment and you take it or leave it. Large publishers rarely pay on acceptance but it is usually obvious how they work and when they pay.

It is the others, the unknown or small shops I am referencing where I will seek payment up front, especially if they are overseas. And to clarify, I am mainly talking about image and print sales and not assignments.

Since the majority of stock image sales in this industry are online downloads, that means the majority of purchases are paid up front prior to the download. When I order from B&H I pay upfront before they ship. That is the way online selling and buying works.

So there is no reason we creators should not work just like every other online business. Besides it is so easy to complete the transaction. There is no reason either we small operators should carry any client unless you are interested in learning what it is like to be an unsecured creditor.

With usage rates sadly low these days getting paid upfront may not be a lot of money or burden for a client. If it is a burden then I don’t want their business. Even if you sell expensive fine art photography you can still ask for payment up front, or at least 50% deposit on accepting the order and the other 50% prior to shipping.

As nice as any sale is in today’s market, and even more, a nice photo credit with it, it carries little weight if you spend a lot of time trying to get paid. As in any business the longer it takes to get paid the less money you have earned.

Is there any difference in having a client decline to buy from you when you ask for payment up front compared to a client who licenses and then publishes your image, begins making money from your image, and does not pay you? In both cases you lose.

Making a sale is really only a ‘promise of a sale’ until the money is sitting in your account. So what you want to do it make it easy for the clients to do business with you while insisting you get paid up front.

My steps to making the sale:

  1. I take their request and these days  what their usage is so I can establish a price immediately, or I ask if they have a budget already established. This approach often makes it easier to get right to the sale. Clients budgets have been slashed in many cases so I think it can make a sale a lot easier knowing where they want to be and can spend.
  2. If we come to a price acceptable for both of us I then research their request and find the images and submit contact sheets, 6 images per page, and converted to pdf. I no longer send jpegs as attachments because you never know here they may end up.
  3. I include in my email a message that thanks them for contacting me and mention the attached images are what I feel meets their need. I include the steps I like to use to complete the sale in the same message:

Hi John-

Thank you so much for contacting me regarding your need for images of yada yada. Attached is a collection
of images in pdf format for you to review.

When you find the image that meets your need, please send me the image number and I will prepare the
image for ftp to you.

I will also include my PayPal address for you to submit payment and once notified of the payment, I will ftp
the image immediately.

Thanks again John for contacting me and I look forward to working with you again.

All the best!

Charlie Borland

I have had no problems working this way as most clients understand, although I have had a few who don’t call back and that’s fine. For me, non-payment means no sale was made. Yet non-payment also means the client is making money from my image.

It’s tough enough out there right now and non-payment just makes it tougher, so I try everything I can to make today’s efforts pay today!

How do you handle these situations? Please leave a comment.

Related posts: The Role of NegotiationsNot Sure What to Charge? Ask the Client for Their Budget


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Currently there are "4 comments" on this Article:

  1. I can accept Credit Cards. I got a merchant account as a benefit through my Costco Executive Membership. If I don’t know the company, I require payment up front, or a written Purchase Order for a net-30 invoice.

  2. Syv Ritch says:

    I was also facing similar problems, I use Smugmug Custom Galleries where customers can either download or order prints. They have to pay to download or order the prints.

    Other people, like John Harrington, charge a late payment fee, *ahead of time*:

    “Administrative Fee – We are now building into the invoice the cost to repeatedly follow up with accounts payable departments on past due invoices, and float the cost of payment to our vendors, which require 30 days payment. This fee is approximately 10% of the total invoice. If payment is made within 30 days, you may deduct this amount. A notation to this effect will be made on the invoice. ”

    see: http://johnharrington.com/dc-photographer/pricing/public-relations-event-photography/

  3. admin says:


    That’s a good point! The camera store I have an account at does just that, offering a discount if paid in 10 days. I have tried the late fee for years and it is usually ignored by the payables people.

    Gary- Another good point and I had a merchant account but things slowed down adn I got tired of the monthly fee for the service. PayPal is free so I am parked there for now.

    Thanks guys!


  4. Jeff Colburn says:

    Good article Charlie.

    I learned to get my money up front when I ran a website design business. People would disappear for 6 months in the middle of the design process, or go out of business. I would write up a detailed invoice outlining everything I would do, and wouldn’t start working until I had the payment in full. If the payment was made by check, I would wait a month to see if it bounced before starting any work. I did have a couple of checks bounce over the years.

    Other website designers were shocked that I did this, but I was never left holding the bag.

    I carried this over to my photo business and haven’t had a problem yet. As you said, some larger businesses have rules in place, but they are usually professional enough to get the payment to me on time. I’m now waiting for a check from a magazine in the UK. This will be my first international transaction, so it should be interesting.

    I do like your idea of making the images into a PDF. I always worry about attaching the files to an e-mail, and having them wind up who knows where.

    Have Fun,

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