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Why Retouchers Don’t Get Paid (and What They Can Do About It)


I recently saw yet another story on Facebook where a retoucher got screwed by a client. It’s always sad to see this happen. Over the years, I have managed to build a ripping-off-proof on-boarding and payment workflow to make sure I never end up in that kind of situation.

The Story

It usually goes something like this.

A retoucher finds a new client. “New” is key here, since it rarely happens with clients you’ve successfully worked for at least once before. The retoucher gets in touch and takes on a project. When they deliver the project, the client either disappears or ignores the retoucher and their attempts to get in touch.

What Went Wrong?

Two major things: miscommunications, and a failure to qualify the client.

Client Qualification

It’s vital to do some client qualification. Otherwise, you’ll get in trouble more often than you can bear.

  • Get to know the client. It’s very important that you get a feeling of the client. What kind of person are they? Insist on a short Skype or phone call to talk over the details of a project. It’s one of the most effective ways to understand if it’s safe to work with the client. Use your “gut” judgement. I know it’s not very technical advice, but it’s very human. Most of us can easily recognize an untrustworthy person after a conversation. It’s much harder to deceive someone over the phone than by email.
  • The client has to show they are invested in the project. Ask a bunch of project-related questions. What needs to be done? Why? What is the deadline? What’s the client’s inspiration for the story? What are they trying to achieve with the project? Be thorough. If the client doesn’t give you any (or enough) answers, it means they’re not invested in the project, nor your working relations. They don’t really care about the end goal and your part in it.
  • Always discuss the payment terms ahead of time. Ask the client how they will pay you. Discuss this part in detail. Make sure you offer enough easy solutions for the client to pay you. If the client isn’t eager to discuss this part, it means they don’t really care about paying you.

Pay Me

It’s really as simple as that. You need to send your clients an invoice, and it’s best to do it as soon as possible.

In the case of small to mid-level businesses, I would recommend sending the final invoice a few days before the completion of the project. With large clients, send the invoice at least a week in advance.

Why Charge Up Front?

Let’s discuss why you should do it, because there is a very simple reason: you’re a business.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a small, one-person business. You’re business nonetheless. You need a healthy cash flow. It’s simply unreasonable and unsustainable for you to wait for the invoice to be paid 30–90 days after you send the result. If you do that, you finance the company or the client you’re doing work for. You’re giving them an interest-free loan, and that’s not your business. You’re in the creative business—act like it.

If your client can’t pay you up front, it means they don’t have a healthy cash flow themselves, which makes them a high-risk client. They won’t be able to pay you if something goes wrong, because they won’t have the money. It also means they don’t charge money from their own clients up front, which again makes them a high-risk client. They didn’t care enough to charge money up front so they could pay their subcontractors for the work they do.

You need to discuss this in detail up-front with your client and figure out who is the final art buyer. If it isn’t your client, then you need to charge some money up front.

There is also another solution. If you understand that your client isn’t the final art buyer and you’re willing to share the risks and get paid 100% at the completion date or later, then you’re a partner. Charge a higher rate. At least 30% higher.

If you don’t do these things and take care of your business, you’re taking the risk of getting in big financial trouble. There is a lot to say about bad business practices. Not charging up front is one of them.

How Do You Charge Up Front?

There are several options.

  • Don’t charge money up front. Yes, I know I’m contradicting myself. But if it’s a small time investment on your part and you can risk it without getting into financial trouble, it’s okay not to charge up front. I would say it’s okay to do up to 2 hours of billable work without getting paid up front.
  • Charge up to 50% up front. Based on the project scope, you can also charge up to 50% up front and the remaining 50% upon completion. You’re a freelancer—not a bank. You need to have a healthy cash flow. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t take care of it, you risk not getting any money at all and damaging your financial health.
  • Hybrid approach. You can be more creative with long-term projects. If a project is longer than a month, then you can send an invoice every two weeks or per milestone. You need to discuss this up front with the client.

How to Handle the Situation if You’re Not Getting Paid

If you failed to qualify the client and can’t get in touch with them now, here’s a few things you should or shouldn’t do.

  • Don’t get angry. Seriously. I know it’s an awful situation and the degree of anger can vary based on how much you’re owed, but strong emotions won’t help. Take a few deep breaths. If you must, vent your frustration to a trusted friend.
  • Social media isn’t your friend. Many people go to social media as a first reaction to this situation. Don’t! If your emotions are still running high, you need to cool down first. There are many cases in which you can overreact at first and get in a whole lot of trouble if you spill your guts on social media.
  • Be persistent. I would try to get in touch with a client for at least a week. First, send them an email and tell them you’re waiting for the payment. The day after that, get in touch again with an email and inquire if they received the first email. Tell them you’re concerned about the payment delay. If you have their phone number, give them a call. If a call doesn’t resolve the issue, you’re pretty much screwed and need to move on.
  • Legal action. Make sure you don’t post anything on the net if you’re considering this route. It’s best to let lawyers handle this situation. I believe this option is viable only for people who are in the same country as the client. Otherwise, legal fees will most likely surpass what you can recover from the client.
    I have yet to see a good case where a freelancer or solopreneur had success with this approach. If you’re really thinking of taking this route, I would recommend waiting until your client uses the images. Collect the evidence, and then go to court.
    (P.S. If you’re an NYC resident, you’re in luck. You’re now covered by the Freelance Isn’t Free Act. I would strongly recommend to use your legal rights if you’re in NYC and have payment issues).
  • Vent your frustration. Once you have exhausted all your options, I believe it’s okay to post about your situation. Tell your story. Let others learn from your experience and move on.

Hopefully, this article helps a few fellow retouchers to avoid this trap of unpaid work. Take care of your business.

About the author: Alexey Adamitsky is an art director, retouch artist and overall passionate visual creator. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Facebook, Instagram, and Behance. This post was also published here.