John Mayer Explains Why Photographers Shouldn't Give Out Raw Files to Clients

Okay, okay, maybe he did not exactly say that verbatim. But after watching this snippet from an interview from Complex with musician John Mayer and fashion designer Jerry Lorenzo, you'll see immediately that his analogy aligns what we go through as photographers throughout the creative process.

One of the most awkward, skin-crawling, unavoidable conversations that you'll eventually run into is a client adamant about receiving the raw files from you. Some photographers are lax about it, most photographers I know would hold onto dear life and refuse to give their raw materials out. And that's where this whole issue arises: raws are a photographer's raw material.

Some clients just simply don't understand that, and no is not enough. They ask why. From this point, it is the photographer's responsibility not to tell them why, but to educate them why politely. 

I personally use analogies. It's the easiest and most simplistic way to put someone in your shoes. And one of the most influential artists out there left a perfect analogy for you to use, on a silver platter Pun not intended.  

His example may be slightly over-exaggerated, but it holds true. Raw images are considered raw materials to get the job done. And yes, there are always exceptions to any rule where clients will absolutely have to have raws or a buyout is arranged. But it is our job as a community to not only educate clients but new creatives on these issues. Yes, we may be competitive, but we can all win together. 

(Note: the relevant portion begins at 15:12.)

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Christian Lainesse's picture

I'm not sure the analogy is 100% apt, and I get what he's saying, but at the same time, you have to figure out a way to ensure your RAW files and the work that you created from them survive you. Also, does anyone have a problem with someone getting their hands on, for example, an original negative of a photo made by Ansel Adams, and making a brand new print? How much freedom does the new negative owner have to dodge and burn the new print, possibly in different ways than the ones Adams did?

Karim Hosein's picture

«Also, does anyone have a problem with someone getting their hands on, for example, an original negative of a photo made by Ansel Adams….»

Depends on what you mean by, “getting their hands on….” If you mean that Adams sold the negative to them at an extraordinarily high sum of money for framing, then, yes, I have many problems with that. If you mean that Adams left a window open and they happened to have found it blowing in the wind, then, yes, still have problems. If you mean Adams sold him the negatives and the copyright for an extraordinary sum of money, then, no, I have not a single problem at all.

I have no problems with a photographer selling his raws and copyright at a reasonable price, but I do have a problem with a client paying for a service, and maybe licensing, then demanding a product & rights. You want products and rights, you pay for product and rights, just like the article says in the last paragraph (third sentence).

Kenneth Jarecke's picture

Ansel Adams negatives are (or were) available, at least to students and scholars. He donated his archives, including the negatives (after running them through a postal machine that punched small holes in them), to the Creative Center for Photography (which he cofounded) under the University of Arizona. The negatives were once available to students to do exactly what you suggest, to try to print them like Adams or to interpret them differently.

Adams' desire was to make his negatives available to students so that they could learn from them. I'm not sure if this is still the case, as printing like Adams is a lost art, that may not be taught or even thought as useful today.

Michael Comeau's picture

Apples and oranges. Your intended use of the images and the client's will not always be in perfect alignment.

I think EVERYTHING should be for sale... for a price.

David B's picture

That is definitely true. But at the same time, if a client sees your work, they can expect what you will deliver to them. And if a photographer has different styles, the client can tell the photographer what the client wants. Nevertheless, I do agree with you that everything should be for sale for a price and decided from the begging. The people I dislike are the ones that don't have much money to pay for the amount of retouched photos they want, so they want to pay for the shoot time and a few retouched photos and expect the photographer to spend hours (depending on how many photos the photographer took) uploading and sending the raw files to the client all for the beginning price. Then, when the photographer does not want to do that, that is when the photographer becomes the bad guy to them. I think that is totally and unfair and ignorant.

Karim Hosein's picture

«I think EVERYTHING should be for sale... for a price.»

So does the author. (Last paragraph, third sentence).

Tony Clark's picture

I heard zero reference to Intellectual Properties. The only thing even in the ballpark was John's comment about playing on an artists recording session. He said something like, "pay to play" regarding the split.

Michael Ma's picture

For non commercial stuff, most likely they'll get the raw files and never do anything with them. Not worth losing business over files they wont ever use. As a photographer myself, I always ask for raw files when I hire photographers for family events when I can't be the photog. And it really came in handy because in my wedding pics everyones lips were essentially black because they couldnt post process in difficult lighting. The only one time when the photographer refused, I never went back to them. Their final output was mediocre and I wasnt sure if they didnt give them to me because they shot in jpeg or they didnt see the value in working with raw. Had they gave me raw files, maybe I wouldn't have been so quick to assume they didn't know what they were doing.

Deleted Account's picture

If I cover a job for a colleague, or visa versa, we usually send over the RAW so they can be processed in the look we know for that client.
I've had a couple of clients ask for the RAW files, but only because they are going to be massively processed into a concept they are working on. Plus, they will do the post processing better than me anyway.
All other commercial clients, they're not bothered at all. They get the processed files in whichever format they need.
It's all a matter of good communication beforehand. What they client needs.
If and when I shoot for private clients, which is rare lately, no RAW files rare given. A lot even baulk when they request full res files and end up with a Wetransfer of 2 to more GB that won't download on their iPad.

Richard Feynman's picture

As others point out here, it's just a matter of what is agreed to. Personally it seems a ridiculously simple issue. If you don't feel they should be included, but don't want to walk away either, charge an extra fee for them. And if you can't get away with that, you have the option to walk away.

Ideally this should all be clearly spelled out and reviewed before signing on the dotted line. And not buried in an unread page of the contract.

"One of the most awkward, skin-crawling, unavoidable conversations that you'll eventually run into is a client adamant about receiving the raw files from you."

Drama much?

"Some photographers are lax about it, most photographers I know would hold onto dear life and refuse to give their raw materials out. And that's where this whole issue arises: raws are a photographer's raw material."

Oh come on :-). We deal with software code and come up with similar issues all the time. They are handled based on negotiation and (ideally) having all parties informed so there are no surprises.

For the creator this type of thing is often based on emotion more than anything - and/or wanting to lock the client into paying them for any change. Realistically the RAW files usually have little value, in most instances the client just knows enough to ask for them but won't do much with them. It's the processed files that usually have more value.

Providing RAW is no different than providing processed - it's just a question of whether it's included. I had a client that ran into a photographer that only wanted to provide them prints. A classic case of horrible communication on the part of the photographer. Then the client had to cough up more money to get the jpegs.

Jim Cutler's picture

Obviously fashion designer Jerry Lorenzo is a very important person.

william hicks's picture

If a client wants to pay my full rate and save me doing the retouching I will celebrate. I don't shoot so little that one shoot not going to my portfolio will hurt me. When you are working to a brief they have likely dictated in detail what the photos are going to look like anyway

Sean Sauer's picture

I work in the world of video and motion graphics. When I do a job everything from project files to RAW video files belong to the client. The files belong to whoever hired me to perform the service. I even had a graphic open I created for a TV show that the client had another artist "tweak" after the client left due to financial reasons. I wasn't happy with it but that's the client's right. When a client hires a construction company to build a house the construction company doesn't own the house. When I hear photographers refuse to give the client RAW files it really mystifies me because my industry is very close in similarity. Why is my industry different? Is it just because my product is in motion? I dare say that the reason photographers give seems pretentious.

Francisco B's picture


art meripol's picture

I have a couple clients I trust that require RAW files. They’re quality publications who have every desire to look good. They have full time skilled editors and one even asks me to provide processed jpgs to show what I think the final should look like. I can always turn down those shoots if I don’t like it. I wouldnt turn over RAW’s to just anyone but each situation has to be judged on its own merits and needs.

fele trejo's picture

you're like that nigga that read catcher in the rye and killed lenon