“My client wants all the raw images,” or, “My client wants to see the raw images. What do I do?” The general consensus seems to be a resounding no, but handing over raw files to your client might be a great idea. Here's why.
Photographers in social media groups ask this question as if they’ve just discovered a strange rash on an unmentionable body part. The most common response I see is, “Omg don’t ever let them see those files! Your camera will explode. Your computer will explode. You’ll explode! Don’t work with those crazy people.”
Maybe it’s just me, but this response always confuses me because I often show my clients raw images as I work — yes, even non-industry portraits of regular people — and will email galleries of raw images for the client to choose which they’d like edited. If they’re already happy with the way the raw images look, imagine how thrilled they are when I hand over the edited version. So, why not let your clients see or buy raw images? Is this an insecurity issue? Whenever I read through posts on this topic, these are the most popular responses I see:
- My editing is part of my style.
- I don’t want unedited photos representing my brand.
- Clients who want raw images are usually difficult to work with, and if they ask for raws before you sign a contract then it’s a good sign they’re probably not your client.
- Raw images don’t look very good.
- The cake analogy: if I ordered a wedding cake, I wouldn’t expect the baker to give me a tray full of ingredients.
- The client might edit them terribly.
Two disclaimers before we begin:
- This article doesn’t apply to artists who use photography as a tool to create a finished image that consists heavily of composites or digital art. In that circumstance, photography is only one piece of the finished image and seeing or selling a raw image would make no sense as it’s only a small piece of the final artwork.
- The article is predicated upon the clients being willing to pay for the images in question.
Moving on, my plan is to address the common reasons against allowing clients to see or buy raw images one at a time and give a rebuttal to each, followed by my personal reasons for allowing clients access. Hopefully the result will be a new way to think about this issue.
The Common Reasons Against, and a Rebuttal
1. The Cake Analogy
There is one big reason why the cake analogy doesn’t work: if you’re comparing the elements of a finished photograph to the elements of making a cake, then editing is putting on the decorative frosting, not baking the cake. The elements of making a good photograph — the ingredients — are not in the editing. They’re in the light, the settings, the posing, the styling, the angle, the color palette, and the hundreds of other little details that photographers control to create a photo. The only problem with handing over an undecorated cake is if the client has asked you to decorate it. If the client wants to decorate the cake themselves or if frosting is just too sweet for them, then handing over an undecorated cake makes perfect sense. The cake is made is still made and it tastes delicious.
2. My Editing Is Part of My Style
Doesn’t your style start with how you conceive an idea, how you execute the idea, how you choose to work with light, how you direct your subject, and work with your team? Removing the editing doesn’t negate your style, it simply removes the finishing touches. Of course, the finishing touches are important and that’s why we do them, but if your style is completely dependent on Photoshop, then you might want to consider yourself more of a digital artist and less of a photographer. Please do not get insulted on behalf of digital artists. Their work is is just as valuable and it's just as legitimate a job as photography, it's just not the same job.
3. Raw Files Look Terrible
If your raw files look terrible, you might way to spend a bit more time dialing in technique before you start charging clients.
4. I Don’t Want Unedited Photos Representing My Brand
My question in this circumstance would be, why? Are you relying on Photoshop to make up for a lack of experience or technique? If so, I can understand why you wouldn’t want anyone to see them. If, however, your straight-out-of-camera (SOOC) shots are technically solid, then I think you’ve got a few options in this instance.
With so many editing programs available to the average consumer, we’ve reached a point where most people understand that the finished images they see have been edited. This is why “photoshopped” is an adjective. Most clients will be able to understand the difference between an edited and an unedited photo. I have serious doubts as to whether a solid SOOC will damage your business.
If you’re concerned with SOOC images having a negative affect on your business, you always have the option of adding a clause to your contract that specifies clients not tag you or your business in social media posts.
You can also do your own preferred edits on the images to share on your platforms so that the finished version is out there in the world.
5. Clients Who Want Raw Images Are Usually Difficult to Work With or Not Your Ideal Client
I think this is a rather unfair view of the client, and brings up the issue of communication and setting client expectations. The client may be a professional artist or skilled hobbyist, or even just someone who is incredibly picky and wants control. In any case, that doesn’t necessarily make them difficult as long you set expectations from the beginning. If you make the nature of a raw image clear and the client is still willing to sign a contract, then it doesn’t seem to me that you’re in any more danger of dealing with a difficult client than with any other client.
6. Clients Might Do Terrible Edits on the Raw Files
Let’s get real for a second: clients sometimes do terrible things to beautifully edited and finished images anyway. If a client is dead set on doing their own thing to an image, they’re going to do it whether it’s a raw file or a JPG.
Reasons Why Letting Your Client Have Access to Seeing or Purchasing Raw Files Could Be a Great Idea
1. A Bigger ROI
If you’re running a photography business, you’re a business person first and a photographer second. Giving clients raw files is a solid business decision — as long as they’re willing to pay for them — because it requires the minimum amount of time and effort on your part. You won’t have to spend the additional time retouching the images or paying to outsource the retouching, and if you charge more for raw images (which you absolutely should) then it’s basically pure profit.
2. More Money
When I see this question come up in photography forums, I’m often left wondering why so many photographers are content to leave money on the table. If a client asks if they can have the raw files, you can always say, “sure, but the raw files will cost xxx because I no longer have the ability to control the quality of the image attached to my name,” and client will either say, “that’s more than I’m willing to spend,” or “I’m totally happy to pay xxx.” In either case, the situation is taken care of and, if the client is willing to pay, you’re walking away with more money.
3. People Love Getting What They Want
If you can give your client what they want (you are in the customer service business, remember) and still get what you need from the transaction, then you’ve got a happy client who will more than likely talk to their friends about how their photographer cared about their wants and needs and was willing to work with them, and the additional money to spend on a new lens or more marketing or personal shoots where you control the output 100 percent. Remember that giving the client raw files if they pay for them doesn’t take away your ability to edit and share the finished images on your website and social media platforms.
4. Seeing the Images Gets People Excited
Some people take the “no raws” idea to the extremes in that they don’t even let their clients see the back of the camera or the laptop if they’re tethered. This one is nuts to me simply because of the reaction I get from clients when I show them what a great shot we just got. It gets them jazzed for the final product and keeps the energy high during the shoot. It also shows them that I understand how hard it can be to wait to see the photographs, and lets them know that if the raw image looks good enough to get them that excited, the finished image is going to be amazing.
What it all comes down to in my eyes is that while clients pay me most often for my vision, and rarely ask for raw files in any capacity, my job is primarily to make my clients happy. That begins with good communication and setting client expectations, but ends with finding ways I can both make my client thrilled they worked with me and profit from my ability to do so. If I let a huge chunk of money walk away because I’m overprotective of my art, then I’m doing my business and my client a disservice, and I might consider whether I want to be a business person or a professional artist. If I'm a professional artist, then the result is always controlled by me. If I'm a business person, then I’ve got a client who needs to be made happy, and if I can do that for less work and more money, that seems like a win to me.
What have your experiences been with clients and raw files, and what are your reasons for choosing whether to allow clients to have raw files or not?