Why do photographers hate selling RAW image files?

Posted by Jedd on 2013-06-13

Very briefly, recently, an 'Ask HN' thing popped up on Hacker News about a guy trying to work out how to get his would-be wedding photographer to agree to supply copies of the RAW image files along with the skilfully post-processed, print- and publish-ready jpegs.

A few minutes research (by which I mean I followed a link to whining photographers on flickr) suggests this is a common attitude adopted by many pro and faux wedding photographers.

Before I really crank up the rant engines ... keep in mind I'm not banging on here about the amount of money that photographers charge for their work, and I notice that many people get these things mixed up. I realise that the vast bulk are, at best, reasonably paid, given the immense amount of time, energy and cash expended on acquiring the skills they have, that they put a lot of work into each job, that they tend to have a short 'wedding season' each year, that they have to pay a second shooter, and cover insurance, transport, and myriad other sundry costs associated with running a small business.

This rant is purely about the feeble reasons typically given for why the customer is not allowed to acquire the RAW image files.

To make things easier, most photographers, when trying to defend this position, trot out the same set of reasons.

Reasons the Photographer will tell you that you're wrong

All the reasons I've seen are weak, at best.

The most common reason is often presented in a half dozen guises, but it always comes back to 'it's too hard for mortals to deal with RAW files'.

Many of the reasons (including that one) offered are basically offensive.

Almost exclusively the reasons given reflect the photographer's assumptions about what the consumer needs (while wantonly ignoring what the customer says they want).

The customer will be confused by large RAW files

This assumes that no one other than your photographer knows what to do with RAW format image files. It assumes you and everyone you know are equally ill-informed. It assumes you don't have access to free software, and can't be arsed spending some hours learning how to use said software. It assumes that you don't know anyone with some skillz with gimp, etc. Worse, it also assumes that this is how it will be forever, which is an important aspect of the problem that I dive into in more detail later.

Yes, the photographer can explain to the customer that digital RAWs aren't like film negatives, and it may transpire that the customer has in fact misunderstood what they want.

But it's not a blanket excuse for all photographers to outright refuse to sell you RAW image files of your event.

It's a lot of work they'd have to do to get RAWs ready for printing.

This is effectively the same as the previous assertion that all customers are confused, with simple needs, and of simpler minds.

Either way, it's another non sequitur.

The customer doesn't want RAWs, the customer should ask for high res finished jpegs, around 9mp

Again, a bit similar, and again trying to undermine the customer from a slightly different angle.

The obvious problem is the prescriptive nature of this advice. 'I don't know what you want to do, but I know 9mp is plenty good enough for your unknown purposes.'

Generally this is followed up with a similar explanation that this is 'plenty good enough for printing on 6x4's or uploading to Google+'.

And, again, with the implied assumption that these are the only things the customer will ever want to do with their photos.

The customer may think less of the photographer

This is presumably a result of the customer seeing the potentially lousy quality of unprocessed RAWs – compared to either the processed jpg's provided, or to other people's photos.

This is a straightforward education problem.

The photographer can provide a verbal explanation, a README.txt on the DVD or USB stick, or just a URL to a page that describes the nature of RAW image files – but it's not a valid reason to withhold the RAW image files.

If the customer is seeing the skilfully crafted post-processed images, either as prints, or as jpegs, then they will understand the value of what they bought.

The customer may misrepresent the photographer's skill

Similar to the last one, but the subtle difference (as described to me) is that that the photographer's reputation is on the line if someone takes a RAW file, modifies it in a way that is not considered satisfactory (it's not clear how this would be evaluated), and is then asked 'Who took that photo?'

This assumes several things, again, which are not in evidence:

  • all changes will reflect only negatively or neutrally upon the photographer. It's quite possible the person would make an improved product, and this could reflect very positively on the photographer. While I don't know what risk there is of this, it's more the assumption of guilt that is reflective of the prevalent patronising attitude.
  • that the person would, without access to a RAW file, not be at the exact same risk of doing a comparably poor quality job on a jpeg they were provided – and subsequently respond to the 'Who took that photo?' question with the same answer.
  • that whoever is asking the question 'Who took that photo?' is so profoundly dumb as to take one look at a hideous, blown, oversaturated, instagrammed-to-fuck abortion of a photo, and assume the person responsible for this obviously badly manipulated photo was the poor sucker who pressed the shutter release in the first place.

Some photographers don't want to provide OOF, shots that are badly framed, or need cropping or rotating

Well, that's a shame.

But seriously, that's easily solved.

If the customer chooses to do their own triage on these, then so be it.

I'd expect it's more likely that the customer would be happy to pay for the vetted subset of the photos of the day.

Again, this is a simple negotiation point, and the negotiations may well involve discussions of payment. And that still doesn't matter.

RAW is incomplete and requires processing, which is part of the service offered

This one tries to tie the usual one (which we saw from several different angles above) with, finally, a tacit acknowledgement that there are in fact economics at play here, and it's not just because RAWs confuse the general public.

This, and the next two reasons, are facets of the same argument.

That argument could be re-worded as 'I have not yet worked out what the appropriate cost of RAWs should be in order that I may maintain my expected income from a given wedding where I make some percentage from prints and albums'.

It'd be more interesting if they just came out and said that, but, alas, we don't live in an interesting world.

Some / many / this photographer's business model is based print and album sales

And this is where they spell it out a bit more clearly ... but unfortunately not clearly enough to then be able to put a precise $-figure on what it'll cost you to acquire the RAWs and/or copyright over images of your wedding.

As with the previous point it suggests that the photographer needs to just spend a few hours with a calculator, and resolve themselves to the possibility that they may have to tweak their pricing structure a few more times as technology, competition, and customer requirements continue to change.

This is how it's always been done, going back to the days of film

I've seriously heard this as a rationale for photographers denying access to RAWs.

Depressing that people still feel it's safe to say bollocks like this as though it's defensible.

You don't want the kind of photographer who'd provide RAW images to shoot your wedding

What the actual fuck?

This was posted by a person who claims they 'work with tons of wedding photographers'. They are genuinely asserting that anyone who would give you the best digital images you could possibly acquire, in return for the contract you signed with them to create digital images of your wedding, is by definition an incompetent photographer.

What a dickhead.

And here's why the Photographer is wrong

There are a good number of very compelling reasons the customer should get the RAW files.

Even when the customer doesn't explicitly ask for RAW files, they should be provided by default, unless there's been an explicit contractual arrangement to withhold them as part of some discounted (up-front) pricing structure.

Even then I'd be really nervous about long term access to the originals – or more precisely the lack of a plan to hand over these originals at some agreed point in the future.

This customer you're talking to – that's your fucking customer

This is the most obvious, the most simple argument.

This client of yours has identified what they want.

Ignore for the moment whether they fully understand the logistics of dealing with RAW image files – they may do, or they may simply have been told by an informed friend. It really doesn't matter.

They can try to buy whatever they want. This is how markets work. If you, as a photographer, choose to not provide this, then the customer can (and will) go to someone who will. And you can be confident that some other photographer will provide this if there's a demand, simply because they'll make a living by being the only non-conceited photographer in the area.

Everyone is hopeless at data retention

More pragmatically, photographers are, just like the rest of you, pretty hopeless at doing backups.

Some quick mathematics.

Assume a wedding photographer takes 500 - 2,000 photos on the big day. In 2013 speak, RAW+jpg equates to around 20-30MB per pair, obviously depending very much on the camera in play. Further assume that all the files are kept (in reality many will be dumped on the first triage, for being out of focus, or just requiring too much pp compared to other, better, candidate images). But we're being conservative here in our assessment of the workflow and retention. So let's call it about 50GB of image data all up.

Ask your photographer how many backups he has of your RAW files, how geographically diverse they are stored, what file system(s) are they stored on, what type of media, how many archives are retained (and if he knows the difference between backups and archives), whether he's ever had a hard disk failure and what happened as a result, what processes he has in place to periodically confirm the integrity of the RAW files of your wedding,

Remember, people may want to meekly ask their almighty photographer 40+ years later for some more prints. I don't trust most businesses to retain their data sensibly for 5 years, let alone 40.

Everyone is hopeless at data security

I'm not sure how important this is.

Probably Not Very.

But if these files are important to your photographer as a source of future income, and some may be very private and personal to you (especially if you're planning a career in politics or on the school board) you'd also want to be sure that these photos are stored exclusively on encrypted file systems.

I bet you they're not.

Don't let it get you down, but people die

Sad, but true.

Ask your wedding photographer what happens to your negatives / RAWs if she's hit by a bus tomorrow.

Chances are you'll get a dumb look and a promise that they'll be extra careful crossing the road tomorrow.

A possible compromise would be the provision to all customers of an encrypted DVD (for example) and the promise that their solicitor has instructions, upon their death, to send out the password to each person. This puts backup and retention back onto the customer, and opens up the option in ten years from now when photographers are a historical curiosity and/or have worked out how to properly charge for the provision of such data, to easily release these originals to you from afar.

But that all sounds a bit complicated, and still misses the point.

Technology improves

I see the topic pop-up on photography forums semi-regularly – people revisit their photos that they took and processed several years earlier, and they find the capabilities of new software to relight, de-noise, sharpen, tweak the WB (or whatever – it doesn't matter) have improved substantially in the two or three major releases of their preferred image manipulation suite.

The likelihood of your photographer periodically re-visiting your images to do some post-processing work on them with the latest upgrade of whatever, five or ten or fifteen years after your wedding, are basically zero.

The likelihood that you will want to do this, especially if you're still married to that person, are relatively high.

Given these are likely to be the single most important subset of the photos in your collection, it's perverse to not own the best versions of those files.

It's your fucking wedding

Yes, there's lots of creativity that goes into producing fantastic photos, including the whole dealing with people, getting them in the right place, picking the timings, scouting the locations ahead of time, dealing with weather events, timing things with daylight, arranging light, people and structures in interesting ways, the hours spent tweaking images on the computer.

But the photographer was employed by the people getting married to come to the wedding and take photos for the people getting married.

These are the same people that will be paying the photographer's invoice.

Yes, of course, there's a massive investment by the photographer of time and equipment leading up to this day, otherwise sunk costs as it were, so you don't just expect to pay an hourly rate for the time the person was there clicking away. A good photographer will spend time talking to you, gleaning any special style, mood, or moments you're hoping to capture, building some rapport with the people they'll be bossing around for a few hours on the wedding day, casing out the sites, loitering at the reception longer than they are being technically paid to, and so on.

And, of course, as mentioned, the subsequent hours spent staring at a screen.

But all this is – or rather, should be – factored in to the invoice.

And it's at this point that the withholding of the best version of those original images, with the ersatz explanation of 'you don't need these originals – you will be happy with these lossy jpegs' becomes offensive.

Someone else is going to give them what they want

Let me spell it out.

If the customer really wants RAWs, and you won't provide them, the customer will go elsewhere

In general terms, people are becoming more informed and tech-savvy, not less.

Image manipulation software is becoming better and easier to use, not worse and harder.

So you'll either start offering this service, or within several years you won't be photographing weddings (or any event where people have a very strong emotional connection, and want to own the best visual record of that event).

Some hypotheticals to help evolve your thinking

Using your camera – part one

It's your wedding. You've hired a pro photographer. You've also taken your camera along and handed it to a friend who'll be sitting in the front row. During the ceremony your pro photographer realises it's a perfect opportunity for a particular type of infrequently used lens, let's say a fish-eye, that he doesn't have on him. He borrows your camera from your friend to take the shot.

Would it be reasonable for the pro photographer to remove the flash card from your camera, and return it to you later only after copying and then deleting the RAW image from it?

Using your camera – part two

Imagine the same scenario as above, except you notice a perfect opportunity, and suggest or instruct your photographer to take a picture with your camera+lens combination.

Another simple variant

Imagine either that one of the pro's cameras or lenses was faulty, and they used one of your components – would you expect that would give you more, less, or the same right, to the actual (RAW) pictures taken?

Do you provide a ratio, or a flat-rate, hobbling of current tech?

I don't know historically what the practice was, say, 5 or ten years ago. I imagine very few people wanted anything other than prints, as that inertia took a while to change, and fewer people had access (or interest in) good cameras and good image manipulation software.

A decade ago I had a reasonably advanced (but not a DSLR) digital camera that clocked in at 5MP. This sized image is now just slightly smaller than what most 'pro wedding photographers' are telling customers they should be happy with. Common formats in the pro and prosumer range right now are in the 16-24MP range, I'd guess.

So in 5 years from now when world+dog has a 24-36MP camera, will you still be telling customers that they don't need or want more than a flat-rate 8MP?

Or will customers be told they'll be happy with a ¼-½ ratio of the average sensor-size – let's say around 12MP?