What to Do When a Client Wants Your RAW Digital Files

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A common concern we hear from photographers is that one of their clients will ask for “all of the photos” taken during a session or wedding. They request the unedited, RAW, digital negatives, and the photographer doesn’t know what to do. Sometimes, clients ask this question before they hire the the photographer as a prerequisite for getting the job. Sometimes, they wait and ask once the final gallery has been delivered. After the final gallery has been delivered, for a lot of photographers, the request alone is enough to make them sweat; and send them into an all-day, frenzied Facebook group search for exactly what to say to their client. For others, the request alone during the interview process is a big enough red flag to ditch the client from the outset, run for the hills, and let some other sucker deal with it.

But should it be?

Maybe, if it’s one of multiple warning signs that indicate a client’s predisposition to be untrusting and/or skeptical.

At the same time, if it’s the only part of the process that gives you pause, you might have an opportunity to educate and empower your client about something they think they understand but probably don’t: the process of how you select the final images they’ll receive.

A Client’s Two Most Common Concerns

Here are the two most common reasons clients ask for “all the images.” If you can anticipate these two questions and answer them kindly, carefully, and confidently when they’re asked, you’ll be able to reassure your clients that they’re getting everything they want without compromising your professionalism. Once we discuss these two concerns, we’ll talk through how to respond to them. At this point, you might be thinking, Right, but I just want to know what to tell them. We hear you, but we think it’s really important to understand where they’re coming from, so you (we) can walk in their shoes a little bit and have empathy in our voices (or keystrokes) when we respond. A clients asks for “all the photos” because: 

Concern #1: They don’t want to miss anything.

This is a normal feeling! When we got married, before we were photographers, beautiful images were important, but so were all the memories associated with the big day, from the little ones to the big ones. Even if they were just grab shots that didn’t have perfect exposure, white balance or composition, we didn’t care! We wanted EVERYTHING. Because the more memories, the merrier. All of the moments were so special to us and helped us relive our day. They made us smile. Regardless of the photo quality. We didn’t even think about that! Or at least it wasn’t our top concern.

Now, we don’t recommend giving your client every image, not by a long shot. We’re meticulous curators and sensitive to every image that leaves our studio, because each one is a representation of us. However, if you’re going to photograph for 10 hours on a wedding day, your client expects that thousands and thousands of images are taken – and they’re right. Thousands of images ARE taken.

So, if you tell them that you’ll deliver 500 – 1,000 (or more) after the wedding, they’re going to ask the logical question.

What about the other photos?

We think that’s a FAIR question.

It’s not because they want to see test shots and bad frames. In most cases, it’s just because they assume that they’re missing out on something that happened, and they want to see it because it’s special to them, and if they don’t get it now, they’ll likely never get it. In other words, this is their chance.

Concern #2: They’ve had a previous experience with a photographer where they’ve been allowed to review the proofs before purchasing.

Back in the days of film and before the digital photography revolution, basically every photographer used the same system. They’d shoot a session, develop small prints of all the digital negatives (or project them onto a screen) and schedule a meeting with the client where the client could choose the images they’d like to print. It used to be the only option! This is still a business practice a lot of photographers use with digital photography today as well. A “Shoot & Sell” business model. Also known as in-person sales (or “IPS”). The clients pays a smaller session fee for the photographer’s time, and then pays additionally for prints, canvases and other products.

Today, though, a growing number of photographers, including us, have adopted the “Shoot & Share” business model, where we charge a larger amount up front for our services, include our shooting time and the edited digital files, and we don’t do in-person sales. Product sales aren’t an important part of our business model or clients experience, and even though we do offer products through an online gallery (we use PASS for this), we don’t count on print sales for our bottom line.

TO BE CLEAR… for any Internet trolls reading this who want to stir up trouble, we’re not saying anything positive OR negative about either business model. We have industry friends who flourish with both of these models… and everything in between. We respect them all and always encourage photographers to do what’s best for their clients and themselves. We’re just sharing what we do to help anyone who gets a request for “all the photos” understand where we’re coming from. 

Anyways, when we’re done shooting a session, we choose the final images ourselves, edit them and deliver the digital files to our clients through our online PASS gallery where they can purchase prints from our professional lab, download and print at the lab of their choice, or a combination of the two.

The Shoot & Sell and Shoot & Share approaches are very different client experiences. Not better or worse. Just different.

For Shoot & Share photographers interacting with clients who’ve had a previous experience with an IPS photographer, it’s logical that they might feel like they’re losing an element of control since they won’t get to see every image that was taken and be the one to decide which smile is better or which chin looks thinner.

From the client’s perspective, this makes sense. Think about it in another business context: If you’re used to going to a steakhouse where you order from a menu a la carte, and then a friend takes you to another steakhouse where you pay one price and get a steak, potatoes and veggies included, those are two different experiences and two different sets of customer expectations. Does it mean one is better than the other? That’s for the customer decide!

How We Answer a Client Who Asks for RAW Files 

Instead of being reactive and defensive and waiting for a client to ask for “all the digital files,” we try to be proactive and explain up front how many final images they can expect and how they’ll be selected, not by explaining the criterion by which we include images, but by explaining how we exclude images. Here are three things you can tell your client to reassure them and out their mind at ease.

1. You’ll eliminate the ones they would anyways.

We tell all of our clients that, as a service to them, we go through all the images taken during a session or on a wedding day, and eliminate the test shots, the ones where somebody’s blinking, the smile is stale etc. and any less good “duplicates.” In other words, the ones they’d eliminate anyways. We all know what a pain it is to clear through bad shots on our iPhones every time we start running out of hard drive space. That totally makes sense to them.

2. We explain that we’re professional curators. 

As full-time wedding and portrait photographers, we know that culling and curating is an art. It’s a skill that you train and hone over years of practice. Just like a curator at a museum. We’ve literally combed through hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of digital negatives. We do it for our clients. We do it for ourselves. We’re professionals at it. Because of that, we’re fast. We know how to choose all the “keepers.” We keep anything we think the client might want. Anything we might want ourselves if we were them. Because we’ve always believed in Golden Rule: treating others the way we want to be treated. And that extends to our business. We treat our clients the way we’d want to be treated as clients.

Part of that it protecting them from themselves. Our clients are busy people. Usually, they go straight from their wedding to their honeymoon, and then go straight back to a pile of work and everything in life they put on hold for a year while the were planning their wedding. They don’t have time to become paralyzed with indecision, wasting days combing through thousands of images. We’d never want them to experience that. There’s no need for them to experience to that, since we can do it for them. When people feel like they’re in the hands of a competent, confident professional, and they understand the process, they’ll trust you and won’t have a reason to question your image selections.

3. You took the shots, so you’re the best person to know what’s included.

You can also remind your client that, since you took every frame, you know their day more intimately than anyone , and you won’t forget to include anything that’s important or helps tell the story of their day in the final gallery. If you’ve been a bride or groom before, mention that, so they can feel reassured that you’ll include everything they would want.

McCormick House Ranch Camarillo Destination Wedding

If all else fails… 

If you’ve explained this to your client in a meeting or via email before they’ve hired you, and they still demand that you give them the RAW digital negatives from a session or wedding, our recommendation is to let the client know two things:

1. It’s not industry standard to release the RAW digital negatives.

2. They’re highly unlikely to find a professional who will.

Then… politely decline the commission without referring another photographer. You’ve screened that client and you don’t want to put anyone else in that situation. You can feel good knowing you did your best to give the client the benefit of the doubt and to educate and empower them while respecting yourself and your brand enough not to do something you’re uncomfortable with. If this happens after you’ve already photographed their session or wedding, we’d recommend reminding them of everything we talked about above. Hopefully they’ll understand, feel satisfied, and won’t continue to ask for “all the photos.” If they do, remind them that it’s not industry standard to release the RAW digital negatives, and refer them to the section of your contract (they agreed to) that explains that.

As with everything we do in business, our aim is to put the client first, educate and empower them well and do everything we can to make sure they have a great experience without compromising our professionalism. We hope this helps you feel empowered to do the same!

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  1. Connie says:

    This is a hard situation for me. As a photographer myself, I can’t tell you how many times I have fallen in love with a photo and was sure a client would love it only to hear oh no! Look at my….
    And it’s not anything that is really an issue. It’s just an insecurity for them. There is no way I could know what everyone is going to react to about themselves in a photo. It’s very personal and subjective. So maybe I picked the one of ten shots of this pose that I really thought was the best, most flattering shot and they would have picked a different one. I completely understand that. I’ve done it myself with photos I’m in.
    Maybe they aren’t controlling bad clients but insecure?
    I wonder if there was a way without making it too hard, maybe as an add on or upgrade, to let them pick which pose they prefer to have edited. Maybe just for a few of the most important shots? It does seen like a pain though. I don’t know.
    But I can understand where they are coming from.

    • Amy & Jordan says:

      Hey, Connie! We totally hear what you’re saying. We’ve had our photos done multiple times by professional photographers, and there are always a few photos that we don’t like, not because the photographer did anything wrong, but just because of our own insecurities. That said, as it is, we usually deliver hundreds of images from a single portrait session, so even if there are a few that the client feels insecure about, they’re likely to love a lot of them. So instead of opening the Pandora’s Box of having our clients review every single RAW file and choosing which ones they want edited (which would take so much time, and probably leave the client actually feeling worse when they see all the unflattering ones that we would have culled out), we’d prefer to do the culling ourselves and then just give them a lot of images so they don’t feel like we left anything out. Hope that makes sense! It’s a really good point you bring up and shows how much you truly care about loving and serving your clients well — which we think is awesome! We just believe it’s actually the best service to our clients to cull the images for them and not show them the RAW files in the first place, because it saves them (and us) time, which means faster turnaround times. Also, with our Posing System, we eliminate a lot to awkward and unflattering looks in-camera, so when we go to cull the session, it’s actually pretty easy to narrow down the best ones, and we believe that 99% of the time (or more) our clients would make the same decisions we did.

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