Running a photography business is 20% shooting and editing, and 80% dealing with the business of photography.
One of the trickiest tasks is to handle this one client request that we all dread - “can we have the raw files as well, just in case?”
In order to answer this request appropriately, we must first understand where the client is coming from, your own boundaries, and arguably most importantly, what makes this question so intimidating to respond to.
This is exactly what we are covering in this article. Firstly, why is this such a disliked question. Secondly, how to determine your boundaries in relation to raw files, followed by polite ways to communicate your position to clients, and lastly, what to charge, if you are to provide raw files at all.
A polite response consists of three main elements. Start by acknowledging your client’s concerns and expressing empathy. Then, explain how getting the raw files will not solve their concerns. You then go on to restate your boundaries, as it is important for the client to see that it is your business practices and this will gain you their respect. Lastly, you can counter-propose any alternative solutions to their concerns, if any.
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Mindset fix - Why does this Issue Intimidate Photographers?
I assure you that this request is going to come up time after time, if you are to make photography your full-time career.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance that you come to terms with yourself how you are to respond should such a request arise.
But before jumping into crafting your response, it is first worthy to take some time to study why this question is such a dreaded one, and how you can overcome the fear of talking about raw files with clients.
The below are some typical reasons that lead you to feel uncomfortable in discussions regarding raw files.
Lack of education regarding industry standards
The issue of whether or not you should provide raw files, while it shouldn’t be, seems to be an up-to-you type of situation.
When I started out, I had the impression that this is a matter of the photographer’s discretion, and that no one could tell me the ‘right’ answer because there simply isn’t one.
In fact, as I have learnt throughout years of hard-knocks, it is quite the opposite. It is not advisable to return raw files.
As a beginner photographer trying to turn pro, you might not have access to the people inside the industry, nor the privilege to acquire knowledge on how business is run on such specific level of detail.
Having no idea what the industry customs are means that you have nothing to benchmark your service offerings to. Knowing what the other players in the industry are offering puts things into perspective for you. You either learn that your practices are in line with industry norms, or that you are deviating from it with a solid reason.
This article helps you do just that - it informs you of what the general consensus among professional photographers are, so as to steer you clear of any self-doubt when such a request comes up.
Fear of losing a potentially returning client
It is common sense that if you want to stay in business as a photographer, you do your best to keep your clients happy so that they want to work with you time after time.
It is also very true that to make a stable income out of photography, having a group of loyal returning clients who are absolutely a fan of your work is key.
However, this is just part of the picture - you don’t only need returning clients, you need quality returning clients.
From a business standpoint, the profit margin of creative freelancers is directly proportional to the value your clients see in you. The more they value you, the more they are going to respect your wage.
On the other hand, bad clients are the ones that eat into your margins - they ask for discounts, complain about your edits, pressurise you to speed up your turnaround time etc.
It is tempting to think that the more clients you manage to satisfy, the closer you get to making a full-time living.
Though as counter-intuitive as it seems, the more time you spend on dealing with bad clients, the more you kill your chances of running a successful creative business.
Every minute you spend on wrestling with a troublesome client is a minute that could have been spent on taking care of quality clients.
Simply put, the more effort you spend on clients who values you highly, the higher your margins will be, although that can mean doing less work.
Yes! You earn more when you do less, but the right, things!
So forget about losing a client just because you refuse to give them raw shots. If indeed you lose them, they were never a quality client that you were meant to serve in the first place, anyway.
Rather, standing your ground will gain you nothing but respect, if the client decides to stay with you.
Indecision on personal boundaries
Before going into business, you must first know your business.
This sounds trivial, but is much easier said than done.
In retrospect, my boundaries came into shape as I tried to defend myself while being challenged. The need to set clear boundaries isn’t apparent until these have been unduly violated and your spirit totally brought down.
You will eventually grow to find out where your boundaries lie in relation to raw photos, likewise. But there are things you are able to deduce logically that enable you to avoid troublesome situations without getting into one.
Imagine that someone posts a raw photo you took of them, which was deliberately underexposed and flatly coloured to make room for post-processing. Would you need to experience that first hand to see that it is not a situation you want to be in?
My boundary is that I do not give out raw shots, for your reference.
Should you provide Raw files at all? Why Not?
I believe that the message has been clear thus far - do not give out raw files.
Here are the biggest reasons that led me to strongly recommend against returning raw files.
Protect your Reputation
The best method of marketing for photographers, or anyone in the business of a creative art in general, is client referral.
Your work sells yourself through people who you have collectively worked with in its creation - people form an impression of you based on your previous track record.
The nature of a photographer doesn’t only include taking photos - it covers the entire course of actions required in the production of a set of visually pleasing images. And that includes retouching and post-processing.
Any of your work that makes it to the public is impliedly finalised, and thus represent your overall aesthetics, not just the technical bits of taking a photo.
If your raw shots are published, not only does it make people question your ability to properly work a camera, but more so, your ability to provide art direction.
It really is a photographer’s eye that gets him hired, so this is the last position you want to be in.
Some clients will promise to only keep the raw files for personal record, or say anything to make you give them the files. This you can’t know for sure.
What you can be sure, though, is that at the end of the day, you lose control over these files once they have been sent out.
Stand for your Rights
Photos are property. Maybe you don’t see it that way yet, but as you progress as a photographer, people will buy individual images from you.
Be it prints, or extra edited shots on top of your standard package, photos are worth money - it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some photographers earn a substantial proportion of their income from selling individual images.
As the creator of these images (which are worth money, let me remind you), you hold the intellectual property rights.
But what is the point of holding these ‘rights’, the value of which you currently are not certain about?
Here is an analogy. You go to a baker and buy a cake. He gives you the cake, but has half a bag of flour left. Do you demand that he give you the flour for free?
No, because the remaining flour is in his ownership and it would be absurd to demand something for nothing in the world of commerce, regardless of whether or not he could use the opened flour for other trades.
You just don’t give people things for free. At least, clients should not expect to get things from you for free.
Simplify your Workflow
If you are in the process of turning pro with your photography, it would be reasonable to assume that you are shooting Raw, not jpeg.
Notorious for its large file sizes, Raw files are not designed for sharing purposes, neither is it designed for the average Joe to view.
I have previously tried returning Raw files, only to be met with client’s difficulty in downloading the images and in opening them.
So when a client demands raw files, they are realistically demanding jpeg versions of the unedited Raw files.
In order to do that, you will first have to tether all the raw files and export them in jpeg format. It takes around 2-3s on average for each thumbnail to render - on the optimistic end.
And as if this process alone doesn’t take long enough, you will need some more time to upload the larger-than-usual jpegs onto Google Drive (or whichever platform you choose to use).
Not only will these raw files take up storage space, but you had better remember to delete them after confirming with your client that they have been safely downloaded on their end.
I don’t mind doing more work for my clients, if my input is indeed meaningful.
This is not the case though, which leads us to the next point below.
Focus on the Truly Necessary
From what I observed to be the case, most clients do not actually care about the raw files. I had some clients tell me explicitly that they don’t bother to keep the Raw files.
As for the ones who demanded raw files, very rarely have raw files actually proved to be useful. After all, if you did the editing properly, clients should be left with little reason to use the Raw files.
Based on my experience thus far, I don’t think that my effort in delivering raw files adds much value to their experience of working with me, if not subtracting value.
This is up to your working style. But for me, I have observed that clients don’t always need what they think they need.
A competent photographer can understand his clients’ true needs and focus his efforts on just that.
How to Politely turn down requests for Raw files?
So now (hopefully) you decided to not return Raw files, based on the rationale discussed above.
But understanding how to effectively communicate this message to your clients is equally important.
To establish healthy, long-lasting working relationships, it is key that your clients are fully convinced on the issue of not getting raw files, and that they are happy with such an arrangement.
It is tempting to just shy away from the issue and cave in to clients’ requests.
But as you grow your clientele, you will see that being able to run your business exactly how you want to is a heavenly feeling.
Step 1: State your stance (again)
This is your business - you are the one who write the rules. It is a privilege for someone to be able to photographed by you, and so they play by your rules.
So you set the stage - ‘the party don’t start till I walk in….’
It is advisable to reinstate your stance the first thing because it sets expectations right.
You are giving clients the message that you do not return raw files by default.
Even if you do, it is an exception rather than a norm.
Step 2: Ask what their concern is
Your clients are too busy to annoy you just because they want to. Especially in business, people seldom make requests not backed by rationales.
Maybe it is just Hong Kong, where I am based in, but clients generally have a legit reason for wanting the raw files.
Once you ask, you will understand where they are coming from. This means two things for your business.
Better customer service
It is true that you provide photos in exchange for payment, but that accounts for hardly half of the service you are offering.
A great photographer doesn’t only snap photos, but is a trusted stylist/ advisor/ customer support/ creative director all in one.
To differentiate yourself as a photographer is to provide the winning service - people might forget the photos you took, but they will always remember how they felt working with you.
At this stage, you want to be giving the message that you have business practices that you have to adhere to, but you are happy to listen and to help out without compromising on fundamental boundaries.
More convincing and builds authority
In formulating an effective response to clients’ demands for raw files, they will more likely be convinced if you are on the same page.
They are worried that they won’t be able to do something without the raw files, and this concern needs to be addressed head-on if you want to solve the issue once and for all.
By inviting them to speak their mind, your clients know that their worries are acknowledged, and that something might be done about it. It makes your ensuing response more relevant, and therefore more likely to be accepted.
This also gives you the opportunity to show that your expertise - you take on the role of an educator by proposing other methods by which their issues can be solved, without the Raw files.
Again, this is your business. You should be in the position of power over your clients, not the other way round.
You know more and you know better. You listen to clients not because you have to, but because you want to, in order to do your job better for them
Step 3: Dissolve their concerns
The way I see it is that most people are logical in making demands and therefore, it wouldn’t be desirable to directly downscale or dismiss that concern they voiced out.
Maybe it sounds ridiculous to you, but it certainly doesn’t to the client. Or else they wouldn’t have said it in the first place.
Them confiding in you about their concerns is also an act of trust - you don’t want to destroy this trust.
Now that you know exactly what is bothering them, you can put together a response that acknowledges their concerns as legit, just that getting the raw files isn’t the best way to solve the concern.
Here are some examples of typical reasons clients give, and how I would respond if I were you.
“There were some other really nice shots!”
What they actually mean:
They want to post a few similar images (eg. Instagram Carousel)
They are not sure about the final selects
They think they can handle the editing themselves
What you can say:
Explain what Raw files are - they are data, not images and thus require special processing software in their handling.
Explain why the Raw photos are not going to look good in a post - the editing process introduces so drastic a change to the overall outlook that the inconsistency between the Raw and edited files is not aesthetically pleasing.
Explain your role as a safeguard to the quality of the end products - every final image should be both technically and aesthetically sound, the former mostly the responsibility of the photographer, the later partly that of the client. You help make sure every image they get is free from technical flaws.
“These are photos of myself!”
What they actually mean:
They want more photos for free
They feel personally connected to those photos
What you can say:
Explain that the ownership of the photos lies with you - clients didn’t pay you for their face; their face is always theirs. Rather, they paid you for images of their face, which is, for the most part, your intellectual property.
Explain that they get what they paid for - it is perfectly fine to want more photos because they feel connected to images of themselves. Therefore, they have the option to purchase extra shots.
What to charge for Raw files, if you really have to return them?
Most clients, with the faculty to appeal to reason, would have totally understood their position in relation to Raw files if you have been effective in your communication.
The best scenario for you would be that they are happy to purchase more edited shots from you, or at least respect your practices as the photographer and be contended with the arrangements as it is.
But extraordinary circumstances might drive a client to strongly insist on having the raw shots - so what do you do?
You resort to charging them for the Raw files, though I must stress that this should be your LAST RESORT.
Charge to dissuade
My personal view is that Raw files are priceless, due to the reasons mentioned above.
Any trade relating to the sale of Raw files is always a loss, just a matter degree. Because every Raw file represents an opportunity in the future.
So the overall objective in setting a price for your raw files is to provide a disincentive for your clients in purchasing the Raw files.
It might appear tempting to make more money up front by selling out your raw files. But on the balance of things, you will probably be better off with not making such a sale at all.
Setting a Price
Just with any issues pertaining to pricing, setting a price for Raw files can be a headache.
There is no general rule for this, and I know you hate to hear this.
But here a few tips that would hopefully guide you as you perform your own experiment.
Base this price on how much you are charging per edited shot, which is what the customer will benchmark your Raw file pricing against.
Triple, or even quadruple that unit price. I must stress that this is case-specific, just that as an educated guess, a commercially sensible client would see little benefit in going ahead.
In this article, we talked about:
Why requests for raw files should not bring your anxiety;
Why photographers should not return raw files;
What to politely say to a client who asked for raw files; and
What to charge, as a last resort, if indeed a client insists on having the raw files
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