Why Professional Photographers Do Not Give Customers All the Files?

Share this Article 

It’s very common for a professional photographer to have a customer ask to be given all of the photo files from a day of shooting. Invariably, the photographer will try to persuade the customer against it, or even refuse outright. It leaves some customers confused, or possibly even angry. So why won’t your photographer let you have the product of the entire photoshoot?

What Is The Customer Entitled To?

In reality, the customer has no right to the work in progress. If you were commissioning a painting, would you later demand all of the sketches and studies that went into the finished piece? Or if you had a dress made, would you ask for the muslin fitting trials or the fabric cut-offs? Or the stone chips leftover from the carving of a sculpture? Obviously not. However, asking to be given every shot taken during a session amounts to the same thing. The photos that are not used are cast-offs, the detritus leftover as an artist works on a beautiful piece. There can be no benefit to seeing these unused, unnecessary bits of material.

“Skiathos Wedding” captured by Skiathos Wedding Photography. (Click image to see more from Skiathos Wedding Photography.)

But, you’re still asking, what’s the harm in having all of the photos? There can be a good deal of harm done to the professional photographer. If a customer were to show these unedited, cast-off photos to friends and family, it could seriously harm the photographer’s reputation. A professional artist shows off his best work, after all of the very best photos have been chosen and edited to their greatest advantage for pictures of the most supreme quality and beauty. Having raw, discarded photos represented to others as his work, as pieces that were supplied to a customer, would make a photographer look unprofessional and inept.

The Truth Behind a Photo Session

“23″ captured by Dimitrios Tsourtsoulas. (Click image to see more from Dimitrios Tsourtsoulas.)

Let’s face it, not every photo is going to come out perfectly. A photographer will take many, many photos during your session – hundreds of them in total. From these, he will cull the very best, the ones that are most flattering to you, and have the most potential to be works of art. And then he will perfect them, editing them until they are the best they can be, balanced and natural. These edited photos will show the best possible you, which is what you want out of your pictures, right? Wading through hundreds of unedited, unused photos, sometimes dozens of the same pose with only minute differences… there is nothing to be gained from this when your professional photographer will hand you the very best shots, edited to the best possible standard.

The photos that aren’t chosen to be edited were left behind for a reason. No one wants to think of themselves as unphotogenic, but sometimes a shot will be plain unflattering, or from a bad angle, or will unintentionally highlight flaws. No matter how much a customer assures a photographer that they will not be upset by the raw, unedited stack of hundreds of photos, this invariably turns out to be the case. The customer sees themselves portrayed in unflattering ways in these unused photos, and become angry or upset, and are left feeling doubtful about their photographer’s abilities. If the photos are of a particularly important occasion, like commemorating an engagement or the birth of a child, the emotions attached to these photos can be very high. And no one wants to see a newly engaged woman burst into tears when she sees her photos for the first time!

“Florist” captured by Samantha Foster. (Click image to see more from Samantha Foster.)

Trust The Professional

If you still want to see all of the photos, ask yourself why. Is it possible there might be a really great shot hiding in amongst all of those discards, something that you might be missing out on? Your photographer has carefully combed through all of the photographs, and just as carefully chosen the very best to be edited and presented to you for your album or for framing. Trust that he has created these for you from the very best shots of your session together. He is just as interested as you are in having those photos be beautiful and memorable, highlighting his talent and hard work. Your photographer knows his art, and you chose him for a reason, trusting him to capture your image and your essence. Now trust him to complete his work, to find the true gems among the photos, and to make them shine.

About the Author:
Alexander Soloviev is a family photographer based in Wiltshire, UK. Alexander does a wide variety of photography related to people and their activities – family, parties, weddings, events, personal profiles, nurseries, schools – you name it! Pet (especially horses) photography is another object that tightly connected to everyday human life.

Don't Miss The Next New Article!

Join over 100,000 subscribers who receive free photography tips and in-depth articles from PictureCorrect and stay up-to-date. Subscribe Now!

37 Comments

  1. Deborah says:

    Great article. Never thought of it that way.

  2. JG says:

    I understand your argument but strongly disagree. I am a an avid amateur (and occasional professional) photographer as well as a customer of photographic services. When I have hired someone to document an event, say my wedding, I have always asked upfront for the full set of RAW photos in addition to the processed photos. My reasons are this: I paid mainly for someone’s time, as the subject I feel a sense of ownership to my likeness (especially after paying someone to capture it), RAW processing gets better over time so I don’t want lowly JPGs or prints that degrade, and I may want to process an image in an alternate way. I imagine the last point is blasphemy to you but that is the world we live in — no one person holds the keys to the castle. Paying clients deserve the full output of the creative process, sketches and all, if it is agreed upon and they pay for it. If that doesn’t work you for fine but you won’t be shooting for me in the future.

    • Scott says:

      JG – if you hired me and wanted the RAW’s, I would pass. You not only hire for skills of operating a camera, you are also getting good editing with hiring a photographer. Do you give your RAW files out when you do work for someone? Do you ask for the left over rubber from the set of tires you just purchased? The analogies could go on and on, but the bottom line sounds like you are a control freak and don’t trust anyone but yourself, which is totally fine, just take your own pictures, and edit them yourself. I think the only people you will find to photograph you are from Craigslist looking to start out and don’t know better.

  3. Great points, gives me the confidence that my instincts are correct. May I go slightly off topic and ask if anyone would give their opinion on selling digital files vs. prints? I have a client who wants both. I’ve read a lot on the topic but still confused as ever.

  4. russel Ray says:

    Reminds me of what Sir Paul McCartney said when all many Beatles’ outtakes were released in the mid-1990s on the Anthology CDs (loosely quoted): “I don’t understand why people want this stuff. There’s a reason why we didn’t release it. It’s not good.”

  5. Dominic Lee says:

    In over 25 years shooting weddings & portraits I’d say only 2 people have asked for the “unused shots”.
    However I do get asked for the digital files instead of prints every other day and I say no because one only has to look at the canvas prints on offer at the local print shop/supermarket and they are not fit to wipe your feet on but sadly many clients think a canvas is a canvas!
    I can also name the 5 or 6 studios in my area who have gone bust in the last two years and they all sold digital files, most clients understand your desire not to lose control of the quality of your finished product.
    So Elizabeth if you sell your digital files you should be prepared to rely on another job for your living like JG above.

    • Elizabeth Bishop says:

      @ Dominic Lee I agree with you. I just feel that I am in a tough spot b/c I offered to help her out. she has an new online biz she is promoting and wanted me to do her head shots etc. I do not consider myself an amateur, I’ve worked hard and need to treat myself as a professional. I made the mistake of going against my instincts. How would anyone deal with a client who wants images just for a website? OT, I know.

      • Scott says:

        Easy, give her low resolution downsized just for the web. We give a digital small size copy to our clients so they can use them on Facebook or web. They cannot get large prints this way and have to come back to us for them.

      • sasnn says:

        Well, I believe giving customer a digital file is an interesting and ambiguous subject to discuss…. I agree with your reasons, but I do thing that there are others that outweight them:)

        Actually, I’m just about to dedicate my next article to this topic….

        • Elizabeth Bishop says:

          Again, I apologize for going off topic. Your original article seemed like an opening to at least ask. I do appreciate your article. I do not believe in sharing any image I deem as unfit to share, those are the 1st to go! plus I need the space :). What I gather from both topics, like any other issue I’ve found with photographers, is that everyone has a wildly different opinion. No one shoots the same etc. It comes down to being comfortable and confident. I am an extremely honest business person and never take a short cut or cheat anyone out of anything, I provide a product that I am proud to put my name on. So for me not sharing all images is a fair practice. I have no doubts whatsoever and no one else should either. But again it comes down to personal preference. Thank you for your thoughts. I eagerly await your next column.

  6. Don Klopfenstein says:

    The photographer owns the copyright and therefore control of the images, end of story.

  7. CH says:

    JG: With standards like those, it would be wise to remain in the “amateur” category – and equally importantly, plan to only pay amateurs. It’s a joke to expect raw files from a professional. Fact is, a pro doesn’t need your business badly enough to give you their ugly, fuzzy, underexposed, poorly composed, discarded files. Best wishes.

    • R'laine says:

      In agreement here. On reading this article this morning, one picture came to my mind, from my first engagement photo shoot. I was getting candid shots of the couple as they were talking to each other, in one, the female has a look on her face as though her fiance had just farted. They still don’t know that one exists, I keep it as a reminder to myself, there WILL be images that just do not need to see the light of day. I agree with the analogy of the painter/sculptor – nobody when buying a Picasso asks for his sketches do they?

  8. When a client hires a photographer for a wedding or any other event, he hires him for a final product not the whole procedure ,
    So as Don Klopfenstein says , your photos are copyrighted to you, the Photographer. Your Client when he hires you is actually giving you the right/permission to enter his private circle and you to Document it freely and for you to deliver a final Viewable product, in this case ” PRINTS “.

  9. R'laine says:

    BTW – wish we had a “Like” button here for comments!

  10. RB says:

    It’s nice to see someone try to explain this topic from an artist view point and remind the customer to be sure to seek out the product they desire.

    JG, IMO you may search out a photographer or other craftsman who will work with you on your vision of the service. However, personally I hope that the majority of photographers will present a highly select set of their services consistent with their advertising and appropriately branded by their artistic vision. I want a final product that is consistent with my research as embodied by the photographer’s trailers and advertisements. They’ve somehow represented their service and in the end that is the one I sought out and the one for which I contracted. Most photographers advertise openly how they capture and event. Some are very formal, some take a more journalistic approach others involve a great deal of multimedia and their art is an incorporation of their documentation and multi-media product and and art. Free enterprise let’s you pick the one that’s best for you.

    I fully agree with the how this topic was presented, however I feel that you are looking for a different product than the one that is discussed here.

    Roger

  11. @JG – I understand you’re an amateur but I can confidently say with everything I believe and do that any customer of mine is indeed NOT paying for my time. They call me because they want my artistic representation of the circumstance I’ll be photographing. Therefore they have no right to anything I feel needs to be discarded or simply not shown. If you can’t take enough pride in your work to protect it from others not trusting you, and changing your work then by all means stay a hobbyist. I would be furious if I caught someone defacing my work.

    Digital negatives are just that. In my opinion more photographers should keep their raw work out of the hands of customers and clients. Appreciate your own work first, then others will as well.

    -M

  12. Holly says:

    I have to disagree that those photos can be of no use to anyone. I think all memories captured can be precious even if poorly lit, ect. If the photographer would be so damaged by showing the entire body of work, perhaps the photographer needs to work on his or her skill some more. I don’t have a problem showing my entire gallery and marking my personal favorites. If the customer wants them all I let them know they may not ALL be of the highest quality, but I understand wanting to see the photos that would normally be left out. It also helps them to understand why they may have been left out.

    • Jessica says:

      So reasonable Holly! I came here to say the same thing. I am not a photographer, but I figured… if I can sit and snap 50 shots of myself on my webcam – all of which do me justice. I am looking at the camera, smiling, head not tilted. Of those 50 pictures, I only like 2 of them. ALL good representations of me, but my preferences for how I look are specific – and I doubt I could show those 50 pictures to any one and they would pick the two that I like. For that reason alone, if some one asks this question, it is likely because they are dissatisfied with how they look in the pictures, and are hoping that you captured another shot that they like.

      This step does not require handing over all of your photos, if you (the general “you”) are willing to meet with the client, sit down, and sift through images with them. They may love something that your brain didn’t find aesthetically pleasing – but that they love. If they look good, and they love it, they will give you good reviews and recommend you. If the photographer is rigid and unwilling to work with their client, that client has friends, and those are people who will either never hear about your work, or they will only hear about how difficult you are to work with.

  13. Cheryl Logan says:

    JG- A pro will never work with you. You will be stuck working with armatures. I would never give my raw images, nor would I allow someone else to edit my work. My clients hire me for my talent and art. Time is secondary to my clients.

    I agree with this article wholeheartedly!

  14. there’s tons of valid arguments that can be made on both sides of this equation, despite how many of my contemporaries may feel in this area.

    to qualify that “contemporaries” remark above, i’ve been a pro since i was 18 years-old in 1988. next year makes my 25th successful year in biz, and i’ve always given all negatives and digital files. one pro scolded me back in ’98 and told me that my work was good, but that i’d never get ahead with such low prices and shabby “here’s everything” practices. hmmmm, here we are years later, i’ve completed my undergrad degree in biz, and my MBA, while he’s been busy losing business and changing his company name to keep up. and i’ve traveled the world for hire (paris, london, sydney, jamaica [more times than i can remember], cancun, and other places), been hired to take portraits of the President of the USA, and average over 60 weddings per year plus tons of other gigs. check the website – www footprintfotos com for verification of the above

    long story short, do & deliver what works best for you and YOUR market. follow somebody who says that they don’t deliver this, don’t give that, or charges “x”, and you may just find yourself out of business…or worse, you’ll find out that they’re doing the very things that they told you not to do.

  15. Very good article, Alexander…As far as it goes. My first reaction to your comment about there being “hundreds of photographs” made during your session was, OK he must be a wedding photographer. Only an amateur hoping that if they make enough exposures surely something will turn out pretty good, would make 100s of exposures during a portrait session… Since I when to digital capture, the most exposures I’ve made during a portrait session was 110…Typically I make around 60. When I used film I exposed no more than one roll of medium format film during a session. (30 exposures)

    More importantly, while you infer that the final product provided to the client is prints and or albums, you never address the issue of turning over the digital files that constitute the selected and finished portraits.

    All the years I used film, never did I provide the negatives as part of the deal. A year or so after a wedding I would offer to sell them to the client, but it was never assumed that the negatives were part of the deal! For me it’s no different working in digital medium. This is how I, as a professional make my living, and often a client will come back to me for reprints of a portrait. If I gave the finished digital negative to the client, that would kill any reorder business.

    I agree with you that nothing unfinished should ever leave the artist’s hands to possibly go out to the viewing public. And of course to insure that the digital negative is available for reorders in the future, a good, reliable backup must be in place. I just recently found a program that is excellent for backup, and anyone can try it for free by going to http://goo.gl/kqecw

  16. @ Don.. Perfectly right! So many people don’t understand that the copyright, even after they pay, belongs to the photographer unless a document signing the release is signed from both parties.
    I am an amateur and style for my mentor photographer extraordinaire
    http://www.gabrielmorosan.com one of the best “people photographer I have ever worked with.
    It his Aura with clients that creates the final result beside his camera and amazing studio.
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151363392408653&set=a.108600558652.114170.535028652&type=1&theater
    I am quite sure he also never would release every shot he took.
    Its very easy one can agree on the size of a photo album a couple wants to fill and how many final shots. Here are some of my styling examples http://www.stage32.com/profile/33313/photos/289697297334282635

  17. Courtney says:

    Why is “The Photographer” referred to as a ‘he’?

  18. Alex says:

    The photographer in this article is referred to as “he” because in this case, the photographer ( and author) is male and third person reference makes for a better quality article. Nothing more, nothing less.

  19. TK says:

    What are your thoughts on an agreement / acknowledgement form for the client to sign before the shoot? One could also have something like a “statement of understanding” that could be given out.? What is your input or experience?

  20. HT says:

    Hey there,

    With respect to product photography, what would be the guidelines?

    I recently hired a photographer to shoot my products. We discussed the look we wanted & I was very happy with the photos she took at the shoot, and we both agreed that they’d need very little editing.

    However, when I saw the edited pictures, they were unsatisfactory. Neither were they faithful to the look of the actual products (a necessity for online retail), nor did the products look their best.

    I’m familiar with photo-editing myself & can very easily get the look I need, using the originals. She seems reluctant to give me the RAW files, though was sort of willing to give the original JPEGs.

    I don’t want to infringe on her rights as a photographer. However, I’d rather do the editing myself, than go through multiple rounds of requests for changes. I understand there may be copyright issues involved, but as far as I’m concerned, the photos are hers, irrespective of who edits them. Plus, I don’t think I’d be misrepresenting her work, for my editing of the photos has them look closer to the original product & photograph (as agreed by us).

    I would love your comments on this issue.

    Thank you.

  21. Rah Benton says:

    Finally someone puts into understandable terms what I have been telling people for years. I have just simply been shamed into giving everything up on threat of loosing business in the area. Thank you!

  22. George Michael says:

    Hello everyone
    I recently requested a friend of mine to take pictures of my wedding. He took some amazing pictures but did not give me around 50 photographs. He showed me this article and is refraining from giving me the 50 photographs. I haven’t seen the 50 photos but I am of the school of thought that even bad pictures can be good memories. My friend is not a professional photographer, he is a hobbyist but is definitely the best photographer among the friends I have. Please advice.

    George

  23. My position is to give the clients only the best images from the shoot. This averages to about 100 images/hour/photographer. For example 1,600 for an 8 hour shoot. We don’t give out blurry or test shots. The client gets what we keep and those are only the processed best shots.

  24. Shane (Unsatisfied Client) says:

    My wife and I were married in 2011 and hired a photographer who delivered unsatisfactory edited wedding photos in JPG format to us. Many of the photos were chosen by the photographer to be black and white while we would have preferred color. Other photos edited in color depict my wife’s dress as washed out and print in a white-blue tone without detail of the folds. Still others show skin color as unflattering to all in the photos. To say the least, we were hoping for better edits or “artistic representations” of the photos.

    When we asked the photographer if we could have color photos of some of the black and whites, the photographer responded as follows. “In an effort to preserve the artistic quality of the images that we produced, all images are the final edits and cannot be changed to color/black & white.”

    As a paying customer, is it too much to ask to be satisfied with services provided these days? Truthfully, I know I would do a better job at editing the RAW photos myself and feel I should have the opportunity to do so if the “artist” isn’t willing to. Why should I pay thousands of dollars for improper artistic assumptions. In the end, it should be about the customer being happy which I certainly am not.

    To this date, my wife and I have not printed any wedding photos. We do not want to print bad quality photos and we cannot properly change the way they look without having the RAW photos to do so. That being said, kudos to Derrel R. Todd for his immense success despite constant criticism from the majority of photographers for giving out the negatives. He understands the concept of making his customers happy and realizes the benefits from having done so.

    To the majority of photographers who stand behind the veil of “artist” for knowing how to manipulate computer settings, please get over yourselves. I appreciate your ability for finding great angles and scenes for shots. For that I will give you your due as an artist. The photo editing process is not art. Let me have my photos to manipulate as I please. The most artistic part of the process was completed as soon as the shutter dropped.

Leave a Comment

Personalize your comment with an avatar from Gravatar.com!

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever