Should Photographers Give RAW Files to Clients?

If you’re a member of any online photography forums or social media groups then you occasionally come across people asking whether or not they should hand over RAW files to clients who ask for them. Photographer James Windsor has a simple answer to this common question:

Windsor puts forward the following five reasons why you shouldn’t hand over RAW files to your clients.

1. People Don’t Know What RAW Files Are

Many people don’t really understand what RAW files are and liken the whole editing process to slapping an Instagram filter on the photo. They don’t understand the complexities behind handling and editing a RAW photo. They might not even have the tools capable of handling RAW files.

2. RAW Files are Huge

RAW files, by definition, contain a huge amount of uncompressed data. The file size is just huge. For comparison, while a JPEG file size ranges to about a few hundred KBs, a RAW file can take up at least 20–25MB. So sending over all the RAW files from a session to a client means handling gigabytes of data, and that can be troublesome for both the photographer and the client.

3. RAW Files Don’t Look Right

RAW files are unfinished products. Just as uncooked food doesn’t taste good, it is likely that a RAW file wouldn’t look good. As a photographer you might sometimes need to under or overexpose a photo as your creative choice; a photographer can have a vision that a RAW file cannot express. Clients will take RAW photos for bad photos as they do not understand what you can do to it; they do not understand the extent you can go with the RAW files to achieve your vision. RAW photos can thus give an impression to the clients that you are a bad photographer, and you do not want them to think so.

unedited raw file

A RAW file underexposed for a creative purpose

jpeg after edit

The underexposed RAW file after editing

4. RAW Files Can Damage Your Reputation

Photography is actually a process of taking a photo, editing it, giving it a particular look, making use of technical abilities. Editing is a big part of photography and this step can either make or break the photos. A RAW image that looks dull has the potential to be turned into something brilliant, a masterpiece perhaps. Contrarily, someone who doesn’t have the same vision as the photographer, and who has no understanding of the editing process, can edit a RAW photo and make a garbage out of it. The latter case can absolutely put an unrecoverable dent in your reputation as a photographer.

5. People Are Selfish

Windsor has had some bad experiences with clients who”promise” not to put the RAW files out on the internet—but they do it ultimately. Contractual agreements mean nothing to them, and would you really care to take legal actions against them?

“A RAW file is an unfinished piece of art. You do not give it out. It is not finished yet. It is not done. A band does not release a new pop song before it has been in the studio. It’s the same with photography.”

There will always be clients who will ask for RAW photos. Now that you understand what impact it can have in the wrong hands, just be firm and say NO. While there are some instances where handing over RAW files will be a part of the job (e.g., professional clients like publications), but for others take your stand against handing out RAW photos.

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3 responses to “Should Photographers Give RAW Files to Clients?”

  1. Elle says:

    NO, of course. Who owns those RAW files? The Photographer. The Client paid for finished edited photos.. not RAW unedited photos. RAW files are not even negatives. The JPG, out of the camera, would be the negative. So I would put that in the contract to be safe to say the RAW files belong to the photographer. If photographers have to ask that question, they aren’t photographers.

    If they insist, give them printed proof sheets. They don’t have to be large size.. wallet size at the largest. Color them all like the proofs you get with Portraits.. sepia toned. That makes you put in extra hours, so charge them for it. At least other people will know they’re uploading proofs not the finished product.

  2. Jess says:

    If you’re a photographer reading this because you have an aggressive client like I do right now demanding them– be firm and don’t give in! Be professional and set a firm boundary.

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