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Photographers! Should You Sell Digital Files? Part 1: The Risks

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Photographers! Should You Sell Digital Files? Part 1: The Risks

Should you sell digital files?

More and more photographers are selling digital files, either in addition to prints, or instead of them.  I’m not sure what happened first in this chicken-and-egg scenario – whether photographers began promoting digital files to gain market share; or customer demand forced photographers to begin to provide digital files.  Either way, it is now a common aspect of the industry. Here is a quick survey on the MCP Actions Facebook page asking if photographers sell their files on CD or DVD. Make sure to add in your responses too.

To the emerging photographer in their portfolio-building phase, the provision of digital files to their clients seems like a necessary and sensible thing to do; and in this digital age, members of the public embrace it.  From my observations, it’s apparent that many of these images are being sold too cheaply for the market to sustain.  Much has already been written elsewhere about the importance of photographers placing a true value on their work (for skill, time, expenses, etc), so I won’t repeat that here.

Instead I will discuss the technical risks and strategies for selling digital images.  The truth is, releasing your photos in digital form is fraught with danger.

A digital photo isn’t just a bunch of pixels.  It’s your creation, your vision, your art.  You plan it, you capture it, and you edit it, until it looks exactly the way you want it.  You’d be reluctant to show an unfinished proof to a customer, just as a chef would be loathe to serve a half-cooked meal to a diner.

But when you release your digital files to a member of the public, you relinquish control of your work.  Even if you provide a firmly-worded “Guide to usage” (and you definitely should), a whole lot of quality factors are suddenly beyond your reach:

1. Printing.  Where will your client get prints made?  A good lab, or a horrible cheap one?  A good home printer, or an even more horrible cheap one?

2. Size.  Will they choose a print size that’s appropriate to the file size and quality?

3. Cropping.  If their chosen print size requires cropping (eg 8×10) will they honor your composition?  Will they even bother to check the cropping before pressing “print”?  Or will unexpected limb chops be the order of the day?

4. Sharpening.  Will the sharpening you applied to the file be appropriate to their chosen print method and size?

5. Uncle Frank.  This is the worst one.  It mightn’t be Uncle Frank, of course, it might be cousin Frank, or buddy Frank, or Aunt Frances.  Somebody with an uncalibrated screen, a dodgy copy of Photoshop, and an enthusiasm to “fix” your images for your customer before they print them.  Be very afraid of Uncle Frank.

Any of the above factors could result in your photo hanging on your customer’s wall looking ghastly.  If you believe that word of mouth is your most powerful marketing tool, consider this conversation:

“Two sugars and just a dash of milk, thanks.  Oh, I see you’ve got your family photo printed!  I must have a closer loo… oh dear, why do you all look yellow?  And why is little Jimmy half chopped off?

“Yes, we’re a bit disappointed about that too.”

“Who took it for you?”

“It was a photographer down the road called [insert your name here].”

“Oh my.  I shan’t be calling them.”

Obviously I’m describing a worst-case scenario here.  In most cases, your lovely photos will engender positive word of mouth, and expand your clientele.  But the risk is ever-present.  The only way to build a bulletproof reputation is to maintain 100% control of your prints; and the only way to do that is to keep the digital files to yourself.

Despite all that, I know I can’t stop the tide.  Sale of digital files is an established practice now, and many photographers feel obliged to do it, even if they don’t really want to.

In part 2 tomorrow, I’ll discuss the best possible practice when preparing digital files for your customer, to minimize your risk.

Damien is a retoucher, restorer and Photoshop tutor from Australia, who is establishing a wide reputation as an “image troubleshooter,” for those hard-to-edit photos.  You can see his work, and a big range of articles and tutorials, on his blog.

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62 Comments

  1. Tarryn
    January 19, 2011 at 6:12 pm —

    We hired a professional photographer to take our boys’ pictures a few months ago. She did a beautiful job, and we bought several prints. Part of the print package was digital files, and she gave detailed instructions about how and where to print them. I probably won’t end up printing them, to tell the truth. But it was so hard to choose which prints we wanted to purchase, and being able to also select 25 digital files made it much easier. As a customer, it is really hard to choose your pics, and especially hard to choose the pictures of your loved ones that will be discarded.

    On another note, I am guessing the people who are printing out professional work at Walmart or Costco would be illegally scanning them and printing them if they didn’t have the digital file anyway. If they have no courtesy and appreciation for your work w/r/t a digital file, they won’t have the same respect with a hard copy that can be scanned.

  2. Lori
    January 19, 2011 at 5:35 pm —

    Timely!! I do not like offerin them at all but recently felt pressured to give low res files for scrapbook use. The client was not happy and demanded high res files- for a shoot she pent $80 on. I have not given them. Considering refunding remaining sessions and giving med res files. We are not a match! And one of my photos ended up on her blog- without permission or photo credit.

  3. January 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm —

    Another angle: when a professional photographer joins a professional outsourcing lab, that lab offers: prints in various sizes, plethora of products, sharing between social networks, file hosting / for many years to come, so no worries about misplacing the disc/, on line slide shows, why Clients need to HAVE the disc after all? I am for protecting the quality of our work as visual artists, retaining the original composition, image tonality and overall quality. And btw,some analogy to another visual art: have you ever seen a commissioned painting being re sized, re painted, re touched by the client after the piece was brought home from a painter’s studio?

  4. Selena
    January 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm —

    I would ask that photographers consider something from the customer’s perspective. The customer has no idea where you will be in 5 years. What if they want another print, down the road, and you are no longer in business? The prints they bought cannot be printed anywhere without the copyright release. That would be very upsetting to me, as a customer, which is why I only hire photographers who sell their digital images. I expect to pay a premium price for them, of course, but I feel that I must have them. I cannot predict (nor most likely afford) all the prints I will ever need from that session, for the rest of my life. Hmm, maybe that’s an idea, perhaps you can restrict printing for a certain period of time, but after 2 years, release the copyrights to the purchaser.

    I do understand the points made in the article, though, because I wouldn’t want my images altered by Uncle Frank, and passed off as my work. :O

  5. January 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm —

    Thanks, everyone. I didn’t expect to get quite such a vehement response, but I’m glad I’ve evoked some debate.

    As I’m not a photographer myself, I have no real “investment” in this issue, so I hope I’ve presented a balanced discussion.

    Christine, I hope Part 2 will satisfy you 🙂

  6. January 19, 2011 at 11:04 am —

    I had my print pricing guide all set up on my website, I was ready to go. NOT ONE PERSON even expressed interest in 3 months. So I asked around to find out what people want, and it was digital images. Most of them only print a few but want the rest for their blogs, FB, etc. As soon as I changed my packaging to include the CD with images, all of a sudden I was busy. It’s so frustrating because I feel like my demographic decided what my packages and pricing should be.

  7. January 19, 2011 at 10:50 am —

    Has me thinking about this, eagerly waiting for tomorrow’s post 🙂

  8. January 19, 2011 at 10:46 am —

    Great points, Christine, and well-said!

    As both a photographer and a consumer, I can see the value (for both the photographer and the consumer) of offering 5×7 prints to show what the quality and the images SHOULD look like if they are printed as per the photographer’s specifications, via a professional lab.

    Having a physical print (of any size) that the consumer can see is a great educational tool to help the photographer teach their clients how professional images should look.

  9. January 19, 2011 at 10:37 am —

    timely! I’ve just been redoing my pricing/collections based off of this issue. I saw an article this weekend about the vast majority of clients actually never print anything off their cd. So I thought “what’s the purpose?” well cause they all think they want it…it is the digital age after all…so how can I get ahead of this curve of “to cd or not cd?”

    So, i decided i would make a few “physical” things part of the package such as one nice canvas or art print for their wall, and a few other press goodies – but i’m also including some fun stuff multimedia stuff they can put on their iPhone or website…figured I might as well go with the flow but take it further and embrace it. This way the client gets enough digital they probably won’t touch that cd other than for fb shared pics, and I know they have some physical items in hand to get that “old fashioned” thrill of holding a beautiful photo art product in their hand and hanging one on the wall. Win win as far as I’m concerned and I’ve had two clients since Sunday buy into the concept that “shoot’n’burn” is no longer an offering but look at what a cool package you’re going to get!

  10. Shena Luna
    January 19, 2011 at 10:21 am —

    Very true Christine!

  11. January 19, 2011 at 10:17 am —

    Great points!! I only sell CD’s when my clients by a print package other than that I dont sell I also only sell the CD with edited files. I ♥ reading your articles!

  12. Meagan
    January 19, 2011 at 10:17 am —

    Fantastic article. Looking forward to part 2.

  13. January 19, 2011 at 10:16 am —

    I completely agree with Christine. It’s a digital world and instead of running from the change, we need to embrace it, and figure out how to protect ourselves by offering suggestions just like Christine did in her post. Thanks for the article. Great discussion and when you have great discussions, it can only lead to great solutions! 🙂

  14. January 19, 2011 at 10:07 am —

    I’ve been a professional photographer for about 5 years now. After finishing school, I worked for an amazing child photographer, then was an assistant wedding photographer before opening my own child/family photography business. I have since let that business go, greatly missing the photography, but saying, “I am just not a business person.” Honestly, this issue is one of the top reasons for that. I cherish my photos. I spend so much time perfecting them to exactly how I want them, and absolutely adore my lab, that it makes me a little sick to my stomach to think of these being printing on an awful printer and displayed as “my work”. However, when people ask if I sell my digital images and hear that I don’t, I feel like I am quickly overlooked. Whether they think I’m greedy, or snooty, or whatever comes to mind. I feel so guilty and that breaks my heart. How do we help our clients to understand and not feel pressured into sacrificing our work?

  15. January 19, 2011 at 9:37 am —

    Thank you and amen. I have not and will likely never sell full res files to my (non-photographer, non-commercial) clients. Portraits printed on copy paper stuck to Granny’s fridge? It happens. Please educate your client to the value and quality of your art. 😉

  16. Christine
    January 19, 2011 at 9:29 am —

    These are all valid points and certainly issues to think about when offering digital files. However, as a consumer, I want digital negatives, and I would hesitate to use a photographer that didn’t offer me the option.

    This discussion reminds me of the music industry and its reaction to digital music files. The reality is the world is moving towards digital everything, and if we as photographers don’t figure out a way to work with the technology rather than clinging to an outdated delivery model, we’re going to find ourselves struggling to catch up down the road.

    I think the discussion needs to center on how to best protect ourselves and our art when offering digital files, since I don’t think anyone but the Anne Geddes of the world will be able to not offer digital files in five years or so. One idea I like is giving 5 x 7 reference prints with the files, so clients can see what the print should look like.

    It’s part of the photographer’s job to educate the client on printing, cropping, etc. A lot of this comes down to client relations.

  17. Albert Rayl
    January 19, 2011 at 9:28 am —

    Sure Sell your images and include a flier that Al will make them their Digital Video, Digital Memory Book, Wall portraits and more so he can increase his sales by may a couple thousand dollars.

    This is the mentality of many photographers today. Any person that is giving or selling their images on a CD or DVD is not a professional – period…. Some are in it for the “quick buck”. This is not being a professional. Reasonable pricing, repeat customers throughout their life will make you rich.

    It is absolutely CRAZY – STUPID and more to give or sell the images.

    The only time and place the images should handled that way would be a commercial product shot, and of course the price has all of that taken into consideration.

  18. January 19, 2011 at 9:21 am —

    hi – I am one of THOSE photographers that sells her images. I didn’t for hte longest time, and finally gave in to the client pressure! I do give them instructions on where and how to print, as well as where not to print. However, I must confess I never thought of Uncle Frank, and he gives me chills.

  19. January 19, 2011 at 9:20 am —

    “Sale of digital files is an established practice now, and many photographers feel obliged to do it, even if they don’t really want to.”
    So how do I step out of the rest and halt the flow of files being sold?

    • January 25, 2014 at 2:53 pm —

      I am a specialized photographer (automotive events) and I don’t want to sell my prints, but is there a resolution size that looks great as wallpaper on your computer but really bad if they try to print them?

      What is a good price for these files?

  20. January 19, 2011 at 9:14 am —

    This is an excellent read for anyone considering turning over their files. While I am asked about this constantly, I’ve strongly refrained from doing so – for the very reasons you have described.

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Photographers! Should You Sell Digital Files? Part 1: The Risks