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.