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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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  1. November 16, 2012 at 1:22 am —

    Congratulations on a great article and a very relevant topic. This is definately an emotive issue that comes up a lot with my wife’s photography business.

    I do see both sides of the argument having been both a customer who has felt the stress of having to choose which of my children’s precious images I can afford to purchase. I am also the husband of a newly established photographer whose clients frequently request a full set of high res images from each shoot. We are faced with the ever increasing challenges of balnacing customer expectation with the need to maintain business viability and the highest quality in all that gets delivered.

    Our current approach is to offer a one-hour package that covers the sitting costs, creative talent and also provides a generous credit towards the purchase of pro-lab prints, web quality images or full resolution JPEGs (not raw).

    The biggest wow factor definately comes from handing over a set of largish professional prints. For this reason we encourage this by offering free web quality digital images for all prints purchased and do allow web quality prints to be purchased separately if that is all that is required. The higher resolution JPEGS are available for purchase at a higher price point (at a same price as an 8×10 print).

    Yes, I am very scared of Uncle Fred and all the random factors that can result in negative feedback. Word of mouth repuation is everything so it is vital that nothing is compromised by uncle Fred, a Kmart minilab or someone who doesnt understand the principles of good composition.

    Another thing that seems to have been overlooked in this discussion is the importance of maintaining a monetary value on each image purchased.
    Some photographers structure their business on a fairly simpe shoot and burn model where they are effectively just charging for the time that they take the photos and burn the results straight to DVD and hand it over.

    There is a market for this, but I see this trend as a bad for both the business and the customer. Let me explain… In this model photographers are incented to deliver a Quantity of photographs as opposed to the very best Quality artwork they can achieve. They are not being financially compensated for the time they take in post-processing, so success in this model comes down to how many one hour shoots can I book each week and how fast the CDs can be handed over to the client.

    If you think about the basic economics, a photographer accepts a fee for a service to deliver a product and will take a set amount of time to do it in order to make a small profit.

    A photographer who snaps three hundered photos in an hour and burns all of these to a DVD will only be able to spend about a minute or less per photo in post processing (evaluating creative options, colour balancing, cropping, editing, photoshopping, filtering, blemish removal etc).

    The customer gets exactly what they asked for but there is nothing very special. Perhaps just a bit better than uncle Fred would have taken.

    Puting a price on each image does mean the customer gets less images for the same prices (e.g. perhaps 25 instead of 300). But they will be the very best 25 images, and a professional will have done full creative post processing and if prints were ordered they will be produced at a pro lab that is calibrated to the editors software. I personally would prefer to have 25 spectacular pieces of art than 300 unedited memories.

    At the end of the day your friends will be bored by the quantity, and tend to form an impression of the collection based on the average to worst images. Most people have an effective attention span of 20-30 photos anyway – they might as well be the best ones.

    Anyone who takes pride in their work will want a business model that ensures they can take the time it takes to produce something amazing rather than just a job that produces a digital comodity by the hour. Putting a value on each image also ensures the artist is compensated a little for each piece of artwork they deliver. This has an incredibly motivating and satisfying effect for both the photographer and the client when they see the spectacular results.

    Regards – Steve

  2. Bart
    December 31, 2012 at 8:12 pm —

    I would never hire a photographer that won’t sell me digital copies. The whole idea of paying someone to cover my wedding and then not even have control over the photos of MY wedding goes beyond me.
    Thinking that not selling digital copies protects you from stories as described in the article, is naive. Everybody has a scanner, my misses has just been scanning all our old photos so she would have a digital copy of them, if you want to keep your ‘art’ in the best quality, forcing people to do this is the last thing you would want… but that’s just my opinion.

  3. Lena
    January 17, 2013 at 12:21 pm —

    I am currently frustrated with a photographer who took great pictures, but who isn’t so talented with Photo Shop. He really messed up some great shots with mistakes in Photo Shop. I know he spent a lot of time “editing” these pictures, but frankly, I am experienced in Photo Shop and would’ve done a much better job and I didn’t want all his “special effects” in the first place. He is a nice guy, but won’t sell me unedited versions of these once in a lifetime pictures of my kid. He wants control over “his” art, but it is my child’s image, shouldn’t I have a say too.

    A friend of mine had her daughter’s senior portraits done by another photographer, she liked the proofs, but hated the final product. She wanted pictures of her daughter; the photographer edited the photos, making them “more dramatic, more artistic”. In the final product her daughter no longer looked like herself, but more like soft porn star. Again the photographer would only sell her his edited version. (She ended up have me, a good amateur photographer, retake them. The professional photographer was only paid the basic fee.)

    I recognize photographers are artists, but photographers need to ask themselves do they want to “create art” and be a poor starving artist or does they want to give their customers a product they want and make a living? Photographs have become functional art, they no longer just hang on the wall, people want to use them in many different formats, and sometimes usable art gets dinged up. Photographers who won’t sell digital files are going to find themselves in the same situation as musicians who didn’t want to sell the musical downloads people wanted. People would download, often an inferior quality song without paying for it. If photographers won’t sell digital files, customers will buy a 5×7 or 8×10 scan it into their computer creating an inferior digital file. And the photographer will be out a lot of money.

    Personally I will never again do business with a photographer who won’t sell me the unedited digital files. Sure there is a market for the well done edited printed portrait to hang proudly on the wall, but the smart photographer who wants to stay in business will put their ego aside and sell both.

  4. April 25, 2013 at 9:19 pm —

    I’ve been selling my full resolution, custom retouched and copyright released JPEGs on DVDs for over 10 years. I’ve always been able to sell my work at a higher price generally over other photographers who do not provide the JPEGs. I don’t see any issue. Stock photographers have been doing this for decades. (Originally as slides, transparencies, film negatives, etc). Why would anyone think it is not a good business model only for wedding photographers? Today, everyone knows images may be manipulated and copied and on and on. So I’m not concerned about other people manipulating my images in some way that I don’t agree with. People merely have to visit my website to see the work as I actually produce and provide it – then they can be creative all they want with what I sell them.

  5. May 16, 2013 at 6:23 am —

    This is becoming a bigger problem everyday for professional photographers. I have been a pro photographer for 32 years, owning a large studio and print lab for the first 30 of those years. In this digital age, we as photographers had better face the reality of what is happening out there. We are witnessing the demise of printed books and newspapers. That should give us a clue as to what is happening to our precious prints. Please note that I am a portrait photographer, not a commercial photographer. Today, many of my clients tell me they want images to share on their social network sites and electronic devices…ie tablets and smart phones. Prints are just not that important anymore. You have 2 choices as this is becoming more and more the norm…hold your line and never give up your digital files and watch them find someone who will or give them what they want. My approach is simple. It has evolved from giving 2-3 web ready images to each client with a purchase of a print collection, to now offering complete collections of web ready images. For example I have a Diamond collection with numerous prints priced at $2000 and a Diamond digital collection with only web ready images priced at $1500. The web ready images are just that…low res files not suitable for printing but will look great on any social media site or digital device they may have. I’m still getting paid for my service and they’re getting what they need. I never give a written release for the images for them to get printed elsewhere. I do realize that some will still do that and there is no way to stop it. Even with textured prints they can scan them and make prints if that’s what they want to do. It’s inevitable. For me the choice is clear…embrace the changing times or die with your head in the sand.

  6. August 26, 2013 at 5:19 pm —

    I’m finding that people prefer to buy digital files over prints. I could get precious about my photo’s but honestly if there is no market for prints then there’s no point having a business aimed at print sales. It’s called supply and demand.
    As for the customers butchering “my” photo’s i think the dressmaker analogy was good, average Joe usually can do whatever they want with a purchase, and have difficulty understanding that photographers revolve in their own little world with it’s own little rules where they can sell something yet still maintain ownership. Perhaps photographers should charge more to cover their emotional pain when a customer alters their work, or shows it off to the world on face book without credit. I mean none of their FB friends interested in the photo would think to ask who the photographer was would they?
    The economy and market forces are always changing. Photographers or any business for that matter who can’t carve a niche doing precisely what they want are going to have to change and adapt to supplying what their market demands. That’s if they want to be in business..

  7. August 30, 2013 at 9:20 am —

    I am not a photographer, but a customer who is trying to find a photographer who will give me digital images (hence how I found this really interesting blog).

    My story is, I want a photo of my family, and these days my photos are displayed on large screen TV’s (screen savers), my 27″ mac, my iPad and my iPhone.

    I work away from home and want nice photos.

    Although I can empathise with some comments above regarding taking a great picture and printing it off on poor quality paper or cropping the photo, I feel that this might be driven by people being fearful of the minority.

    The world is never going to go into reverse, and technology will start to play a bigger part in our lives.

    Having great pictures on iPads, iPhones, smart TV’s is an opportunity to be embraced and those that do, will be the first to market.

    Why would I spend time printing off a picture on poor quality paper, when I can see it on a HD TV or screen saver on my mac?

    Just a thought for some of you to embrace change and not fear it 🙂

  8. October 11, 2013 at 12:00 am —

    Fantastic blog post. Really great responses as well. It does take a little time to build confidence in charging what you’re worth. But when you realize that your pricing model is actually hurting your sales its time to at things differently. You don’t sell a cd of jpegs, but a high quality product, full of priceless memories!!

  9. April 8, 2014 at 11:15 am —

    I have been doing DSLR Photography for Over 5 years. I have not really decided to sell Digital Files.

    How much should I sell these giving the Option to my Clients? Any Ideas would be very Helpful.


  10. April 23, 2014 at 5:54 pm —

    As far as Selling prints of your work, there is etsy, cafepress, zazzle, and deviantart. Etsy for me is too much of a hassle b/c I need to actually handle the shipping and printing and everything.

    Also, you want to get all of your social media networks on par with one another, make it easy for people to be connected with you.

    Personally I use SMugmug.com as a printer and shipper of my work. they give you a whole gallery option and pricing plans. They have their bare minimum prices, and you keep anything over that amount. Say it costs them $2.30 to print out and ship an 8×10 print. if you price it for $12, you get 10 bucks.

    Hope this helps, and keep up the hard work! If you DO decide to use them, sign up with this link and it will save you 20%.


    Keep up the hard work everyone!

  11. June 14, 2014 at 6:38 pm —

    I’ve been providing the full resolution files on DVDs since around 2004. Business couldn’t be better. No matter what you sell, anything in life, you price it accordingly or what you simply think your work is worth based on how you deliver it. Back in the film day I was even selling the 645 medium format negatives I shot of weddings. Switching to digital was a problem for photographers as digital was coming to age. Even today, there are still some photographers who have the antiquated attitude of operating their studios and wedding photography businesses as though they are still based on the film business model. To be successful in any business you have to find out what the consumers want. You can’t sell people something they don’t want. Anyway, funny, funny, funny some comments here from about 3 years ago and the backward attitudes about selling the digital files. It’s very common today. I know several pros who swore to me they would never sell their digital files even though I always have. You guessed it. They sell their digital files now and couldn’t be happier.

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