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. Jake
    October 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm —

    Even if you do not provide the digital file what is to stop someone from taking a high resolution scan of the image?

  2. Michael
    October 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm —

    I’ve been a professional photographer for the last 31 years. I operate two studios….Here is a suggestion for studios that have customers requesting digital files. Think of digital files like they are movies being rented or purchased. When you rent it’s cheaper but only viewed for say 24 hours. When you buy a movie, you can enjoy it over and over but it cost a lot more. Our studio sells the right to print from a digital file but the file remains in the protection of my lab….we will call this a rental agreement. The customer pays for the right to print anything from the purchased file for a specified amount of time…we offer a one month, two month and three month printing window…..If they want to purchase the file and have physical possession of it on a disk they have that option but at a premium price so high, that they choose the limited printing offer. When u keep the original file protected by your lab , your customers can’t alter the image and the quality is at a caliber you can feel good about. We choose a local lab that we have worked with and does consumer/ pro printing and is close to our client base. Our set up allows the customer to pick up a phone and place their order over the phone without leaving their home. Important note: if you plan on opening a brick and mortar business with employees…..and selling only files….well, good luck, you might want to keep your day job !

  3. susan edward
    September 4, 2012 at 10:40 am —

    How do I find Part 2?

  4. Tony
    July 12, 2012 at 11:05 am —

    Artists do have that right to control the ownership of the image, it’s actually copyright law. You just don’t agree with it, but that’s the case. Nothing is stopping you from making photos yourself. If you were on the street and I took your photo, it’s mine, not yours. However, I can’t profit from your image without your permission (your rights). If you hire someone for a service, you abide by their business policies. You actually have no right to tell people how to run their business. Do you go into a vegan shop and ask for a burger? You can say you’d run it differently or look for people who do, but so many of the top photographers even today don’t sell digital. If they even do,they’re at high prices almost out of reach, even for family portraits. It’s up to the photographer to be different, just like any small business. If you are doing something that others aren’t, they’ll follow your policies and pay what you’re worth. There are all sorts of markets out there and all sorts of businesses to fill them.

    It’s funny to hear people say they think paper photos are useless, but my business has done nothing but grow with people looking for canvas, various papers, and albums each year. Why? My clients could care less about digital and are burned out by the Facebook era. Many have actually deleted their online accounts. They want art that’s guaranteed to last on their walls for years, not be on some scratched disc in a drawer. Their families don’t come over and say, oh, any DVDs you want to show me of your family? Can I sit at your computer and look at photos? No, they come in, see their walls, and say, wow, that looks awesome.

    To be fair, I do provide a small emailable photo of each image they ordered as it’s edited, and I don’t let unedited photos go out there to represent me. That’s my policy, I don’t mind if someone else does provide it all since I can’t tell them to change their business model. Most don’t even ask for the small digital copies because they find it pointless.

    Just because you may personally value digital more, does not mean so many others agree or are from a dead era. My clients are actually mostly young families who just happen to value their walls more than their screens. If someone comes to me who doesn’t fit my business model, I kindly send them elsewhere, not change what I do. Guess what? I’ve gotten more respect and leads for the fine art work from doing it the way.

    Now the problem I have is with photographers who destroy those digital negatives afterward. I myself back them up in multiple places and remotely in order to guarantee any replacements due to damage down the line. That’s a whole different conversation.

  5. July 10, 2012 at 4:28 pm —

    I always offer a CD or digital version of their sessions available after at least ONE printed copy. Have many times heard them say right in front of me “we can just buy one print and scan it” They don’t care if they are stealing from you or destroying “your artwork”. They just want to save money…so it saves me money by not printing out all the copies, and gives them the legal right to print my edited photos, and then I am not getting ripped off. After all, the scanned version is going to look way worse than what an Uncle Frank person would probably do to your photos! And people these days don’t want a ton of prints to hang on their walls..they want to post on Facebook and share via emails with friends and family. Wallet photos?? Right…I don’t carry or share them anymore, why would I think most other people would? Better to provide them an edited digital copy than let them walk out and scan any day!

  6. Daddy
    June 29, 2012 at 12:52 am —


    As a customer, I will want digital copies esp those of my family. I mean why the heck you photographers want my son’s photos for? Protecting your work is just a lame excuse. If so, how long will you have this high memory files be stored? 10 years, 20 years so that I (or my descendants) can still go back for prints? What if you die??

    I design buildings. I get paid for every building I design which I take pride for the personal touches I make. But it would be very very ridiculous for me to say to you, since I designed your home, I forbid you to paint any other colour or do any renovations for life?? These days, I even need to include (digital)softcopies of drawings and technical data to clients as with hardcopies of building design. Why softcopies? Yes, so that if building owners make any renovations, they can update drawings instead of drawing from scratch. Well after all, the personal touches I made may be superb to me but may be crap to another. Wake up guys, this is the 21st century.

    So who’s to say whatever you done digitally is the best?? It might be crap to another. As an artist, if you feel threatened by customers misusing your digital files, well….be an artist. If you think your work is so delicate, then DO NOT even get involve in any business transaction or anyone’s lives. In this day and age, digital media or not, I can easily scan in high res and print them, well is it still your work?? As an artist, be an artist if you want to be selfish.

    But if you are in photography business then you are an entrepreneur. Then learn from those who are successful. Why have they been successful? Because they listen. Listen to us customers and you will prosper while still retaining your artistic integrity. Use your skills to help, not to satisfy your own ego and money will come in naturally.

    Have a heart for the families, Mums and Dads, and you will be looked after.

  7. May 28, 2012 at 7:37 am —

    Hi all,
    There are 3 main issues
    1. Photographers are running a business that needs to be make a profit. If we sell digital files, we need to be able to sell them for enough money to make all the work up to that point along with the overhead of running the studio. Unfortunately this amount is more than people are probably willing to pay for digital files (as they have a low perceived value) The solution is to do a lot more shoots and sell less $ to each client, but then you cant give good service if you are trying to rush too many clients through. (which is where the supermarket studios cover the market).

    2. The digital file if done well is retouched to be printed on professional grade calibrated printers which most homes, most supermarkets dont have. So the print wont look as good as the photographer intended. This means they have put all this work into create something stunning, but it now looks only average and therefore represents their studios work poorly. The sad thing is that the client has still paid a lot of money to buy the digital files but there really havent got a good quality finished product.

    3. WHen a client has a cd of images, most of them wont actually ever print them! Life gets busy, the disk gets lost and they never quite get round to it…… afterall how many amazing recipe books have you bought and never actually made the recipies in them! It is easier to just go back to the restaurant and have it expertly made and enjoy the total experience.

    We are happy to give small files for facebooking, emailing, sharing with family, just not for printing, because we want anything printed to look exceptional and the only way we can ensure that is to print it on the best possible equipment and professional grade papers (that are guaranteed to last 100+ years)I do know that all of our clients are very happy to have a finished portrait on their walls. They realise it is a profession and that we know what we are doing (after 20 years) so they leave it to us and get a great result.

    • Judy
      September 27, 2012 at 1:29 pm —

      well said Brian!

    • April 16, 2013 at 10:55 am —

      Can you please give me an idea of your pricing on digital negs?
      After 30 years in pro photo business, we have great customers that really don’t care for anything but great prints and wall portraits. Yes, they do facebook and once they order, I always upload a few of the best retouched ones (that they chose) click on them and show them off to everyone :0) Sometimes they request one for Christmas Cards, or a couple for the Senior page in the back of their year books. I’ll sell a 150 res 4×6 with a package or portrait purchase for $15.00 if requested. I want to come up with a digital package price just like our regular print package price. Three sheets for $150.00 or three digital 8×10 files for…..? HELP! Something fair since they will printing 8×10 and smaller….or a set of 8 for ….? What would be a good price??? This is driving me NUTS.
      The problem for us lies in the NEW customer that calls. The one we have never met…what do they expect, how much are they willing to spend, do they care or know the difference in a pro print or just the files??? Do we even want their business??? We do of course…but when the economy did the downswing seven years ago in Upstate SC it cut us back to 1/2.
      Classical portraits (not stuffy ones…but NICE portraits) are still a hit with our existing clientele – but what does this new change in guard want in this economy that will not ruin the professional? What is fair? They are the customer and we know there is a solution out there somewhere to end this madness.
      I feel like we are all living in an age similar to what happened when electricity came out and gas lanterns went out! lol

  8. Robert Huttinger
    May 18, 2012 at 9:14 am —

    “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?”

    If I buy a car, I can spray paint it yellow. It is my terrible choice, but it is my choice. If I want a pring I can hand to the kids so they can enjoy it, it will not be a $300 portait.

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

    Does it matter? it is personal use. I as a citizen have the right to many copyrighted works, which, through interpretation (also called artistic license), I am able to bastardize and completely wreck. Thereby creating a ‘new’ work

    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.

    Again, fair use. I can go online, get an image of anything, and do what I want with it, and put it on my fridge. Who is harmed? What copyright is violated? As long as I do not claim ownership of the original and refrain from distributing or otherwise monetizing.

    There is NO HARM done.

    If the point of the exercise is to hone your skills at photography, you do not need me to pay you to use me or my family as your subjects. I expect something in return.

    I believe the client has a right to digital un-watermarked copies. It is up to the client to follow the law with regards to usage. The laws are binding, and enforceable.

    If somebody misappropriates your image, sue them. It is your right. If this is too much hassle, get out of the business.

    Further I submit that there are photographers putting their images online via Flickr, G+, 500px, etc… if they are good, they will do well, period. If the market is flooded, you chose the wrong profession.

    Sitting in your basement miserly hoarding your pictures and barking madly at anyone who comes near is not only bad business practice, but just rude.

    “I don’t sell a commodity like flour. I sell my art, my creativity, and my technical skill. and a finished product. If buy a book, I don’t have any right to reproduce it and give it away to my friends and family”

    and if I rip out a page on put it on my refrigerator? If i buy the mona lisa, I am entitled to put a mustache on it. You as the photographer cannot control taste. Clearly, reproduction and distribution are protected by law already. This IS NOT a point.

    I cannot put this more bluntly, the photographer is an instrument, a skilled instrument nonetheless. A means to an end. What end? to produce something beautiful. I want that ‘something beautiful’ Thats what I payed you for!

    If you must, join a site where you get commission on the prints etc, but the digital files, I deserve a copy, at LEAST of the raw images

    I will never again sign a contract that dos not include digital copies.

    All that said, I will always respect the photographers work, treat it with care, give credit where credit is due, and shout their work to all that will listen.

    Stop hoarding, share the work, let people see your skill! Stop worrying about what some dope in a basement is oing with ‘your’ images, he is free to do that. Their actions will not stop you from succeeding, being obstructive, secretive, miserly, and rude will.


    • November 5, 2013 at 6:54 pm —

      In my area, which it a rather small “city” there are probably 400+ people calling themselves “photographers”. The studios that have been around for years do not sell digital images. The new “photographers” not only give away images, but also do groupons w/ image giveaway. So for a $30 payout, they are spending about 6 hours on the shoot and the processing. The client does not deserve the image. Painters would not give you print rights on their art work. The true photographer puts in thousands of dollars for equipment, thousands of hours to perfect their art, and equal amount of hours processing photos. For those “clients” who want images, other that the watermarked low res, please do go find the photographer wanna be’s. You should get your image as they will not be in business for long. As for the photographer not being around, I personally would contact each client to ask if they want images should I decide to leave the business. That is only right. Until then, I do not want my work edited, printed at Costco, or misused in any other way. If you bought my fine art at a gallery, would you think you could reproduce that too? It is true that the thousands out there calling themselves photographers are hurting those true professionals. This is a business people. Those who think they are “owed” images, have no respect for the business. I give clients watermarked low res images to use on facebook, a gallery to show their friends, and I have even uploaded one of my images (for a price) on their Christmas Card template. I would rather have less clients who are willing to pay me for my work, then a bunch who want to pay nothing and refer their friend’s who feel the same.

  9. Ron S.
    May 6, 2012 at 7:57 pm —

    I don’t sell a commodity like flour. I sell my art, my creativity, and my technical skill. and a finished product. If buy a book, I don’t have any right to reproduce it and give it away to my friends and family. You don’t have the right to all the artists paint if you commission them to create a painting. The “Napster” generation have no respect for the concept of copyright, be it on music or photographs created by a professional photographer. The music industry had enough power, and money, to find a way to make sure that the artist who own the copyright would be compensated. As an independent studio owner for over thirty years, I have never sold a negative, or digital file, to a portrait client for many of the reasons in the above posts. I have positioned myself in the marketplace as to attract clients who respect my artistry and skill and are willing to invest, both emotionally and monetarily, in what I create for them. This keeps those who’s only concern is how “cheap” can I get it for and why isn’t it “cheaper”. I’m not saying that they are bad people, I’m just saying that I prefer not to work with people who have this mindset.

    • Molly
      May 16, 2012 at 8:57 pm —

      Napster didn’t make art out of people’s faces. That is my kid’s face your art is made from. You have no right to tell people that your art trumps their ownership of their own image. Charge what you think your art is worth but let people own their faces they paid you to capture. If you can’t stand the idea that the subject of a photo has as much ownership of it as the photographer, then go make photographic art out of landscapes or nature etc and sell that.

      Besides, the point is that paper photos are useless. Nobody uses them anymore. Nobody. I will never hire a photographer that doesn’t sell digital – and I pay thousands a year for photo shoots. I’m not cheap, I’m just not from 1960.

  10. Steve Landar
    April 17, 2012 at 2:29 am —

    I’m a client. In today’s media rich environment I share pictures of my life and family only in digital formats. Your points satisfy only to justify a pricing model. I could in theory purchase printed copies and draw all over them or cut them reducing them in all ways that you have mentioned.

    Photographers who do not sell the digital image are a merely trying to stop the tide for their own financial gain. Please do not use reasons of satisfaction to the end client as the satsfaction comes from effectively sharing photos with loved ones.

    If I buy flour from a miller he does not insist on a single fixed method of usage. ‘If not this will impair the enjoyment of my flour!!’. Please. He does not. He knows that when you purchase something it is yours to do with as you wish, for better or for worse.

  11. Terry
    April 11, 2012 at 7:03 am —

    I think most of you are missing the point including the writer. If this is truely artistic like a landscape or a rare capture like a hummingbird in mid flight, I can see the justification not to give up the digital version. But, a wedding or childrens pictuture. What is the point? You essentially are being paid for a service to provide and you are using digital cameras because you know the benefits of digital. Why not offer those to your customer. Many people are using digital picture frames, emailing and posting on facebook etc. If my photographer does not offer a digital format I will wind up scanning a print and making it less than how the photographer intended any ways.

    All I am saying is your art will be better shared if you are willing to adopt current trends.

    • Judy
      September 27, 2012 at 1:25 pm —

      Terry- “If my photographer does not offer a digital format I will wind up scanning a print and making it less than how the photographer intended any ways. ” this is copyright infringement & you could be sued as can any Walgreens, target, Walmart that you scan it in. I can appreciate wanting digital files, but they do come at a cost. We don’t work for free. If I were to do a session & then basically give the files away cheap, I will have no opportunity to make a profit from the session.

  12. Katharine
    November 23, 2011 at 11:32 pm —

    Where is part two of this article? I can’t find it!

  13. Lisa
    January 22, 2011 at 10:05 pm —

    For those photographers who refuse to sell the digital files: Your clients are “digitizing” the images themselves whether you sell them or not. Scanning and/or taking point-n-shoot or cell phone pictures of the hard copy portraits themselves in order to post them on blogs, facebook or just to show them off. No one carries around pictures in their wallets anymore–they carry them on their phones! You are fooling yourself if you think you are controlling the finished product by not selling the files.

  14. Jennifer B
    January 21, 2011 at 3:06 pm —

    this was so encouraging to read, as I have felt the same way! But there is so much pressure to hand over the digital files, I was starting to feel like the bad guy in not giving in. Thank you!

  15. January 20, 2011 at 4:20 pm —

    Andrea, I think you are in the majority. I feel exactly the same way. Digital image sales are here to stay. That’s why I wrote Part 2 of this article.

  16. January 19, 2011 at 10:17 pm —

    My problem is I am a very giving person so I tend to give the whole package and then some. Shame on me I know but truth be told I would feel very bad about keeping the digitals all to myself. Uncle Frank does scare me though, but not bad enough to lock up the digitals and never give them to anyone 🙂 Nice article Damien!

  17. January 19, 2011 at 10:11 pm —

    Thank you for this info! I find this very helpful, as I was planning on letting somebody have a digital copy of a photo!

    ~Kaycee Lee~
    Check out the giveaway on my blog:

  18. Andrea whitaker
    January 19, 2011 at 8:11 pm —

    I am not a photographer, but I am a “client” who wants to have family photos done every year. I would NEVER book a photographer who does not sell digital images for a reasonable price no matter how fabulous your images are. It’s a standard I expect now.

    • Allison
      September 17, 2012 at 8:56 pm —

      What would you consider a reasonable price for digital files?

    • Judy
      September 27, 2012 at 1:22 pm —

      I also would like to know what you consider reasonable?

    • April 16, 2013 at 10:41 am —

      For the sake of doing a business study, what is the top dollar price you look to pay when booking a family shoot that would include session, pro print package and digital files?

  19. Not impressed
    January 19, 2011 at 8:04 pm —

    I have an Uncle Frank. In this case, it was another professional photographer. She was a bridesmaid and obviously could not be the photog for the day, so I was given the job. I made the mistake of selling them the digital files and after that, one of my photos appeared as the bride’s facebook profile pic. I say it was only my photo, because it certainly wasn’t the image I gave them. Someone (I’m assuming it was the bridesmaid/photographer) re-edited the image and I think it looks disgusting now. REALLY unimpressed at the lack of professionalism displayed by the photog.

  20. Lareina
    January 19, 2011 at 6:18 pm —

    Long ago before I was a photographer, I was a newly wed with a brand new baby. I felt my only option was going to Sears for photos. We were poor and could only afford a few pictures of our baby. Naively I though that one day I would have enough money and come back for the rest of my beautiful babies pictures. Ten years went by and I looked at that little 8×10 on the wall and realized that I now had the money to go back for all the prints I had to turn down. I called Sears…… they no longer had my negatives. Devastated, I promised my self I would put my heart and soul into photography and I would never feel that way again. I don’t want any other young (or old) mother to have to feel that way either. Our clients seek us out to help them capture a moment in time that will last forever. However canvas, prints, and photo books do not and they rarely survive house fires. Digital files kept in a few locations may…. Are you going to be responsible for keeping a clients digital files for 50 years in case of such an emergency?
    If I were a painter and a family paid me to paint their picture, they would be horrified if I charged them an additional fee and then handed them a copy of my painting. If someone paid me to sew a ball gown and a year later she cut the dress into a mini dress…. She may do so, she has already paid for my service and product.
    I truly do see the other side to this. I spend just as much time on my work as anyone else. I’m not wanting anyone to give their work away for free, but do try and think back on what brought you to photography in the first place.

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