I read a lot of posts online, see a lot of threads on social media from photographers, about giving clients RAW files.  Most photographers say ‘no, absolutely not’.

I have a different approach.

However, before I start explaining what my approach is, I’d just like to say that workflow is very personal and I will preface this post with a caveat: everything I am about to write here is not a set of instructions or even suggestions for other photographers. It’s simply my story, my workflow, my rationale for what I do. Feel free to do what you like. I don’t believe in any hard and fast rules for photography, other than these two:

  1. Do remember to take the lens cap off.
  2. Don’t leave the lens cap on.

Digital rocks!

The RAW file has given photographers tremendous flexibility. It’s the film negative on steroids: adjust exposure, fix white-balance, shoot in black and white or colour and have the option of flipping it back into either in post-pro. All edits being non-destructive, allowing you to return to the original ‘as shot’ version with no degradation of that original. Plus, with the increasing ability of digital sensors to capture wide dynamic range, within RAW there is the ability to cover 14-stops of dynamic range and from that one RAW file create shots that have detail in all the blown highlights and deep shadows.

RAW: the photographer’s crown-jewels.

As photographers we go through a lot of effort to create great images for clients. We plan, we location-hunt, we turn up to a shoot, we spend time getting the shots and, depending on the type of shoot, we spend a lot of time on post-production afterwards.

So, we should hang on to those RAW files, yeah? Not give them away. We’ve sweated for the client, delivered what they asked for. Why give away the crown jewels?

I don’t see it that way.

I have a very simple, one page, contract with my clients. It includes things about what I promise to deliver and what conditions exist as regards copyright, usage etc. There’s also something in there about data backup and RAW files, which brings me to my first point….

You can never have enough backups, so why not give the client one too?

Hard-drives have come down and down in price, sure, but with between one and four client shoots a week, shot on a 36MP Nikon D800E and a 40MP Hasselblad, the data mounts up. Depending on the type of job, that data can be between 32 and 400GB per shoot. Even if I’m buying 3TB drives each time, that’s a potential new hard drive every month at least. I like hard-drives. Cloud storage doesn’t do it for me at all. If I can’t touch something, it might as well not exist.

So, the main reason I give clients their RAW files is so that they become responsible for backing them up. I cannot realistically back up all my clients’ shots forever. Despite storage being cheap, it’s not physically possible for me to keep everything I’ve ever shot for everyone. If I hung on to all my client RAW files forever, I’d be living in a hard-drive.

So, after the shoot – and depending on the volume of shots taken – the client ether gets the RAW files (and edits) on a portable hard-drive, USB memory or via Dropbox or WeTransfer. My contract then states that, six months after the shoot, I will contact the client to ask them if everything is backed-up. After they’ve confirmed they have it all safely backed-up, everything I don’t want to keep for my portfolio is deleted. I don’t lead any of my clients to believe that I am a perpetual backup service for them. I teach them to take care of their own data.

My job workflow….

Clients pay me for my time, so my belief is that they should get given everything I’ve shot during that time.

If you pay me to come shoot for you, it’s often on a day-rate basis, with “one day” being eight hours of time. Overtime kicks in after that. Or, with bigger jobs, I’ll  have negotiated with a client a ‘project rate’ for the job. Together with the client, I will, beforehand, have identified what the key deliverables are for the shoot. I come, I shoot for the allotted time, I leave. If there is editing to do after the event, it’s done and delivered. Usually by dropbox or some other file transfer website.

However, before the shoot, I will ask you to bring a hard-drive (or I will buy one for you and bring it) and onto that I will backup all the data from the shoot: RAW, JPEG, everything. You get that to take away. You paid me to shoot. You get the data. Simple.

Typically, I’ll shoot RAW and JPEG. The process of client choosing the files for me to edit starts with that backup of data I’ve given them at the end of the shoot. They go through the JPEGs, choose the ones they like, looking not at the specifics of colour, exposure etc but at the details: the pose the composition. They’ll already have a basic understanding of what can be done with a RAW file as I will have shown or told them beforehand. I’ll have explained that there’s no need to fuss over ‘this is too green’ or ‘this is too bright’. I can deal with that afterwards.

The client tells me which file numbers to work on, I do the edits and send them over.

Some clients, however, need to get moving on the edits quicker than, perhaps, I can realistically promise to do the work for them. So, having spent some time educating the client on how best to edit and manage the RAW files themselves, they are able to get the files at the end of the shoot and get working on them immediately. This is not for every client. Only for the ones who feel confident they can handle the edits themselves. Often this is the case where there’s an agency in between myself and the client. The agency is my client, their agency will often then take care of all the post-production.

“But I don’t want my clients seeing my RAW files after all the work I’ve put in to the edits?”

I hear this a lot, and here’s why I don’t mind clients seeing my RAW files…

  1. A lot of my clients are tech savvy. They know what a RAW file is, they know the advantages of shooting in RAW, they know what can be done with a RAW. They see my RAW files, they see the edits, the appreciate the work that has gone in to get from RAW to final edit.
  2. Out of the tech-savvy client list, there are some clients who ask me to specifically edit in Lightroom and send them the RAW files and the .xml sidecar files, so that when they open the files in Lightroom, they have the originals and the adjustments visible.
  3. All of the ‘I don’t really know the first thing about photography, that’s why I employed a pro’ clients see the RAW files, see the edits and may try and play with the RAWs themselves. They soon appreciate the work that has gone into the edits.
  4. On some shoots, although I’m shooting RAW all the time, the shots may very well have been nailed and styled 99% in-camera, using one of my custom Nikon Picture Controls or a curve I’ve made for my Hasselblad. Although the RAW file isn’t very different from the edit, they appreciate the work that went into nailing it in-camera.
  5. Yes, all of what I do has taken years of study, practice and experience but – let’s face it – none of it is black magic. Plus, educating my clients about how I do my job is an important part of building value in my profession. Hiding stuff, not wanting people to see the RAW files… none of this really help people understand the work that goes into being a professional photographer. Only through education can us pros help to build an understanding of everything that’s involved in the photographer’s work.

“OK, I can see all that… but surely giving clients the RAW files means they can do their own edits, change the photos, even believe that they own the photos outright and do what they want with them. Yes?”

I have a simple, one-page contract with most of my clients. At the bottom of that contract I go into the ownership and rights the client has. Each client is different. Some want a copyright buyout. For that they pay extra, of course. The rest get informed that, although they have the RAW files, they don’t own the photos. Most jobs have a prescribed level of distribution: an issue of a magazine, timed duration of distribution via the web, usage for signage, display etc. Each client’s usage rights and usage timeframe are discussed on the contract. 

Outside of that prescribed usage, the client is told that if they wish to commercially exploit the images, they must ask me first. Similarly, if someone approaches me after having seen one of the shots asking for commercial exploitation or publication, I refer back to the client. Typically, any revenue resulting from a client selling the works outside of our original brief or from me selling their works again, is split 50/50.

Regarding editing, if the client wants edits extra to the amount of edits we agreed as part of the original shoot, they are told that edits are ¥n per edit. If they want to do the edits themselves, that’s fine but I ask them to leave my name out of ay credit. Or, to credit me for the shot and themselves for the edit. Why? It’s not 100% my work anymore. Why wouldn’t I want credit? It’s not 100% my work anymore. To be fair, this really only happens with ‘private’ clients (such as a member of the public I’ve lonesome portraits for) or for very technical clients, say the more industrial or event clients I have, where it’s more normal just to shoot the job and for the pics to be used internally where credit is not really the norm. I’ve been paid, I’ve done my job, ownership is agreed, I don’t necessarily need credit. If I need to publicise the fact I’ve shot the work, I publish MY edits only website.

So, that’s about it. A rather long-winded post but I hope you enjoyed reading and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post a comment below.

Thanks a lot.