Do I need the raw camera files files or just the JPEG's?

What are raw files?

They are the unprocessed, raw digital file from the camera containing the maximum amount of data for each photo. You can liken a raw file to a digital negative, and this is probably the best analogy.

All good photographers shoot in raw format on their camera and then process those files later in software like Adobe Lightroom.

This allows for more dynamic range, changing the white balance and colour grading the photo without little or no degradation of the finished photo.

As even mobile camera phones now provide ways to save photos in raw format, there has been a renewed interest and understanding about how important raw files are.

That has resulted in some requests from my clients to be provided the raw files along with the processed, colour graded photos (normally provided in JPEG format).

Many of these requests may come from amateur photographers, professional photographers, arts students or just people who understand the value of getting your hands on the original raw file.

THE PHOTOGRAPHERS PERSPECTIVE

For professional photographers this does pose a dilemma. Many professional photographers and in particular wedding photographers and portrait photographers have an entire business model and workflow based on creating finished artworks such as prints and wall art.

To provide the original raw files to clients would be giving the "keys to the farm" so to speak, or allowing them create artworks of any size with the same level of detail and accuracy as the professional is able to (in theory).

The other resistance from photographers is due to their moral rights as a photographer. This is an important part of copyright law and states that altering a finished artwork (in this case a photo) is a breach of that photographers moral rights.

By providing the raw files anyone is able to reprocess that photo into a completely different work of art, with radically different colour grading or even use Photoshop or other digital manipulation techniques to create a photo that doesn't even resemble the original.

At this point, the photographer has lost all credit and association with that photo, as it has been radically changed from their original vision.

Once the raw file has been released the photographer may as well disassociate themselves from that photograph because it is "out of their hands".

It is for these three reasons (erosion of business model, moral rights and loss of reputation) that 99% of professional photographers would never provide raw files to clients.

It is also true that 95% of clients would not know what to do with the raw file, and being a much larger file size (40MB) than a JPEG, might be impractical to provide to every client even if they wanted them.

The Clients Perspective

So it is clear why photographers are so resistant to providing raw files, but what about the client and their interests?

It is important to look at things from the client perspective though as well, and see where the benefits are.

The alternative to providing the raw files is to simply offer clients JPEG files output at the highest resolution and JPEG quality. Indeed, this is what is required by all photographic labs if you want to create artworks, a finished JPEG file. 

There is absolutely no benefit to having the raw files if you just intend to print artworks like prints, canvases or wall art. In fact it is a step backwards, and you would have to export a JPEG before sending the files to a printer.

So that leaves one benefit for the client in having the raw files. The overwhelming benefit for a client receiving the raw files is for future artistic and creative interpretation and imagination.

Or in other words, the client believes that at some point in the future (that could be one year from now or 20 years from now) they or another artist will want to completely reinvent that photo from a creative perspective.

That might mean something as simple as changing it from a colour photo to a black and white, or it might meaning sophisticated image manipulation that we can't even imagine in 2018.

For example, what will Photoshop be able to do in ten years time? Will it for example, be able to remove entire people from a photo with a click of the button? No-one can predict the future, we do know is that technology will improve.

Do you really need the raw files? Is there a compelling and overwhelming reason that you expect to want to radically change or re-imagine the photographs at a future time?

Are you prepared to put in days of time reprocessing the files with this new vision? The average wedding of 7 hours takes about two days to process, often more...

Because otherwise what would be the point of keeping these files, archiving them and backing them up in multiple locations when you are perfectly happy with the photos as the photographer presented them (after all that is why you chose that photographer, for their unique style)?

I would contend that this is where it gets murky. The problem is that every processed photo that you see today is entirely subjectively edited and colour graded.

If you gave ten photographers the same raw file, they would create ten completely different edits of that photo. Presumably the essence of the photo would remain though, however the colours, contrast, sharpening, vignetting, noise reduction, colour profiles etc would all be different.

How do you know the photographer didn't make a mistake editing one of your photos? When I say mistake I mean they made an error of judgement on one or more photos. Perhaps they forgot to apply noise reduction, they over sharpened the photo or got the white balance wrong because some photos were processed at night time and others during the day when daylight was streaming into their studio... that is a valid argument in favour of having the raw files.

I personally know for a fact that when I open a Lightroom catalogue of raw camera files that have been processed in the past (say a year ago) I automatically have the urge to reprocess them. This is because my skills have improved, my artistic interpretation has changed (hopefully for the better) and for a whole slew of other reasons.

But is this reason enough to purchase the raw files? That there might be some minor improvement to the photo in the future? Does that justify purchasing them? Only you can decide that.

So there actually are compelling reasons from an insurance and safety perspective to have the raw files. It provides a blanket of security over your images protecting them not just now but in the future, for any changes that you can think of.

That is why I believe that for important events like weddings, every client should at least consider purchasing the raw files and weighing up the pros and cons.

Only you can decide whether the investment in the raw files is the right decision for you. If you are unsure, then you probably don't need them!

I offer raw files for any client for an extra fee, and relinquish these on a USB stick which can then be uploaded to cloud storage or backed up at your location.

The Bottom Line

I provide raw files to clients and charge a fee for this of $125 extra per hour of shooting (or about $3 per photo).

For a four hour wedding this would be $500, eight hours coverage is $1000 for the raw files. It is important to understand that you can't print from the raw files or do anything with them! They need further processing into JPEG's, so they are only of use for making new creative works.

I retain copyright over the edited high resolution JPEG files that are also provided, and provide a separate license to modify the raw file as you please for perpetuity.

I conduct a complete reassessment of the entire gallery of raw files. I will provide extra photos that were not provided originally.

This is where it gets complicated. If you are paying extra for the raw files should you then be entitled to every photo that was taken by the photographer on the day? Who decides whether a photo is acceptable or not taking into account technical and artistic standards?

If you have purchased the raw files with the expectation to process them again in the future, who am I to say which photo has artistic merit?

This is one of the biggest problems with providing the raw files. Logically if you are expecting to re-imagine the artistic direction of the photos, you will apply different standards and interpretations to the photos. The story that is being told for example, might be completely different because the photos have been re-imagined.

Photos that didn't make sense within the story with the original provision of photos may now be absolute perfect when viewed through another artists perspective. 

In the same way a DVD may have an "Extras" section that contains directors cuts, bloopers or other material that only die-hard enthusiasts would be interested, I also provide "Extras" for clients. You might call these the out takes.

I go through your entire catalogue of photos and provide every photo that I can, basically every photo, and apply a much less stringent interpretation of what is an acceptable photo. This normally results in another 10% of additional photos, you could call them "extras".

Alternatively, I can upload all the raw files take on the day as JPEG's and you can select the raw files you wish to keep.

So let's say I shot your wedding over six hours and took 1000 photos. My normal delivery of finished photos would be number about 240.

If you purchase the raw files I go through the entire collection of photos again and in most cases find additional extra photos. They may have technical issues like be out of focus on the subject, be slightly blurry or other issues. But unless they are complete write offs, they will be provided.

These photos will be provided in a separate catalogue "as is" and will come as part of the purchase of the raw files if you want them.

You may say, well I only need the raw files that you have already chosen as being of sound technical and artistic merit. That would be a mistake in my opinion, because going by the logic of requiring the raw files in the first place, you cannot imagine why or if you will need that photo in the future!

You must have all the "mediocre" photos (even the bad ones), even those that seem worthless today, because the only benefit in having them is to re-imagine them in the future.

As you don't know how they will be re-imagined, you simply must have them all!

So what does that mean? It means a substantial amount of time is spent in preparing the raw files for clients purchasing them, it also means a loss of reputation and the effective relinquishing of those photos.

If you wish to purchase the raw files at any stage, you may contact me up to one year from the event date. I recommend purchasing the raw files 30 days after the event date, once any final edits have been made just in case there are unlikely problems with backups or storage of the raw files.

I provide raw files in two formats. I will provide the edited photos in Adobe DNG raw format with edits contained within the file. I will also provide the original, straight off the camera raw files as Canon CR2 files (or other formats should the camera manufacturer be different).

Files are provided by USB stick only because of their huge file sizes. With my raw file service, a USB stick of between 64GB and 128GB is required and this is included in the price. Should there be any technical problems with the USB stick I provide a 30 day warranty for this. The USB stick is not designed to be kept as the only backup source.

I recommend you copy the USB stick files to three locations being:

  • A physical computer such as your windows or Mac computer (you will need at least 64GB of space).
  • An external backup hard drive such as a 512GB external USB drive.
  • A cloud based storage provider if possible like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud etc. This step is not required, and may take days or even weeks depending on the speed of your internet connection. Please also consider your bandwidth limits and any additional data charges that may apply.

So there you have it. Providing the raw files is by no means a simple or uncomplicated affair, and is both philosophically and physically challenging!

But I do believe that in the end, the interests of the client should always outweigh those of the photographer, so I do offer this service if requested for those one in 100 clients who need it.

Chris Jack