The case for and against digital negatives

My friend Sara wrote an interesting post the other day. Basically, she was lamenting the fact that she had a hard time finding a photographer who would provide the digital negatives when she had portraits of her two (gorgeous!) boys taken. In fact, this post is largely a paraphrasing of the comment I left on her blog.

I’m really struggling with the idea of providing digital negatives when I provide portrait services. On the one hand, I completely sympathize with the desire to have control over the negatives, digital or otherwise. When we had our wedding pix done waaaaay back in 1999, the number one thing I wanted was access to the *film* negs. (Of course the huge irony is that we never really made any prints. Sigh.)

I used to think that the main reason that photographers wanted to keep control of the negatives was to generate future sales. That may be true in some cases, but here’s the argument that’s making me lean toward offering only low-resolution digital images: control over the final product, and making sure that the prints are done properly.

First, there’s the issue of making sure the image is properly balanced in the frame. I didn’t really *get* the concept of how aspect ratios affected a print job until a couple of years ago, even though I’ve been into photography for a long time. Aspect ratios determine the shape of the box that is your print: an 8×10, for example, is cropped is differently than a 4×6 print. As a photographer, part of my “vision” includes how the image is balanced in the frame, and the crop you’d set would change quite a bit from one size of print to another. If the client brings that digital negative to the photo lab at Costco, the client may not know to compensate for the various crop sizes or might not balance the image — something that I can now do intuitively.

I’m also being won over by the idea of getting printing done by a professional print lab instead of the local photo lab. There *is* a difference in quality, something I wasn’t convinced of myself just a short while ago.

Worst case scenario, what happens if a client brings that digital negative to a local lab, and doesn’t notice that there’s a bit of a colour cast — maybe it’s subtle, but just enough to make the print less perfect than it could be?

It’s possible that the client ends up with a print that’s not what I had planned with regard to composition or colour. There’s two things wrong with that from my perspective: first, the print is less than perfect, and I want everything to be perfect for anyone who entrusts their portraits to me. Second, the client is still calling that my work when I’ve lost control of the end of the process. What if someone really mucks up the print? So when the client’s BFF comes over and sees it on the wall, she thinks, “Hmm, I thought Danielle was a professional photog, but look at that green cast and how poorly that image is balanced in the frame. I won’t be hiring her to take pictures of MY family!” An extreme case, maybe, but the argument does make sense to me.

I keep waffling on this. I’m thinking the middle road is to offer hi-res negatives but only on the images a client has already ordered for print through me.

What do you think? Would having the high-resolution files as a part of a package matter to you? Do you think a photographer is giving up the cow as well as the milk in providing high-res files? Would you be happy with just low-resolution files for online use?

Edited to add: Thank you so much for your interesting insights and opinions. You’ll see that I have now decided to offer both prints and digital negatives (and a growing line of other products) with my packages. You can see more about my packages and prices here.

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

20 thoughts on “The case for and against digital negatives”

  1. I know that my view on this is not the popular one amongst professional photographers, but I’ll put it out there anyways.

    My sitting fee includes a disc of full-resolution images from the session. I guarantee between 20-30 images, but usually end up including 60+ (if it’s a good picture, why not let the client enjoy it? I don’t need hundreds/thousands of pics on my hard drive of someone else’s family/kids/wedding/baby/etc).

    However… I also include a small ($50) print credit. That way I still have control over where the client orders at least some of the prints and I can be assured that some of them WILL look perfect. When/if the client goes to Walmart or similar to get cheap prints, they’ll have something professional to compare them to and, well, anyone can see the difference. I realize that some people will still get cheap prints made… possibly to send to distant friends or relatives (would you honestly want/be able to spend upwards of $30-$70 for ONE print to send to great aunt Sally in Tumbler Ridge, BC??).

    I make it VERY clear to clients that if they have prints made somewhere other than from my online gallery, I cannot guarantee or control the quality. Almost all end up ordering their personal prints from my gallery and spend 2-5 times what my print credit was for. At that point, it’s their choice to order more than the value of the credit and they’re not “required” to make a purchase that’s larger than they can maybe afford just because they really, really love an image and want a copy.

    I may end up changing this in the future, but for now I’m happy with my pricing and what I’m able to offer to clients. They get what they want and I still make enough to make it worthwhile and profitable for me. Also -had I not moved to another hemisphere ๐Ÿ˜› last fall- a few clients had already booked second sessions for the same year… repeat business is a great thing!

    Am I rambling? It’s possible. Peter has gone off to the jungle for four days (something to do with land mines… that’s reassuring!) and I was on my own with the boys for our VERY early mornings. I think I’ll be heading back to bed soon… and it’s only 8am!

  2. Interesting….I see your point there and it is an interesting one. The pessimist in me finds it hard to believe that is the motivation for all those photographers out there…I believe many (but not all) are thinking of the income lost and the accountant in me could not blame them but as the customer it rubs the wrong way.

    As a customer I would want the best of both worlds….I want to have them printed professionally and the digital negatives…One of the reason is that there may be pictures that are not display worthy but are for album printing (for the few of us who still print for albums). For example, family pictures – you are going to get pictures where it is an excellent shot of one kid and not of the others or one is being totally goofy and funny (showing his character) and it is shot you want for yourself to have in an album but not to display on the wall. I don’t want to pay a expensive printing fee for a goofy/fun shot.

    You are also assuming that your customer does not know how to use photoshop and get the color right – so are you going to have exceptions for those that can? That does not seem realistic to do so…but you may lose business.

    Maybe there is a happy compromise. For my wedding my photographer used a film camera (yes it was a long time ago) and we had the album and a few extras printed by him but we purchased for a reasonable fee a full 4×6 printout of all the pictures he took. Yes you run the risk of people scanning but no matter what you run that risk.

    Okay well glancing back it appears i have quite the opinion on this topic. Ultimately, if these are my yearly family shots – I am going for the photographer that will give me the digital negatives and I would not care if they printed them or not. If this was my wedding or another special event that only (hopefully) comes around only once in a lifetime, I would find a photographer that would print and give me the negatives.

  3. I just read Amy @ Muddy Boots and that is the ideal!! Amy I did not know there was many photographers that did that anymore! I will have to look you up upon your return to the area!

  4. My partner and I offer birth photography through our doula biz. Unlike more traditional photographers, we only offer the digital copies (along with a selection as a digital gallery to share) to clients. We do no printing. We offer the photography service that is informed by our unique perspectives as doulas. The photo journalism style of our images and the intimate nature of the images mean that we are seeking to tell a story with our images and so individual shots are much less likely to ever be printed.

    As a consumer, I feel like I would want the digital negs because *I* want to control the output. Maybe I want to use the images when doing crafting such as making a calendar for my mum or scrapbooking, maybe I want to insert them into a newsletter or print them as portraits. I feel like I need to make those decisions and I would expect the “sitting” fee would account for that as opposed to the photographer making their money off printing. Though, I’d definitely expect a traditional photographer to offer packages that included printing at a premium.

  5. While you are trying to build your business/brand, maybe you would be willing to concede to digital file requests, but, if I were you, I would not. This is your brand and you need to be able to have full control of how it is used. After all, if the client likes your work, they should be willing to pay you for it – isn’t this why they hired you? I would argue that a true professional would never agree to this – there are simply too many MWACs out there calling themselves photographers and they are not. (I’m not saying you’re in this league – clearly you’ve spent a lot of time honing your skills and you actually know how to use your camera in Manual Mode, but that’s another discussion!) Before I had the right equipment, I hired photographers to take our family portraits, and I would never dream of asking for the digital files. I respect that this is how they make their living and I value their work and time. If you are doing this as a side gig and not as a primary source of income, then maybe providing digital files is ok, but I believe it devalues your work and the work of other photographers. If you really care about your brand and reputation – don’t do it. Those who care first and foremost about quality and believe your creative vision is best-suited to capture their memories will not balk. I would rather have superior portraits, rather than mediocre ones simply because the photographer was willing to provide digital copies.

  6. Meh. If I were to hire someone to take pictures of my family I’d expect the negatives. As a consumer, I’m happy to pay you for the time it took you to take my picture etc etc. But I’m less happy to cede all control over the resulting art. If you were taking pictures of an object, then okay, but as the person in the photos I don’t care all that much about the photographer’s “vision”. If I get it into my head that it would be awesome to crop the photo a certain way and print it at walmart, ultimately as the model AND the client I’d have a problem being told I couldn’t do so. I see why you’d want to keep control but it would annoy me, and I’d look for someone without those restrictions. I think it would be fair to tell clients that they can only say it’s your work if using your original prints at a specified kind of print shop, and otherwise they need to call it a derivative or something.

    Maybe if I were going into the transaction looking to hire an artist to create my portrait that would be different, but if I were to invest in a photo shoot for me the point would be getting the digitals with which I could then use for myriad end results of my own. Frankly, I’d be fine with the raw footage – no sorting required.

  7. Rereading my comment sounds dismissive of photographer skills which wasn’t my intent (hard to edit on my phone here!). Clearly I would appreciate the vision as it pertains to the end result, but you as the artist will be personally invested in the vision in a way that I just wouldn’t be, because the subject would matter more to me. So I disagree with the person who said that I’d be paying for your interpretation of my memories. Not really – I’d be paying for you to capture *my* memories, appreciating your spin, but ultimately feeling they are still my memories and if I want to crop them in a way that violates your vision, I’m going to want to keep control to be able to do that. And if you say I can’t, that would be upsetting because you are basically dictating the terms under which I get to have *my* memories, so it’s like you’ve coopted Hopefully that’s more coherent.

  8. Being able to get the digital negatives is key to me and I wouldn’t book with someone who wouldn’t provide them or where I had to get all the prints through them….just not worth it to me. We have family photos done about twice a year and we have been very happy with our photographer and one of the things that I LOVE about her apart from the fact that she does amazing photos is that she gives us a CD of the entire photo shoot. She touches up usually a dozen or so, but then we get all the out takes as well and not only have I loved using them in scrapbooks but we always have a good laugh with them. Are they necessarily fame worth on a wall…maybe not, but they definitely are album worthy. Photography is very personal and everyone has their own style and taste and what a photographer might like or see as a vision is maybe not what I see as the client and the subject. I feel like if that is the service I am paying for them I would want control. If the photographer is taking photos on their own time and then selling the image then that is something completely different. Basically I agree 100% with Mary@Parenthood.

  9. My question is – where can I find a professional film lab these days? I admit, my prints are largely done at Shoppers. (sound of photographers groaning)

    But for those extra special pics, can you recommend a few good labs? Are there any not in the downtown core? (I’m a westender)

  10. I agree with those saying they’d want the digital negatives. I realize you do family photography so I don’t want to seem disrespectful or unsympathetic to what you are saying but I respectfully disagree.

    I feel like when I hire a photographer to take pictures of my kids, I do it because I trust that the person will get better pictures of them than I will. ๐Ÿ™‚ I want someone who knows how to use light and position and composition to capture my kids at their best… and I want to be able to share those pictures with family and friends. I understand that to really get the best picture I need to get it printed (etc) properly and I would probably get 1 or 2 done by the photographer so I can frame them or hang them somewhere special. But for the most part, I don’t need fancy or perfect.

    And I guess I kinda’ feel like these are *my* kids… they aren’t an art project. Maybe I’m naive or I don’t understand what it is to be an artist, but if the photographer will only release pictures that suit their vision and their idea of perfect, well, that feels like my kids are being models. Who gets to decide what the picture that is going to hang on my wall looks like? Me? Or the photographer?

    I guess I would like the “photographing” part de-linked with the “buying prints” part. After looking at the negatives I would love to hear what the photograper’s vision was and how she’d like to process/make better/crop them and how much that would cost etc… but I’d like the choice to opt out.

    *shrug* I’d want the negatives so I could enjoy the pictures of my kids. Seems sad to leave them sitting on someone else’s hard drive.

  11. kind of makes you wonder who can make a living at this any more.
    when i had my wedding photos done, years ago, we got no negatives, just prints of our choice in the album we could afford at the time, and 200 4×6 unwatermarked prints of every shot taken ( at a price of course, 1$ a print, but it was affordable). the album photos are beautiful and i treasure them. the snapshots? well…there is the one with the guest with his finger up his nose. i could have lived a lifetime without that one.
    i think, maybe because i remember how it used to be done, i have no issue with photographers who do not offer digital negatives. i really do not want the crappy shots…i just want the 4 or 5 killer amazing shots that capture my family and our energy.
    there are all levels of photographers out there and i think it is a shame if you truly can not afford the photographer who can best get those memories of your family. however, i have seen way too many bad photographers ( not even necessarily cheap ones ) sell shameful photos as in the name of affordability and lack of expertise.
    i do take a lot of photos, i am handy with a camera and i charge money for my work. if i was a family photographer, i would not give all the digital negatives because i would not want to litter up the good work i have done with the missed shots ( because they are always there). i would not feel like i was giving my best work to my client. i would provide the option to order prints from a trusted lab. and in this new digital age;), i would provide the opportunity to buy the digital files of the best shots ( edited and perfected ) at a price reflective of the work involved. i would not sell low res shots. i just do not get that. high res shots already look crappy on facebook…why would i make that worse?
    i have always invested in family portraits. i do not do them every year, but when they are done, i want them to be spectacular and of a quality that will last a very long time. i did that when it was film and i do it now. but it is different for everyone.

  12. I totally agree about giving ALL the digital negatives, Angela. When I first go through my images from a session, I automatically delete any with closed eyes, moms with double chins (they’ll hate them anyways), people moving causing unreasonable blur, etc. No one gets 100% of the shots I take. Frankly, some are crap!

    But if I go to the trouble of editing an image, I include it on the disc. Even if I only have 20-30 images that I love, I include all the ones that I think a client might enjoy. And I have been surprised a few times by which ones have been ordered!

    Besides, with pp software like LR and PS, once you edit one image in a series to your liking, it’s easy to import those same settings to the shots immediately prior and following. Not much more work, really.

    Putting myself in a client’s shoes, I’d love and appreciate the variety and choice.

    While I do understand the hows and whys of most professional photographers print pricing, I’m not “comfortable” with it (for lack of a better word).

  13. Ugh, this has been a really interesting conversation to follow but a difficult one.

    I’m really starting to lean toward offering the negatives if for no other reason than that’s what I would want. Such a tough call, but find myself nodding along with Amy’s arguments.

    Hmmm, I’m more conflicted now than ever… maybe the answer is offering them for sale at a reasonable rate, maybe a little higher than prints but not much? Hmmmm….

  14. You’re too funny, Dani!

    Like I said above, I find that with having a slightly higher sitting fee *that includes* a print credit, I generally get print orders that exceed that amount anyways. Also, I don’t give the disc until the prints have been ordered (which I recently implemented) so I know they’ll have the prints in hand before ordering any cheap ones.

    From what I’ve read recently, a lot of family photographers are disappointed when they make under $1000-$1500 per session. Frankly, that’s a bit unimaginable to me. I know the argument is that if it’s something important, people should save up for it, but over $1000? That’s A LOT of money! For many -if not most- families, it’s completely unattainable.

    I really feel like if you CAN afford to spend upwards of $1500 on family photography, you’ll seek out a photographer who charges those rates. I don’t know how to put this more delicately, but it’s almost a status thing… “I spend ‘x’ amount on our family pictures this year!” Those clients won’t seek out the cheapest photographer they can find because they have the money and enjoy feeling like they’re getting a super high quality product. And generally they are! But of my entire personal acquaintance in Gatineau, I can’t think of A SINGLE FAMILY who could afford to pay that much…

    So to summarize:
    – a higher sitting fee that includes a print credit
    – the requirement that a print order be placed in order to receive the CD

    In my mind it’s win-win.

    P.S. Welcome back to Ottawa! And if you want to discuss galleries and print pricing, send me an email.

  15. I agree with the comment about separating the photography fee from the printing fee. They really are two different things for me and I HATE it when photographers expect you only to order through them. I do get your point about maintaining quality, but I also think that if people are going to spend a whack of money on a photography session, then they’ll probably take the time to have the pics professionally printed as well, and not go for the cheapy WalMart job.

    I’m looking for a wedding photographer right now, and the most important thing to me (besides loving their style, obviously) is having the digital negatives. I would never consider a photographer who wouldn’t give them (I’d probably be looking for around 300 final files). Digital is the way the world works now, so it seems really weird to me for photographers to resist that. With all my other photos, I have them stored on my computer and I’m able to make an iPhoto album, post them on Facebook, print things as and when I want them – so obviously I’d want to do the same with my wedding photos.

  16. Hilary,

    So what happens when someone makes a crappy print and tells people it’s the photographer’s work, and that seriously damages the photographer’s credibility and ability to make a living by getting referrals?

    I’m not saying I don’t sympathize with the desire to have the files, but there are some really good reasons why photographers have good reason to be concerned. (Particularly wedding photographers who are working in a very competitive market and have clients who say, OOH, I like your photos. I want some like it.” And then don’t get that “some like it” requires the photographer to be the one who does the printing.)

    i could go on and on about the naivete of consumers who think all there is to getting a professional photograph is pointing an expensive camera in the right direction… but I guess I won’t. Sigh…

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