I've been trying to understand why handing out the RAW files to clients is a sensitive issue among professional photographers.

I've often heard explanations that compares the RAW files to film negatives and that I wouldn't hand them out. The answer to that is no I wouldn't, but that's not a fair analogy either. The main reason that I won't give someone my film negatives is that they're irreplaceable. I can't make copies of them without loosing quality, but I can make 1:1 copies of my RAW files and keep all data. All in all I don't really buy that explanation to why professional photographers don't give clients RAW files.

I wouldn't give a client RAW files either. But my reasons would be based upon things like:

  • I want them to see what I had in mind to capture, not halfway through the process.
  • I don't want to risk having edits made by others potentially being presented as my work to potential clients.
  • I would want to keep RAW files alone to have the possibility to use it to help prove that the photos are mine in court.
  • If I've happened to take a keeper that I had to heavily correct in post I wouldn't want my clients to see that. That could make me appear as a bad photographer for not nailing my settings in camera.

Among photographers there seem to be a strong consensus not to give clients RAW files, but I really want to know why. Is there an obvious reason that I've missed?

Just to be clear: This question is not about giving clients RAW files instead of JPEG, but rather RAW in addition to JPEG

  • 2
  • 2
    What makes you think that jpegs can't (or won't) be edited and presented as your work? Oct 7 '14 at 15:36
  • @glenviewjeff Of course edits can be made to a JPEG. It's a lot harder though and not handing out the RAW files greatly limits the possibilities for the edit.
    – Hugo
    Feb 24 '15 at 10:15
  • 1
    @glenviewjeff Yes, the JPEG cuts the dynamic range of the photo and prevents effective white balance adjustment makes other editing tasks more difficult. Many edits can still be done. It only makes it harder.
    – Hugo
    Feb 25 '15 at 15:42
  • 1
    I think you should change the question to "Why is giving clients RAW files (in addition to JPEGs) such a sensitive matter among photographers?". Dec 2 '16 at 13:50

I do offer RAW files for my photos but I don't give them automatically purely because of the size and difficulty to use. A RAW file is substantially larger than even a max quality finished JPEG. Additionally, a RAW file is of no use without a photographer to develop it. It is just raw sensor data and still needs things like color grading and exposure controls and possibly cropping before it is a good photo.

Personally, I offer to give copies of any RAWs the customer wants, but I also preface that with an explanation that the RAW files don't represent final works and are only useful if they are going to touch it up or have someone touch it up.

Many photographers don't like releasing that much control of their images. They may be willing to release a full quality finished product even if that gets mangled, they know it started from a good place. RAW files on the other hand could be associated back to them as a negative thing since they are not finished products and may be poorly handled.

Then there is the photographers who simply want to be able to charge for every use of an image and thus only provide limited quality images to start with so that you have to go back to them if you want larger prints. Personally, I despise that practice, but it is still very common.

  • 7
    +1 about the finished product. The client is paying for the skills of the photographer right through the chain and disregarding everything after the shutter click is pretty insulting. My favourite analogy is that it's like having dinner in a nice restaurant and then asking the chefs for their recipe and even the actual ingredients from their fridges (after all they can get more, right!) What makes for a great meal are the skills and experience that the chefs have honed over years which do not come purely from the components or method. Feb 20 '14 at 23:16
  • 2
    +1 about giving after explaining what is raw. I really hate photographers in my area, since giving RAW (even high-res JPEG) is a taboo that none overcomes, and I have to be stuck with their "skills" in post-processing. No photographer can expend the same time I can in my photos (since I can expend my whole life, if I want). Feb 21 '14 at 12:53
  • @woliveirajr - I agree and that is exactly why I offer the RAWs, but with my explanation of what they are, nobody has actually taken me up on it yet.
    – AJ Henderson
    Feb 21 '14 at 14:11
  • 1
    @woliveirajr If you are the client you can make it clear up front that you are making a condition of hiring the photographer that a) they provide all files in RAW and b) that you will own the copyright. Since you are the one paying you can insist on that before hiring them and if they baulk don't hire them. Feb 21 '14 at 18:52
  • 4
    @SteveBarnes - for many photographers, myself included, would be a non-starter. A better option is to ask for unlimited rights to the images. I grant an unlimited right for my customers to use the images however they want, but I also retain ownership of the images so that I can use them for my purposes (such as portfolio work). I want them to be able to make use of it however they want, but it is still my artwork.
    – AJ Henderson
    Feb 21 '14 at 19:30

There are tons of reasons out here but one fact remains. A RAW file itself is not an image or photo. It is a sensor reading which can be interpreted a myriad of ways. A RAW file is not a finished product and in most cases an unsuitable deliverable or even unusable for by client. As a professional photographer I want to deliver a finished product: photos that the client can read and view with proper representation, are portable and compatible with any mainstream visual reproduction systems (screens, systems, tablets, phones, computers, etc) With a RAW file you first of all need the proper codec for your system, then you need to adjust dozens of parameters and filters to finally get a usable image.

Unless the job specifically requests RAW files, I do not include those as my delivery. Aside from all of this, as a Professional with a lot of money, time and resources invested in your practice, you want to manage the integrity of your work/craft. Delivering RAWs does nothing to help that, if anything it degrades it.

  • 1
    I realised that I may have been unclear. I meant delivering RAW files in addition to JPEG's if the client asks for them.
    – Hugo
    Feb 20 '14 at 20:20
  • 4
    Yes. The same rationale applies. If the JPEG/PNG suffices, then what is the point of the RAW to the client? The RAW is still not an image. If they want a hi fidelity loss-less image you can give them a loss-less TIFF/BMP/etc. The RAW file is not a photo. The data in a RAW file is key to generating the photo along with the photographer's knowledge, experience and specialized processing software. If I have to deliver RAWs, I usually charge more and ask that no credits or association be given to me.
    – Bryan Allo
    Feb 20 '14 at 20:29

I would add a fifth one, which may also help to understand the negative analogy: your RAW file is your finest pixel database. It contains more dynamic range than a JPEG file, similarly to a film negative. You can overexpose, underexpose during development (in Lightroom or in an actual lab), and find details in bright and dark corners that you simply cannot extract from a "cooked" image - a processed file like a JPEG. You can even create a single-file HDR image from a RAW photo. E.g. the D5100 has a dynamic range around 13.7 EV. Most modern cameras have about the same. Now, to show 13.7 EV on a printout or even on a monitor is quite impossible. An RGB monitor usually has 8 bit channels (= 256 levels) for R,G and B each. The color information in the image is stored on 14 bits per channel (if you set it up right...) But even if you are on 12 bit, that means 4096 levels per channel...

And so since that file contains the most detail, it is the easiest to use (or abuse) in creative work by others, up to the point when your intent with the image is barely observable.

I have some RAW files I have retouched about 50 hours each. Sometimes you make a shot even you do not believe. And I loved those. And after a year, I started on another angle, went for black and white, and curved it to an image of very different emotion. Then after a year I created a duotone version, again, completely different emotion.

If I had worked on the 8-bit RGB image, I would have seen a lot of color banding, degradation and increased noise.

So just to make my point: the RAW file is your creative resource and you do not want others to use it as a resource for their creativity.

Now, if the clients asks for RAW, you will have to write a contract of allowed usage, penalties if he distributes it, sells it, re-uses it in ways that are not in the contract - and ask for proper exchange in money or gold bars. :-)

  • 10
    you do not want others to use it as a resource for their creativity, well you might not, but some people are perfectly happy letting others create from their creativity. Feb 3 '16 at 16:58
  • @WayneWerner: Valid point.
    – TFuto
    Feb 4 '16 at 10:41

People have answered this question beautifully. But this question is not about giving clients RAW files instead of JPEG, but rather RAW in addition to JPEG. (note the big difference!)

Not having the decency of offering RAW files to your client has got more to do with the attitude of the photographer than anything else. It's like "owning work" or "giving up control" for him/her.

What software code is to a programmer, RAW files are to a photographer.

If software developers (companies and corporations alike) can share their entire source code with people, photographers too can share their RAW files. Remember GNU/Linux, Android, VLC Player, Mozilla Firefox, Chrome and thousand other amazing products are all open source softwares and have made this world a better place.

I always offer RAW files. But almost always, people don't need them because of reasons very well stated in other answers here (huge size, incompleteness of work, not being able to view with default photo viewers on laptops and tablets etc.). But the important thing is that, I offer. I think every photographer should.

Few things to note here:

  • RAW files can be edited. With minimal technical knowledge, one can edit RAW files such that they don't have any record (modification time-stamp etc) of the edits made. So the comparison of RAW files with negatives is moot.
  • A client should be made happy with the work the photographer has done. His/her quality of photos should bring that client back and bring additional clients based on that client's feedback to friends/relatives. Getting additional money from client for an extra-sized copy is simply an unfair business practice!
  • 1
    Opening your source-code to the public is a business-model and some do this, some don't. I'd say that majority of software companies don't. Reasons? People using applications don't need this. People wanting to compete with them will use this. If I (open-source "client") took the code (from John Doe developer) and made an application, I couldn't straight-out say John Doe made this application. On the other hand if I (RAW "client") took the RAW file (from John Doe photographer) and converted it to JPEG, I most certainly can say that John took this photograph. I personally don't want that. Feb 21 '14 at 11:46
  • 3
    Actually, modifying RAW files is easy, but updating checksums is hard. See for example this (it has been hacked already, IIRC). Comparison with negatives is not entirely moot.
    – Olli
    Feb 21 '14 at 12:14
  • 2
    Open source softwares can be digitally signed. If somebody took my source code, modified and rebuilt it, the digital signatures would change. In essence, they can't take ownership, but the software would be identical. This "disadvantage" should be weighed against advantages of open-sourcing the software. Same thing applies to RAW files. Coming to checksum-based RAW file verification, the feature is available is high-end DSLR cameras. Not all. Mar 5 '14 at 8:55
  • 1
    @Miljenko Barbir: Just because you gave away the source code/RAW of a program/image, does not necessarily mean you give away the credit or that it is now in public domain. That's what open/shared source licenses are about; they allow you to share source code while keeping credit and control how the client can or cannot share or relicense the code/RAW to someone else. Most commercial enterprise applications do offer source code, usually under a license that allows the client to modify it for their own use while prohibiting the source code and modifications from being shared by the client.
    – Lie Ryan
    Feb 6 '16 at 14:54

I know couple of photographers and their reason is that it may kill their sales. So imagine that you went in a session and you got couple of 4x6 and 5x7 for example, year later you want to get one of these photos as a poster so what would you do? Definitely you would go back to the photographer and ask for that, he would pull the RAW file and print it as you want. If he gave you the RAW file you would simply print it yourself (if you have the enough knowledge) or take to a print house. Either way the money won't go to the photographer's pocket. Here's a personal story, my wedding photographer's package asked me to choose 6 photos and he would print each one twice 8x11. My family took the first copy and my in-laws got the second copy and I didn't get any of these photos for myself, a year and half later I went to the studio and asked for another print. So for the photographer this is nice because he knows that you will come back if you needed extra prints but for you this sucks actually! I can't prevent myself thinking what if the photographer's backup is lost or crashed or whatever! that means that all my photos and others are lost forever!

BTW some photographers offer their RAWS for extra charge


Ransom ? Think about it, you have hired a professional for a service while not signing away your rights to the intellectual property. The photographer provides derivatives (prints) of a subset of the work (less unique prints than frames shot) but simultaneously blocks access to all of what he was hired for. The contracting party did not expressly or by implication grant the photographer to retain all or any of the work he was hired to perform.

Further, and as was pointed out above, while dictating the size, price and quality of a print, the photographer does not take responsibility to retain, for the loss or disclosure of your photographs.

... sounds like ransom to me !

If you want your RAW images (negatives back when), ask for them before signing the contract. The contract should state who owns the IP. This would not prevent the photographer from retaining copies but would state the penalties for unauthorized use.

PS: No, I am not a lawyer / attorney.

  • 1
    By default in most places, the photographer owns the rights in the images barring "work for hire" (which, again in a general sense, means that there is a relationship of employment rather than professional services). There may be derivative work if the content of the image is itself subject to copyright, and there may be other rights that would essentially prevent use of the image by the photographer without your permission, but the client does not generally hold moral rights in the image without a contract stating so. This does not hold for all jurisdictions; check your local laws.
    – user2719
    Feb 21 '14 at 5:39
  • 1
    If you hired someone to paint your portrait would you also ask for the sketches, notes and any photos they took while producing it. No, you wouldn't because they wouldn't be useful to you and would detract from the finished work... Feb 21 '14 at 9:12
  • 2
    Think about it, if you hired someone to design and build your house, who should own and possess the plans ? You may not know how to use them but they are yours, after all, you paid to have them created.
    – Sean H.
    Feb 21 '14 at 21:02
  • 2
    @Sean Um, actually, it is completely normal practice in architecture for the architect to retain ownership of the plans and drawings. So, while I hear the passion of your moral argument, the precedent is against you.
    – mattdm
    Feb 22 '14 at 4:03
  • 1
    Not a lawyer either, but I don't believe the format of RAW in itself should automatically be seen as the photo's "IP". First, it's not a photo, it's an unfinished product, literally "raw". Second, IP dictates ownership and usage rights, which can/should be tied to the actual product, which can be in any format.
    – Fer
    Aug 5 '14 at 21:54

Why is giving clients RAW files such a sensitive matter among photographers

Because I am the artist that has been hired to create something, you are paying me to create and I am not going give away my unfinished work to be manipulated by someone else.

I have read the answers here and obviously there is no consensus. My position is (and it applies to me, make your own decisions), IF I were Leonardo da Vinci I would not give you a paint by numbers sketch outline of Mona Lisa and say fill in what ever colors you like.

The client is paying for my skills and experience to create my artistic vision of what they are asking for, if they want a raw file, that they can apply whatever their artistic vision is to, then they can produce their own raw file.

My art is my art. If you want my art, you pay for my art, and you get my art.

Two cents inserted.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.