It’s been a while since I’ve received “The E-Mail,” so I guess it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise when it came today. I must have been living a charmed life, because it hadn’t reared its ugly head in quite a while. Yet there it was. Staring me in the face. Cursor blinking in the “reply” box as I contemplated my impending level of sarcasm. Sometimes it’s actually a phone call. Occasionally they come right out and ask in person. More often than not, though, it’s an email. I prefer the emails because they help mask my frustration in a way that actual conversations can’t. You know the email I’m talking about. Names and locations have been changed for obvious reasons.
Dear Jeff– Thanks so much for meeting with us here at Clients-R-Us this afternoon to discuss photography for our new project. We love your portfolio (especially those shots you took for the new Italian-Japanese-Taco fusion restaurant downtown), and the numbers you propose all look good. We are ready to sign the contract and licensing agreements, but there’s just one point I’d like to discuss first. The original RAW files. We’d like them included. And not just the files for the final images delivered. We want all of the RAW files from the entire shoot. I know there are a lot of photographers who do this, so I’m assuming this won’t be a problem. We’ll be ready to move forward as soon as I get your okay on this. We’re very excited about working with you. Best, –Joel Hartman, Creative Director for CRU.
Are you kidding me?!? Seriously?!? I’ve been a professional photographer for almost 12 years. You’d think this request wouldn’t bother me so much anymore. By now I should have a short, convincing, coherent, insightful, and possibly witty explanation that would make people realize (1) just what a ridiculous request this is, and (2) how much it pisses me off to have to constantly answer it. But even now, 12 years later, I still feel my skin crawl every time the issue comes up. So what do we do?
Why Do They Want Them?
I think that before we can come up with a good game plan for letting them down gently, we need to understand where they’re coming from. I took a thoroughly one-sided, non-scientific poll of some of my colleagues in order to try pinpointing the motivation behind The Request That Never Goes Away. One photographer said she thinks that clients are simply hedging their bets. They figure that they may change their mind about an image later on and that their sister-in-law’s neighbor’s nephew “really knows a lot about Photoshop” and he’ll be able to help them out. This may not be too far off when it comes to portraits and weddings, but commercial clients (hopefully) know that using non-licensed versions of any photo from the shoot is strictly off-limits.
Another photographer’s theory is that it has nothing at all to do with future edits, but everything to do with feeling like they’re getting their money’s worth. His experience has been that people feel that paying for the shoot means they own all of the happy pixels and megabytes that come with every click of the shutter. The third and final photographer subject of this rigorous testing is of the hyper-cynical opinion that clients don’t trust us to provide all of the good images, and that getting their hands on the RAW files will keep us honest. As a side note, let me say that they’re partially correct on that score. I don’t give my clients ALL of the good images, and neither should you. I only give them the best of the good images. Knowing how to edit yourself is very important.
Personally, I think that all of these theories have a bit of merit to them and probably average themselves out in the end.The truth is, this is not a new phenomenon. Before it was digitized ones and zeroes, clients were asking for their negatives. I think the assumption by today’s clients that we should be willing to turn over all of the images also stems in part from the idea that computers are something that we all have in common. A client might have been completely lost when it came to figuring out what to do with their individually-cut, medium format negatives, but because those images are now computerized, they at least stand a halfway decent chance of figuring out a thing or two about photo editing. Or so they think.
How to Tell Them No Without Losing Them
It’s important to remember that you’re walking in a sensitive area once this question is out there. Just like copyright and licensing issues, we have to be able to educate the client in such a way that we reenforce their confidence in us, and not in a way that is going to insult them and send them running to another photographer. Obviously, I’d love to answer the request simply– “I’m sorry, but we don’t don’t provide any RAW files,” and let that be the end of it. Not every client is going to give up so easily, though, so try some of these on for size.
1. Start out by explaining what RAW really means and that it’s basically useless to them in its current state. Many clients seem to think that “RAW” simply means unedited, but you and I know full well that that’s only a very small part of it. Once they understand that we’re basically talking about a digital negative and that they are going to need expensive software and technical expertise to turn it into something usable, they’re likely to back off.
2. Some clients, though, are on a mission. Their best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s uncle told them that they absolutely must have every RAW file from the entire shoot. I like pointing out to these clients that when their best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s uncle buys a novel, the price tag does not include all of the author’s rough drafts. Paintings and sculptures do not come with the artist’s initial sketches. It is entirely possible that I took eight or nine shots– sometimes more– before knowing that I got what I wanted. Making sure that the client only sees the best of the best actually makes their job much easier when it comes time to make their final selections.
3. Regardless of whether I am dealing with the creative director of Clients-R-Us or the mother of a bride, I have to get across to them the notion that they are hiring me not only to provide a product– the finished image– but a process as well. Without the process there actually is no finished image. They need to understand that part of that process means editing out the bad frames, and processing the rest in a way that only a professional photographer can. They need to know that “getting their money’s worth” has nothing to do with the number of images shot, but everything to do with the quality of the images delivered.
4. I once responded to this request with a question of my own. I asked the client if they were proud of their product. “Of course I’m proud of my product!” he told me. “A lot of time, effort, money, and research went into this product. It’s like one of my kids.” I let the answer hang in the air for a bit before saying, “Me too.” He just smiled, nodded his head, and has never again asked for anything other than finished images.
Or I suppose you could just try this.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is not an easy conversation to have. You don’t want to lose the client, but you also need to protect the work and your reputation. Being ready with a respectful, appropriate response is crucial. Fumbling your way through it tells the client that you are not confident or knowledgeable enough about your own business to address a common client concern. Different personalities will handle this dilemma many different ways. Knowing yourself is half the battle. Knowing your client is the other half.
What about you? Got a story to tell about convincing the client to do things your way? Share it in the comments.