Advice for Wedding Photographers – RAW files

Over the years, I have occasionally been asked by one or both members of a couple if they get the RAW files (digital negatives) as part of their wedding photography package. Some have actually gotten upset that they do not, and I have to explain to them all of the reasons why I do not provide them. In order to answer those questions when they come up again, and to help others out there trying to get this idea across to their clients, I offer up this brief article on the subject.

What is a ‘RAW’ file?

To begin with, let’s discuss what I actually mean by a ‘RAW’ file. Most professional cameras are able to capture unprocessed, raw visual data. This is the actual image and light and contrast and settings which hit the sensor and are stored on the camera’s memory cards. There is sometimes some confusion about this, and some couples are told to get the ‘RAW’ files from their photographer by some ignorant blogger out there who actually means to advise the couple to get printing rights from their photographer. This is not the same thing.

End-user cameras (as well as professional ones) can make assumptions about the image and then compress that image into what is called a .jpg file. This is a much smaller file and the camera can hold a lot more of them than a RAW file which can easily be four to five times larger. The reason most professionals do not simply shoot to .jpg is that they want more artistic control of the image afterward during post-processing. That leads us to the first reason why most professional photographers do not give RAW files to their clients.

It’s Not Finished Yet

The RAW file is simply a building block from which the artist (your photographer) can begin work. The photographer may purposefully make decisions when shooting in RAW that will yield a better result after post-processing, such as deliberately underexposing one area in order to preserve details in another, knowing that the shadowed area can be more easily brought back than a completely blown out area. Other alterations to the image such as adjustments to white balance, contrast, vibrancy, saturation, and many other settings are all part of the photographer’s art. Giving the RAW file to the client is like showing them the sketches a cartoonist draws before filling it in with solid lines, colors, and text. There is no good reason for any client to see this part of the process, unless the client does not trust the photographer to deliver good images. The photographer is a professional and should be given the trust to do that job well. If the client does not trust the photographer to begin with, why was that photographer chosen and hired?

Other things that would show up in the RAW file that you would not see in the final product is specific cropping and post-shoot composition decisions. A good example of this would be the photographer being in a situation where shooting horizontally is necessary in order to achieve the best use of bounce flash, but the composition and story of the image is a vertical image in the middle. In post-processing, the photographer would crop that image and the end product is the desired portrait-oriented photograph. The photographer might want to capture a certain moment quickly and not have time to wait for Uncle Wilbur to stop scratching himself just to the side of the couple. In post, the photographer can crop that out and the couple will never know it was happening. There is no reason for the client to see any of these things.

Loss of Artistic and Even Brand Control

Some people have asked for the RAW files because they have a computer with PhotoShop on it and they want to manipulate the images themselves later. There is a fundamental problem with this, because the photographer’s name is still on those images. PhotoShop and similar editing programs are not always easy to use, but some think it is easy and will completely destroy an image trying to put their own spin on it. If you are not very skilled, something awful could happen, like this:


I promise you, if a top chef created a masterful dinner and you said you wanted the ingredients because you have made Mac and Cheese before and think you could turn it into a dish you would like better, that chef would absolutely refuse. A client chooses a photographer and should be happy with their style. If not, that photographer should not have been hired. The photographer works very hard to put their own signature on their artistic work. Asking them to give you the tool you would need to completely overwrite that work would be like buying a Picasso, throwing a bunch of paint over it that you think would look better, and still calling it a Picasso. It is no longer such a thing. The same is true about the photographs. Yes, we all have cameras. We can all also go down to the paint store and buy paint. That doesn’t make someone Picasso.

Having something out there in the world with your name on it, when it has been altered and doctored beyond anything you would want to have your name on, is a very dangerous prospect. Social media and online marketing are significant ways a photographer brings in new business. If there is an image out there being advertised as something from a photographer’s studio, and it is not representative of their work, that can be quite damaging to their reputation and seriously impact the acquisition of future work. It gives the wrong impression of the photographer’s abilities.

Why Do Clients Even Want Them?

Over the years, there have been many reasons why people have said they want the RAW files.

  • Some feel like they are paying you, so they should get them. To this you can simply say that buying a house does not entitle someone to the materials or the tools used to make that house.
  • Some feel like they want control over editing themselves so that they can take things out of the pictures if they want. Okay, so you can simply say that buying a house does not typically include later renovations which can be done by the homeowner at a later date at their own expense and their own risk. They can use photo editing software themselves to remove people if they want, or they can pay a professional (hopefully you) to do it for them.
  • Someone along the way told the couple they should get them. Some distant relative’s kid who has an educational copy of PhotoShop and has opened it a couple of times, volunteered to “help” with the photos and they read somewhere about ‘RAW’ files and want to work with them. The couple doesn’t likely know why someone told them this. Perhaps it was on some blog somewhere, maybe it was a relative who dabbles in photography themselves and think they know better than the experienced, hired professional. If that is the case, the couple should have had that relative shoot their wedding.
  • Some don’t trust their photographer to do a good job. They think they are playing it safe, in the event the photographer does a bad job. The couple should have thoroughly vetted their photographer to begin with. If the couple does not trust the photographer to do a good job based on their portfolio, their reviews, and after meeting with them, why on earth are they hiring that person?!
  • Some are afraid they’re not getting the whole story. This can be easily addressed by managing the expectation up front. “When someone is looking at me I take two or three versions of the image in case somebody blinks. You get the one that worked. I’m not going to saddle you with a bunch of meaningless duplicates. I will tell as complete a story of your wedding day as possible.” If they still talk about being concerned over not getting enough, let them know how many they should expect. For example, in an eight hour day it is not unusual for me to deliver 300-500 images. If anyone says that’s not enough, have them count to 300 out loud.

In Conclusion

Some photographers are okay with giving RAW, unedited images as a representation of their work. I am confident in saying this is not very common, especially among photographers who consider themselves to be artists. You can educate your client without losing them completely, by simply letting them know the reasons why you do not provide the ‘RAW’ files. Be sure to also include verbiage to that effect in your contract, so that there is never any question about what they will and will not receive. That’s what contracts are for.

If you make attempts to kindly and politely educate them on the reasons why you do not deliver ‘RAW’ images, and they still insist on getting them, perhaps that’s not a client you want to be working with in the first place.

Michael Chadwick is a multiple award-winning wedding photographer located in Medford, NJ. Michael Chadwick Photography offers photography services all over the mid-Atlantic region, as well as for destinations all over the world. All images copyright 2016 and may not be distributed or reproduced without express written permission.

My new book entitled Balancing the Art and Business of Wedding Photography is now available through this web site as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the book: Balancing the Art and Business of Wedding Photography is your guide to efficient and effective of your wedding photography business. Whether you’re just getting started or want to improve your current approach, this reference guide will be an invaluable asset for making your business great.

Many people get excited at the prospect of wedding photography as a career. Why shouldn’t they? It’s exciting and fun. You get to meet and celebrate with hundreds of interesting people throughout the year, and you can get paid to do it. You get the pleasure of making art out of someone’s love story. You can have a profound impact on a couple’s happiness, just by capturing photographs of their wedding day. It is even possible to make a decent living at it if you have the right skills, opportunities, motivation, and persistence. Many eager would-be wedding photographers get excited and jump into the deep end, head-first, without a solid understanding of what is entailed in being a successful wedding photographer. For every experienced and successful wedding photographer out there, you will likely find two or three dozen who did not last more than a year or two. Why? Few people can successfully balance art with business. Over the years I have spent as a full time professional wedding photographer, a significant number of people have asked me to host seminars or give private lessons on the business side of this exciting, challenging, and highly rewarding industry. There are innumerable books available on the techniques of wedding photography as an art form, but few which tell you what to do outside of the camera itself. Many artists are not adept at business. Balancing the Art and Business of Wedding Photography is my attempt to help those artists strike a balance between the performance of wedding photography as an art, and the production of wedding photography as a successful and efficient business.

Michael Chadwick Photography
Medford, NJ 08055
Phone: 609-654-1840