Think of a time before digital cameras.
We had to use a roll of film and actually use negatives to develop a final product. For those of you who don't know, negatives are the first step to developing film. In the good old days, a photographer would get a tube of film, stick it in a camera and take pictures. They didn't get to see how the images would turn out and pictures couldn't just be deleted. Why? Because when the shutter was clicked and that little shutter door opened up, it allowed light into the camera and actually burned an image onto film lined with light-sensitive silver halide crystals. No take-backs.
From there the film canister full of negative images went into a black bag with a reel and a larger canister. The black bag has holes for someone's arms but was completely done up so the inside was not visible. This would ensure that there was no risk of light leaking in to destroy the film. Once everything including the photographer's arms were put inside the bag, the photographer would feel around blindly, take the film out of the canister and have to very carefully hook the little notches of the film onto a reel without scratching the negatives. Once on the reel, the film was put it in another canister that fit the entire reel, the lid got popped on so no light would expose the film and it could be taken out of the bag.
The photographer would then have to douse the film that's on the reel in the black canister in 3 different types of chemicals. Using the small opening of the container that's meant for putting chemicals in, the photographer would use a chemical to develop the image, one to stop the developing so your photo didn't get too dark and a fixer that makes the image light-resistant. Each one would take time and some swishing (meaning the negatives weren't just sitting there. The canister would have to be gently rocked to keep the chemicals moving). Once that process was over, the photographer had their negatives! It's great, but that's only the halfway to getting a final picture.
After all of this, the photographer would head into the darkroom to make a 'test' sheet. As you probably understand, negatives are called negatives because the blacks are white and the whites are black. This is because when the shutter is released on a film camera, and the light is burning the image into the film, the brighter areas (the spots that the most light is hitting) are actually going to be black because it's literally burning the image into your film. So, the photographer would need to fix this in order to get a better idea of how their photos were going to turn out. They would have to burn their negatives onto special photo paper that was, like film, lined with light-sensitive silver halide crystals. The negatives were placed neatly onto a sheet of this special paper and light would shine from an enlarger and through the negatives thus burning the image onto the paper. Using similar chemicals to the ones used to develop film, they would now be used on the special paper in the darkroom to develop the test sheet. This time, positive images would appear as the black parts of the image would have blocked the light more than the white parts making the blacks of the negatives white and the whites of the negatives black. Are you still with me?
Now that the photographer had a test sheet with accurate pictures, they would look through a magnifying glass at the small images to figure out which ones turned out. They'd choose one they like to start with and this time, using only one negative, they would put the image in a slot inside of the enlarger to create a test strip of their photo. Exposing small sections of the picture to light at different time intervals so they would get an idea of how long to expose their negative for. Once again, chemicals would be used and the photographer would have a look at it. Once they decided which section looks best, they had their exposure time.
The negative would be put in the slide, once again so the photographer could adjust the contrast and size of the image using the enlarger. Once the exposure time was set, the enlarger would work some magic, chemicals would be involved once more and then the photographer had a final image. If you're wondering how I know of this struggle, as a 22-year-old photographer, it's because I have had the benefit of being taught photography using film (which I appreciate to this day).
Knowing all the steps a photographer had to go through to obtain the final images, and knowing that a negative wasn't a proper representation of the photos, would a client ask the photographer for them? If so, why? Do they have the tools to obtain what the photographer obtained? Probably not.
So why is it that clients today, in the digital world, want our RAW files? Better yet, why do some photographers give away their RAW files?
Yes, RAW files aren't in negative form but in today's digital world, they are the equivalent to yesterday's negatives. They are the beginning stage to a final image and are definitely not an accurate representation of the photographer's full potential. Obviously, editing a digital image is not as much work as what I explained to you at the beginning of this post, but it's still time, effort and skill. Putting your best foot forward as a photographer includes editing and is extremely important to your brand that you should be trying to create as a photographer if you haven't already established one. Editing the photo brings them to life and is the true representation of a photographer's creative style. It can sometimes be what sets a photographer apart from the crowd or makes a client choose that particular creative when looking for someone to photograph their wedding, family photos or headshots.
A few things that go through my mind when a client asks me for the RAW files are:
1. Does the client plan on editing these?
The client hired a photographer, I'm assuming, because they are not one. So, do they plan on editing the image themselves? What programs and knowledge of programs do they have in order to do this if they needed/wanted to hire a professional for images. In order to do anything with RAW files (labeled CR2 on the computer), you need the proper software to even view them depending on your computer.
2. Is the client going to post them like that?
If my clients were to see some of my RAW files, they would see some imperfections that have not yet been edited out, colour balancing is off, the contrast is low etc. If my clients posted the RAW images that I took yes, they may look nice to them but there are many people who wouldn't find them impressive. Much like if a client were to edit my photographs, posting them raw is detrimental to the brand I'm creating because it doesn't properly reflect my work and it could cost me future business.
3. Why did the client hire me if he/she doesn't like my editing style?
When you're looking for a photographer, you should probably have a look through their portfolio. Most of us have them online in one form or another, whether it's a website or social media platform such as Instagram. If you're hiring a photographer, be sure to do your research and like their style!
To all the photographers who read this post, if you feel giving out RAW files could hurt your business, then don't give them out! Explain to your clients that you are an artist and part of being a photographer is editing your photographs. Assure your clients that they will be much happier with the edited files and if they're really not happy with something, as an alternative you can ask them if there are any adjustments you could make that would satisfy them. Clients, trust us. This is what we do and as mentioned before, editing is a huge part of our brand. Most clients that do receive their photos unedited, end up being unhappy because they expect the RAW files to look better than they actually do. I've posted a few examples of my work before and after editing below as an idea of what a file can look like before a photographer puts their finishing touches on their images.
As seen in the above images, they don't come straight out of the camera looking fantastic. A lot more care goes into the photographer's craft. It's very important to acknowledge this. As a client, remember this blog post the next time you go to book a session of any sort and as a photographer, know that your talent is far further than what you do with the camera. Be sure to expand into your editing by finding your style. Put your best foot forward and never do anything that you feel could give people the wrong impression of your photography. Would an artist display an unfinished painting? Would an author publish and unfinished book? Would someone leave a hair appointment halfway through a cut? Would anyone pay to see a movie at the theatre that ends halfway through? If the answer was no to any of those questions, why should a photographer give away their unedited images?