The Case for Not Selling Your Digital Files

by John R. Hartman, M.Photog.Cr, CPP, A-ASP

“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Every photographer seems to have an opinion of why you should or shouldn’t sell your digital files. I’ve listened to a lot of them over the years.

Those who do offer their files often cite the competition; “Everybody’s doing it, and if I don’t I won’t get the job.” Many who don’t offer files say it kills sales.

Much of the discussion centers around how selling digital files affects photographers and their business. But rarely does the customer’s perspective enter into the conversation.

And that’s a mistake.

Years ago, the prospect’s first question was often, “How much are your 8x10s?” Today it’s “Do you sell your files?” Both are questions that consumers have been programmed to ask, and neither question is necessarily pertinent to them becoming your client. A properly handled answer can make all the difference in the number of prospects you convert to customers, so it makes sense to consider and prepare an appropriate response.

Why would anyone want your files?

When a caller asks if we sell our files, I say, “Thanks much for your interest in our photography. I’ll be glad to help you. May I ask what you will be doing with these files?”

There are generally one of three responses, in this order of frequency:

1. “I want them for sharing on Facebook.”
2. “I’d like the ability to make my own prints.”
3. “I want to be able to archive them so I always have them.”

Let’s find a solution for each of these responses.

Facebook. The ability to share files electronically is very important to most of today’s consumers. The vast majority of inquiries regarding selling files originate with the desire to post images online. Those who want their files for sharing on their social networks should be able to do so, and I would be remiss as a professional if I couldn’t provide that service for them.

What I say is this: “We don’t feel you should have to pay for your Facebook photos. That’s why we provide electronic files of every pose you order at no extra cost. Each image is completely edited and enhanced, and then perfectly sized for Facebook and other social networking sites.”

(Translation: when you buy a photograph, whether individually or as part of a collection or grouping, a 720 pixel image of that photograph watermarked with our nearly-invisible embossed logo is posted to our Facebook page for you to tag.)

Self-printers. There are two types of prospects who want to make their own prints, and it’s important to find out which they are early in the conversation. The first and most common reason is simply to save money. After all, why should anyone pay your higher price when they can go to Costco or make them on their home inkjet printer? This person will most likely not become your customer, as they have not been able to discern (or has not been educated about) the difference between the final images you produce vs. what they think they can do. Raising your fee to compensate for the lost sales will only drive these people away faster.

The second and much less common reason is that there are people who have more sophisticated inkjet printing capabilities and skills who apparently think they can do a better job with your files than you.

For both of these inquiries I simply tell them, “The reason you were attracted to our work in the first place is at least in part because of the amount of personal talent and effort put into the final reproduction of every one of our photographs. Letting someone else make prints from my files is akin to having the waiter bring all the ingredients to your table and letting you prepare it yourself; it might be the same meal, but it certainly wouldn’t look or taste the same.”

“Additionally, having my name on a homemade print cheapens our brand and ultimately lowers the enjoyment you would get from owning our portraiture.”

(Translation: shoot and burn is a bad idea for both parties, at any cost. For this reason, we do not make printable files available for purchase at any price.)

Archiving. I’ve only received a very few callers who were concerned about the longevity of their image files. But I still have an answer for them: “Unlike many photographers who come and go or who take pictures on the side, we have been here serving two and even three generations of area clients for nearly forty years, and we intend to be here many more. We do offer a ‘piece-of-mind’ archival service where any files you order from us are retained in off-site storage, should the need ever arise where you would require additional photographs.

(Translation: if you want us to hold your files after your initial order, you can pay us to archive them to the Cloud for as long as they continue to have value to you.)

For each of the above responses, we have provided reasoned answers to their question that go beyond a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, while showing them how they benefit by having us create their finished photographs. To date we have not lost a single sale solely due to the fact that we don’t sell our files. I believe these answers address most of the underlying reasons that people ask about digital files, and they work for us. We don’t ever expect to book everyone, but we’ve converted many clients who would have moved on had our responses not addressed these underlying needs.

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There are 33 comments for this article
  1. Kristine at 3:07 pm

    This article doesn’t address the primary reasons why I want digital files. First, I like to play them as a screen saver on my computer. Second, I like to display images on my 47-inch, 1080p TV thru the use of a Sony PS3. A 720 pixel image is not going to work for this. Third, I like to use files for video montages/slideshows that are used at graduation parties, weddings and funerals. Fourth, I like to be able to print photo scrapbooks through companies like Shutterfly, Snapfish, etc. etc. Fifth, I like to have the ability to print canvas prints or professional prints through places such as Whitehouse Custom Color. Finally, I do want to permanently archive my photos, and can name a long list of huge companies with decades worth of history that are no longer in business. For example: Lehman Brothers, Arthur Anderson, Enron, Tyco, Worldcom, Circuit City, Linens & Things, Ultimate Electronics, Dayton’s, Marshall Fields, hundreds of Mom & Pop hardware stores. I’m not going to trust that any business entity will still exist in 20+ years. I also tend to want EVERY image that was shot and not just the 12 I wanted printed. So, for me, if the printable images aren’t available at any price, I’ll find another photographer.

  2. Alisha at 8:37 pm

    I love the ‘bring the food to the table and let you assemble it’ analogy. I will definitely be using that one.
    The best way that I know of preserving a copy of an image is to print it on archival paper and file it away in a frame (floating.) It would need to be kept out of the elements of course, in a temperature/barometric pressure controlled environment (similar to my piano room.)
    Personally, as a photographer, it kind of weirds me out when people want my files for free. If they want a video montage, I can make one.

  3. JeffT at 1:04 am

    Perfect example of the debate. John has framed the photographers position and Kristine has perfectly framed the consumer position. As a consumer I feel just like Kristine, I want to have control of the file that I paid good money for. As a photographer I dont want the consumer to rip me off by using my hard earned talent to producing an original work and then taking all future sales to other vendors. The only solution I see for the photographer is to sell the file but at a price that compensates for all future lost sales.

  4. Randy at 7:47 am

    I struggled with this issue 3 years ago. I looked around my house and only saw a few prints. What I use to display my own images are my digital frames, my iMac, my tv, my iPad, and my iPhone. I don’t print hardly anything for myself. And most of my clients are the same.
    When I realized this I changed our pricing structure and priced our packages more accordingly to make what I wanted to make and included the disc with jpegs. This does two things for me. First I am able to provide a branded disc to my clients that costs me less than $.10 cents. Secondly, I reduced my cost of both time and money processing an order and getting it printed. For us, this has worked out extremely well. I love seeing our stuff posted on facebook and pintrest and not having to spend the the time doing so myself. The client has done this.
    This must sound lazy and it is not. As my kids are growing up fast I continue to struggle with balancing work and family. I strive to find ways to make us more efficient yet provide top notch stuff. Our solution was offering digital files. It’s worked for us. Probably won’t work for everyone and it’s not for everyone.

  5. Brooke at 1:31 pm

    This is a great article, and there are valid points on both sides. I personally allow the digital files to be purchased, but they are at a price point that I am comfortable with because I am KEENLY aware that once they are gone, all future sales are gone too. 🙂

  6. LZB at 6:00 pm

    Let me start by saying that I do agree with you as far as image quality/print quality are concerned. A quick print from Walmart pales in comparison to a professional print from a photographer. As I sit here scanning in hundreds of family photos, however, I only see that the “professional” portraits that my parents purchased many years ago are faded and discolored. Now I realize that digital rights were not something that you could request way back when, but in today’s tech/digital world it is. I am not a hang a ton of pictures around my house kinda gal but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want EVERY shot that the person I am paying to take the pictures gets. I think that if you took a survey of your clients you would find that most would like to have the digital copies and would be willing to pay for them. Everyone is going to do what they feel is best for their business but I would be very aware of your competition. I can say that I would not be a potential client of yours solely due to the fact that you don’t sell the files.

  7. nate at 9:07 pm

    Don’t let the inmates run the asylum. If you don’t want to sell files then don’t, regardless of what reason you’re client wants them for. It just depends on what you want to be known for…work that gets put in a drawer with other CDs or work that gets proudly displayed for people to appreciate. My thinking is if you are a pro, offering only digital files doesn’t make you look very professional. It’s like going to a best buy and all they sell is one computer in the whole shop…plus offering only digital files means you are not ever going to up your sales and your primary focus to get more income will always revolve around getting more sessions. You will work like a dog and have no money to show for it. At least your client will be happy right?

  8. FRED BRINSON at 9:45 pm

    In life there are Leechers people who will feed enough off of you to keep themselves full and Seeders people who will pour into your gift as an artist and help you grow. I only deal with seeders and as the post show the majority of people like what the article has to say. So when dealing with clients I ask myself is this person a Leecher or a Seeder. It does not sound like Kristine is a Leecher but would rather pay for a archival image the question is how much do these files mean to Kristine? We really are not merely selling prints, cds and videos we sell “Life” and the “Emotion” it carries. It is up to each individual studio to determine what they are willing to do for there clients and it is up to the client to choose who they want to use a their photographer, and we should not hold a bad opinion if he or she decides which type of client or photographer they are willing to deal with.

  9. LZB at 10:09 pm

    I need to clarify…
    Personally, if I am going to display a photograph, taken by a professional photographer, then I absolutely will pay said photographer the fee for that print. One hundred percent, hands down you can’t beat the quality. In a given session however, there may be thirty or more “moments” captured that I want to have as well, just not in print form. What am I going to do with them? I don’t know…you are probably right, I’ll keep them on a disk in a drawer and maybe look through them at certain milestones, use them in slide shows, honestly I don’t know. What I do know is that I want them. If I am willing to pay for them I just don’t see why it’s an issue. Would you ever consider a “print minimum” fee and once that’s met then you would release the digital files from the session? If as you say, Years ago, the prospect’s first question was often, “How much are your 8x10s?” Today it’s “Do you sell your files?” I think it’s fair to say that times are changing. The way we save and view things are radically different today. Personally I wish you all the very best of luck with your businesses. I think what you are able to do is an incredible talent. I just think you are missing out on a whole up and coming group of potential clients by not jumping on the digital file bandwagon.

  10. stephanie at 7:33 am

    so what are other photographers charging for the digital files? Ive had one colleague tell me she charges $500 and another tell me $50. I figure the cost should be at least the price of the most expensive print!

  11. Kristin Smith at 7:47 am

    Would you pay $4,500 for all of your digital files that were shown at your ordering appointment if you loved them? Would you pay $2,500?

  12. Smitty at 9:29 am

    1) The average life expectancy of a digital image on disc is 3 1/2 years. Unless you are savvy enough to routinely back up your images, you will eventually lose them, scratch them or just forget about them.
    2) The technology will not transcend the generations. Yea, prints may fade over time, but not well kept ones. And even a faded print has managed to survive the test of time. Technology and the medium in which you purchase digital images continue to evolve and the technology of today will be gone tomorrow. Eventually the disc you bought will become another 8-track tape. Nobody buys a device to play an 8 track tape! Technology is a consumer disposable. So, unless, once again you are savvy to keeping your files up to date with new technologies, you will most likely not have them in another 10 years.
    3) Hard drives are mechanical devices and will eventually fail. Even large hosting/server sites are not immune to this potential. I’ve seen it happen with big companies, like and Google. So what is the difference between trusting your photographer or going to some huge vendor who cares less about you?
    4) Out of site, out of mind. You buy on disc, put it in a drawer and most people forget about it or even eventually misplace and lose it. Sure, you may play it for a while as a screen saver — who does that anyway??? Screen savers are a little dated nowadays. But eventually, you’ll find something else to replace it. And hey, screen savers are not conversational pieces for the family; just your co-workers who might have happened to walk past your office space for about 5 seconds.
    5) That said, digital images are not conversational pieces and rarely seen by anyone else except the person buying the images.
    6) There isn’t a single photographer that would apply proper edits and artistic edits to the 500 images you so desperately want on disc. All you get is out of camera images with some adjusted crops, WB adjustments and most likely exposure adjustments too, because most likely your buying your 500 -1000 images from a photographer that does not know how to WB and properly expose your image in camera.

  13. Chris at 10:00 am

    As a photographer I understand your point. But as a consumer I wish I had the ability to go back and review the images that were taken 30+ years ago. Back then I was young and only cared about images of my wife and I. Today with many of our older relatives who have passed on. I wish I could go back and maybe find a unique image of them. But like our wedding photographer whose business closed 20 years ago. Those negative images are gone.

  14. Trina at 12:12 pm

    What is your reputation worth? I have not seen anyone address other than the initial post,( I may have missed it), the damage done to your reputation. Even if you sell a file for good money, that person is now showing otherwise potential clients a crappy rendition of your work. In my opinion, those who sell files are in it for the short term, without the ability to control how your work is displayed, there is no way to measure the damage. All the Old timers that I have know and admired for the last 20 years have one thing in common besides still being in business, they don’t sell files. The article is spot on, inquire, find out what they REALLY want and go from there but run your business like a professional, start to finish.

  15. Kevin Flanigan at 1:27 pm

    As a retired portrait photographer I recently had the opportunity to have our 40th anniversary portrait made by a nationally known photographers ‘offshore’ studio. I was offered a good selection of very high quality images at a fair price but pushing our budget. We were also offered the digital files from the images we purchased for 1/facebook, 2/make our own ‘costco’ prints & 3/archiving, all three of your initial illustrations. The price for the digital files was substantial but we agreed it was the best way for us as we might not be able to contact the studio in the future (for whatever reason). I’m glad we purchased both prints and files…It made the sale complete.

  16. Stephanie at 2:06 pm

    If the client is willing to purchase the digital images at a price the photographer deems as fair to the hours of time that is put into the images, then I do not see a problem with selling the files. If it takes a minimum purchase or a premium price on the digitals, then as a photographer I feel it is something I can offer. Clients should receive education along with the files regarding the quality of printing (and sample prints). I feel today, as professionals, we can no longer stay “stuck in the darkroom”. We are no longer sending our rolls of film off to the lab or developing them ourselves. We are uploading them to the lab, we are utilizing the digital age ourselves with facebook, twitter, etc, and digital cameras. How can we stay antiquated in the darkroom and embrace the digital benefits we receive? If a client pays a premium price for the files, they are educated by the photographer, they are not going to run to Walmart and print them. Recommend a premium public lab, like MPix. And if it takes selling them at $2500/session then you have an option for the client. At least you are giving them that option if it is worth the premium price then you still have a good sale & both are happy. Shoot & burn-no way. Clients should not expect a photographer to spend and hour or two at a session then 10 -20 (or more) on the files, then sell it for a hundred bucks. No one wants to make .50 per hour. Big difference than offering high quality prints & files at a premium price.

  17. Heather at 3:11 am

    Kristine, you stated that you wanted to have your files so that you can have them printed from companies like Shutterfly etc. and that you would also like to have canvases printed from Whitehouse Custom Color. Don’t you feel that is taking profit from the photographer that put so much time, sweat, and effort into your images. I don’t think a lot of consumers take into consideration that we are not simply putting 8 hours in and then going home. We are not only doing all of these sessions, but then we go home and edit said sessions. Those prints that you are having done from Shutterfly or Whitehouse are hours that we didn’t have with our families. It would be the same with any other job. Will your contractor sell you the framing for your house so that you can have another contractor come in and build it for you? Probably not, so why should we as photographers do the same?

  18. PATRICK MONTGOMERY at 11:35 am

    Being a professional photographer is (usually) not just about making money – there is a sense of pride involved. If an image is worth “something” to a client it must have a monetary value (because it’s for sale by the creator) and therefore all images created by the “artist” should have the same monetary value. So, if a client wants to do any number of things to a “source” image, a photographer would have to assume the worst- case scenario in order to compensate for future revenue lost and therefore the price for a bundle of “absolute must haves” plus the “nice to haves” SHOULD be very costly – it’s the photographer’s livelihood after all. If the client can’t afford the “bundle” then they won’t get them. However, the client might be able to afford the lesser bundle of the “absolute must haves” (until such time as they can justify the purchase of the “nice to haves”). Patrick Montgomery (photographer)

  19. Scott at 12:40 pm

    Would Kristine be an customer exception or the norm that a photographer deals with daily?
    I’d say she is probably the exception. (Another media professional perhaps?)
    Still though, she does make a case for selling the disk.

  20. Amy at 3:12 pm

    I have found that as a photographer, I simply don’t want images that I have slaved over being printed at Wal-Mart. However, I have a way that works for my studio. We have a minimum print purchase, and after that, my clients have the option of purchasing a disc containing the digital files from the prints that they have purchased. This seems to satisfy the client that just HAS to have the digital files, while ensuring that they at least have a professional print of each image first, and I never cap my sales by giving away ALL of the digital files. Plus, if they ever do make duplicate prints from the disc, they have a professional print to compare it to. I will say, that I have had plenty of people not book, because the end result of what they would have to spend to get digital files was too high. The bottom line is, just like with any other product, you have to find a price you are comfortable with. Some people will always think it’s too high, but they are not your clients. Find clients that know what you are worth. You get what you pay for.
    On a separate note, I completely understand wanting all of the digital files. When I’m on the other side of the lens, I want them all, and (knowing what goes into creating them) I will happily pay for them.

  21. Bogdan at 3:25 pm

    Wake up and smell the digital second decade of the twenty first century coffee. This attitude is what has turned most professional labs against us, the pro photographer. When one turns around a $5 print into a $50 sale to make a living, two things happen (if you’re not Buissink or something) you won’t be able to sell it (or if you still do, enjoy it for the short time while it still lasts) because it is a simple commodity and the client knows that. The second is, your lab does not sell either so he has to close down or, in order to survive, bypass you completely and offer their services directly to YOUR client. Unless you are in a very well defined niche (and chances are you’re not if you’re having time to read this) you cannot command the same premium over the products you’re NOT directly providing same as 10 years ago. The ONLY product your client can get exclusively from you, it’s YOU. Your talent and your time. You have full control over that because you have a monopoly over your talent and time and your client can’t get that anywhere else. If not, guess what, your talent becomes a commodity too. Welcome to the race to the bottom… let’s see who gets there first. Like it or not the current model IS digital, it has been forced on us by this onslaught of cheap everything and it’s been here a while. Embrace it, learn to use it in your advantage. Or find another job (good luck with that too ! )

  22. Desmond Rodgers at 8:21 am

    I understand where a lot of the pro’s are coming from. You want to control what your buying public has access to and how your Brand is portrayed. I wonder if any of you are offering proof books or online galleries for clients to review/purchase prints from later?
    The reality is, we live in a digital world and people are going to display their photos digitally, whether you like it or not! You’re precious glycee archival framed gold plated masterpiece can easily be photographed with a cell phone and posted to the World Wide Web! There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it!
    Files are just another product. Plain and Simple. You can even start to sell people print sized files- 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, 16×20 etc.. if that makes you feel better. LOL! Never offer unedited files, just charge for every file you offer. No one should be monitoring the number of pictures on the back of your camera, so when you offer ALL the files, it’s only the files you want to offer.
    If you don’t offer files, have a damn good reason! Not just because you’re worried about making profit off the prints. I’m more disgusted by the idea of gouging for prints than any client asking for originals! How do you call yourself a professional photographer and try to make all your money off prints? That must be Old School thinking. Get it up front and give them whatever product they want!
    I’ve sold $50 downloads (shocked the hell out of me when it happened), but the guy bought three downloads of his kids. $150 with no extra work? I was juiced and my eyes were opened to the reality of the digital product. I can’t stress off who’s not coming to me because of those pictures. I’m too busy building a stronger relationship with him, his family and his friends.
    Welcome to the 21st century!

  23. Brenda at 5:31 pm

    Interesting comments and perspectives. As a photographer that does not sell digital files, except for professional headshots (and then they are $195 per image, no larger than 8×10 with a full print release), I have no issues with my model, which is profitable, and neither do my clients. I believe there is room for both Holiday Inn and Ritz Carlton approaches in this market. I am fine with consumers who want the option to stay at Holiday Inn and not my Ritz Carlton Hotel. I have stayed at both depending on the objectives of my trip. In my business, I have chosen to offer Ritz Carlton service. My clients come to me because of the wonderful experience they have…it is not just about the photos. I help them to decorate their home with personal Signature Artwork custom designed for them. I provide them with Facebook images of anything they order. When I see arguments about what a rip off it is to a consumer to charge $50 for a print that costs much less, I have to disagree. When you do a renovation on your home, the bulk of the expense is not in the cost of materials, it is in the labor. It is the same with prints. I love to share photos digitally just like everyone else. I am the first to pull out my iPhone at a party. I love digital technology….that’s why I offer low res files to my clients so they can share them. But, as long as there are walls in homes, I will continue to offer my clients Signature Artwork and an awesome photography experience…..and at a profit. No apologies from me for that.

  24. Ippbx at 11:30 pm

    The second is, your lab does not sell either so he has to close down or, in order to survive, bypass you completely and offer their services directly to YOUR client. Unless you are in a very well defined niche and chances are you’re not if you’re having time to read this you cannot command the same premium over the products you’re NOT directly providing same as 10 years ago

  25. Cardan shaft Manufacturers at 2:22 am

    As a manufacturer i can not allow any other one in my field to come and copy something which i have taken a lot of time to study and design. so everyone should pay something as a value whether it is photograph, digital files or any intangible product. but the photography is an art, for which requires an idea and imagination to shoot a pic and keeping digital files of this is very important for anyone belongs to that kind of art. not this much it require emotions and desires too to do something that is unique and valuable. why we provide our valuable assets to other for copying and reselling only because they want to share it on facebook and i dont know what other are.
    the post creates an awareness for others to don’t sell their talent or art for any thing, because it truly come from heart. Great post….

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