Digital Files vs. Prints: What should the clients really get?

One of the age old debates in the retail portrait photography business is the decision to offer clients the digital files or physical prints. The problem is usually presented in such a way forcing you to take sides. Usually as if it’s an extension of your good name and honor.

For those that don’t really know what this is all about, let me quickly summarize. Traditionally, in the days of film, photographers only offered prints. Facebook didn’t exist and scanning negatives didn’t really have a point. Heck you could always get re-prints from the photographer later on. Everyone bought prints from their photographer and a photographer would never give the clients the negatives.

Today with digital photography being the norm and the proliferation of social media in our lives, people want to share their photos online. It’s just part of our culture now. Clients love it because their professional photos really standout against all the selfies on Facebook. Photographers don’t like it because it’s both a loss of print sales and frankly they know better. The absolute best way to see a photograph is printed, framed and hung on a wall. Some photographers have taken to calling the high resolution files “Digital Negatives” as a way to connect them with the film negatives of yore. Remember, the negatives the photographer would never give to a client.

Clients will tell me they will get images printed themselves, but after the excitement on Facebook wears off and life carries on. The prints get forgotten. The images sit on a CD in your drawer and that is often the last time they’re ever seen. Hopefully that disc doesn’t get lost or their hard drive doesn’t crash. I’ve seen it happen.

As a photographer, do you sell prints exclusively and do all the heavy lifting convincing your clients that prints are what they really want or do you compromise and let the clients take the CD and let the images go unprinted and fade into memory?

When a client hears a photographer say they only offer prints, they hear, “You can’t share your photos with your family online.” When a photographer hears a client say they want a CD with the digitals they hear, “I don’t want to buy prints from you because I can do it myself more cheaply at Walmart.”

Clients need to know that the photographer just wants you to fully enjoy the photos you’ve created together. By getting them printed and putting them on display in your home or office, you get to see the photos everyday. The prints will be printed at a professional photo lab and will last for 100 years.

Photographers need to know that when a client asks for a CD, usually they just want to share their photos online. They aren’t trying to steal from you and they aren’t too cheap to buy prints.

##Offer Both Prints and Digitals
Recently, what I’ve done is offer “Facebook size” files with every print order. They aren’t what are commonly referred to as low-resolution files. They still look great on a big monitor, only they aren’t suitable for printing. They get to go home and hang that museum quality 20×30 canvas print of their family on the wall and they get to show it off on Facebook. This is in addition to seeing 4×6 proof prints of each pose at the viewing and having the images available online in a gallery.

Once in a while, I will get a savvy client that knows their way around a camera who requests the original high-resolution files for a project. Instead of flat rejecting them, I will still allow the sales of these images, but I will take into account the value of those files and quote accordingly.

This speaks to a bigger issue of properly valuing your photos and products and making them available to your clients. You will not stay in business if you hold an old-school mentality and forbid clients from getting a CD. They can easily go and find another photographer that will happily do it. So sell the products that you clients really want make sure they are given a price that matches their real value.

PS. Have you ever had your pictures printed on metal? I could sit here and tell you how vivid and amazing they are, but you have to really lay your eyes on them yourself. It definitely my favorite print medium.

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