Raw Files: Why You Don't Want Them

 You don't want your photographer to give you the raw files.

In recent years, photography clients have begun asking photographers for the raw files. I’m not sure exactly why are when this trend started, but more than likely, you don’t want the raw files.

What is a raw file?

Digital cameras, or at least the “high end” ones such as used by photographers, tend to produce one of two types of files. There are jpegs—sometimes seen as "jpgs (as an aside, this stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group,” the name of the committee that developed the format)—and raw files (sometimes seen as “RAW,” although it’s not an acronym or initialism. Raw files come in different varieties, usually varying according to camera manufacturer. For example, raw files on Canon cameras are CR2 files, and raw files from Nikons are NEFs.

The best way to explain just what is a raw file is to use a metaphor with film cameras. (You remember film—those sheets of cellulose covered in light-sensitive chemicals?) Anyway, with a film camera, after you exposed a roll of film, you would take it to a drug store, Wal-Mart, etc., and they would develop the film. Along with the finished photos, you would get “negatives,” which was the actual film after it had been processed. Think of a raw file as the exposed film after it came out of the camera.

Back in those days, a photographer or a photo lab technician could take the exposed film, and through different techniques, develop it in various ways to produce an image with a certain look. A raw file is like the exposed, but unprocessed film. It is what the digital camera’s sensor “saw.” A jpg, on the other hand, is closer to the finished photograph.

Now for the reasons you don’t really want the raw files . . .

Raw files don’t look good.

When a photographer says an image is “flat,” they mean it lacks contrast. It needs more “range” between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks.

Raw files also tend to be “flat.” That means they lack contrast. They need more “range” between the brightest whites and the darkest blacks.

 Raw file comparison before and after processing. The "after" is too processed, but I wanted to make sure you could see the difference.

Raw file comparison before and after processing. The "after" is too processed, but I wanted to make sure you could see the difference.

Raw files aren’t finished

Asking for a raw file is equivalent to asking a chef to bring you just the ingredients of a meal. Yes, you may be able to make something out of the pile of starches, vegetables, proteins, etc. the chef hands you, but chances are it won’t be as good.

Similarly, if the average person received raw files from their photographer, they may be able to produce an okay photo with whatever processing software they have. But it takes time to learn how to properly process a digital photo. A photographer is constantly refining their craft and is much better at producing great images than any “one touch” button that may be in an application.

The Contract says finished images

You agreed to accept processed images in the contract. This excludes raw files.
You agreed to accept processed images in the contract. This excludes raw files.

Most photographers will have their clients sign contracts. It’s just good business; it protects both the client and the photographer. The contract may have specified jpg files (or finished files, retouched files, etc.). That would exclude raw files.

It’s bad for the photographer’s brand

I realize this reason doesn’t satisfy the client’s “what’s in it for me” factor, but photographs are a photographer’s final product. They are ultimately what represent him or her to the world. As stated earlier, the raw file isn’t finished. If you release an unfinished product, you have to expect someone will finish it.

Presumably, you chose a photographer because you like their work. You appreciate your vision. When someone else finishes the raw files, those images are no longer the photographer’s vision. I mean, someone could actually use selective color.

Now that you’ve read my reasons why you don’t want raw files, do you still think you want them? Tell me why or why not in the comments.