Why professional photographers don’t like to sell digital images

Why do photographers charge so much for digital files?  Why won’t “ABC Photography” sell me my digital files?  These are questions I hear pretty often.  Admittedly, I have asked them myself before I became a professional photographer.  Now that I’ve been on both sides of this issue, I’m here to shed some light on this subject and hopefully give all of you a better understanding of why these coveted files are so carefully safeguarded by professional photographers.

First, I will start off by saying that when you receive a disc with digital images on it, it’s not just a cheap disc with digital images on it.  It IS a quality disc and it DOES have digital files on it, but there is a ton of time, expertise, expense and work put into each and every file you receive.  In a typical 2-3 hour session, there can be more than 8-12 hours of work related to just that session.  I will delve into the time and cost of everything in another blog post if anyone is interested, but right now I’m going to focus on the 5 main reasons for the cost associated with a digital file.


1.       The time and expense of creating those files.  If you are paying a $200 session fee for a 2 hour session, this does not mean that the photographer is making $100 an hour.  Instead, break down that $200 by the typical 8-12 hours it takes to complete a session and it’s more like $20 an hour, which is really not much when you think about a typical hourly salary. 

2.       We are professionals and our goal is deliver high-quality fine art pieces for you to see and enjoy for years to come.  We prefer that our clients and their families SEE their images displayed somewhere in their home and not sitting in a media cabinet only to collect dust or be posted on Facebook for a short time and be lost in the social media abyss.  We strive to create timeless works of art, capturing pieces of your family life, those magical things about your child that make them who they are.  These are not just digital files to us, they are precious moments of time that you don’t get back.

3.       Photographers have no quality-control once the disc is in the client’s hands.  Professional photographers work with quality labs and we calibrate our color ranges with that of our lab’s in order to deliver the proper color and exposure in your photos.  These labs print on gallery-quality papers and apply protective sprays on our photos to ensure that the photos will stand the test of time.  When I release my files to a client on a disc, I run the risk of having my name attached to a photo that doesn’t represent my quality of work because the skin tones might be completely off, a crop performed by a client might screw up the composition of the photo or a black and white rendition ends up flat and boring.  By allowing clients to print wherever they want, we are allowing clients to change a photo from the way we, as artists, intended it.  It’d be like buying a painting and then painting over it in parts. 

4.       Expertise – I know, everyone rolls their eyes when they see “session fee covers time and talent of photographer only,” but it really is true.  It takes tons of time, training and creative vision to be a professional photographer.  There is a huge misconception out there that if you have a great camera, you can shoot great photos.  Not true!  You have to know how to use it in EVERY type of situation (not to mention all the other accompanying equipment).  A bit like having all the tools and ingredients to make a gourmet meal, but not have the recipe and the techniques required to make it.  How many times have we spent a pretty penny on one dinner that a professional chef created?  No, photography is not something you can afford every day, but it’s well worth it once or twice a year to capture those fleeting moments that pass us by so quickly, don’t you think?

5.       Finally, we need to make a living.  If we don’t charge well for a digital image, we lose income we could have made from the purchase of a print or product of that image.  Professional photography is a business, just like any other.  We are feeding families, paying mortgages, bills, baby-sitters, and many, many business expenses as well.  We need to make a profit somewhere and we can’t give our services away cheaply.  Those new or beginning photographers that do, quickly go out of business or raise their prices once they understand the cost related to each session.

Photographers are doing their best to come up with new ways to explain to their clients that digital images are not all they’re cracked up to be.  We really want you to have a wonderful experience and then have proof of that experience that you can walk past everyday on the walls of your home – something should be hung on your walls, right?  That is our main goal.

Now, having said all that, I do understand that we live in a digital/tech savvy world where every phone has internet capabilities, and apps, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and instagrams are a regular way of life.  Sharing photos online is an easy and fun way to connect with friends and family, especially those who live far away.  Most photographers will relinquish control and sell digital images, but again…they do so for a hefty price.

Feel free to call us about our digital file policy at Cianne Mitchell Photography.  We’re happy to answer any questions you may have.  Yes, we do offer digital images 🙂

4 thoughts on “Why professional photographers don’t like to sell digital images

  1. What would you advise? Photographer, nice guy, took photos of my kid for publication in a program for a nonprofit organization, free of charge. He got some really nice shots, once in a life time pictures. I asked if I could purchase some of them. He know finances are tight for us and said he would give me some, but declined to let me buy them. At the request of the organization, he tweaked some of them in photoshop and added special effects. Unfortunately his photoshop skills aren’t as good as his photography skills and he made some glaring mistakes. I’m an amatuer photographer and use photoshop in my work and have much better PS skills than he does. He gave me jpeg files of the few “edited” photos he gave the organization (I think the organization wishes they wouldn’t have asked him to tweak them). However I really want some of the other photos he took and the unedited version of some of the photos he gave me. I have repeatedly ask if I could please buy some of the unedited photos, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in selling or giving them to me. I know he spent a lot of time on the photos editing them and only seems to be interested in allowing his special effects photos to be released. I am broken hearted, knowing these great unique photos of my son exsist, but I can’t obtain them, only a few of the ruined ones. I know many photographers want to control the image and not sell data files, but it seems that the subject of the photo (or their parents) should have some say too. Any ideas on how to convince him to sell me some of the unedited ones? He’s a nice guy and I don’t want to upset him, but I really want those pictures.

    • Hi Lena,
      Let me start out by saying I’m sorry that you are upset about the photos of your son. I know how difficult it must be to not be able to acquire the photos you wish for. Also, I need to ask if you signed a contract of any kind when the photographer took the photos.

      It sounds to me like the photographer doesn’t want to sell the photos because he wants full control over what is publicly seen and representative of his style of work. His editing was done to HIS taste as the artist, and although it is undesirable to you, the edited versions are what he has intended to make public.

      Many times when a photographer hosts a free session in order to acquire images for his/her portfolio or other endeavor, they do that in order to have complete creative control over what the final images look like. Whenever money is exchanged, there is a higher expectation and a loss of control over the creative vision. Plus, they usually have a contract or model release stating that the images may be used for any public or personal use, and the client relinquishes rights to those images.

      Now, that being said, I’m wondering if you sent him a heartfelt email explaining that you preferred the first version of the photos you saw and not the overly edited ones, if he might be inclined to send you a few.

      I’m no lawyer, so I don’t know the specific avenues you could take if any, and I don’t know all the details here, but I’m sure a kind email and explanation of your feelings might get you a little further than you think.

      Good luck!

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