Digital Negatives

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September 21, 2010

Photographers often get asked for digital files of their photos from clients.  Not a bad idea, when you think about.  It’s super convenient for the client, and frees the photographer up from dealing with printing.  Usually, people just want to share photos on facebook or use them for a fun background or screensaver on their computer.  And some will even want to print their own photos to save a few extra bucks.  However, in my experience, this almost never happens. Life is busy, and it’s easy to move on to the next thing and forget about your photos.  Sounds crazy, but I will confess that even I haven’t printed any of my wedding photos from over 2 years ago, and I have no real excuse.

But the bigger problem is usually when people actually do print them – you go to the local one-hour photo or maybe Walgreens, and you get your 5×7, and you look at it, and it looks terrible.  And all you can think of is all that money you shelled out for a photographer, and all you have to show for it is this crappy print from Walgreens.  But wait a minute!  Chill out folks, and let me explain what’s happening in this situation. It’s actually pretty simple and straightforward.

Basically, unless specified in your contract, more often than not when you purchase digital images, you are purchasing what is called the digital negative. Think back to the film days – you had a negative of each print.  These negatives are like a master – you can always make more prints from this negative if you desired.  Lose the negative, and you lose potential future prints.  It’s the same deal with digital negatives.  They are the digital master copy of each proof and print.

Okay, but then why does my print from this special master digital negative look so bad?  The proofs online looked good! What happened? Since the digital negative is the master, it is never edited.  The proofs you see online are edited copies, or renderings, of the original digital negative.  Essentially, a digital negative is what photographers call SOOC – straight out of camera.  No retouching, color correcting, or editing.

You might be wondering, then, why some photographers charge so much for digital negatives or digital files and print releases.  When you really think about it, you’re purchasing the opportunity to make unlimited prints of a negative for personal use.  That’s a HUGE amount of potential prints lost by the photographer.  Plus, when you translate it back to the film days, the comparison is even more extreme – you’d need to have darkroom equipment and the processing know-how to print your own photos, which is pretty technical.  Digital editing is no different.

When you purchase digital negatives or files, you’re assuming creative control of the negatives that represent someone else’s work.  That’s a fairly significant risk to a photographer’s style and reputation if a client runs off with the negatives and edits them terribly, and then when a friend asks who took the pictures, the friend just remembers the terrible print they saw and associates it with the photographer.  I’m not saying this always happens, but it does from time to time.  Some photographers don’t release digital negatives for this very reason, and some only release edited images, and at a pretty steep price.  There’s obviously advantages and disadvantages to both.

There are more reasons why prints at your one hour photo or Walgreens or whatever look less than stellar – we’ll get into that next time 🙂

And just a note – I release digital negatives in some packages, and release edited retouched digital files for a separate fee.

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