What Do You Do When Clients Ask For Raw Images?

What happens if your client ask for the raw images that they had commissioned you to capture? Do you bundle them together with the finished images? Insist that you only deliver the finished images? Or do you simply just deliver the raw images, and let them sort out the post-production work on their own?

Raw Window
Raw Image Window On Adobe Photoshop CS6

This is a very real scenario that professional photographers face on a regular bases. Especially so when dealing with not-so-professional clients. It’s not exactly a clean-cut question, since the client is actually paying you to produce (capture) the image. So does the client “own” the image as a whole? Or is the client only paying for the finished image, complete with all the post-production and editing work?

And even more importantly, will delivering the unfinished work-of-art to the client (or anybody else for that matter) affect your reputation as a professional photographer?

What Is A Raw Image?

Before we proceed any further, let us ponder upon what exactly is a raw image? And what is the difference between a raw image and its finished counterpart?

Let us go back to the days of film photography, particularly the negative film (print) photography. After having exposed the image on the film, you will take the exposed film to be developed. The development of the film is a pretty long and complex process. The end result, is a negative image that is “fixed” onto the film base.


This negative image is the raw material that you use to produce the finished product – the positive photo. This negative image (colloquially known as the negative) contains the full visual information of the image captured. The only difference is that it is in reversed colour (hence the name negative).

This negative is then used to be exposed onto a photo sensitive paper (“printed” onto photo paper), and then developed just like the film. During this “printing” process, the image is tweaked and adjusted (light density and colour balance) to produce a visually “better” finished image.

Henceforth, the finished product here is the printed photo paper, and the raw image (master copy) is the negative. Now, you never give your master copy to the client, only the finished photo paper. Likewise, you never give your raw digital image to the client, only the finished image (.jpg format).

Digital Problems For The Digital Era

The problem with digital photography is that you can easily duplicate any file. Thus, clients have the misconception that you can easily duplicate the raw image digital file. Yes, you can duplicate your master copy, but would you want to ruin your reputation by delivering the original image to the client?

Compare Small
Left – Unfinished raw image. Right – Finished product.

As you can see from the comparative images above, the raw image looks rather drab and underwhelming. The finished product, on the other hand, is exactly what the client had in mind when they commissioned you to capture it. So do you deliver only what the client paid you for, or do you also throw in a duplicate of your master copy as well?


In the wrong hands, a finished product derived from the same raw image can look horribly ugly!… Like an artistic oil painting that had been thrown in together with the laundry, washed, bleached, and spun-dry… Do you want to be referred to as the photographer who captured THAT image?… Do you even want to be associated in any way to THAT image at all?…

Raw Image

Above is a .jpg version of the raw image. Note that the actual raw image cannot be displayed without a proper raw image decoder (unique to each the different brands of the cameras that is used to capture the images). Yes, it looks pretty underwhelming. But beneath all that overly drab look is a treasure chest full of digital visual information. And yes, it’s a humongous file size…


Now THIS is what the finished image should ultimately look like. With all of the unnecessary visual image details removed, and the underlying visual quality enhanced, the finished product is a pretty lightweight file too.

Image Post-Production Vs. Image Editing

This is yet another confusing comparison that many people (i.e. photographers, image editors, and just about anybody in the visual and graphics design field) lose sleep arguing over.

Let me make this clear ~ Post-Production and Editing are two totally different animals altogether.

Post-production is the tweaking of the visual information that is made available in the raw image file. You make subtle, but overall changes to the image, like overall exposure value, brightness, contrast, highlight, shadow, light temperature, colour tint, etc. The wonderful thing about tweaking the post-production work is that the full visual information made available in the original raw file is untouched. You can still come back to it, and make different tweaks later if necessary.

Editing is the work that you do after you have “fixed” the working image from the post-production stage. Editing can be effects made onto the overall image (macro) as well as to the localised portions of the image (micro). Work like lightening eye-bags or crow’s feet, erasing facial moles and pimples, “hiding” some visual details, and maybe even adding something onto the image that wasn’t part of the original image.

One of the biggest difference is that editing on the working image essentially changes the original image. So unless you have a saved copy pre-editing, any changes that you make onto the working image will change the image irreversibly.

So Back To The Original Question

What would you do when the client ask for the raw image?… If you ask me (or any other practicing professional photographer), there is no way that the client will get their dirty hands on the pristine, unprocessed raw images. At the very most, I will throw in an ultra-high resolution TIFF image to them, but never the unprocessed raw image.

Food for thought – Would you walk into a 5-Michelin Star Restaurant, and ask the chef to deliver the raw chicken in addition to the Chicken Cordon Bleu you just ordered off the menu?

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