Professional RAW Files - Why Would a Client Request These?

January 12, 2016

It is rare but sometimes I get asked to deliver my "RAW" files. These are the digital data files I capture during a professional shoot and before any post processing. Most professionals (I'd guess 99.9% of them and me included) won't deliver these files or won't deliver them except in extraordinary circumstances. Why is this?

There are many good reasons why it makes sense NOT to deliver RAW files but before I tackle this question, we need to understand what a RAW file is.  A RAW file is not an image in itself. It is simply digital data captured by the millions of picture elements on the camera sensor. In reality it is just computer code - a series of 1's and 0's. The RAW file does not become an image until it is processed by a Camera Raw Converter (software like Photoshop and others) and this processor needs to interpret the data and assign other values like a "White Balance", sharpening, contrast etc. before an image can be produced. Now a camera phone and many consumer cameras won't deliver RAW files - they instead immediately convert the RAW data and process it in the camera according to a lot of inbuilt automatic parameters created by those clever blokes in white coats who manufactured the camera. In this process the RAW data is compressed and altered in a permanent manner. Technology has advanced to a point where these images will generally look pretty good but there will be quite a few "misses" and even the best images are not "professional" quality.

The skill and expertise of a professional photographer in this digital era is both in the image capture (the composition, the lighting, the creative thinking and many other factors aligned to achieve the desired result) AND it is also in the the post production. The two cannot be successfully separated. A pro camera and modern RAW files will capture an amazing amount of data but viewing devices and prints can only display a limited portion of this data. Thus the photographer's interpretation of this RAW data is critical. Indeed in many cases, part of the image capture process will be to capture the raw data with a pre-conceived post production technique already in the photographer's mind. For example; an image may be deliberately over or under exposed in order to bring out fine detail in shadows or highlights.  More commonly, the photographer will capture a series of exposures of the one scene with the intention of later combining or layering parts of each image into a final composite exposure (see sample images below).

Therefore, it is often important for the person doing (or overseeing) the post production to have been at the shoot. If the post producer was not at the shoot they will miss many clues - like correct colour for one thing or what the real purpose or focus point for the image capture was in the first place. Thus, in many situations, a post producer not present at the shoot, will misinterpret the final image. This is a big risk for both the photographer's reputation - to be judged on a final result he has no control over - and for the client, who is very likely to end up with images that do not do justice to his/her original brief and may very well not be fit for the purpose.

Many clients do not appreciate that a lot of the photographer's post production work is not simply technical changes (i.e. colour, tone etc.) but can often be creative and artistic in nature e.g. decisions/actions to soften, blur, darken or lighten specific areas for a desired impact or emotional response.

There are numerous other reasons why a photographer will not want to deliver raw files but these are the big ones for me.  A new client generally chooses me based on samples of my finished images and visual style - my RAW files look nothing like my finished work (see samples below).  I always take as much time as possible to talk to my clients and clearly understand what they are trying to convey through photography.  Once this is done, if you want a professional image, then they have to let their photographer have control of both the capture and the post processing decisions. To me, these duties are inseparable and both are of equal importance in delivering the final professional quality image.

Sample of RAW file imagesSample RAW filesShot with deliberate intention to under-expose (to preserve bright window light details), then to be "stitched" together into a single image (see next image). Without post production, these images look dark and ugly. The photographer's (my) vision here would be easy to miss. Final interpretation from two raw file exposuresThe Finished ImageThis is how I interpreted and combined the two RAW files (above). This image could have been interpreted very differently or if only the RAW files had been delivered, probably the client would have over-looked these files entirely