What is a RAW photo and why are togs so touchy about them?
If you were to go to a baker and ask them for cake batter, they'd probably look at you funny. When you ask a photographer for his or her RAW format photos, you are sort of asking for the same thing. The ingredients are all there, and they've even been mixed up, but there's still a lot of work to be done and the artist isn't in the business of providing ingredients. Their brand, reputation, and pride are all baked into the end product.
A camera RAW image file is much larger than a jpeg and contains more data in the shadows and highlights- allowing the photographer to capture more data on their memory card. It takes up more space and requires more work, but we can really choose how the image will look instead of allowing our camera to decide. To use the baker analogy again (so I like cake, don't hate), shooting in jpeg is kind of like buying a box mix and shooting in RAW is like buying flour, sugar, eggs, butter, etc. It's a lot more work- but if you know what you're doing, you can create exactly what you want. Furthermore, because RAW files preserve more of the details, if we mess up an exposure a little, it might be salvageable.
However, the data is not ready to be printed or viewable without special software. When a RAW image is first viewed, the colors are muted and the image lacks contrast and pop. Accordingly, the only reason a person needs RAW format photos is because they intend to edit the image differently than how the photographer delivered it.
This makes any photographer who has really invested in editing squirm. As an artist, we feel hurt- were the images not to your liking? As a business owner, we feel nervous. Are you going to post the images as-is, or worse, edit the images in a manner inconsistent with our style and mislead potential clients? Inconsistency can cause a photographer future business.
The edits featured here were captured pretty well in-camera, so the edits are minimal and clean. That's my style. Other photographers could take the same image and produce something totally different- muted and softened or drastic and edgy. But I am not trying to land every possible wedding. I am only looking to work with couples who are drawn to my portfolio- accordingly, it's super important to present a consistent look, so clients know what to expect.
However, it is important to note that these are not the only reasons most photographers will not give clients the RAW images. It's also about providing a positive customer experience. I worked hard to move away from a shoot and burn process. There's nothing wrong with that business structure, but I take a lot of pride in providing a high end experience where I assist clients every step of the way, taking care to make the process simple and enjoyable. Part of that process is culling, the process of removing images that are not suitable for an album or prints.
My clients trust me to discern a good photo from one that should be left on the cutting room floor. And frankly, most of my clients don't have the time to sift through the 500 images I take an hour, many of which are duplicates or eye blinks. Instead of sitting down to enjoy a curated gallery of beautiful images, it would become a major chore to choose which images should be kept. So it's actually a value to have a photographer who takes care to present a clean, edited gallery in lieu of a sea of RAWs.
None of this is to scold any one who has asked for RAWs, but rather to try and explain why photographers are so touchy about the subject! I've never had a client ask for RAWs yet, but I know from friends that it happens every day. We're a sensitive bunch, but if there's some disconnect between your expectations and what we deliver, we owe you an explanation! So just know that we aren't trying to hold out on you, but rather are working hard to deliver you the cream of the crop and protect our brand in the process.
Claire Watson is a Wedding & Lifestyle Photographer based in Martinsburg, WV; she serves clients in West Virginia, Northern Virginia, and Maryland.