Why Won’t My Wedding Photographer Provide RAW Files?

When I meet couples for the first time and woo them with my charm, sparkling wit and repartee (hey, I don’t like to boast), they occasionally ask me, “Dan, will you give us the RAW files from the wedding?”, to which my reply is (in the nicest way possible), “No! Who on earth do you think you are?! It’s almost as if you’re paying me to photograph your wedding….oh…”

In all seriousness, I’m one of those photographers who doesn’t give RAW files away to my couples. First of all, let’s answer the obvious question for those who don’t know…

What are RAW files?

Simply put, they’re digital negatives. RAW files are the exact representation of what the camera “sees”, or rather what the camera sensor sees. It’s a bit like an unprocessed film before you take it to Boots (ah, those were the days…) To put it another way, consumer cameras (point and shoots, smartphones etc) shoot in a file format called JPEG (which I’m sure you’ve heard of), and as a rule point they process this JPEG before you see it on screen or download it, applying contrast, saturation, sharpness etc.

So why won’t I give you RAW files?

1) They’re enormous

Okay, this excuse is becoming less valid as digital storage becomes cheaper by the year, but it’s still a consideration. My camera outputs RAW files at just over 20mb in size, whereas a processed JPEG weights in at around 6mb (give or take the odd megabyte here and there). If you really want a photographer to give you RAW files, make sure you have plenty of storage space.

2) Signature style

When I return home from a wedding, the first thing I do is upload all the RAW files to my computer to back them up. I’ll then open Lightroom and start processing them.

So what does this involve?

Basically I’ll tweak the file in a number of ways, using my creative vision to produce a visually pleasing photo in my own creative style. This may involve bumping the shadows up a bit, adding contrast, saturating or desaturating the image, sharpening, taming the highlights a little…it all depends on the original photograph, but I edit all RAW files in a similar fashion to produce a consistently pleasing result.

In a way it’s a bit like your favourite music producer working on a record. For example, my Dad loves ELO and Jeff Lynne. When you hear a record produced by Jeff (such as ELO or Travelling Wilburys) it’s been produced in his signature style, and you can hear it’s been produced by him.

It’s the same with my photographs; I develop and process them in my own signature style. You may love them (hopefully) or you may not, but it all ties in with my brand, how I wish to present my work and the service I offer all my clients.

Take a photographer such as Anton Corbijn. Okay, he shoots with film which is slightly different, but can you honestly say his work is an accurate visual representation of the band / artist he photographed, and is exactly what he saw at the time with his own eyes?

Going back to the music analogy, a band would never release an album of “raw” sound files that haven’t been mixed or mastered in some way. When you listen to a commercial CD, each guitar / vocal / bass part has had some sort of processing applied, whether it’s reverb (to create a sense of space), compression (to make it consistently louder) or panned left or right (so it sits comfortably in the mix). Why should photographs be any different?

3) The camera sometimes lies

Modern digital cameras are incredible, let’s face it. However, my eyes are far more advanced than the best camera in the world, and can see details, shadows, light and form far better than a camera ever will. Various research has been done on how much detail the human eye can see, but it’s estimated to be around 576 megapixels. Compare that with the iPhone 7 that records visual images at 8 megapixels.

Some photographers argue that “a RAW file is an accurate representation of a subject or scene”. I’d argue that it isn’t, as a camera can’t “see” anywhere near as much detail as my eyes can. When I process a photograph I’m not only enhancing the image, I’m pushing it closer to what I originally saw through the viewfinder (in my own creative style, as mentioned above).

However, who’s to say my eyes are seeing the scene correctly? When I process a RAW file, I’m doing so partly from memory. It may be hours or even days since I captured the original photograph, so can my memory of that particular scene be relied upon? When I view a sunset for example, who’s to say I’m seeing the exact same colour and textures as you?

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