How do you handle clients that want digital copies of their portraits?

Discussion in 'Business of Photography' started by roxanne_davis, Nov 10, 2012.

  1. Recently, I have encountered some portrait clients that want only want digital copies of their photos and no actual prints. I would like some advice on how to handle this, and how much is reasonable to charge for it if I do it.
    Because of the area I do business in, I can't charge a very high fee for a photo session, so a good portion of my income relies on photo sales. Because I live in a small town, there is a lot of competition for business, and the demand for photographers is not very high so business is slow, and I really need all of the photo sales I can get.
    This is particularly a problem when I do a portrait session for a large family gathering (extended family) as I did recently. After I posted the proofs (I post my proofs on my Zenfolio website so my client can view and purchase them at their leisure), one of the family members contacted me and asked about buying just digital copies of the photos. My policy up to this point has always been that for a fee a client could buy a CD of low resolution watermarked copies of the photos the client orders prints of, but I don't sell just digital copies. In this case, they have not ordered any photos, and if I don't offer digital copies they may not buy any photos at all. They told me they love the photos, and I get the impression that it is a rare occurrence for that many members of their family to get together at once, so it is very puzzling to me that they have not bought any of the photos. The problem is, if I sell digital copies they can easily share them with the rest of the family, and if they are not low resolution and watermarked they can get their own prints made, and no one else in the family would buy any. Even if I tell them that they can't share the photos or have prints made, and to do so would be illegal, that would not deter most people from doing so. So as you can see, it is a big dilemma. Obviously I would be better off selling digital copies than selling no photos at all, but to do so under such circumstances I feel I would have to allow them to only buy a very small number of digital photos and charge a significant fee for them, but I am not even sure what would be reasonable in such a case.
    I would greatly appreciate any advice as to the best way to handle situations like this, and if I do sell just digital copies of the photos, how many photos to allow and what to charge, or any other suggestions you may have.
  2. How about charging 10x the gross profit you make on a paper print for one digital image?
  3. Well that is an idea, but the price I charge is dependent on the size of the photo they order, and I'm not sure what size I would base it on.
  4. Base it on what profit you want to make, for the whole package.

    You're going to find many (most?) customers will want digital copy alongside or instead of physical prints - people like e-mail, facebook,
    personal websites, et al; and that's how they'll want to share their precious moments, especially when their friends and family may be spread
    all round the world. This could be a good opportunity to learn how to survive and thrive in such a market.
  5. The client can just as easily buy an 8x10 print and scan it to get their own digital file.
    I'm not sure there's an easy answer. The client might perceive it as double dipping if you're already charging for the session to acquire the digital images, but if your argument is that you're recovering processing time by selling prints and a client doesn't want hard copies, then you might consider another category of "packages" that caters to clients who only want digital files. Maybe based on incremental image resolutions.
  6. If you were working back in film days this is like them asking to buy the negatives. My answer would be "no." If a client said ahead of any shoot they wanted to purchase the negatives I would quote a cost to them of -- oh, maybe a typical shoot. In other words they would have to pay a fee equal to a predetermined number of print sales plus sitting and regular fees. And there would be an extra stiff fee for releasing the negatives.
    The simple answer is to say "no" that you sell prints not digital copies. There will always be clients who want to get your work on the cheap. You need to put a decent value on your time and effort. That's what a professional does.
    If you need a new frabberjob for your car engine do you ask the mechanic to loan you the tools so you can do the work yourself in his shop? He'd run you out of the joint.
  7. do you ask the mechanic to loan you the tools so you can do the work yourself in his shop? He'd run you out of the joint.​

    I don't think that's a good analogy to someone asking to buy a digital file.
    A successful business is one which supplies the customer with what they want at a price they are happy to pay. A business which tries to dictate to its customers what they should be buying will soon find they have no customers.
    If people are requesting digital files then you have two choices: 1. Give them what they want. 2. Let them go elsewhere.
  8. Shockingly few people want prints these days. Well, it's only shocking the first few times you run into the issue, and then you realize it's the new normal.

    So consider including LOW resolution digital images as part of the sitting fee - something that's suitable for them to pass around by email and to post on social media sites. These should tastefully include your logo. High resolution image files, suitable for printing, are something that you'd price separately, about like you would an 8x10. Understand that making money from the whole family buying prints is fading rapidly as a business model. It's simply going to end, and already has done so, years ago, in most larger markets. Honestly, I'm kind of surprised that this is just now presenting itself to you. It won't go away.
  9. Yes, do listen to Smith and build a giant business purveying crappy copies. You'll get one heck of a reputation in your community. Why not just buy a Holga with light leaks?
  10. You'll get one heck of a reputation in your community.​
    Even if the effect were as real and widespread as this portrays, it won't matter if one is out of business in the first place for trying to sell things customers don't want. Roxanne's model may work fine. I don't know. It won't be a surprise, however, for this issue to increase in intensity as time goes by.
    As to the question Roxanne asked, it might be explained that hi rez digital files are not offered so that the best price for the shoot itself can be given while allowing individual customers choices to fit their needs. If I provided hi-rez images for customers to share, I would have had to charge (whoever paid) a lot more. Then suddenly but subtlety change the subject to that customer's needs or desires as to what they will like to do with the imagery and talk a sale to fit that criteria as much as possible.
  11. I would think about it in the following way.
    1. What was my profit (sales-cost of goods sold) for the last year for portrait sessions?
    2. How many portrait sessions did I do in the last year?
    3. Divide profit (#1) by number of sessions (#2) and this provide how much money you made specifically out of an individual portrait session.
    4. I would then offer a digital package that includes the digital files that is 120% higher than the number from #3 and add to that the costs related to the generation of the digital files for the client.
    In this approach you don't have to worry about how many prints they make, etc, because that will all be reflected in your calculation.
    For my business, I charge a fixed session fee which compensations me for my time and expenses related to the digital files. I came to this number using the approach described above. I provide all sort of disclaimers about if they print the pictures may or MAY NOT turn out ok. I also offer prints and pretty reasonable prices, because everything that I will likely make is built into the session fee upfront.
    I am in the process of refining this model, but have not finished the modeling.
    I went this route because 99% of my clients want the digital files whether or not they want prints from me.
  12. build a giant business purveying crappy copies​
    Why do they need to be crappy copies? They can be full resolution, post processed files for the customer to print at whatever size is required... or not.
  13. I think, Steve, that he meant the prints the customers print or purchase elsewhere on the cheap may lack quality control such as proper color balance and then the photographer will be blamed out of ignorance. Its a fair issue but I'm not sure the degree to which that will occur is as high as the comment suggests.
  14. Yes, John, you are correct. I advise the client that if they choose to not print thru me, I can not assure them of the quality of the print. Remarkably, many clients get great pictures off of my digital files, and some do not. Depends on where they go.
    For me the model is simple. Charge for the process of photography and avoid profit generated off of prints. It will restore your business to a valuation of what you do that is not dependent on prints and when people realize the value of prints, you have added some additional profit.
    Just a thought.
  15. The thing that is most odd in this case is that when she booked the session, she said "There are lots of family members to take photos of so lots of photo orders for you!", so she obviously intended to order pictures herself, and she is about 60 years old, and the older the customer the more likely they are to want prints in my experience.
  16. It's entirely possible that the lady has younger tech-savvy family members encouraging her to ask for digital files so they can try their hand at (further) tweaking.
  17. Steven, that is good in theory, but in my case I can't charge a higher photo session fee than I already do. If I did, my clients would go elsewhere because there are other good photographers in the area that charge about the same as I do now. By the time I add in my time for editing the photos I'm lucky if I make more than minimum wage.
  18. Roxanne, I am a bit confused so bear with me
    Can you provide numbers for yourself and for your competitors?
    Session Fee?
    How much you/they make on prints?
    If you are saying that your session fee plus print costs are higher than competitor session fee plus print costs, then perhaps you have a problem. But the cost of goods for prints is substantial while the costs of generating a disk with digital files is tiny. You could keep your total the same, take away the prints, provide digital files and make more money. The difference depends on your total sale of prints per session on average and your cost of goods for those sales.
  19. I charge the same or slightly less for my sessions and my prints as other photographers in town who have my level of expertise.
  20. Figure out how much you are making on average in prints (sales minus costs), add to your session fee, and advertise you provide high resolution digital files that clients can print from. You make the same amount of money. Or at least offer that as an option.
    The value add is your expertise in photography and creating great images. Printing use to be were lots and lots of post processing occurred, but today, printing is just that... printing.
    Do you market yourself? Do you have a website?
  21. Yes I have a website:
    I do as much marketing as I am able to. My business does well in the search results for photographers in my town, but it has just been extremely difficult to generate clients.
  22. it


    Clients want digital files, that's the story nowadays. They want their images on their iPads, iPhones, Facebook pages etc. But a lot of photographers don't care that this is what the market wants in the 21st century because they haven't figured out how to make money from selling digital files. I stopped selling prints about 5 years ago and my business took off. I just upped my hourly rate and hand over a certain number of files with each package. If they want more they pay. I average at least a job per day between Oct and early Dec. My hourly rate is now 2X my old day rate.
  23. Charge for your time and expertise, not your prints.
    I'd want digital copies too.
  24. It's entirely possible that the lady has younger tech-savvy family members encouraging her to ask for digital files so they can try their hand at (further) tweaking.​
    Is there something that needs to be fixed? Getting much cheaper prints from the file is the more likely motive.
  25. I'm afraid you need to change your structure: charge high setup fees, and print cheap. They came to you as a big group because it's unlikely Walmart or Penney could do the job, and you have to charge for that. For people without a lot of money to spend these days, your biggest (mine too, also a small town with lots of competition) is the department store and discount store studio, 10x8 print for $19.99.
  26. Roxanne were you around in the film days? I'm not a professional but I know if you wanted to hire a photographer and keep the negatives they charged a lot more. You should set up something like that. Just slip into your contract that you still retain the copy right and what the client is paying for is unrestricted personal use. This situation has been around for decades and there is a solution. If they just want low res images for emailing, FB and so forth then give them really low res images for a nominal fee. Something like 1,000 pixels in the long dimension is plenty.
    John H. is dead on. The client thinks they are clever and wants to pay you $20 and then go to Walmart and print off a bunch of dirt cheap 8x10s. I've found in my line of work being honest is the best policy. You can explain to them that in order for your business to be viable each client has to on average pay a certain amount. Some pay more some pay less depending on their needs. You didn't charge them a big fee for a large group setup. As someone else noted they couldn't get a large setup like that at the Walmart photo studio. You charged them a low set up fee because your model is to make money on the prints. If they just want a one time fee for the "negatives" and no prints then they will have to pay a hefty sum and deal with getting their prints on their own.
    The only problem with the negatives analogy is if you spent a considerable amount of time in post processing images. I heard back in the day sometimes the photographer handed over the negatives at the end of the shoot. Once the shutter was fired that was the last involvement the photographer had with that frame. So you will need to factor your time in post into the cost if it is substantial.
  27. Yes Jeff, I was around in the film days. I do spend considerable time post-production, and I have always depended on selling prints to be compensated for that time. You have made some very valid points, and I definitely need to restructure my business model.
    Up to this point I have always proofed all of the photos that turned out well thinking that it would help me to sell more prints, but it is very time-consuming editing that many RAW files. I think I need to set a low limit on how many photos I will offer as proofs to cut the time I spend in post-production.
  28. it


    My post production time is minimal, but it has taken me a few years to get to this point.
    Do a quick edit on the whole shoot, take all the selects, do a global batch process and add a few tweaks to make them pop. Output lo-res watermarked images and upload a client gallery. This takes less than an hour and I always have at least 100 images in these galleries. Client then makes their selections, and I do final processing only on these images.
    Then send final images via Yousendit. Job is done and paid for. Both sides happy. Some samples from the past few weeks here.
  29. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I have a similar process to Ian although I don't often show 100 photos for this type of shoot. It's not that hard to get a streamlined process once you get the tools down. The thing about pricing is that it is going to be competitive, and not just with other photographers, but with what people can do themselves. Telling them that you aren't making money from prints isn't going to help. The world is changing with the technology, and prints are low value at this point for most consumers. If you don't change, you will get left behind. As Ian said, clients want digital files. Even if only a few of yours do now, that will be different next year.
  30. My father and his father before him were professional photographers with the latter commencing business at the end of WW1. I spent my very younger years in their studio and watching the magic of dodging and burning.
    My father carried on the business until about 1980. he was still using my grandfathers studio 8x10. One had to book weeks ahead for a "sitting". If you Google Image search on "Sidney Riley", you can see lots of the old images scattered amongst the current ones. His wedding and politician sittings were so priceless that the negatives are held in the National Archives.
    What I am getting to is that we live in an age now where the photographer's value is diminished as digital photography. And it is so much faster to produce a good image. I do remember my father telling me that one portrait of quality would cost 200 pounds in 1960s money. The work to produce a quality image might be 3 days in the darkroom and framing etc.
    With this history in mind, one of the ways to get out from under the price-per-image or CD dump is for the Walmart pricing to be replaced with a time charge, as the output is so good these days. So what would you price your time at to make say $75k per year? At 3 billable days a week the hourly rate comes to guess what?....about $75 per hour. Its a useful co-incidence. Is that acceptable in today's market? I think it is where I hear of high end digital photographers charging $3000.
  31. Explaining to this one particular customer why digital files are not availble and presenting in an customer freindly way is helpful because the deal is already done. Ultimately, to sell prints going forward, customers will need to see value. Whether quality, archival, asthetic control, low shoot fee in favor of custom print slection ect, will sway customers, you are in the best position to know or find out.
  32. Picture People is the name of the game where I live along with Sears, Walmart,JC Penney,
    this is a model for what they charge...
    your better than them! charge a little more and charge according to how many files you take on the shoot, they normally don't take all that many.
  33. You are in competition with the Wal-marts, K-marts, Sears, et al., photo studios. If they elect to 'add one digital image on a CD' as part of the package sold, the customer is happy, happy, happy.
    Next, you are asked the same option ... giving up a digital (more or less) print.
    You have to decide if you want to go down that road or not.
    Once the digital image is released, you have no control of where it goes next...
    Good luck!
  34. This is the Facebook age. People want electronic copies of their photos, ALL of their photos, they want to upload them, and they are going to upload them then minute that they receive them. This is the new normal. If you refuse to give the client what they want, i.e. the ability to upload their photos, be prepared for some negative word of mouth.
  35. You guys should study from Sarah Petty. She has many videos out there you can watch/listen to for free. She also has courses you can enroll in. She does not sell a single digital file EVER! I believe she watermarks low res images that she can give clients for Facebook and blogs, but that's it. She focuses on selling wall portraits. I mean, hey, you wouldn't commission a painter for a beautiful oil painting on canvas, then ask for the digital file would you? Photography is art. And until photographers start saying ,"No." people will continue to ask.
    Also Sarah focuses her market on the high end. If someone wants a cheap photographer that will give them the digitals, she WANTs them to go elsewhere. Aim high!
  36. This is the Facebook age. People want electronic copies of their photos, ALL of their photos, they want to upload them, and they are going to upload them then minute that they receive them.​
    Not to be hypercritical but taking this approach will put you out of business... and fast. If you plan on running your business as a business and not as a part-time hobby the follow this advice. If you run it as a business, and it sounds like you try to, do not cave in to "the new normal". This is simply advice from people with no business experience that saturate the market with bad advice and no real experience.

    Many of you have offered sound advice and a few even have experience with film so their advice is priceless. Even if you shoot digital, I happen to use both, treat your digital files as digital negatives. This is what they are referred to as if you are doing any work digital RAW files are adjustable RGB files that allow one to manipulate the digital data before processing in photoshop. Time is money and while one can automate the process everything needs to be considered in pricing from time, to cost of equipment, to even all overhead.

    An excellent video to watch can be found here...

    I work in commercial advertising, magazines, fine art and commercial work and I am always aware of my bottom line whenever I do work. Like you, I work in a market where if one throws a stone you hit ten photographers. Be smart and do what others suggest - elevate yourself above the fray and never give anything away for free. I don't know about you but I want to eventually retire from the business.
  37. I think the video that Brian referenced is a very good one, but it does not really address the issue of electronic copies of their photos. I offer electronic copies, BUT I charge for them so my time and costs are full compensated. One nice thing about electronic products is they have relative low costs of production once you have the capability to reliably process digital files. The cost of a DVD and its production is tiny compared to print generation.
    Having said all that, the video is an essential part of understanding whether you can make photography a business.

Share This Page