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February 10, 2012

More than “Just a digital file”

Digital negatives are a hot button issue in the photography world and the one question that I get asked most frequently on the subject is “Why do digital negatives cost so much?  It’s just a digital file after all.” so I decided to address it here on the blog for everyone.

Let’s imagine that you are a potential client looking for a photographer.  You find a photographer whose style you love and whose personality is a good match for you.  You book a shoot, sign a contract, and have a blast at your photo session.  You arrive at your ordering appointment full of excitement to see the wonderful works of art that your photographer has lovingly crafted for you.  You finish viewing your images and you love them all.  So, obviously you will want to keep them all, right?  You ask the photographer if they offer digital negatives of your images and they cheerfully inform you that the digital negatives are in fact available for purchase.  Then they quote you a price per image…you realize that you are talking hundreds of dollars or more to own all of your cherished images and suddenly dark clouds race into your blue skies and ominous scary music starts playing in the background.  You hear yourself asking the photographer, “Why does it cost so much?  It’s just a digital file after all.”

Now, just to play Devil’s advocate for a moment I want you to take a step back from the situation and try to see this from another perspective.  There are actually three very valid reasons that a professionally produced digital negative is more than “just a digital file”.  When you purchase a digital file you are really buying security, flexibility, and convenience.


First, this file is a tangible product that represents, captures, and preserves the visual history of your life and loved ones.  Even those of us with excellent memories have to admit that no matter how sharp we are details and memories start to fade over time if they are not preserved.  Your children and grandchildren will not remember all of the events from their childhood and photography is the best way to preserve and share those precious milestones with them.  Even if it is something as simple as being able to show them that cowlick that they had that absolutely refused to be tamed until they were 6, these are the memories that are used to build visual maps of our childhoods.

A digital negative is different than a photograph because it is the source of the photograph.  Having a digital file and a 4×6 print is like having an original painting and a museum postcard.  They both depict the same image, but if the original painting were destroyed you would no longer be able to reproduce it and make more postcards.  The best that you could do would be to make a copy of a copy or enlarge the smaller image, both processes which cause image degradation.  On the other hand, you can make unlimited copies from the high quality negative.  This is why digital negatives cost more than prints.  First, because if you wanted to you could print a million photos from 1 file and second because if the original file was lost you could never make another print of the same quality again.  Many photographer purge digital files from their systems to make room for new photographs so by purchasing the digital negative you are not just buying the file you are buying insurance and piece of mind that that file will always exist and be available to you whenever you desire.


Second, digital files are a great option for some clients because they also allow you a great deal of flexibility.  You can print photos from your digital file that are 4×6 or 40×60.  You can put them online, use them for digital scrap booking, email them to friends and family, make photo books or calendars, or just keep them on your phone or computer.  The options really are endless.  And as mentioned before, the files are reusable an infinite number of times limited only by your imagination.


Lastly, photographers take photos for a living.  That means that they have to think through many considerations when pricing their work and their digital negatives.  An argument that is heard a lot is that “I have a camera, I can just take that picture myself.” Assuming that you have a camera you probably can take A picture yourself, but do you realize how much it would cost you to take that picture yourself?  Let’s do a little exercise to illustrate.

Let’s say that your photographer uses their 5D Mark II body and a 50mm 1.2 L lens to capture the image in question and that they supplement the lighting with a 580EX portable flash unit rigged remotely with a pocket wizard transceiver and receiver on a light stand with a 24×36″ soft box attached.  If you went out and purchased that equipment it would cost you roughly $5200.  That doesn’t even touch the other lenses and equipment in the bag or the batteries to fire all of the devices.

Next your photographer goes home and edits your image on their Macbook Pro using Abode Lightroom and Photoshop and maybe they use some actions.  If you bought all that it would run you about $4,000.

You are already looking at close to $9,200 if you were to start from scratch and go out and exactly replicate that image yourself, but since the photographer runs a business and this is how they make their living they also have to consider overhead expenses to run their studio.

Now, they have business insurance in case a light stand falls on you during the shoot.  That will be about $500.  Your photographer also attends at least on conference per  year to keep us their technical skills so that they can provide you with top notch service and products.  That will run about $2000.   There is also equipment maintenance, rent for a studio space, marketing expenses, payroll, taxes, website hosting, online gallery fees…You can see how this can easily climb into tens of thousands of dollars a year right?

They don’t charge each client for all of those expenses, obviously, but they do have to be sure to spread the costs so that they can stay in business and continue to provide a service to you their customers.

So, I promise you that next time you hear a photographer quote a price and think to yourself, “That’s outrageous!” the photographer is not just trying to rob you blind and run laughing all the way to the bank.  I hope that you also realize that you are not buying, “just a digital file”.  You are buying peace of mind, flexibility to use your images however you like, the security that your images will always be available to you , the convenience of not having to take the photos yourself, and most importantly the ability to actively participate in your photo session and become a part of your families story.

Have a great weekend!


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