"Can I have the raws?"
It is a question I've seen asked of other photographers a thousand times. You can even find bridal magazines/articles advising brides to ask this of their photographers. Luckily it has never been asked of me.
If I had to guess, clients who ask for the raw files from their portrait session or wedding are asking for them because they think the files are a more true representation of what was photographed. This is actually not the case. When viewed through Lightroom, raw files look flat. They lack contrast, vibrancy, and have a general gray tone. This is due to the file being completely unprocessed. In other words, the data of the file (from the highlights to the shadows) are present and ready for tuning, but they are not already tuned. The raw file requires editing to bring out all of its potential.
Our eyes are very complex organs. They are able to process scenes in a way that cameras are not yet able to. Because of the imperfections of technology, often times what is photographed will not match what our eyes see (even if the triangle of exposure and light balancing are correct). Mixed light especially can confuse a camera's sensors and cause wacky coloring. Take for example, the following image. The left is an example of the raw file as shot. This portion of the day was shot in a church fellowship hall that had a mix of sunlight and florescent light. In situations with multiple sources of light, where I don't have more complex light rigging set up, I set my camera to Auto White Balance. As you can see, the photograph still has a strange greenish yellow cast. The women's hair is green, the bride's dress is yellow. It is overall not very flattering. It's not a photo that the bride would want in the raw state.
Here's another example of tricky lighting fixed through editing
The truth is, even if my clients had the raw images, they wouldn't be able to do anything with it...they wouldn't even be able to view the image on their computers.
Raw files are a type of file formatting that requires certain software to open. I use Canon equipment, so my raws are actually called CR2 files and my MacBook Pro cannot view the information without Lightroom or Photoshop installed on it.
Here's a definition from the Tech Terms Computer Dictionary:
"A raw file is a collection of unprocessed data. This means the file has not been altered, compressed, or manipulated in any way by the computer."
As a result, raw files are huge. They take up a lot of space and they are very difficult to send digitally. I was recently hired as a contractor and had to digitally send over a thousand raw files to the studio that hired me. It took over 24 hours to upload everything. Not only that, but you can't upload raw files to any social media site, any online gallery, or to any online print lab. CR2 files need to be converted to another file type to become useable to the consumer.
Many do not realize the extent of editing that can go into a photograph to make it what it is. For example, one of the current stylistic trends known as "dark and moody" is often shot underexposed. Photographers, knowing their camera's dynamic range and raw capabilities, will purposely shoot an image dark. In post processing, they are able to tweak the tones, colors, shadows, highlights, etc., to create a properly exposed image with the artistic mood they want to achieve. If a client were to look at the original raw file, they might perceive a dark unusable image. To the photographer, it is a file brimming with artistic potential.
Another reason photographers might purposely underexpose an image might be to diminish the noise present in the finished image. A higher ISO allows for a brighter image in low-light situations, but it also means there will be added noise. Here's an example of an image using this technique. I slightly underexposed the image because we were in a dark cabin and I didn't want grain to appear in this beauty portrait.
In the end, photographers are artists, just as musicians, writers, painters and so on. We take our tools and use them to create a story. Light and shadow are our medium. Raw files are like a canvas with an outline drawn in waiting for the paint to color it. Raw files are like a novel outline waiting to be arranged in the right order and fleshed out to create a mesmerizing tale. Raw files are like notes on a sheet waiting for the instruments to breathe life into the music. Raw files are merely the beginning strokes of the image waiting for the artist to fill in the rest. Some photographers like to paint their photography in a way that is natural and true to life , while others like to play with colors and make images of magic and imagination. Both are fine. Both are amazing. As artists,we pour our hearts and souls into our work to create images that captivate. Our time and essence goes into every piece of art we create, so we take great pride in what we do.
To ask for a photographer's raw files, is to ask for their unfinished work. Worst case, it is to cover up their artistry with someone else's style and the end result of that is a distortion and inaccurate representation of the photographer's work.
With so many photographers and so many styles and price ranges available to the consumer, there is a photographer out there whose work speaks to you. There is a photographer who can tell your story exactly how you envision...who can paint the picture of your dreams. Instead of asking for the raw files, seek out the artist who captures your attention with their work and excites you with their personalty.
As with love, there is someone out there for everyone.
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