What image file format should a photographer deliver to client: JPG, TIFF or even RAW

Should a photographer deliver RAW images or JPG to a client? What makes sense?

I hope I can shed some light onto that question — an answer that makes sense to both sides, photographer AND client.

Short answer: I firmly believe it must be the JPG image or maybe TIFF, read why…

Asking a professional photographer for the RAW files is like asking a Chef just for the ingredients of the meal and you cook it yourself. Don’t you think the Chef wouldn’t be the Chef if there’s not something like his experience and skills and art-of-cooking and the recipe that makes the meal what it finally is?

What is a RAW file format / image anyway?

Better cameras offer to shoot either RAW images or JPG images, or both.

RAW images need to be edited in a photo editing software to make them ‘usable’ whereas JPG images that are taken by the camera are pre-processed inside the camera by using default settings or a certain profile. Every camera manufacturer ships a camera with a certain profile that he believes is generic enough to cover most situations. For some cameras a set of profiles is shipped from which you can choose. Important to notice: a profile covers ‘most situations’ but still is generic for all pics taken with that profile.

One step further: also a camera RAW file format is a proprietary format meaning its implementation differs from manufacturer to manufacturer: Canon has a different RAW than Nikon and so on. That’s why it is called Camera RAW file format — because it depends on the camera.
Camera RAW files can even display differently in different editing software, at least in theory. So, it is about interpretation.

The RAW image format is the way to shoot for a professional photographer because it offers all flexibility regarding editing the photo to perfection, towards a certain editing or usage style whether that is an artistic, cinematic, editorial, or any other desired style. An edited RAW image and the manually derived JPG version is usually better than any pre-cooked JPG image that comes right out of a camera.

Coming back to the analogy with the CHEF: the photographer uses the RAW as the base ingredient and adds / modifies settings (which are spices and cooking techniques in a Chef’s world) to come to a highly optimized result.

More about RAW can be found on Wikipedia:

A camera raw image file contains minimally processed data from the image sensor of […] a digital camera […]. Raw files are named so because they are not yet processed and therefore are not ready to be printed or edited with a bitmap graphics editor. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raw_image_format)

Delivering RAW files or JPG or what?

A RAW file from the camera has nothing to do with the final image — RAW’s require editing and must be seen as only one of 2 ingredients for the final result. The second ingredient is the editing process.

A RAW file from the camera looks pretty ‘flat’ and boring because, as mentioned, it is meant to be further processed, aka. ‘photoshopped’. It’s safe to say that all professional photos were run thru Photoshop (or comparable) before making it out into the world.

What a photographer does with a RAW image is not limited to color enhancement, brightness, cropping and such things which are even available on a smartphone. It’s also about lens correction, perspective correction, and applying dozens of settings and techniques which can’t be done by the camera — the latter statement is also important to make because some old-school photographers still claim they can do anything ‘right’ in the camera which is not correct.

On a side note: as far as I know from tests with the camera manufacturer’s own image software that comes with the camera I can say that there’s a good chance that they actually take the RAW but overlay it with the chosen camera profile with the result that RAW files look not flat anymore in that software because they are ”kind-of post-processed automatically. You still can make all RAW modifications if you desire. Having said that, those manufacturer software that comes with the camera is not as sophisticated as Photoshop and offers fewer possibilities.

Back to the Photoshop world: From the post-processed RAW file the photographer would then generate a high-resolution, max-quality JPG image which is presented to the client. A JPG is the most used standard image format. A TIFF file format could be an alternative if e.g. higher bit-depth and no-compression formats are asked for.

A Camera RAW is not a delivery format, it is basically a photo that is not corrected, interpreted, or optimized. If that is given to a client the photo is dependent on another person to interpret that file and therefore it has nothing to do with the original photographer any longer.

If a photographer would deliver a ‘flat-looking’ not POST-processed RAW image to a client … a client would not be happy. If the client would show around those images, nobody would be impressed and the photographer’s reputation might get damaged because the client would likely unintentionally give the impression that those flat results come from a professional photographer. That’s one reason why photographers don’t like to give out RAW images.

Other reasons apply to other situations: if, for example, a photographer takes HDR photos then there are several single images taken with a different e.g. exposure etc. and those must be edited and merged to result into 1 single optimized image. The individual pictures that were used to create the HDR are ranging from under-exposed to over-exposed and should not be given to a client because without explanation people might think the photographer is incapable of taking a reasonably exposed photo. Or if the client has the infamous, super-capable nephew who has heard about Photoshop and does the ‘rest’ … the photographer likely doesn’t want to be named in conjunction with the result and if the nephew hits the wall and doesn’t get it together he will certainly blame the photographer for the failed editing process. So, to avoid the ‘unfair’ situations, better keep the ingredients, the RAW’s.

One more reason: even though a photographer (like I do) can assign FULL USGAGE RIGHTS (no restrictions) to a client, the photographer (by law) never loses the copyright to the original work. Giving away the RAW, I have called it the base ingredient, the photographer might lose proof that he/she took the original photo. An unrealistic, fictitious, and conspiracy-injected example would be that the photo you took gains worldwide fame and because you gave away the original file to a dishonest, ruthless somebody, that person or entity is able to claim the copyright. You still have a copy of the RAW but in the end it is a matter of money who wins, right?

All these reasons make clear why a professional photographer hesitates to give out RAW’s — at least he/she would need a super-convincing reason from client why that is requested. In some scenarios it could be actually legitimate, that’s why this article should be understood as providing just some thoughts about the matter, but no strict rules.

Why not delivering RAW files plus post-processing instructions, edits?

The photographer’s editing / photoshopping process is again comparable to the Chef’s spicing and cooking techniques. In a photographer’s post-editing process it is not really feasible to add the editing instructions to the RAW file delivery — depending on the project and workflow there might be virtual copies, or layered files existing which are created during the editing process and they might become the basis for the final JPG which is created for the client. A photographer will normally not deliver all these add-on files on top of the RAW. Actually, it is not even possible without creating an overhead by adding steps to the process that are normally not necessary.
I guess no manufacturer or service person delivers all interim information or pieces together with the end product, right? Or think about it as giving away your production processes and implementation together with the product. In theory, yes, a client could ask for that but then it would be more than just hiring a photographer for certain professional results; it would be like including a how-to-workshop as well. If a client wants all that then it would be better to hire an employee.

Why would clients ask for RAW files, anyway?

My guess is that many clients just ask for RAW files because they have read articles that suggest they should do so because those RAW files are the BEST of the BEST and that a client needs them for that reason. However, most or many clients will be disappointed once they see those RAW files (for stated reasons see above) and they might not understand why they got those ugly images and what to do with them.

Some clients still think that the ORIGINAL is something like the film NEGATIVE and that’s why they need it. I don’t blame those folks for having that understanding but I hope that they are willing to learn that a digital image file in JPG format gives them any time the possibility to reprint, to duplicate, to do whatever. I do assign FULL USAGE RIGHTS to my clients and they don’t have to call me if they want to print a wall paper from the image. So,… a RAW file is not comparable to the old fashioned NEGATIVE.

Other clients might just follow the rule ‘you should always archive the original, you never know!’ and that’s why they ask for them. To all those my response is that ‘the ORIGINAL’ will be later the EDITED image I create during the process. The ORIGINAL is a 2-component product comprised of the RAW and the EDIT — the RAW only is only half thing and that’s what you would archive.

Let’s go back to the comparison with the CHEF: enjoy the meal. Don’t ask for the ingredients to cook it yourself. And, you will not get the recipe, anyway.

I want to touch one other related point that is discussed sometimes: a client could request to receive every single photo that was shot during the session — that’s not working for a photographer either because he/she takes maybe dozens of images from the same angle or scene but with different settings or just because to make sure there’s the ‘best’ shot among them. The photographer just discards the non-optimal images later. The photographer’s goal is to present the best photos and only those to the client because everything else wouldn’t make sense — or what would you think if the photographer gives you 10 photos of the same scene but tells you 9 times what did not really work on those 9 shots and you end up with blurred ones and other bad shots?

Getting all images ever taken during the process? Sounds more like something from a conspiracy-driven script where all evidence must be collected. Just kidding. But depends on what you are photographing. Imagine it is a top-secret facility and the folks there have no in-house photographer and now it’s up to you — yeah, I can imagine that you sign an NDA or you are required to edit the photos under supervision and other things. But that’s likely not the regular client we are talking about. Special clients — special rules, I guess.

Bottom-line

A client should have trust in the photographer’s skill and style and taste… otherwise why should they hire him/her? A client should not just go for the cheapest offer on the planet but instead go for the trusted resource like they would do it for their car. A client should look thru a photographer’s portfolio and if they find that style and talent is what they are looking for then they should go with their gut-feeling and trust the photographer. Clients will receive the optimized, high-resolution JPG end-product — that is what I understand is the ORIGINAL, everything else are interim parts and pieces.

Comments (2)

pore assumptions
1st JPG is lossly format and the worst option for delivering a product. it will have artifacts and should the client resize and save it it will get worse and worse over time. In short JPG should only ever be used as the file format and then only when file size is an issue such as when its being rendered to a web page. It should never be used for printing, editing, archiving, etc. thus its usless as a product delivery format.

2nd TIFF solid option, it does not present the compression issues of JPG e.g. is sutable for printing, archiving and general edits such as scaling without degrading quality, etc..

3rd RAW, when someone requests RAW anytime I have ever known one to do so its because they would like the ability to make there own edits later. This makes since its no different than requesting source code when you contract a program, site or service to be created. Personaly I wouldn’t pay for a photographer that didn’t offer the source or at very least an unedited lossless format e.g. save the RAW as TIFF for example if your just opposed to .raw for some reason. More over I would never accept a lossly format as final delivery.

So Option #3 that is the original source, Option #2 a compiled release of said source, Option #1 (jpg) suitable for demo, display, concept, etc. e.g. when you want it small and dont mind some artifacts here and there.

Well, you may have a different position on the topic, however, I believe you look at it from a very theoretical perspective and your arguments do not necessarily apply to most situations.
JPG is certainly not a lossless compression but it is definitely not as bad as you describe it:
it depends on the degree of compression you apply and internally on the compression codec used. Given that you would deliver a JPG with a 100% quality setting leaves it visually perfect und I doubt anybody will detect a difference to TIFF.
Artifacts only would appear if the compression degree is too high, meaning the quality setting is <100%. Or if the camera itself is not the best quality or has a low resolution (…but then a RAW would also be low quality).
So, the statement that there are always visually detectable compression artifacts is a myth. It might stem from highly compressed JPGs used for websites 10 years ago.

RAW as an unprocessed format will show lot of issues like noise, lens distortion, and most important it looks flat and boring because no processing (e.g. color correction, sharpening and so on) is applied. RAW looks ugly without editing;

As in my article explained, RAW needs the editing component before it can be used.
A client would need a creative department with experts who edit the RAW.

RAW is often misunderstood as the NEGATIVE which was in classic photography the original that had camera settings which where chosen by the photographer (like WB, exposure, etc) and all tricks applied. That was BEFORE the digital editing age. Digital Editing allows to change such settings later in post-processing.
Logical consequence is that Editing is part of creating the ORIGINAL, therefore the final result has to be rendered and delivered as either TIFF or JPG.
JPGs in high resolution work great for most purposes. TIFF rendered files use probably 5 to 10-times more storage than a JPG but do not provide an advantage other than to be later the better format for re-editing / re-saving.
Many things are myths, many things are only valid in theory or in lab situations. Not in real world situations. It's like the marketing talk about a product in comparison to its real world situation performance. But… everybody has the right to their own opinion.

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