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

Roxanne Davis , Nov 11, 2012; 01:23 a.m.

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.


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Bob Sunley , Nov 11, 2012; 01:45 a.m.

How about charging 10x the gross profit you make on a paper print for one digital image?

Roxanne Davis , Nov 11, 2012; 03:29 a.m.

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.

Jean-Yves Mead , Nov 11, 2012; 03:46 a.m.

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.

Michael Chang , Nov 11, 2012; 03:51 a.m.

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.

Wayne Decker , Nov 11, 2012; 04:07 a.m.

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.

Steve Smith , Nov 11, 2012; 04:41 a.m.

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.

Matt Laur , Nov 11, 2012; 07:34 a.m.

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.

Wayne Decker , Nov 11, 2012; 11:29 a.m.

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?

John H. , Nov 11, 2012; 01:06 p.m.

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.

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