It was in the photography subreddit that a fellow asked if it’s unreasonable to want the wedding photographer to hand over the RAW files. It’s no surprise that there was widespread opposition to the person’s query, but the poster, a self-identified amateur photographer, persisted in questioning all those who said, “Ha, fat chance.” While I am not a wedding photographer, I am a photographer who shoots RAW, and I’ve been in situations where people have asked me for those files. The quick answer to, “Can I have them?” is “No.” Here’s the longer answer.
The RAW file is a draft, much in the same way the negative is not the final image. Every time I pull images into Lightroom, the sharpening that the camera applied disappears. The colors are muted, and the edges seem softer. The images are, in a way, asleep, and what I do to them in Lightroom is wake them up. The extent of my edits are limited to bringing the image back to what I saw through the lens. I don’t stylize and I don’t put borders, but if you saw the RAW, you might think something was wrong. If you know what RAW files are, then you understand the difference in appearance between them and their JPEG counterparts.
There’s a certain degree of trust involved, too. You trust that when you hire a photographer, you’ll get the same quality that’s in the rest of her or his body of work. You approach certain photographers for work because you like their work, and what makes that work possible is the time spent between making the image and exporting it as a JPEG.
I keep my RAWs close, and I imagine others do, too. Releasing them to others is akin to a novelist releasing a draft well before it’s ready. For better or for worse, I can’t trust that you’ll edit my RAW files in a way that accurately represents who I am as a photographer. You might love a certain writer, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to finish an unfinished draft in the way that they would.
All of this is to say, the RAW files are for my eyes only. They’re the result of what I saw in the moment, and what you see in the final delivery is the gallery of images you hired me to make. The images that didn’t make the cut had any number of things wrong with them. Editing is a large part of what makes a photographer successful. It’s not just the aesthetic choices made for how the image ultimately looks. It’s the decisions that determine which images are seen. If I shoot 500 images at an event, chances are I’ll come away with 20 good ones. That’s a keeper rate of 1 in 25. Don’t worry about the rest.
All that aside, the relationship between a photographer and the RAW image is a personal one. It is for me, at least, and it would feel strange to know that my unedited RAWs are on some other hard drive. I will give you the best photographs I can, while I keep the others locked in the attic.