Why You Should Sell Your Digital Negatives

Max Mikhaylenko by on May 24, 2016

“FREE 11×14 portrait!”

If you’ve ever been to a major retailer or supermarket like Safeway or Fred Meyer, you’ve probably seen calls to action like these. Maybe you’ve experienced what happens if you sign up: after adding your name to the list, showing up to the location, and having your pictures taken, you return to browse through and choose your photographs. Little do you suspect that upon your return you’ll be emotionally and psychologically pressured into buying more prints than you anticipated, as you wonder, stupefied, how you could possibly be spending so much money on something allegedly “free.”

I found myself on the other side of this situation during my first-ever photography job. I took the job because I love photography. I, too, had no idea what I was signing up for. I didn’t realize the job would have little to do with photography and much more to do with trying to figure out how to overcome objections and coerce customers into taking home mediocre prints they never intended to buy in the first place. We would promise the customers one print for a low price—or even give it away—only to then turn around and print a variety of sizes, which we’d try to upsell. When the customer objected, we’d literally toss their prints in the garbage can next to the sales desk—because who wants to see the their kids’ faces in a dumpster?

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Naturally, we found more than a few suckers.

Why am I sharing this story? Believe it or not, the nature of my job at the retail photo booth is analogous to the decisions photographers make when they consider whether to sell high-resolution digital negatives or not. One business model allows you to focus on your craft; in the other, you’ll need to develop sales expertise, smoothly talk people out of their objections, and create a climate ripe for emotional purchases.

The realities behind either choice may not be what you think. Take a minute to look over some common concerns and misunderstandings about what it means to sell high-res digital negatives.

Concerns Photographers Have About Selling Digital Negatives

1. People will misrepresent your work by printing at a cheap lab, or on their home printer.

The truth is they will misrepresent your work to a far greater extent if you provide them low-res files. Your customers can and will display the low-res files that you give them on enormous, detail-rich, 4k screens or blow them up during print, making your work look much worse. Even if you don’t give them any files at all, some customers will rephotograph your prints with their phone cameras. There’s little you can do to stop people from copying your work in the digital age. Don’t fight a losing battle.

2. You’ll lose revenue on reorders.

In the days of film, this was a big deal. Now, however, there are greater disadvantages to not selling digital files. For example, if you reassure your client that they can order more prints at a later time, you take on the burden of storing all of those files—and for how long? If your hard drive crashes, so does your reputation.

Plus, digital negatives may in fact increase your revenue. Online tools allow you to proof your images and promote add-on prints, yielding more sales in the end.

3. You’re giving away your copyright.

This is a flat-out misconception. If someone has access to your high-res files, they do not have necessarily hold copyright over the images. Instead, what you need to do is provide an image license that should stipulate non-commercial usage, and that the image is not for resale.

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Advantages of Selling Digital Negatives

1. Your images look great on screens.

High resolution screens are dominating the market: 4k is now standard, and with 8k on the horizon, there’s a growing expectation for high resolution content. People steam and share their photographs on their televisions and computers. On a 5k iMac, how do you think your low-res images will look when compared with your competitors’ work?

2. No more pressure sales.

Digital negatives automatically fill your sales pipeline. There’s so need to worry about how to furnish the sales room, which projector to buy, or whose sales seminar to go to. When you make high-res images available to customers, you can concentrate on being a good photographer rather than a good salesperson, and you’ll have more time to hone your craft.

3. You’ll get more referrals.

Because your work looks best in its truest form. With retina displays dominating the smartphone screens, low-res images look significantly inferior to their high-res counterparts. Consequently, if you can disseminate high-res work through your customers, you’ll wow more of their friends, family members, and colleagues.

4. Your customers will be happier.

Your customers gain peace of mind when they have high-res digital files that won’t lose quality over time the way prints do. You’ve given them what they wanted, rather than ripping them off and causing buyer’s remorse.

Does all this mean we should abandon selling prints altogether? Absolutely not! Print still has many advantages over digital photography.

The key for successful portrait photographers is to not only offer a variety of print options, but to position them correctly. What do I mean by that? Namely, that you should offer your digital negatives at a higher price then the prints. Or, you can discount digital products if the customer intends to buy printed versions—think of how Amazon sometimes bundles printed books with ebook or audiobook equivalents. This way, you can sell prints and digital negatives at the same time, earning greater revenue and happier customers.

What if all they want to do is buy is digital negatives? Rather than declining them outright, educate your customers on their options. Start by having an attractive yet upfront pricing structure, and continue making mention of print options during and after the session. Point out, for instance, how great that photograph would look printed on metal or canvas. At the end of the conversation, if the customer still wants only the digital files, they won’t be surprised with the higher prices.

Good photographers know how to reconfigure their businesses to conform to the ever-changing competitive landscape—because it’s not necessarily the strongest that survive, but the ones most quickly adapt to changing environments.

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