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Digital Files vs. Prints

Photography has become commonplace, virtually everyone loves taking photos and most people do a pretty decent job at it.  However there are times when you want to hire a professional photographer to create extra special images for your family.  You want to display some incredibly beautiful, emotive images that capture who your family is at this moment in time, you want those photos to represent something spectacular, you have this vision of gorgeous albums, a stunning framed portrait in your foyer, an outstanding gallery wrap canvas hanging over your fireplace mantle.

Framed Digital Image

You begin calling to interview photographers and inevitably you explain to them that you want to print these images yourself.  You’re looking for the photographer that will create those beautiful, evocative images for you, unique to you and your family and you want them to hand over the images for you to print.  Somehow you’ve come to believe that getting the disc of images is best because you control the process and it’s cheaper to print yourself.

What?!  Come again?

This scenario is very representative of the photography market today.  Somehow people have been brainwashed into believing that digital files are the best option when, in fact, they are not.  Digital images are MEANT to be is a temporary method of storage: all too many things can go wrong with digital media leaving you in a lurch with a ton of images that were never printed; images that will never be displayed in your beautiful home; images that will never be archived and made permanent.  Lets face it, for many people, after you get back your disc from said photographer, the disc goes in the drawer to never see the light of day…maybe JUST MAYBE to be unearthed (if you’re lucky) in a year or two with an “I meant to print some of these…” utterance.

Why some photographers do not sell digital images or sell them only at a premium price

Many professional photographers will not hand over that disc at a low price point. The public mistakenly believe it’s because these photographers have a desire to “hold your images hostage” but that isn’t the case in most instances. Most photographers are DEDICATED to the artistry of photography. What this means is that they are selling a full service experience and are dedicated artisans who either print those images for you themselves or entrust their favorite professional photography labs to do it for you. They are not selling a DIY experience.

Full service photographers care about the entire process.  They take time to ensure their images look as perfect as humanly possible, from the time of shooting (capturing that perfect moment!) to delivering a finished product (your image printed as a large 30×40 canvas or perhaps a custom album with beautiful matted prints for gifts!).  What this means is that the overwhelming majority of professional photographers take every step of the process seriously.  From the camera equipment and lens choice they shoot with at your session, to coming home and downloading your images and editing those images on a calibrated monitor (many photographers pay for special equipment and software to custom calibrate their monitors with their professional lab of choice, this can be a painstaking process for many photographers because not all professional labs print images the same).

If a photographer sells digital images this is where the process stops.  Sure they created and edited images and turned them over to you, the consumer.  So what happens now?  The final product is no longer tightly managed.  Chances are you don’t have access to a professional lab.  Chances are even greater that your monitor isn’t calibrated so when you view the images your photographer sent you…you’re already at a disadvantage.  Triple whammy that if the lab you choose hasn’t calibrated or changed chemicals in awhile… you can end up with prints that are completely awful.  All that for a set of professional images not worth displaying.

This unfortunately is the difference between beautiful images custom created for you painstakingly by your professional photographer and lackluster images printed up by the local drugstore.  The photography may be phenomenal but if your lab processing is off the image may as well be taken by an iPhone camera!

The full service photographer is an artisan.  They want to retain the image to present you with the absolute best quality image possible.  The image they create for you is part of their vision and this vision is only fully realized when you take delivery of your beautiful photographs.


Let’s say you go through the process & expense of hiring a photographer and end up purchasing the disc of images.  Then you figure you’ll “get to it later” and don’t bother printing up those photos for yourself.  That disc then stays in the drawer for a period of time.  Perhaps these images are of your newborn baby girl at 7 days old but now she’s almost 13 years old!).  You want to create something really special for her 13th birthday so you finally take that disc of images out of that drawer and put it in the CD tray of your computer to get them printed. In the CD goes as you wait…and wait.  No images found.  Hmmm…  You hit eject on your tired old computer and pop out that CD tray.  You then make sure the CD is inserted properly, close the cd drawer and again…waiting…waiting.   POOF your images are gone!  They are nonexistent.  This particular CD-R from your daughter’s newborn session doesn’t even show any data on it!  You go through the explore process to see what files are on that disc to find out there are none.  There is no data on this disc!!  Now you freak out.  You compose yourself long enough to remember the photography studio that took these particular images and you call the photographer to order another disc to deliver to your home ASAP.  When you finally find and call the number it is no longer a business number.   Then you go online to find that photographer only to find that they are now out of business nowhere to be found!  You have no way of getting a hold of that photographer.  You once had all these amazing images of your daughter (never backed up, never saved as prints) but now you can’t even access them!  You went to this photographer for the first two years of your daughter’s life, frazzled and more than a bit freaked out you start pulling CD-ROM out for each and every session from those two years and poof!  one after the other the images on each of those CDs has somehow disappeared!  It’s the photographer’s fault!  It’s a defective disk!  The photographer is a scam artist!  A thousand thoughts whirl in your head when the sad reality is:


Sounds implausible?  It isn’t.  It’s actually a well known fact that CD-ROM and DVD-ROM discs are not meant as a long term storage solution.  Neither are USB keys or hard drives, no electronic storage system is infallible, that’s the truth.

It's true! The Myth of The 100 Year CD-Rom

“…an investigation by a Dutch personal computer magazine, PC Active, has shown that some CD-Rs are unreadable in as little as two years, because the dyes in the CD’s recording layer fade. These dyes replace the aluminium “pits” of a music CD or CD-Rom, and the laser uses that layer to distinguish 0s from 1s. When the CD is written, the writing laser “burns” the dye, which becomes dark, to represent a “1″ while a “0″ will be left blank so that if the dye fades, there’s no difference; it’s just a long string of nothing to the playback laser.”


But wait!!  That can’t happen to you…your photographer doesn’t burn images to a CD!! So this scenario isn’t possible.  The photographer you use, well they’re smart (and so are you) for choosing to put images on a USB key.  Those have to be fool proof – right?!

No.  USB storage is a very recent phenomena and knowing how technology evolves chances are that the USB storage key you received from your photographer will go the way of the floppy disc within ten years, give or take.  Think hard now, when is the last time you’ve seen a computer with a working floppy drive?  Can you guarantee you’ll still have a working computer with a USB port in ten years?


More on the topic of things you haven't seen in awhile…

Outdated Technology


The one thing those things have in common is that they are all a form of outdated technology.


CD will become obsolete

“Oh but I didn’t just LEAVE those images on the USB key…I also downloaded them to my hard drive!”

If I had a dime for every hard drive failure I’ve heard about I’d be at least $100 richer or AKA The Story of Some Sad Photographers

Do the math.  That’s a lot of hard drive failures.  And they’re very real and scary.

But you need not worry, you have multiple copies of your images on multiple hard drives scattered far and wide, right?  Yeah well…

A photographer friend (who shall remain nameless) hadn’t printed up any images of her young children in several years.  She decided since they were taking a long trip away from home that “now’s the time to get editing and printing.”

Off they went on their trip, planning on working hard on getting up to date with her photos she did the smart thing: she brought along her laptop, her external hard drives and the back up drives on vacation with them on vacation.  You know…so she could do catch up, get some editing done, get some images tuned up and ready to order.

A few weeks into the trip, all seems good, right as rain, she’s excited because many of these images were of her youngest when she was super little and she didn’t have any prints from this time in her life.  She’s finally going to get them printed.

She kept her equipment locked up and secure when they were away but somehow someone knew to break into the place where she was storing said equipment (hard drives and back up drives) and someone took it.  EVERY last bit of it.  Every drive, the laptop, everything.  Can you imagine how awful that felt?  To lose all those memories?

That’s a tough lesson to learn.  I mean she did do the right things mostly, right?  She had back up drives of her images…but yet this method still failed her EVEN without the hard drive failure!

Years of images GONE.  Zero printed copies of these long gone moments.  Probably stuff like baby’s first bath, baby and big sister playing in the bath tub, playing dress up, baby’s first steps…the list of lost images is heart wrenching.  Had she had the prints at least she would still have the prints, I’m pretty sure prints are zero value to a petty thief but they are invaluable to the memory holder.

That story is 100% real and it’s 100% sad and there’s a hundred more like it: hard drive failures, power surges that mess up operating systems, house fires that ruin computer equipment.  More theft (in homes).  A lot of what I’m illustrating happened to those who do and should know better: photographers!

I bet they won’t have to learn that lesson twice.

So what you’re saying is digital files are bad?

No.  To the contrary what I am saying is this.  Think long and hard about basing your photographer choices based upon availability of digital files and/or price.   What you’re making the investment in may not be what is truly the best option for you: digital files are great if you plan on using labs that you know for a fact can reproduce images to what your photographer saw on their screen when they edited those images, if your photographer sells digital files then they should recommend to you a lab that can do a decent job.   HOWEVER know this: to get the best quality images from your session you really should think about having your photographer control the printing process simply because your photographer has access to labs that can accurately reproduce images to their standards.  I assure you most photographers are so ridiculously strict on what they deliver to a client you’d really be surprised how many images don’t pass our muster and have to be redone.  A true professional photographer CARES about the quality of the images that hang on your wall because THEIR name is on those images, maybe not physically so but that is their life’s work up there.  They want your friends and your family to be wowed by the gorgeousness of their work, it only serves them to do so.

(READ Why some photographers do not sell digital images or sell them only at a premium price at the top of this page for details on what calibration means in the professional photographer world)

Quality should trump quantity every time.  Often photographers receive the questions regarding digital files and then “How many images do I get?” What a silly question really.   Unless you plan on wall paper plastering your walls with photos from your session the question shouldn’t be: ”How many images do I get?”  but  ”How much will I love my images?”  ”Will I want to display my images?”  The answer should be yes.  The photos you put on display in your home should reflect the character and beauty of your family and be captured in the best manner possible and should be reproduced on fine quality professional photo paper or canvas.

A wannabe-hobbyist photographer may say: “You’ll get 50 images (and based on the law of averages) you’ll like some of them.”

A true professional photographer will be confident in their skills enough to say: “You will love your images, all of them.” and assure you the images captured at your photography session will be of the finest quality, reproduced in print on the finest paper by the finest professional labs available to them.

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This article was written by Marianne Drenthe of Marmalade Photography and can be found at the Professional Child Photography site at