Time to ditch the digitals?

Digital copies are fine, but here’s why you should always strive to sell physical products

The studio phone rang late on a Friday night.

A journalist from a national newspaper was calling to get permission to use one of my images with a story they were running. I asked for details: a violent crime had been committed. The victim was in a serious condition in hospital, and the media were looking for a picture of him to go with the write-up. This journalist scoured the guy’s Facebook page and came across an image of him dancing at a friend’s wedding at which I was the photographer.

This image was watermarked with the Paul Wilkinson signature across it, enabling the journalist to link it back to me. I said I’d speak with my client and call them back. I then contacted the groom, who asked me to refuse permission. I agreed, told the journalist ‘no’ and went to sleep. The next morning there was an angry voice message on my phone from the groom, expressing his disappointment that I hadn’t kept my promise. I rushed to the newsagent’s to check the papers. A different newspaper had used my image and even edited out my watermark. After trying to make excuses, the newspaper finally agreed to apologise, print a retraction, and pay a fee for the illicit use, money which I passed straight on to my client by way of apology.

This, in essence, is the problem with digital files: as soon as they leave your computer, they’re out of your control

This, in essence, is the problem with digital files: as soon as they leave your computer, they’re out of your control. And while they hopefully won’t appear next to a piece about an assault, there are myriad other ways they cause damage. For example, imagine a client has a wonderful shoot with you and buys only the digital files. He gets these printed through the cheapest option available to him. He tapes one of his favourite shots to the fridge, and a visiting friend notices it and comments on it. Your client tells them it’s by you. That friend sees the picture you took, but they also see the sticky tape, the edge that’s starting to curl upwards and the not-quite-right colours of the skin tones. Conversely, that same friend visits another client of yours, and this one opted for a beautiful piece of wall art for their hallway. The colours are perfect, the mounting is pristine, and the frame moulding is beautifully textured wood. As soon as the friend walks through the door, she stops in her tracks to admire it. If and when this friend wants to commission a photographer, which picture will prime her for a high-end experience (and, accordingly, price tag)? There are many photographers out there who run businesses shooting as much as possible, and burning the results to disc or USB as quickly as possible.

The risk for these photographers is that the quality of their images will never represent them and their brand. Instead, they are measured by how cheap they are.

What an experience!

There’s another issue with digital files. One of my early wedding clients purchased all the images I’d taken for them on the disc. A few years ago, the couple returned to me with two children in tow, looking for some family portraits.

“This time,” the client told me, “I want the pictures to be fully-framed.”

“This time,” the client told me, “I want the pictures to be fully-framed.”

The tone of her voice caught my attention. It turned out that the disc of wedding images had been placed in a drawer and there it languished. The client had every intention to do something with the pictures, but life got in the way. Ten years later, the disc was still in the drawer. Now that Apple computers no longer support CDs, they didn’t have any easy way to access the files. The CD has gone, and the USB is next – Apple’s latest computers don’t even have traditional USB ports.

But it’s not just obsolescence that’s the problem with selling files, it’s the client experience.

Clients commission photographers because they want to capture and celebrate the joy, love and laughter they share. A stunning album or a picture on the wall reminds them of their loved ones every time they see it. A file on a USB stick has no such impact. If I haven’t persuaded you, then maybe the numbers will help. Whatever you list the price of your digitals as, that’s the cap you put on your sales, even if you make them your most premium product. Let’s say you sell a frame for £500 and all the digitals for £900. The client is unlikely to spend more than £900. They might’ve been tempted to buy a few framed shots, but as soon as the total hits £900, they decide they might as well buy the digitals as they get more images that way. And then they pay as little as possible to get those digitals printed elsewhere.

You really want clients to hang your high-quality wall portraits around their home. Then, when they have a visitor, they’ll market your business for you. They’ll tell their friends what a lovely experience it was, and how much they cherish the piece of art you created for them.

N-Photo Magazine

This article was written for N-Photo Magazine, issue 104.

N-Photo is the only magazine devoted to Nikon photographers. Brimming with expert advice, product tests, tips and tricks, plus beautiful images to inspire your next session, you’ll be motivated to get creative with your photography and learn brand new skills with every issue of N-Photo magazine. Packed full of interviews and masterclasses with award-winning photographers, you will discover how to shoot great pictures, as well as enhance any imagery using Adobe Photoshop and other popular tools with helpful guides and step-by-step tutorials.

If, like me, you’re a Nikon user, please do support the magazine and think about subscribing!

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