Why photographers don’t give RAW files

Why photographers don’t give RAW files

So you hired a photographer, got the finished result, and weren’t in love with your images.

In this day of easy phone photo edits, you might be tempted to ask your photographer for the RAW files from your session and try your hand at editing the images yourself.

I’m here to explain why that’s not the best idea, and why photographers rarely give RAW files with your session.

What are RAW files anyway?

I wish they weren’t called RAW files, because it makes people think it’s just a descriptor for the files (“raw,” as in unfinished, sorta like a raw cut of beef, lol) but in actuality, it refers to a file format, like .jpg or .docx or .m4p.

You already know that to open a file, you need a compatible program.

Raw files (for which the suffix is .cr3) require special software to open and manipulate them.

Here’s a semi-complete list of programs that can open .cr3 files:

  1. Microsoft Photos (but only with the Microsoft Raw Image Extension)
  2. Apple Preview (Mac)
  3. Adobe Lightroom or Lightroom Classic (v8.0 and later) with the Adobe Camera Raw plugin installed
  4. Adobe Photoshop with Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop Elements

There are also some Canon camera models that create CR3 images that Mac operating systems do not support.

Note that I said these programs could OPEN them—not that they could edit them! That’s a whole ‘nother story.

But first, let’s see a comparison of RAW file to finished product.

I shared this post on Instagram recently, and it shocked quite a few people.

(There are two images in that post; be sure to tap the arrow to see the RAW file.)

So now you know what they might look like in relation to the finished product. But you may not be clear on why they’re not part of a typical photographer’s offerings.

Why don’t photographers give RAW files?

At the most basic level, the majority of people can’t handle them.

And I don’t mean that as a joke. They literally cannot handle the files.

I mentioned earlier that you need special programs to open RAW files. Let’s say you have one of them—probably Microsoft Photos or Apple Preview—and you CAN open .cr3 files.

Each RAW file from my camera is about 22MB each. Meanwhile, the jpegs you’re used to are typically less than 5MB apiece.

That’s why I have to use a special tricked-out Macbook Pro to do my editing. A “normal” computer with “normal” memory can’t handle the truth!

Sorry; veered off into pop culture there. #namethatmovie

So unless you’ve got an equally tricked-out computer, yours will crumble under the pressure and you’ll end up going all Office Space on your laptop.

why photographers don't give raw files

Giving RAW files is like a baker delivering a half-baked cake.

When I got married many moons ago, I hired a baker to make my wedding cake. The whole thing, from cracking eggs to putting the wee little plastic bride and groom on top.

I’d never have asked her to deliver the cake unfrosted so I could finish it myself.

Asking your photographer for RAW files is basically the same thing.

RELATED POST: How to hire a photographer: Editing style

Photos are the artistic product of the photographer. Even after I deliver the photos to you, as the creator of the photos, I retain the copyright.

So naturally I’m pretty particular about what I put out into the world with my name on it.

I’d never put my RAW files out there with my name attached to them, just like a baker wouldn’t put an unfrosted cake out to the world with their name on it.

Mmmm…. cake.

why photographers don't give raw files

If I can’t direct the process from click to final edit, then it isn’t a true representation of my work. And if my name’s on it, I want it to be 100% my artistic vision, right down to the final edits.

Okay, negative Nancy, if I can’t edit the photos myself, what should I do if I’m not happy with my photos?

I can’t answer this on behalf of every photographer in the world, so I won’t try. But I can suggest the following:

1. Show your photos to a friend. Be certain you’re not oversensitive to something that’s not really a problem.

We’re our own worst critics, truly.

I got a spray tan for my wedding, and when the photos came back, all I could see was my orange Chee-toh skin tone. I hated them.

I sent them to my sister to get her opinion. She told me I was crazy. “You’re just not used to seeing yourself tan, and you don’t look like a Chee-toh at all,” she explained.

(About three weeks later, I could see that she was right. I just needed time to get used to them.)

This is why running them by a third party is a good idea before you go back to your photographer, guns a’ blazin’, demanding RAW files. You might just be having an off-base gut reaction.

2. If you solicited a second opinion and they agree the photos are a problem… then reach out to your photographer.

Let her know exactly what about the photos isn’t floatin’ your boat.

Make your feedback clear and actionable. “I just don’t like them” won’t tell me what I can change to make them more agreeable.

Examples: “They’re too dark” or “my dress isn’t true to color” or “our eyes are brightened so much that they look unreal” or “they’re a bit too oversaturated” or “I don’t like how the green grass is brown now”

You can also totally give feedback on skin tones that aren’t flattering: “Our skin is greenish/pinkish/bluish/too orange.”

Those are all totally legit ways to ask your photographer to make adjustments.

What’s not helpful? Some examples:

  • The whole picture is too saturated / not colorful enough.” — Look back at their portfolio; do your photos look like their portfolio? If so, you don’t have a leg to stand on. Asking a photographer to change their editing style to suit your tastes is no bueno.)
  • “I don’t like how I look.” — There are a few things we can do with light and posing to de-emphasize any less-desirable areas, but we can’t do anything about ill-fitting clothing (too tight, especially). Be totally okay with how your clothing fits ahead of time, because body modifications are usually an extra cost, if the photographer’s willing to do them at all.
  • “There aren’t enough photos of everyone looking at the camera and smiling.” — This one vexes lifestyle photographers like me. If you see very few “look at the camera and smile” photos in my online portfolio, expect very few of those in your session.

RELATED POST: How to hire a photographer: questions to ask

RELATED POST: How to hire a photographer: editing imperfections


Photographers don’t give RAWs because they’re unfinished products. We’re far too proud of our work to put it out into the world without our finishing touches on it.

The files are huge, and they’d bog down your computer (if your computer can even handle ’em). Be relieved you don’t have to deal with RAW files all the time like we do! It makes for very sad operating systems. 🙂

If you dislike your photos, share your (appropriate) feedback with your photographer and see what adjustments they’re willing to make.

Worst case scenario, you both learned a lesson: you’re not well-suited to work together. Best case scenario, everything turns out okay.

Interested in booking a no-RAW-files-included session with me? Yay! Let’s do it.


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