Print releases: to give, or not to give?

This is probably one of the toughest blog posts I’ve written, since the topic is pretty controversial in my world:

Print releases.

Even though I work with my husband, I’m writing from my own point of view, but he is the other half of the “we” that I talk about. ๐Ÿ™‚

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As a portrait photographer, I’ve gone through phases. When Brian and I first started shooting weddings together in 2006, we gave our clients a disc with an unlimited release. I didn’t know anything different, at the time… I’d had an internship with another photographer, and he also gave away the rights to his images. As a result, my clients were able to print their photos anywhere they chose. They could put them online, in their full size. They could edit them, crop them, add filters, or do whatever they wanted.

And I had no problem with that. I ordered photo books for my friends and family from Shutterfly when I got a killer deal- the quality of the printing had completely eluded me. We were in college, I was planning on being a music teacher, and photography was just something “fun” that I did with my husband to help us pay our rent. We charged next-to-nothing, we didn’t have an in-person sales model for our clients, we hadn’t worked with different print companies, and we didn’t really care what happened to those images once they left our computers.

Until suddenly, I cared.

As I worked more and more, and studied more and more, and experimented more and more, I began to discover my own style.

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We raised our prices.

I worked in this photography medium to create my own kind of art. I practiced, and practiced, learned tons of tips and tricks, and made lots of mistakes.

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We raised our prices again.

I started to take A LOT of pride in the images I was creating, and in the moments that I was capturing.

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We raised our prices again.

When I was able to shoot fully manually, both camera and flash, and I was able to catch the perfect moment between a bride and groom or a mother and child, I was pumped.

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Then everything changed, and we made a big business decision. This is why…

A moment sticks out to me in particular: we did a family photo shoot for a local woman. I was really happy with the way her images turned out, and I was so pleased to burn those to a disk and deliver them to her. The next time she saw me around town, she pulled out a little plastic-sleeved album of prints she’d made from my session. She’d printed them at Walmart, and I couldn’t believe how terrible the clarity was. Photo after photo looked AWFUL. They were all too dark, or too overexposed, and the contrast was inconsistent. The color also looked pretty bad, and I realized the problem at the same time that the words came out of her mouth,

“I had so much fun playing with these photos in iPhoto. Don’t they look great? Don’t worry, I told everyone that you took them. Maybe you’ll book more families in our neighborhood!”

She beamed with pride, and I slunk into my imaginary shell. I was mortified! Those were not my images, it was not my art. Not my vision. I didn’t want my name attached to those in any way! I can’t remember exactly what happened after that- I think I said something about being happy that she was so pleased, and I hightailed it out of there.

Shortly after that, we had a bride and groom of ours from several years prior contact me and ask if they could have another copy of their disk. They’d lost theirs, and they were thinking about finally putting wedding images up around their house. I was so sad that they’d spent their newlywed years without any of my beautiful images in their home. Of course, I burned them another disc, then Brian and I had a discussion about how we wanted to take care of our clients… how long were we going to keep these images? Where were we going to store them? Stacking hard drive upon hard drive seemed less than ideal, but that’s the direction we were headed. We started shooting RAW, and we were filling up space like crazy.

We decided to pony up the cash for an off-site storage company, so we would be protected in the awful case of a flood or fire in my office. We were capturing incredibly special moments for our clients, and I wanted to make sure that their images would be protected. You can’t recreate a first kiss or a new baby! ๐Ÿ™‚

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I quit my part time job, and became fully invested in creating this business.

I started “trying out” print companies to see which ones I liked. I was pleasantly surprised that some offered the option to submit annual test prints to make sure the photos looked just how we’d intended. We picked one of those, and also invested in a monitor calibration system, to make sure that the colors and lighting on our screens matched the finished product. I started researching wedding albums- you know, the beautiful, leather-bound, lay-flat kind. I discovered that some companies required an “audition:” I had to submit some of our work to their design team, to show that we were professional. I applied to three, was accepted to three, and chose my favorite album company. I was kind of surprised to discover that these albums weren’t available to the general public, and I wondered where normal people went to order that kind of thing, if they weren’t offered by their photographer.

We upgraded our main gear (currently a Nikon D4 and D800) and purchased TWO beautiful D700s as backups, in case we both dropped our cameras at the same time. We purchased liability insurance.

We raised our prices again.

I started to consider ourselves an investment for our clients, and wondered if I was doing them a disservice by letting them spend a considerable chunk of their wedding budget on us, but letting them order discount prints? I think about this all the time… can the majority of people tell the difference between photos from a pro lab and photos from Target? I came across this blog post a couple years ago when researching this subject, and if you have a few minutes, it’s a good read that shows the difference between a couple major labs… and it’s a little funny, too. ๐Ÿ™‚

All the work that we put into selecting top-of-the-line gear, learning to use it and adapt to sudden changes or unexpected moments, practicing our skills for years, finding (or creating) the perfect light to make their skin glow, capturing a clear image of a bouncing baby or dancing couple, calibrating our monitors, testing the prints, using the best editing software, spending hours editing and perfecting their galleries (and crying, oh, I always cry!), only to have them spend $0.29 on a 4″x6″ print that could (and sometimes does!) negate several aspects of that workflow?

It was then that we decided to go “whole hog” in this business and stop offering print releases to our portrait clients. I set our print prices in the lower-middle of the price range for our area, and set up all of our wedding packages with a built-in print credit so we could rest easy, knowing our clients would never go years without prints and products from their wedding, and that we knew what the quality would be. We can’t stand behind a product when we don’t know where it comes from, and that doesn’t sit well with me. This is my work, and I want to be proud to put my name on it.

Even if our couples empty their bank account for their wedding, they will still have a credit to use to purchase standard prints, or canvas wraps, or metal prints, or whatever they’d like- and it’s not small. The credit I made yesterday for an October wedding was worth $500! We want to fill their homes, and the homes of their friends and families, too.

The income from our prints isn’t much, it’s much less than 1/10 of our total photography income, and we want to keep it that way. Our goal isn’t to make money on extra print sales, it’s to get this art (in the form of quality work) in the hands of our clients.

It is truly heartbreaking for me to see our work printed in places that just don’t do it justice. I firmly believe that my clients deserve magazine-worthy prints, and I strive to capture these authentic moments while I’m working! I don’t think they should have average-looking images in their home when the people that we work with are truly awesome. I want everyone to look at the results of our session and beam with pride that they started their family/pulled off their dream wedding/have a gorgeous baby bump/adopted the perfect rescue pup.

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We have had a few clients who come to us and don’t understand why we run our business this way. They often imply that we are selfish for “keeping” these files to ourselves. I even had a groom stand over me, yelling, arguing with me over copyright law. He firmly believed that if he was IN the photo, that he owned the copyright to it- and by not giving them copyrights to their photos, I was deceiving them or doing some kind of shady business deal. When he was done yelling, I was sitting there, shaking. Brian and I usually do our consults together, since we shoot all our weddings together, but for some reason, I was doing this one alone. I didn’t have the business sense or confidence to get up and walk out of the consult, and they ended up booking us for their wedding. After that, I was nervous at every meeting or shoot that we did with them, and I’m still kicking myself for letting someone walk all over me like that.

We also have clients who hire us and just assume that they will have all rights. We lay it out in our contract, but we have couples ask us for copyrights all the time. Giving a client copyrights and giving them a print release is DEFINITELY not the same thing. When a photo is taken, the photographer immediately retains the copyright to the image. If I gave them away, it would mean, essentially, that my clients could take those images, edit them, destroy them, modify them, enter them in contests, use them in advertisements, etc… and the photographer (me!) ย would have no right to use the images themselves. Not in portfolio work, or on their website, or in ads, or on their Facebook page or Instagram- I don’t believe photographers should ever give away their copyrights.

I’m not sure why people ask for copyrights, instead of print releases. I’m guessing there is a wedding planning book somewhere that says to do so, or maybe some kind of portrait tip website…?

I actually have a kind of embarrassing story about print releases and Walgreens. One Christmas (a couple years ago), we decided we wanted to give our family gifts ofย photos we’d taken. I ordered them all from my pro lab ahead of time, and everything was matted, framed, wrapped, and all set when we were getting ready to head out Christmas Eve. Of course, I’d forgotten one image that I wanted to print, and I thought about printing it on my small office photo printer, but we decided to hit up Walgreens on our way out of town, with the intention that I’d also order it with my next pro print order, and replace the Walgreens print when it came in. I uploaded the image to the Walgreens website, and we stopped there as we left to see our family. When I got there, the photo clerk informed me that I couldn’t take the print, because it looked professionally done, and I didn’t have a print release. I explained that I was the photographer, and that I’m a professional, so that’s why it looked that way.

She still wouldn’t let me take it.

I showed her my business card, but she still wouldn’t let me take it.

I offered to grab my camera out of the car, if that would help, but no luck.

I asked for the standard print release form, then filled it out for myself. She was not pleased.

It occurred to me that Walgreens isn’t designed for professionals to print their photos. I was sort of relieved to know that Walgreens wouldn’t be printing any photos that my clients brought there without a print release, but it was embarrassing, nonetheless.

I don’t think that the top notch photographers that shot my senior portraits or dance portraits in the 2000’s would have EVER given their files away with a print release, so I’m wondering if I’m grounded in the past, even though times are changing. I know tons of incredible photographers who give out print releases. Am I old fashioned?

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Granted, we include several images with a print release for our clients to use- I know that people want to put their photos on Christmas cards, birthday invitations, or thank you notes, and we are a two-man operation, with not nearly enough time to do all the design work to make these ourselves. I do want our clients to be happy, and we’re walking the line between making them happy/letting them do what they want to do -and- doing them justice, since they’re paying for a professional service. We decided to offer additional images for a small charge per file- I found that asking my clients to pay $10 for a file was sort of an insurance policy that they wanted to do something cool with it (like print it and transfer it to wood, like one of our brides!), and not just find the cheapest place possible, where I might be embarrassed to put my name on our work.

Those print releases are just for that use, though… printing. I don’t want to find our images floating around in cyberspace unwatermarked, and that is for a very specific reason. As I started to get more involved in the global photography community, I joined several organizations and forums of photographers. Occasionally, stories would pop up of wedding photographers who were vendors at a bridal show, booked brides and grooms, and took retainers to secure the wedding dates. Sure enough, those “photographers” wouldn’t show up on the wedding day, leaving the poor couples out a major chunk of money AND more importantly, without a photographer to shoot their big day!

I started wondering where those fake photographers were getting the large files they needed to print big beautiful display prints for their bridal show booth… and then I realized that there are wedding photographers who give their clients full size files of their wedding photos. A quick google search later, and I found tons of beautiful wedding photos, ripe for the downloading.

I decided then and there that I didn’t want to contribute to that in any way. That’s why you’ll see photos of our weddings on social media and on my blog, but they’re always a small size, and they always have a watermark. In fact, I post additional photos with watermarks anytime our clients request it. I’d love for them to share the photos online on social media, but I don’t want them to be stolen and used for anything other than their intended purpose. All of our clients also receive their own website, with password access, so they can share their photos with anyone that they’d like. I’m not trying to keep our images behind closed doors, or anything- we want them to be shared!

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In all honesty,ย I think that watermarks are distracting. If I think about some of my favorite timeless photos (the romantic return-from-war kiss in Times Square, the workers sitting high atop NYC having lunch on that beam, the beautiful eyes of that anonymous Afghan woman), they’d be very different if the photographer had thrown a big watermark on them. I’m kind of torn about it, but I view watermarks as a necessary evil.

I know that, in theory, I could put a clause in our contract saying that any photos with a print release are not meant for online use, but they end up there anyway. I don’t take it as a direct insult, I just know that many of my clients don’t understand copyright law the way I do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scrolled through Facebook or Instagram and saw dozens of memes (or inspirational words on pictures or funny cartoons) that were screenshotted and re-posted without any credit to the original content creator. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I’ve also seen our watermarked images downloaded and printed, and even though that’s NOT the purpose of sharing them online, I haven’t ever said anything about it to anyone. I don’t want to start a fight or argue about it, so I’ve just let it go. I’ve even seen our viewing sites screenshotted and posted on social media- I don’t know if the average person doesn’t know that it’s illegal, or if they just don’t care. Which is worse? As a photographer, do I have an obligation to help educate my friends and family?

Gosh, my heart is racing. I’m going to take a break to pet my pup…

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I know that this is a touchy subject for people, and I definitely don’t want to offend any of my many photographer friends who give print releases to their clients. I don’t want to drive a wedge into our community, but I’m interested in how other photographers handle this. We can have different business models, and that’s totally okay. In fact, my commercial photography business model is very different than our portrait business model. My commercial clients often use the images of their products on their websites and business cards. I know they email headshots to places where they have been booked to give presentations, and they print their own business fliers through their graphics teams. I give different releases to our commercial clients than I do to my portrait clients, and we’re okay with that.

I am writing this post because I’m interested in what you all have to say about this issue. I know I have many VERY successful, talented, fabulous photographer friends who wouldn’t dream of giving their files to their clients. I also have many VERY successful, talented, fabulous photographer friends who give their files to their clients. Every once in a while, I think maybe we should do the same thing. It would certainly be easier! Clients, future, present, and past- what do you think about it? Photographer friends? I’d like to start an open conversation about it.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Print releases: to give, or not to give?

  1. Pete Kruger

    This is beautifully said, Heidi. I had never considered it on this level, and you are exactly right. I’ll definitely keep this in my as I advise clients on contract drafting and business practices. Thank you for writing this, and God bless you. Keep up the good work!

  2. Georgia Truax

    “Back in the day” when I had my photos taken, We chose to go to a professional business named Toburens. I had graduation photos done by them, engagement photos, and wedding photos. We did not have rights to copy in any way, not=r would it have occurred to me.
    I would think that without question, that they owned toe photos.
    I feel that if any rights are given, people are cheating the business the used, as well as taking income from them.
    I see no problem in your blog, and feel that you excellent work should be fairly protected.
    You go girl!

  3. Patty Fawley

    Heidi, you have become an artist. On your way you have learned the difference between doing a task, and working to make your creation a reflection of who you are. I remember the photography studios, and the limits of being able to afford only one pose. I also remember the relief of being given the proofs, which were a big step up!

    What you have so beautifully expressed is the frustration of all of us who pour our best into what we do everyday. My husband, Andy the plumber, studies a blueprint, then applies his 30 years of experience to advise homeowners regarding layout, fixture choice, efficiency of use, and considers the balance between their budget and their dreams. It has continued to be a disappointment as we have watched the box stores set a new public standard that Andy’s prices should match those of the box stores. What they neglect to consider is that he delivers the fixtures, does the labor to connect it right making sure it works, warranties it, and finances the job until the bank finally cuts a check. He does not take short cuts because he wouldn’t want someone to do that in his home. We have had many times that a company sells us a defective product that may work for a short time, then quits. It is now our responsibility to replace it, even though the company will only replace the product. Nobody feels it is their responsibility to pay the labor to remove and reinstall.

    When I worked as a dental assistant, I worked for an experienced dentist as well as a fresh from college dentist. The expertise was evident in the amount of time it took to complete tasks as well as the ease of pain and recovery for the patient. However we complain when that expertise allows a tooth to come out in 10 seconds, rather than an hour because the doctor knows exactly what he is doing.

    Our world has changed and very few of us today even recognize quality, let alone value it enough to pay what it is worth. We live in a totally consumable age. You are right on target knowing that your artistry is worth protecting. I have a little camera. I have taken shots of the same children you have, but mine never look like yours! You have begun the first step of the journey, by educating people to recognize the difference between a photo and a portrait. I take photos. I usually delete about 15 for every 1 that I want to keep. I have also paid for what I thought was professional photography (visiting photographers to a department store) and have been devastated these years later that all the color hues have turned red. The photos are destroyed because of the quality of the inks used in printing.

    Much is changing in our world, but I truly think that if you can educate your clients and then give them choices that allow them to still realize and capture their dreams, you will be able to achieve what you are after professionally. I wish you and Brian the best as you continue to grow. I am so blessed to know you both!

    • Thank you so much, Patty! I really appreciate your perspective on this. I’ve never thought about businesses like Andy’s- I’m lucky to have my own “Andy” here with Brian. ๐Ÿ™‚ Since he can fix almost anything, we rarely have to pay for someone to come out to the house- although I have certainly tried to cheer him up when parts break and he has to replace them AGAIN. I’d never realized that a warranty on something really doesn’t cover all your bases- especially if the part is a pain to replace! Doing the job twice when you should have only had to do it once is frustrating, and I can only imagine how difficult it is to manage challenges like that in your business. I hope that your clients know that defective parts are not reflective of Andy’s talent. We should put our heads together and come up with a good solution- maybe I’ll start a letter writing campaign to all the part manufacturers. ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Please send our love to your family! โค
      P.S. Does Andy work weekends and nights? If we ever have a plumbing emergency, I'll know who to call! ๐Ÿ™‚

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