Questions are never in short supply when it comes to wedding photography. I love answering questions from our brides and grooms; for the great majority of them, all the ins-and-outs, whys-and-wherefores of planning a wedding can be a total head-scratcher. When it comes to wedding photography, there’s one question just about everyone will ask me at some point, so I thought it might be helpful to tackle it in a blog post. Here it is:
“Don’t I own the copyright to my pictures? I paid you for them. Why can’t I share them with anyone I want?”
Sometimes the question is asked in the first inquiry, but it’s phrased as a statement: “We want our images on a disc and the rights to them.” I like it when couples are clear from the get-go about what’s important to them. What they’re really saying is “We don’t want to pay your prices for prints, so we’d like copies of our images so that we can make prints on our own.” That’s a pretty standard request for this century. I don’t bat an eye at it anymore. When I was starting out in the late 90’s doing family and baby portraits and using film, no one ever asked me for the negatives. It was understood that the negatives stayed with the photographer because the photographer created them and therefore, owned, them. If you wanted a print, you ordered it through the photographer.
And then came — dunh dunh DUNH — DIGITAL.
I won’t go into the many ways digital photography has changed the way I make my living. I’d never finish this post and neither would you; you’d get bored and click over to Facebook or Pinterest and I wouldn’t blame you. What I’d like to attempt to explain is why professional photographers are so very particular about what happens to those digital negatives once we deliver them to our clients.
Did you notice I used the term “digital negative”? That’s a rule around here. They’re not “files” and they’re not “jpgs.” They’re negatives in digital form. I know a photographer who once overheard a frustrated Mother-of-the-Bride at a bridal show exclaim, “I don’t know how these photographers think they can get away with these prices. They don’t create a product like flowers or a cake. They just put stuff on a CD. And CDs are cheap!”
Dear MOB, if you’re reading this, here’s something to think about: that stuff we put on CDs (or USB drives these days), it’s the equivalent of a film negative. Just because you can easily duplicate it doesn’t take away from this basic fact: no negative, no photograph. But that’s a topic for a different day.
Rather than lecture you on the finer points of copyright law — yawn — I thought the best way to answer the question of “Why can’t I email my bridesmaid her favorite picture so she can make her own 4×6/use it as a profile pic on Facebook, etc., etc.,” would be to SHOW you. And tell you a story.
Here’s a photograph from a reception we shot three years ago. Nothing that would win a Pulitzer, but I liked it. The lighting was pretty. It was a nice moment between a bridesmaid and her boyfriend who seemed to be in their own little romantic bubble. When we can capture little moments like this at a reception, it makes me happy. It’s one of our strengths. So, naturally, it went into the wedding highlights slide show.
I adored this bride and groom. They are the kind of couple who make me glad every day that I get to do what I do and get paid for it. We had a great relationship. And relationships are important in photography, especially in wedding photography. The couple had a lovely Spring wedding at Duke Gardens, surrounded by happy family and a fun, easy-to-work-with wedding party who obviously cared about their friends and wanted them to have a great day. After the wedding, some of the bridesmaids and I became Facebook friends. (I like it when that happens.) And then, a few days after the slide show went up, I saw something like this on one of the bridesmaid’s Facebook page:
I just about fell out of my chair. And then I started saying words that would have caused my mother great distress. Words that, if I hear my own daughter say them, provoke a gentle “Hey now – keep it classy” reprimand from me. Three questions quickly formed in my brain:
1. What the heck was that? That wasn’t the photograph I made.
2. How did she get get a copy of it to edit? The bride and groom didn’t have their digital negatives yet.
3. Why in the world did she think she had the right to change MY photograph?
Question one: “THAT” was the bridesmaid’s attempt at “editing” a photograph of herself and her boyfriend to make it “better.” (Now, I fully expect that there may be some readers who will see the second photograph and think, “Hey, that’s kind of cool.” No prob — just know that if you’re looking for a wedding photographer, we’re not the ones for you.)
Question two: The bridesmaid made a screen-grab of the photograph by pausing the slide show, right-clicking on the image and saving it to her computer. There’s no water-mark or our logo or copyright info line, so it had to be a screen-grab. Screen grabs are low-resolution. Most of the time they look fine on Facebook, but heaven help you if you try to print it. Pixelation City, here we come!
Question three: She thought she had the right to change the photo because a) the photo was online and therefore, in her opinion, fair game and b) SHE was in it. Since there are unlimited ways to manipulate digital photos, she decided to “play around” with it. Isn’t that wonderful how she made everyone in the background that old-timey sepia tone but chose to leave herself and her cutie-patootie boyfriend in full color? And then, just because such a thing is possible in photo-editing programs, she added that cutting-edge circular filter to the background. OMG! Look what you can do now with this technology! The sky’s the limit!
Hang on a sec — I fear I may be crossing the line into full-on sarcasm. Let me bring it down a bit.
Back to Question three: she changed the photo because she didn’t know there was anything wrong with changing it. Simple. I’m sure she had no idea that I, the photographer, might have a problem with the choices she made when editing my photograph. She probably didn’t give me a passing thought. No harm done, right?
After thinking about it long and hard, I decided not to say anything to the bride and groom about what the bridesmaid had done. I valued my relationship with them too much and I really didn’t want them to be embarrassed or experience one moment of negative feelings about their wedding photographs. They were happy with the job we’d done. The bride wrote one of the loveliest reviews on Wedding Wire that we’ve ever received. I use it in my promotional materials to this day. And besides, our logo wasn’t on the photo that the bridesmaid had manipulated. Nobody knew who’d taken it, unless they were family, friends or guests who had attended the wedding and watched the slide show.
But then…the comments started coming. Yes, readers, I stalked her Facebook page, waiting for the inevitable to happen: someone asked, “Who was the photographer?” And she gave them our name. At that point I knew that I’d have to say something for the very simple reason that the image she posted on her Facebook page was no longer MY image. It didn’t represent what I’d seen and found worthy of documenting. It didn’t represent the Sweet Life style which, simply stated, is clean, classic and hopefully, timeless. I’d never make those choices when editing. Twenty years from now, someone looking at that photo would laugh at the obvious fakery involved. That’s not me. That’s not Sweet Life. So I wrote the bridesmaid a polite message through Facebook, explained why I had a problem with what she’d done and asked her to take the image down.
I don’t even have to tell you what her response was, do I? Yep. Un-friended. Ouch.
Even though the wedding was three years ago, I still tell this story and show these two photographs to demonstrate why we specify that the digital negatives are for the bride and groom’s personal use only. Because people like to “play” with photographs. That’s just fine, as long as they’re yours. Visit my personal Facebook page and you’ll see some highly manipulated images taken with my iPhone. It’s fun. But it’s a fad. And in 50 years — heck, in 20 years — we’re going to look at most of those yellow-sky Instagrammed snapshots and laugh. We might even roll our eyes and say, “that is SO 2013.” We’ll be on to the next cool thing. (I’ve got my money on photos with moving subjects, a la Harry Potter.)
Bottom line: the further away from the bride and groom the digital negatives travel, the higher the likelihood that someone who loves to “play around” with photo editing will start mangling what we created for our clients. The bridesmaid who posted her edited version of our photograph meant us no harm, but someone considering us for their wedding photography might see that photo and think “Ewwww….not hiring them!”
More importantly, once you start emailing digital negatives, you have no control over where they might end up. I’ve heard some pretty unpleasant stories about wedding photos being used in ways, let’s just say, for which they were not intended. For our couples’ sake and ours, the only images that should be shared are low-resolution, water-marked ones on Facebook.
Keeps everybody happy. And my mom doesn’t have to wash out my mouth with soap.
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