Prints vs. CDs: When Business Strategies Collide

Prints vs. CDs: When Business Strategies Collide

There seems to be a constant war waged between photographers who sell prints and the “shoot and burn” photographers that give their clients a disc with edited images. Photographers who sell prints think that photographers who sell (or ***gasp***) give away their images on a CD are devaluing photographers and photography as a whole. Photographers who provide discs (whether given or purchased) to their clients think they are just keeping up with technology and client demand.

So, who is right in this war pitting photographer against photographer? Sadly, no one. Not all business models are created the same and neither are photographers. Client demand is a huge factor when creating packages and figuring out what products to sell.

As a photographer, I think it is natural to want to see your prints displayed. However, if you are only selling 4×6 sizes of images, you are not really creating displays for your clients, you are creating pieces for their scrapbooks and photo albums. Seeing your work displayed gives a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of purpose. It also allows clients to see the work every day and remind themselves of how beautiful your work is and how they need to keep updating those wonderful pieces.

In this digital age now, people want to share everything online and save the images to their computer. They don’t necessarily want the hard copies of the images, but the ability to create them if they want. They upload them to their computers, their external hard drives, or even cloud storage. This doesn’t only apply to younger people, because even older people are learning to use the Internet to connect with their families. Grandma and Grandpa may even be on Facebook just to keep up with photos of their grandchildren and see what is happening on a day-to-day basis with their families. Grandparents love seeing all those new images and most of the time, they don’t even care about seeing the watermark from the photographer on them. They just want to see new photos.

Just because you are a part-time photographer or new photographer does not mean that you can only give images on a CD. New photographers think that is the only way for them to give their images to their clients and it’s just not so. There are so many options for photographers who solely provide discs because they don’t know how else to give their clients their images.

Most professional photographers use professional labs, such as White House Custom Color, Black River Imagining, Miller’s Lab, Bay Photo Labs or Mpix Pro. How do you know which lab is best for you? Most labs will offer to do test prints for you so that you can see how your particular images will look when transferred from your computer and screen to their paper. Setting up accounts with most labs is pretty easy as long as you have a Tax ID number.

Educating your client on the differences between a professional lab and a discount store lab is very important. The test prints you get from your lab can help your keep your monitor calibrated which helps to ensure that what is seen on the computer screen matches what is printed. This is not a guarantee, sometimes not even close enough to be passable, from a discount lab. There can be huge color shifts, variations in overall tones, and the photographer has lost all control of the quality of the output of their final images.

If you are giving your images on CD, you need to think about presentation and packaging. Just handing a burned CD with their name written in Sharpie doesn’t make for a professional presentation. You can create white CD labels with your logo or a photo simply and cheaply. You can even order blank CD/DVDs from labs that have your logo on them and then just burn the images onto the discs as you sell them. There are so many options out there that can help make your presentation of CDs beautiful and unique. For instance, you can use these simple brown kraft envelopes and place them inside the banana leaf sinamay envelopes. It’s relatively inexpensive and looks so much nicer than just handing over a CD.

Image 01

You can customize boxes or folders to present your CDs in when you give them to your client. You want it to represent your photography, your business, and your brand model as a whole. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, but it should come across as a representation of your business and what you provide.

Image 02

The final images can be placed inside the box on some beautiful fabric or you can purchase bags to separate them inside the presentation boxes. Again, this is very inexpensive to do, but makes the presentation so much more beautiful and shows the attention to detail you provide in every aspect of your business.

Image 03

They key component is not which is technically “right”, but which fits your business model. If you are pricing your sessions correctly and including the price for the CDs then you are doing what best fits your business. Giving the CDs away actually does very little to help clients value your business and the time and energy that was spent into creating, editing, and presenting your images. The same goes for providing prints so cheap that you are trying to compete with discount store pricing.

You need to value your business. You need to know your worth. Does the cost of whatever product you are providing help maintain your business or are you just throwing money away trying to get clients to walk in the door? If your business is not making money or at least breaking even, then you really need to figure out where you are losing your money. Is it from not selling prints or from including a CD with every order?

There are resources you can go to if you need help figuring out what to do and what your business can afford. The bottom line is that you have to do what makes your business successful, profitable, and provide a professional looking end product to your client. Photographers spend much of their time trying to figure out how to get clients and in the end your presentation of their products can be the difference in showing them if you are truly a professional or you are just a hobbyist making money on the side.

The presentation resources in this article are available from Le Box Boutique. Digital Photography School readers can use the code PHOTOGRAPHER10 for 10% of any purchase from Le Box Boutique.

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Lori Peterson is an award winning photographer based out of the St. Louis Metro Area. Her dynamic work ranges from creative portraits to very unique fine art photography. Lori's work can be seen at and also on her blog. You can follow her on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • Adam August 24, 2013 04:17 am

    I'm new to the business(the last 2 years) but I offer my clients a digital only package and then packages for prints. They get their photos from my website when I'm done with them. Prints can be very expensive so that's why I separated them. I do let them know, however, that the best option would be to let me get them printed. And right now I don't include a watermark on the images that they can download. The way I see it is that they paid for my photography service, not to tie them down to me whenever they want prints so I give them 100% rights to do whatever they want with the photos. I can understand why some people do add the watermark but it isn't for me at this time. Will I change this down the road? Maybe, who knows.

  • Tara August 24, 2013 12:06 am

    This is a perfect article for me today as I have recently been doing some fun family shoots and want to make a little money with it. So far I have just charged a certain price for the session and so many images on a CD. I've quickly realized that when I break down the hours I'm spending not only at the shoot but also editing, I'm not paying myself very much, so I'd like to find a good balance. For most people, taking family portraits is a luxury. I love having updated pictures of my growing family, but I can't afford to spend hundreds of dollars every year on it. I recently took my infant in for newborn pictures, and in my husband's eyes, we paid $70+ a picture. I knew it was going to be expensive, but I knew the results would be amazing and I would be paying for a service I could not do on my own (regarding backgrounds, lighting, special props). It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal because my baby will never be that size again, but I wouldn't consider spending this kind of money every year updating his pictures. And I know that if I spent a ton of money going to a studio with my entire family, I might only get a handful of really good pictures because my kids never want to cooperate when it comes to pictures--and I think a lot of families feel the same. It's fun seeing pictures of your changing kids, but spending this kind of money every year on it is just not an option for many. I don't need big photo displays of my family, just a few 8x10s and 5x7s to give to the grandparents. Obviously when it comes to milestone events (senior pictures, weddings) it works to sell portrait packages, but for yearly family pictures, I want to help provide my friends and family with nice pictures they can admire all year and then update next year at an affordable price.

  • Jason August 17, 2013 05:40 am

    It really annoys professional photographers when a newbie gives away (or sells) a disk rather than sell only prints. Part of the reason is because they are upset about a new photographer competing with them, offering more for less. After all the established photographers have more experience and they offer more than the newbie. So how is a newbie supposed to compete?

    There are two ways to compete, pricing and value. Airlines are a good example of both models. Coach class post the lowest prices all over the place, to those who only want to save a buck and get there as cheaply as possible. But first classics value based because the pricing is not competitive but the customer gets a better experience.

    If a newbie has little experience it is in the established photographers best interests to get the newbie to compete with them in a way the newbie cannot win. The newbie must give away the disk in most cases to bridge the gap between the two - and he must charge less too.

    What the established photographer needs to do is let those penny pinching customers go to the newbies and get over it. If your business model is giving out a disk- do it and don't let anyone tell you differently.

  • katesi August 15, 2013 02:24 am

    I think a watermark on digital copies makes a difference. If someone gives you a CD with no watermark then you've just been given free-reign to print without credit or limit and put it up anywhere and claim it.

  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging August 14, 2013 01:34 pm

    I've been pondering that exact dilemma lately. I have found that the photographer's taste and the clients' taste will not always match up in wedding photography when choosing those album, scrapbook, and display photos. This is why I include digital copies on CD or DVD but they are all watermarked. If the client wants an un-watermarked copy, he or she must purchase the print from me. The same may or may not be said for portrait work which is far more limited in the number of pictures taken. For this, I give digital very low resolution previews, which would pixelate if blown up even to a wallet size. The client can preview them and choose what he or she wants to have printed. These are watermarked. I don't find it cost effective to offer digital copies of portraits to the customers. People can differ with my opinion, but this is what I have found works for me.

    @ Morgan Glassco, who says that such awesome pictures are wasted? They are excellent opportunities for your portfolio and for advertizing with.

  • Pat August 14, 2013 11:31 am

    If you're using CDs as your digital benchmark... well, don't hold on too tightly. Between work laptops and home desktops, there are 4 computers (+2 iPads +2 phones), and not a CD drive to be found.

    Give me a nice site to download them instead, thank you. It'll save us both the aggravation!

  • Morgan Glassco August 14, 2013 07:44 am

    This is certainly a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately.

    I've got a couple weddings under my belt now and am one of those providing images on a USB drive.

    I fully intend to get into the print game, someday, but right now this is working. I think the days of only selling images are gone / on the way out. I have a lot to learn but I am curious about how the misc images are sold. You may get a great shot of Grandma and Cousin so and so on the dance floor, but will they buy it if that's the only way they can get it? It's a shame to let it go to waste because they didn't "buy" it.

    On the other hand, I fully get where they would be inclined to purchase some of the key photos but how does one balance selling the highlights and still provide the misc photos of details, randomness from the event.

  • Scoro August 14, 2013 06:04 am

    We chose our wedding photographer because we loved his photography style, personality and skill, He was amazing and we have many happy memories of a wonderful wedding because of his skill.

    However, part of the deal was that we got digital copies of the photos. If this wasn't going to be an option, we would have gone somewhere else. He did a very clever thing though - you paid an extra $600 for the photos on CD or if you got him to make an album it was only an extra $150. That was a great option for us and made sure he got to sell the extra bits for him. He did remind us (as completely satisfied customers) as we walked out the door that if we had friends or family who wanted pro prints, he could arrange this.

    So there's one strategy that left everyone happy!