The Day You Gave Away Your Layered File…



… is the Day You Gave Away Money

Has a client you’ve been working with suddenly asked you to send over your full working PSD? Yeah? Did you do it? It’s ok. But you probably got screwed.
If you refused to hand over your layered files, were you worried that maybe you should have, and that you unnecessarily soured the relationship?
It took me years of experience, thousands of jobs, and a few missteps to understand all the nuances of this subject and write my own rulebook on it. It seems pretty simple now. Read on and I’ll tell you my complete manifesto so you’ll be able to negotiate like a pro the next time you get asked to provide your working files to a client.

Here’s an experience of mine from years ago. See what you think.

Client: “Please do these product cleanups for us, there are 15 to begin with, and 50 will follow in a few phases. K thx bai”
Me: “OK” (This was a nice ongoing job)
One week later, I deliver files on the first 15. Shortly after, I get paid as agreed.
Two weeks later.
Client: “Oh hi, my name is New Client, the Client you were working with is no longer with us.”
Me: “OK hi.”
Client: “Remember those 50 files that Old Client said we were going to send you?”
Me: “Yeah.”
Client: “I’ve decided to keep those in-house now to reduce costs, will you please send me over all your layered working files so that my designers can see how you did the retouching and do it ourselves?”
Me: *images in my head of dollar signs with little wings on them flying away*
Me: “Of course, though my working files contain proprietary information and techniques, and are not created in a way that would allow other users to manipulate them or apply them to other files, which is beyond the scope of work agreed upon in our initial contract. I would be happy to a) restructure these working files in a way that their contents can be used with the additional product shots, or b) come to you and train your team, and also provide them with a set of tools to complete the retouching themselves. The cost for a) is $XXXX.xx (the initial fee for the job, again) and b) is $XXXX.xx (a reasonable consulting fee).

And crickets…

If a client is asking you for layered working files, they are trying to pull a shystie one on you. They think their internal team can do it, they’ve found a gollum sitting in his playstation cave who said he’ll do it for half, or the photographer wants to keep all of the work and do it. Chances are you’re seen as too expensive.

Your layered files contain proprietary information.

You have developed techniques over time that are uniquely yours. They are most definitely built upon techniques learned from many sources, combined and adjusted to fit your own workflow. But they are yours because you put in the time, money and sweat to learn them. Due to the structural nature of the Photoshop document, a lot of these techniques are contained in modular components that can be opened, read, and applied to other files. That’s nice because we love non-destructive editing, but it also allows others to jack your work with relatively little effort.
We often have to match a certain look or feel as directed in an initial retouching brief. We’re given a reference image to match mood and grade – no problem. We do that using our own techniques and processes, and it should be expected of other Retouchers who we are asked to hand our files off to. We don’t give our working files to other Retouchers to just drag our work layers over and tweak them unless we have established it as a deliverable – what I call a toolkit.

Your layered files are a valuable product.

Your layered files should be a lot more expensive than your final flat artwork. They provide others with tools to make the money you would otherwise be making. They are your Source Code and should be priced accordingly. It’s tricky to have this conversation with someone who doesn’t understand the nuances of Retouching. A lot of people out there just think we run NIK filters on everything and call it good. Being armed with the knowledge about why layered files are precious things will allow you to better negotiate the terms under which you’ll hand them over.
For an analogous and interesting discussion of pricing source code, check out this Ars Technica article.
The motivations behind a layered file request will vary, but the bottom line is that somebody else wants your intellectual property on the cheap. Your client might not understand it that way, maybe they do. They probably just want to cut costs. Fair enough. But it’s up to you to protect your interests, property, and future paychecks.

What Are The Industry Standard Deliverables?

Just to be completely clear – at least in high-end retouching – it is NOT industry standard to supply layered working photoshop files, no matter what some pushy producer might be telling you. It IS common to provide layered simplified files that allow another team to move elements around.
We normally provide:
     Flattened final artwork (w/Clipping Path optional)
          RGB + CMYK as needed
     Simplified layered final art

We Can Work This Out

We all want to provide our clients with the best quality product. If part of the initial agreement involves added assets or tools for future production on the client-side, that’s totally cool and we can work it out in the original quote and timeline. If it comes up later in the process then we need to address it immediately as a deliverable that is outside the scope of the initial work and renegotiate.
Many clients will not have even thought for a minute about what they’re asking you for, and will think that it was just a given as part of the initial agreement. These can be tricky conversations. The important thing is to keep it professional and really understand what the client needs. Often they are really just asking for simplified layered files because their design team needs to move some stuff around to give flexibility for different layouts. 

Photographers’ Settings

On a related note, it’s pretty common for us to receive a photographer’s Lightroom or Capture One process settings along with the files from a shoot. This IS a pretty standard delivery but isn’t guaranteed. That is also up to the photographer and whether they want to share those settings. Sometimes they see their initial processing as very distinct and proprietary – their signature “look” – and will choose only to share flat process files for reference. Cool, we just match their look and continue the retouching process on top of it, which is often a much better way to work given that a photographer’s heavy initial pass could very likely destroy detail or add unwanted artifacts that we are asked to remove later.

The Takeaway

I hope this article has given you the tools and understanding you need to negotiate with your clients so that there are no surprises, and you can communicate the subject in a way that makes sense to a layperson. Having the vocabulary to describe the value of digital products is a new thing for a lot of us. The best step you can take is to lay all of it out clearly as to what you’re delivering in the initial contract so that you never have to have a painful discussion like this with someone who really doesn’t care and just needs to make a deadline.
So don’t feel bad if you gave it away – some lucky individual who didn’t have your chops got a nice package of tools to work with, saving them time and the project budget.
The client in my story – of course – never came back to me. It was clear to me that they weren’t going to anyway. And the way I look at it is that I gave some lucky designer the opportunity to develop and find the techniques for themselves, and maybe become a Retoucher some day. 🙂
I’d love to hear what you have to say – leave your story in the comments below.
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