We live in a digital age, and digital files are becoming the norm in clients’ product requests.

Because clients think digital images are what they truly need and want, photographers feel increasingly obligated to sell them. A few experiences over the years have provided me a different and sobering perspective.

Years ago, my husband and I were taping an educational video for our friends, Ed and Barbara Pierce, founders and one-time owners of PhotoVision, when we discussed the last time they’d been photographed as a couple. It had been far too long since their last couple session, and now their 30th wedding anniversary was days away. After a little arm-twisting, they agreed to our doing an impromptu shoot, despite Barbara’s concerns over needing a hair-color touch-up and the couple’s casual attire.

Because I was looking at them as friends rather than as clients, and because they were professional photographers themselves, we all agreed on handing over the digital files for them to print as desired. Six years later, we were shocked by the tragic news that Barbara had died in a boating accident. Preparing for the funeral, Ed methodically made his way through their huge image archive for photos to display.

Praying he’d find more than casual snapshots of them together, he came to those anniversary files. As they were never printed, he’d completely forgotten about them. Now he was overwhelmed with emotion at seeing them. He felt he’d been given a precious gift from the past, and he gave me the privilege of turning them into art for display. (A special thanks to WHCC for their generous donation of rush-printing the image files in time for the funeral!)

Shortly after, Ed wrote a blog post to fellow photographers, “I was lucky. I was a professional with well thought-out systems in place. What about your clients? When a potential client says, ‘But photographers A, B, and C will give me just the files,’ [you] say, ‘I’m sorry, I care too much about my clients,’ and ask them, ‘What’s motivating you to consider having portraits made?’ The answer is usually love … Then ask them, ‘Can I tell you a story about a friend of mine?’ And you tell them my story.”

Even now, years after Barbara’s death, Ed gets tears in his eyes when he tells me about the healing power of the printed artwork of him and Barbara. He wishes she’d been able to share in the joy they bring.

I’m thinking of a similar experience I had in November 2013, after a tornado tore through our town and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.

Within hours of losing everything except one another, clients called begging me to verify I’d be able to replace their family albums and wall portraits. As they went about rebuilding their lives and their houses, they felt the most important part would be hanging up those portraits on the walls, making the new house their home.

It was such an emotional experience for us to be with them as they did this. One client, Kirsten Essig, sent us this message, “The power of imagery … after you’ve lost everything … is truly immeasurable! You were the first on my call list and your everlasting support, kindness, and hard work to retrieve our images is heartwarming. I will be forever thankful!”

When I ponder these stories, I start to think about the what-ifs.

What if Ed and Barbara hadn’t been professionals with an organized and robust storage system? What if I had not printed those wall portraits and albums for my clients at the time of their session, just given them digital files? Would they have held the emotional importance they did if the family had not had those years to enjoy and treasure them together? Would even the memory of them be lost forever on a destroyed hard drive?

The power of what we offer our clients as portrait and wedding photographers goes beyond words. Our tangible photographs can impact a child’s self-esteem, a couple’s relationship, and a family’s sense of belonging. They can help heal a broken heart after great loss. They silently speak a universal language of love, connection, and relationships to all who view them.

Because clients think digital images are what they truly need and want, photographers feel increasingly obligated to sell them. A few experiences over the years have provided me a different and sobering perspective.