Commercial Photography: A Comprehensive Guide (w/ Pro Tips)

(Last updated on July 18th, 2022)

There are many ways you can make a living as a photographer such as wedding and portrait photography, a photojournalist, or a landscape photographer. Commercial photography is one of the most popular ways and it can be very profitable. Maybe you’re already enjoying taking portraits and photographing weddings, but have time during the week that you’d like to use your photography skills for generating more income. Commercial photography is a great option.

Commercial photography is the business of taking and editing photographs for commerce. These images help clients sell their products and services. We see commercial photography in advertising, on social media, on television, and on all manner of other media.

To become a successful commercial photographer you must do two things well. Take great photos that follow a client’s brief and you must also run your business well. In this article, I provide a comprehensive guide to getting started as a commercial photographer. I’ll also cover some types of commercial photography, and how to work with clients.

Portrait. A good commercial photographer photographs not only products but also people.
Portrait. A good commercial photographer photographs not only products but also people.

Types of Commercial Photography and How It is Used

Photography that helps to sell a product or service can be classified as commercial photography. Whatever a company needs to present to customers that will help sales, comes under the category of commercial photography.

There are many different types of commercial photography. Some of the most prominent ones are:

  • Product photography
  • Food photography
  • Fashion photography
  • Property and Architectural photography
  • Portraits
  • Industrial and Corporate photography

The range of potential subjects is almost limitless. I have photographed everything from fish hooks to make-up. Beer bottles to super yachts. And even flowers for commercial photography clients.

Being a commercial photographer requires a great deal of creativity and flexibility. You need to be able to photograph almost any kind of product. It can also involve photographing people providing services. Your ability to create photos of almost anything that your clients require can stretch you beyond what you’ve been used to as an amateur photographer.

Open any newspaper or magazine. Browse websites and social media platforms. Watch television or glance at a billboard and you’ll find many examples of commercial photography.

Depending on the product or service, different photography styles are used to make more effective images. Reaching the target audience is an essential part of good commercial photography.

Beer. Product photography is an essential skill to have for a commercial photographer.
Beer. Product photography is an essential skill to have for a commercial photographer.

How To Get Started as a Commercial Photographer

Getting started in any genre of photography as a professional can be a daunting task. You must focus on both your photography and on running a good business. Here are some tried and true ideas and methods that will help to start you off in the right direction.

Decide What Types of Commercial Photography You Want to Specialize In

Being a commercial photographer means you have to be a bit of a jack of all trades. You must be able to provide a wide range of images of a variety of subjects.

To attract the attention of a broad range of clients, you’ll need to work with a diverse range of subjects. This is important. It’s also important to show off your best work in a narrower range of specific subjects.

Pick things that you are naturally good at. Think about what you enjoy photographing the most because these are the subjects you’ll be best at photographing. Then figure out how you can incorporate these topics and subjects into your commercial photography.

If you love gardening and being outdoors, build a portfolio of photos that reflects this. If you love photographing people, take lots of different portraits that show off this interest. Commercial photography can cover so many different subjects I am sure you can find a few you love to photograph and concentrate on these.

Pro Tip

Use the internet to look for examples of your chosen subjects in commercial photography. If you can’t find many, you may need to think more generally and try again. This is unless you know of specific clients who will want this type of photography that you can pitch your services to.

Maybe you love photographing close-ups of spiders. No matter how fabulous your pictures are, it’s not a subject that translates easily into paying work for clients. You’ll need to broaden your subject matter. Think of other small subjects you can use your macro photography skills with and how you can find a wider market for them.

Food. Food photography is highly competitive and requires a good understanding of styling.
Food. Food photography is highly competitive and requires a good understanding of styling.

Decide What Camera and Lighting Equipment You Need

Not many photographers ever have enough budget to afford all the gear they think they need. To get into commercial photography you can start with minimal gear and build your kit as you discover what you lack.

I always stick to one rule when it comes to buying new equipment. If I can use the thing I want to buy on commercial assignments so it will pay for itself, then I can buy it. This avoids ending up with a store room full of unused equipment.

You can make a start with a camera and a kit lens. Soon you’ll discover that you need a flash or two and some other lights. Depending on the type of business you pursue, you’ll also need more lenses. Some genres of photography require long focal length lenses or other more specialist lenses. You need to research what you’ll need by finding out what other photographers use.

For commercial photographers, there is no set checklist of gear you’ll need. Building up equipment as you need it and as you can afford it may feel frustrating, but it makes better business sense than buying loads of equipment you may never end up using.

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Build a Strong Portfolio of Commercial Images

You can’t pitch your photography services to a potential client if you have no appropriate photos to show them. Maybe you’ve become proficient ay photographing things like landscapes, flowers, and macro images of bugs. A portfolio containing photos of only these subjects is not likely to impress a commercial client. No matter how good they are.

If you want to break into product photography or fashion, these are the types of images that must populate your portfolio. Decide what areas of commercial photography you want to concentrate on and begin to photograph in these categories.

Photograph boxes, bottles, and still life subjects to build a portfolio of product photos. Take pictures of interiors and exteriors of houses if you want to get into real estate photography. Whatever subjects you most want to gain clients for, photograph these things as well as you can. Be creative and build up a solid body of work to show potential clients that you are proficient in making the types of images they want.

Pro Tip

The main difference between being an amateur photographer and a professional is not about your skill level. It is more about your ability to listen to your client and provide them the photos of what they want and to meet their deadlines.

Books. You may not like photographing books or other things, but as a commercial photographer, you need to provide photos that your client wants and likes.
Books. You may not like photographing books or other things, but as a commercial photographer, you need to provide photos that your client wants and likes.

Get Yourself Hired as a Commercial Photography Assistant

One of the best ways to learn photography is with the help of a professional photography mentor. Find a commercial photographer you can assist and get hired by them. Or, even volunteer. The more exposure you can have to someone who is working in this field, the more you’ll learn.

Not all photographers are willing to pay an assistant, especially if they know the person is an up-and-coming photographer. They may see them as competition and be reluctant to share much.  Some photographers will be more willing to teach you than others. If you can find a photographer who walks you through what they are doing and how they do it, this is ideal.

Even if you are relegated to the tasks of carrying heavy bags of gear or setting up the lights and background, you are sure to learn a lot. Watching and learning from an experienced professional is the oldest and surest way to learn the ropes of any commercial trade.

Pro Tip

When you approach a professional photographer and offer to be an assistant, be polite and willing. Show them you are eager to learn and eager to help lighten their load. You want to provide them value. As a professional commercial photographer, it was never beneficial to me to work with an assistant who only had their own interests at heart.

Ice cream Ice cream photography like many aspects of commercial photography is very challenging You must have a very cold studio
Ice cream. Ice cream photography, like many aspects of commercial photography, is very challenging. You must have a very cold studio!

Finding Potential Commercial Photography Clients

These days some of the best ways you can find potential clients is through social media and websites like LinkedIn.

A strong display of images on Instagram is a great way to attract new clients. Not only showing your best work but using hashtags so clients can easily find your photos that are relevant to them.

Cold call companies you find on LinkedIn and even through online search engines or Facebook. This can help you build up good leads that turn into working relationships. Promote yourself on these platforms and make it obvious that you are available for hire as a commercial photographer.

Use the old-fashioned methods of working the phone and door-knocking. These work best with local businesses and can be most effective. Walking into a business with a well-presented portfolio, either printed or digital, can capture a business person’s attention more than anything else. Especially if you have a great pitch to share with them.

Pro Tip

Develop a short, medium, and longer pitch to present your photography. Know how to talk about the images in your portfolio and display your knowledge and skill level. As you make your presentation, know when to stop. Can you hold your potential client’s attention for longer than your short pitch? If so, move on to your medium pitch or longer one.

Coffee. There are varying degrees of creative input you can have as a commercial photographer. Some clients will give you more creative freedom to arrange photos than others.
Coffee. There are varying degrees of creative input you can have as a commercial photographer. Some clients will give you more creative freedom to arrange photos than others.

Preparing for Success as a Commercial Photographer

It’s one thing to know the theory of what commercial photography is, and another to put it into practice. Both the photography side and the business side.

Good Communication with Your Client

Good communication with your client is one of the most important aspects of commercial photography. You must know what your client wants so it is very important to ask lots of questions.

I find there are two types of clients when it comes to communicating. Those who will be a little vague (or a lot) and not articulate well what they want. These can be difficult people to please unless you ask plenty of questions. Obtaining answers to your questions will help you have a better understanding of the type of photos you need to take for them.

Other clients will provide you with a detailed list of photos they want and how they want them photographed. These are people who are more used to working with photographers. They know that the communication stage can make the whole process much more efficient and successful.

Talk About Post-Processing

Talk about post-processing. Ask your client how much editing they want you to do. Some clients have their own in-house design department staff who manage the editing process. Others will require you to present images that are edited and ready for use.

You must decide if you want to include post-processing and what kind in the services you offer. When you are starting out and need all the work you can get, adding post-processing to your services can do two things. It helps to bring in more customers who want a full photography service. They can then avoid having to find someone else to edit the photos you take. It will also increase the number of hours you can bill a client.

Make a Written Contract

Once you know what your clients want, get a written contract. This is particularly important with new clients. Once you have worked with someone for a while it may not be so necessary. Have in writing what you’ll provide, how much editing is included, and your price.

Plan well so that you don’t waste your time or your client’s time. Have a list of the photos you need to take. Know what gear you’ll need and if you have to hire any. I often take more equipment to a commercial photography job than I think I’ll need. This is because clients can change their minds and want something more than was in the brief. It’s good to be prepared for anything.

Fashion. Listen to your client and understand what they want. This is important in every type of commercial photography.
Fashion. Listen to your client and understand what they want. This is important in every type of commercial photography.

Being a Successful Commercial Photographer

Becoming a successful commercial photographer is hard work. You need to have a high standard of photography in the areas you choose to work in. The photos you take must meet the needs of your clients. What you think is a great photo of their product will be of no use to your client if they don’t like it, for any reason.

Running the business side of a commercial photography enterprise well is vital. You must price your services so they reflect the quality of your work and so you can make a living. It can be tempting to under-price yourself and not earn enough money. This is also largely dependent on your location and the proximity of clients who can afford to hire photographers.

Remember that you are the professional photographer. You have to be able to compete with attitudes that will doubt the value of what you do because everyone with a mobile phone can take a picture these days. Learn to communicate with your clients well so they see the value in the commercial photography services you provide.

House. Some areas of commercial photography are highly specialized, such as real estate photography.
House. Some areas of commercial photography are highly specialized, such as real estate photography.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is commercial photography?

Essentially, commercial photography is about taking photos to sell goods or services. This genre of photography covers every type of business image-making. Commercial photography is used in advertising, websites, social media, and any form of media promoting sales.

What does commercial photography include?

Commercial photography includes photographing any product or service. It needs to be in such a way that the images appear attractive and will entice people to buy that product or service.

What is the difference between photography and commercial photography?

Commercial photography is all about helping to sell something. Other forms of photography can be more broad in usages, such as in editorial, documentary, or educational photography. In commercial photography, there are few or no limits on how much you edit photos and how realistic they appear.

What does a commercial photographer do?

Commercial photographers take pictures of products and services to help clients with marketing. The client briefs the photographer on how they want the product or service portrayed and how the images are going to be used. The photographer then creates the photographs to meet the client’s requirements.

How do commercial photographers get clients?

Photographers can approach potential clients, or their agents, directly and pitch their services to the. They also make use of social media to prick up new clients. A commercial photographer also needs a good website to display their portfolio. This allows potential clients to gain an appreciation of the quality and style of their photography.

Is commercial photography profitable?

Commercial photography can be very profitable. Managing the business aspect of commercial photography has as much to do with success as taking good photos that suit a client’s needs does.

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