Commercial photography is a massive genre of photography. Look all around you — on billboards, magazine ads, in menus, on the front of packaging, and in digital advertisements while you’re scrolling websites and social media. Commercial photos are literally everywhere you look.
If you’re looking to break into the commercial photography niche, this is the right place to start. This guide will define commercial photography; go over the different types; what gear you need; and we’ll give you several tips to get you started as a commercial photographer.
Table of contents
What is commercial photography?
Commercial photography is a broad category that covers many smaller niches of photography. However, the one thing they all have in common is that the images are used to sell a product or service.
For example, you may shoot product photography of shoes like the image above or you may shoot food photography for a restaurant’s menu. In contrast, commercial photography could also include corporate headshots for a company website or real estate photography to help sell a property. The main thing to remember about commercial photography that sets it apart from other genres is its purpose — to sell, advertise, or promote the subject.
Types of commercial photography
Like we mentioned above, there are many different niches of photography under the umbrella of commercial photography. Let’s explore some of the most popular ones.
Headshots are one of the most common types of commercial photography. Different from a standard portrait, they are used in a professional capacity to promote the people behind the company. A good headshot builds trust between the company and its customers. Headshots are used by everyone from a one-person, home-run business to a multinational company.
Fashion photography is a standalone genre. But, It also falls under commercial photography. Remember – your goal is to sell or promote a brand or product. In this case, the clothing the model is wearing.
Fashion photography might include high-fashion runway work or, more often, eCommerce and catalog photography. Remember to shoot the clothing from front and back and capture all important details.
Product photography is another large category that’s easily identified as commercial photography. Product photography can be as simple as an image of a product on a white background or it can be the product of an elaborate photoshoot showing the product in use.
For the most part, product photography is shot in a studio. Having a solid grasp on how to use studio lighting is important if you’re going to be a commercial product photographer.
When it comes to food photography, we’re not talking about all those delicious foodie images you see on Instagram. Commercial food photographers often work with a food stylist and set up lighting equipment and professional gear to get the mouth-watering shots that are used for menus, product packaging, advertising, delivery services, and more.
Real Estate and Architectural photography
This niche involves shooting a building or architectural space for commercial purposes. It could be to showcase an architect or interior designer, to promote a retail space, or to list a home, building, or apartment for rent or sale. This also includes photographing resorts and hotels for promoting to tourists.
Environmental portraits are photographs of people in their work environment. This is especially useful for people who perform a service, like personal trainers, massage therapists, doctors, hairstylists, and personal chefs.
What’s the best camera for commercial photography?
While you can get away with watching your budget with most genres of photography, you’ll need to invest wisely in your gear if you’re going to be a commercial photographer. That’s because commercial photography is highly competitive, adapts quickly, and relies on the latest industry standards.
In addition, your images will often be printed — sometimes at massive sizes. They’ll need to be the highest resolution possible and tack sharp.
For these reasons, your gear needs to be up-to-date. A pro-level, late model full-frame DSLR with high megapixels or a new mirrorless camera are a must. Great examples include the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Nikon D850, or Sony Alpha a7R II.
Additionally, when you’re shooting on location, it’s a wise idea to have an extra camera body on hand, just in case any issues should arise.
What is the best lens for commercial photography?
Since there are so many different types of commercial photography, it would be impossible to answer which lens is best. That said, your images need to be tack sharp, so invest in top quality, professional glass. For example, if you shoot with Canon gear, go for their L Series lenses. Use Nikon’s gold ring lenses. Use lenses from the Sigma Art line, and so on.
Don’t worry if you can’t afford all this gear up front. You can rent any lens you need.
Other commercial photography gear
In addition to your camera and lenses, as a commercial photographer, you will likely need a studio space or at least some mobile studio lighting equipment. This will truly depend on the type of commercial photography you shoot. You’ll also need some retouching skills and a computer for editing.
Tips for commercial photographers
Stay on top of the trends
Photo styles, like everything else, are constantly changing. It’s important to always be aware of the latest trends in photography. What types of images are most popular on social media? Keep yourself informed about the latest photo trends so you can bring these styles to your clients.
Find your own voice
We mentioned above that commercial photography is an extremely competitive field. With this in mind, the way to stand apart from your competition is to develop a personal style and let it shine through in your work.
Remember the reason for commercial photography — to promote, advertise, or sell a product or service. Nobody wants to copy what their competition does. Creativity will help you, and your client, stand apart from the competition. How can you help them depict their product in a new, exciting, unique way?
Be a professional
Companies hire commercial photographers because they mean business. They have certain expectations about the quality of the images you’ll give them. This is no time to “fake it til you make it.” Get your practice, education, and experimentation out of the way first. Know your photography basics forward and backward before you start taking on commercial clients.
Have a solid portfolio
Having a carefully curated portfolio is extremely important when trying to secure a new commercial photography client. It should only include 10 to 20 of your very best images.
If you have a large body of work, consider building a separate portfolio for each specialty. Be sure to include a variety of images that showcase different styles, subjects, and both studio and natural light.
Be clear on your client’s needs
When it comes to meeting your client’s needs, clear communication is key. Make sure you know exactly what they expect from you by asking the following questions:
- How many photos do you need?
- What is your budget?
- What is your deadline?
- Do you have specific shots in mind?
- Do you have any required props, locations, wardrobe, etc.
When you’re just starting out, it also helps to have the client send you example images that are similar to the look they’re going for. This will help you visualize what they expect the final product to look like.
Discuss usage & draw contracts
Commercial photographs are used very differently than wedding or family portraits. They aren’t going into an album or on a canvas in your living room. Rather, they’re being used to generate income for a company — and, as such, you should charge differently.
Discuss with your client how they intend to use your images. The usage will affect the rate you charge. For example, how long will the photos be used? Indefinitely? Or just for a season? Specify this and charge accordingly.
Who keeps the image copyright? The photographer or the client? Can the client use the images locally or worldwide? Will the images be printed or only used online? Are there restrictions on where or in what type of publication the images may appear? These are all questions that should be decided upon in advance.
Once you and your client agree on the terms, put them in writing by drawing up a contract.
Commercial photography is a viable career path for any good photographer who wants to make a full-time living. Just look around. There is no shortage of opportunities for commercial photographers in every direction you turn.
So, follow the tips in this guide: Know your photography basics, start small, build your portfolio, and find your voice. You’ll be well on your way to becoming a commercial photographer.