Business Insight - An Introduction to Commercial Photography.


Commercial photographer is what most people imagine a 'professional photographer' to be. Working with clients to create images based on their requirements or 'brief'. There are no hard and fast rules about what kind of work passes for commercial photography so I take the view that if someone is paying a photographer to create specific pictures to meet their needs then that is a commercial transaction. So a business shooting weddings, portraits, business premises, products, cars, animals or almost anything that is requested of them by a client, can be described as commercial photography. Those clients can be other businesses, individuals, publishers, really the list of clients who can seek the services of a photographer to create pictures for them is very large. Which is actually a very good thing as it means there are lots of opportunities to find customers to work with.

Some photographers specialise and one such example is the wedding photographer. This title is used by many photographers and is understood by anyone not connected with the photography industry. It may well be easier to call yourself a wedding photographer rather than a commercial photographer as there's no doubt about what service you're offering and clients find you a lot quicker. Someone calling themselves a commercial photographer may also photograph weddings but it's likely this is just one of a number of services they provide hence the wedding photographer title would be too rigid. Many might specialise on specific imagery such as cars so they call themselves a car photographer or products so they call themselves a product photographer. It depends on what you feel describes your work best and how you would like to be perceived by potential customers. For the purposes of this article, we will assume any and all variants are commercial photographers, (CP).

Running a business is never easy and running a commercial photography business is no different. There are many non-photo related issues to consider before you even start to find customers so lets take a look and see what's involved.

How Do I Start?
There are no rules (in the UK anyway, it might be different in your country) about having a qualification or accreditation before you call yourself a commercial photographer. In theory you can buy a camera today and with no experience of taking any kind of picture, call yourself a commercial photographer. Of course this is a ridiculous example used to make a point. In reality a client will expect a CP to have knowledge and expertise that the average person doesn't possess and for this reason the photographer is commissioned to create work for the client.

Before starting a commercial photography business it's critical that experience and knowledge are gained such that the photographer can easily deal with the situations thrown at them by clients. Every job will have something about it that you weren't expecting. Be prepared to expect the unexpected. Dealing with the unexpected is what separates a photographer from a successful photographer. When you are out there on the shoot, you have to come back with the images. Generally, failure to deliver is not an option.

Gaining that experience can start in different ways. For some that means going to college or university to study photography. This can be a great way to start as some courses are designed with the commercial photographer in mind so learning is based on the skills you need to work in the commercial arena. Alternatively you could start with an interest in photography that has grown from a hobby. This can be an opportunity to hone your knowledge and skills in your own time with no pressure. Make mistakes and learn from them as there's no deadlines or impatient clients waiting for you to create those pictures. If they don't turn out just right you learn what went wrong and next time you won't make those mistakes again. A great route to gaining experience is to get work with a photographer as an assistant but only once you have gained good technical skills. Working with a pro will show you what it takes to create high quality work for clients and run a business at the same time. Expect it to be difficult to find one of these positions as many see the advantages of working in this way to learn the business. Expect stiff competition, not much pay, hard work and to learn lots.

Before you make the leap to starting a business you should take some advice and get a second opinion about the quality of your images to see if your skills are good enough to offer your services to clients. At this stage you have to be very honest with yourself about how good you are as moving to the next stage is hard work and without confidence in your work you'll find it difficult to build a business around fragile skills. Even with a qualification behind you doesn't mean your images are good enough.

So I Think I'm Good Enough.

Having confidence in your abiity to create commercial quality work is important but that's just the beginning. What we described above is how you need the skills to capture the image and be able to do it under difficult and testing circumstances. Running a commercial photography business means that the actual photography part of the job is quite a small one in the great scheme of things. For most of the time you'll be a business operator just like a plumber, carpenter or hairdresser. You will be looking for clients, advertising, dealing with costs, profits, testing and reviewing equipment, learning, invoicing (hopefully), making trips to the bank, backing up files, tweeting about your business, going to seeing your accountant or solicitor, networking and all of the other things a business has to do to survive and thrive. If these skills are new then you have to make time to learn how to do them. Some are harder to learn than others but all need to be tackled.

Starting Your Business

If you really have made a decision to start a commercial photography business then that's an exciting moment. From here you have to commit a lot of time and energy to getting your fledging business off the ground. Of course I can only describe things in general terms as each experience will be different for anyone starting their own business but lets look at some fundamentals that you will probably need to plan for. Making these decisions before you start looking for clients ensures you're in a good position to launch your business. (As I am based in the UK I can only write about how a UK business may deal with these business decisions but hopefully they will help if you are looking at this article from outside the UK.)

1. Business Type - Are you going to be a limited company or a sole trader? There are tax, ownership and liability issues to be understood and dealt with here. Starting a limited company can mean your personal assets are protected from company debt but there's more paperwork, legal structure and corporation tax. This article on the Guardian website explains it very well. Another useful reference is this from the UK government explaining about the legal structure You would be advised to seek the advice of an accountant too so finding one of these should be part of your planning to start your business.

It could be said that there's a certain amount of kudos that comes with having a limited company. It looks better when you're marketing your business, it shows commitment and a level of professionalism that might make a limited company stand out amongst other photographers operating as sole traders. Obviously this shouldn't be the only reason the limited company route is selected but it may be one of the advantages.

2.Business Plan - Write a business plan. This is where you set out your goals for the business and how you expect to get there. A plan will contain a summary of the business, an analysis of your competition, your market targets, costs, how and when you expect to make a profit, finance required,etc. Putting some time in to this and being realistic about the information you include can make this a very useful document. It might actually show you some things about your ideas that you don't like, for instance, how long you will have to operate before you start to make a profit. If you are seeking finance to start your business, most banks or institutions prepared to loan cash to new business want to see a detailed business plan. The UK government offer free business plan templates to help you on your way.

3. Business Identity - Every business needs an identity and after you decide what you call yourself you probably need to get some business cards printed. When seeing clients it's useful to leave these behind so put some thought in to what it will look like as first impressions count. Having a professionally designed logo and matching marketing materials will always present a good impression. Even an untrained eye can detect poor design and this will reflect badly on a business. Business branding should be uniform across all of your marketing, be that magazine advertising, your website and social media.

4. Get a Website - You will need a website that features your portfolio of work. Pick only the very best shots and if the folio isn't big enough, shoot some work you can add. Personally I would want at least 15 high quality shots to show a client. You might want to link this in with a Facebookģ page too as this can become a great way of building up a network of people who are interested in what your business has to offer. Make sure your images are appropriate to the market you intend to aim for. For instance, if you are a car photographer and showing a client, who wants car images, your photos of weddings isn't going to impress them. At all.

A website isn't the end of a business's internet presence these days. Social media offers additional marketing opportunities and ways to connect with clients. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, G+ and others all offer ways of spreading the word. Be careful how you use these platforms, whilst they can be great for spreading the good stuff, unprofessional remarks can also ruin a reputation so careful and considered use is preferable. Also, don't use these as new ways to directly sell your business as that turns people off your social media pages very quickly. Only create output that will interest your audience and they're more likely to stay connected to hear what you have to say.

5. Research your market - Identify where you can fit in and find where the customers are. It's more likely that you will have to go and find them rather than them finding you, at least to start with so research at this point may give you a good start when you decide to put up the shutters and open for business.

6. Public Liability Insurance. - You might only be taking photographs but you never know when something might go wrong and this cover will be needed. It could be something simple like somebody is injured after tripping over one of your cables. You never know how and when these things will happen but you will thank yourself for being prepared.

7. Premises - Do you need a studio? Can you start without one? Can I hire studio time if I only need it occasionaly? There are no right or wrong answers but you should at least give this some consideration.

8. Equipment Hire - Can you hire equipment that you might only need occasionaly rather than buying it? Do you need to set up an account with a hire company? Equipment is expensive and if you only need certain bits of kit every now and again hiring it might be a cheaper option.

9. Terms & Conditions - This is a document you should use every time you are commissioned by a client. It sets out the terms upon which you will do business with them. It can take many forms but it's likely to contain your agreed fees, what you are shooting, for how long, when the shoot takes place, what you will deliver, the licence terms of the images, confirmation of who owns copyright, when you should be paid, how disputes will be resolved, liability, etc. Many of these points will apply to any business and some will apply specifically to you. It's worth taking the time to draw one of these up perhaps with a solicitor as it will save a lot of disagreement and confusion at a later date if all of these points are agreed and signed by both parties before you start any work. See link below for our full article on terms and conditions.

10. Commercial Use Car Insurance. - If you use your car for your own use and commercial use, that is, as part of your business, ensure it's insured appropriately.

11. 50 things to think about. - See the link below for 50 things to consider when you start a new business.


Once you have your business structure, plan and market and corporate identity sorted, a review of your equipment would be a good idea. Your gear has to be up to the job of rigourous use. It has to be capable of creating good quality images in decent file sizes. An ability to change lenses, connect to flash and the control of all the usual features such as aperture, shutter, ISO and white balance are critical. External strobe lighting is a key component of many a photographer's kit. Knowing how to use strobe lighting is a given for commercial photographers. So having some kit or the ability to hire it quickly is vital. You should assume that some of your kit will fail on the job so do you have a backup camera, lenses and lighting? Turning to a client to say that the day's shoot has to stop because your only camera has failed is not going to win you any friends. You should be able to use lenses in your kit that take you from wide, say 20mm, through to somewhere long,at least 200mm, maybe more if you shoot sport or wildlife. Once you have a quality kit you will want to transport that safely around so having decent bags and cases is a must. Do you have a car that accomodates all of your gear? I always end up taking too much but it's the 'just in case' thing. I like to be prepared for as many scenarios as possible. I feel a lot happier if I leave for a shoot knowing I have the kit to deal with most situations the client might request whilst on a shoot. It's unlikely though that any of this is new to you because once you get to the stage where you are looking to start a commercial business, the chances are that you already have most of the kit you'll need. To repeat, having the capacity to deal with equipment failure out in the field is important and this must be considered before you start.

When you are out there using your equipment understanding how to operate it without giving it a second thought is vital. Having to stop and look up the manual to see how you make a change isn't going to impress your client as they watch you work. Being able to change focus points, switch to manual focusing, switching between aperture priority to manual, change the ISO, controlling your remote flashes and a pile of other changes that you'll do on a typical shoot should be second nature. Making these changes without giving them a second thought will give you confidence and speed up your image capture process.

For further reading about equipment see our article link below.

A Few Gear Tips

Before you start any shoot ensure you have all of your gear together, the camera's settings are primed for your shoot. I.e. it's to be configured for stills today because yesterday it was used to shoot footage. Check you packed enough memory cards and batteries for your shoot, you have all of your lenses and other critical equipment, you know where you are going. During the day do quick checks to avoid leaving anything behind. Even losing a lens cap is annoying so losing a lens is heartbreaking. When you change memory cards ensure you know where your used ones are stored and that you don't waste time by trying to reuse them later in the day. How about checking the dioptre adjustment on the viewfinder? Check it's where it needs to be for your eye. All simple things that ensure you arrive ready to go, leave with the kit you arrived with and the pictures you shot during the day.

Commercial photography is not a 9-5 job. Itís not the type of work you turn up to every day at exactly the same time and place, do fairly similar tasks every day and go home at the end of the day. Itís a job where you will be an accounts clerk for an hour, a webmaster for an afternoon, a writer in the evening, social-media expert in the morning, a travel arranger, a hotel booker, a roadie, an IT technician, a driver, a salesman, a purchasing manager, advertising executive, a student, an expert, the boss, a trouble-shooter, a gofer and sometimes youíll be a photographer. Then mix these roles up to do on any day of the week, evening, weekend, and bank holiday. Generally you won't get to pick when you do these tasks, the tasks will. Some of the time this will take place in your chosen place of work, your home office, your studio, on location or at a customerís premises. No two days will be the same, start or finish at the same time and if youíre lucky youíll be driving home from many different places at the end of long days spent ensuring the client gets what they want. Sometimes that will be at the weekend. If the client wants weekend work, that's fine because when you're in business, you do what it takes to keep the client happy. At times a regular 9-5 will be most appealing but if you're doing this for the right reasons, the variety of the work will excite you more and make you get out of bed with a smile every morning. To make it as a commercial photographer you have to be flexible to meet the demands of unique clients and their equally unique commissions throwing up new challenges that you have to meet head-on with gusto every day. Itís not a career for the faint of heart but if the desire to work in such a demanding role that will be different day to day sounds exciting, itís probably the job for you.

Further Reading.

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