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What is Commercial Photography?

To understand the meaning of commercial photography, it helps to compare it to some relevant genres. You might be thinking that commercial photography is the same thing as advertising photography, but there are important differences. Commercial photography, briefly defined, focuses on a service or a product that the client is selling, and it freezes one moment in time. 

Advertising photography, on the other hand, is focused on capturing an idea or a feeling in photographic images that will then be used by the client to tell a story. The main difference is that the advertising photographer has more leeway to determine how images of products, services, or lifestyles might be used in a marketing campaign to convey a lifestyle, a story instead of one moment in time. 

That’s not to say, however, that commercial photography cannot also tell a story–a single  image, a moment frozen in time can certainly convey powerful feelings and tell a compelling story. And, there are many innovative ways the commercial photographer can use images of a product or service to generate interest for the client’s product or service.

What is Commercial Photography?

To better explain, let’s look at the different ways images can be used for marketing purposes in order to fully answer the question what is commercial photography?

Selling a Product

This is probably the most obvious way that commercial photography is used. If you’re selling product lines or individual products, you want appealing photographs that show the best features of the product. 

You want images to reveal the detail and feel of the product for the customer, whereas the advertising photographer would focus more on the status or attraction the product will bring to the customer. The difference is between the details and appeal of the product itself (commercial photography) versus the way the product fits into or affects the lifestyle of the customer (advertising photography). 

For commercial photography purposes, you’ll want to make sure you use good lighting to capture the most important features in detail, and you’ll want the image to be focused on the product versus any background decorations or additional  accessories.

Related article: Product Photography Tips for Beginners

Food Photography

This is probably one of the more common commercial photography genres. Photographs of food can be used for display on menus or in culinary magazines. Images might focus solely on the food or they might include the mood and feel of the restaurant.

Commercial photography includes food photography, such as this tantalizing dessert.

Either way, you’ll want appetizing images of the dishes served. But, an important tip is to not oversell the dish. Take realistic images of the food offered–if you don’t, the customers may feel as though the menu didn’t give an authentic representation of they ordered, and they will likely complain.

Related article: Food Photography Lighting Setup

Business Promotion

Another area where commercial photography is used is for promoting a business. Businesses want to promote themselves as much as they want to promote their products or services. Usually this is accomplished by treating the business as a product in and of itself. 

This might involve, for example, architectural or building photography. It might also involve photographs of the business executives and their teams. These images would then be used on billboards or flyers.

Commercial photography is used for business promotion, and may include images of a building, such as that seen here.

One thing to note is that commercial photographers very rarely do these types of shoots on the factory floor. That type of a shoot is known as industrial photography.

Fashion Photography

Fashion photography is likely the best known genre of commercial photography. The focus is on the product–the clothes–it’s just that the product is on a model. There are a couple of styles for fashion photography.

One is what you see in catalogues where the photographer is attempting to show the details of the clothes. You see an attractive model in the clothing, and then you also see detail shots of specific features of the clothing.

Commercial photography includes fashion photography that focuses on the clothes, such as the bikini on this model

The other style is to show the clothing in dynamic ways. So, this might involve showing the model doing something in the clothing, like frolicking on the beach in a swimsuit, for example. Or, maybe you see the businessman briskly walking into his office, while heads are turning to see his nice, new suit.

Related article: Types of Fashion Photography

Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is another sub-genre of commercial photography. This genre can be merged with other genres like wedding photography. Here the photographer is not just capturing memories for the happy couple, but he or she is also highlighting the dress, the shoes, the groom’s suit, the tiara, or even the food provided by the caterer. 

Also, as mentioned above, business leaders might want portraits as part of the commercial photography package selling their business. Realtors are probably a good example of this. Their portraits appear on bus benches, and indeed, on the bus itself as part of a marketing package selling their services.

Related article: Portrait Photography Lighting Techniques

Commercial photography includes portrait photography, such as this shot of businessman in front of the building he works in

Commercial Photography Tips

Now, that you have a better understanding of commercial photography, here are a few tips for being successful and get those compelling images: 

  • Understand Your Client’s Needs: Understanding your client’s specific needs will help prevent any misunderstanding. Here are some specific questions you should ask: 
    1. What is the budget? If they’re budget is tight, that’s going to limit what you are able to do. 
    2. What’s the deadline for the images? Knowing when they absolutely must have the images is important for your planning process. 
    3. What kind of shots do they have in mind, and is there a set number they want? Before you create your own idea of what they want, be sure you understand it from their perspective. 
    4. Are those shots going to require special props or specific locations? If so, this will affect your quote for the work and the time frame for completing it as well, since you’ll have to rent equipment for props and get permits for location shoots. 
  • Discuss Intended Image Use and Usage Rights: Is the image going to be used for a social media profile and a business flyer or is it going to be used for a nationwide promotion? The first will generate less profit and require lower resolution images, while the second will involve higher resolution images that will be seen across the country.
  • Decide on the Mood: Now that you know the specifics of your client’s needs, you can create a mood and lay it out like a storyboard. This is where you decide on what images you’ll need to take in order to appropriately capture the mood to suit your client’s desires. That will help significantly with your planning.
You want to create a mood in your commercial photography images, such as this playful beach shot
  • Double Check Your Quote: You need to be sure you’ve included the costs of everything you need to get the images your client’s want; things like those location permits and equipment rental. Make it clear to your client that if other costs come up, they will need to cover those. This will ensure that you don’t get stuck with extra costs. 
  • Lighting: Lighting is key for any photographic genre, and so, you’ve got to figure out and prepare for what kind of lighting you will need. Is the shoot outside or in the studio? If it’s outside, what time of day is best? If it is on location, you should check out the location and see what kind of lighting it has or where the sun will be in the sky when you’re shooting. You should also always bring extra artificial lighting sources.
Plan for you lighting needs on a commercial photography shoot. Do you have bright sunlight or dark artificial light, such as that seen in this product promotion image.
  • Invest in Editing Software: To work as a professional commercial photographer, you’ve got to know how to edit your images. Post production processing can turn an okay image into a great image.
  • Create a Professional Network: Having a good network of professional relationships can really help your business. You can referrals from them, and they might be able to help you out from time to time. For example, maybe you don’t want to own your own studio because of the overhead. Well, if you’re on good terms with someone who does, perhaps they will rent it to you for a day if you need it for a particular shoot.

The information above gives you a really good idea of what is commercial photography. It’s similar to advertising photography, but it focuses more on highlighting the product rather than the lifestyle advantage it may give the customer. That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t also tell a story. It is a lucrative genre that can encompass many other types of photography, such as food photography and fashion photography. It can also include portrait photography for selling the services or business of someone like a realtor, or it might involve product photography where you’re highlighting the best features of a particular product.

By understanding the specifics of your client’s needs, being frank about image use rights, creating a mood that fits well with your client’s desires, making sure your quote includes all costs, being prepared for variations in lighting, investing in good photo editing software, and creating a professional network, you can be very successful in this lucrative photographic genre.

Want to learn more? Here are a few recommended Commercial Photography Courses:

  1. How to Be a Commercial Photographer
  2. Commercial Photography: Taking Product Photos That Sell
  3. Business of Commercial Food Photography
  4. Commercial Photography: From Start to Finish
  5. Real Estate and Architectural Photography
  6. Concept-Driven Commercial Photography

Catherine Gaither
Catherine Gaither
Catherine Gaither is a professional bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.


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