Ask A Commercial Photographer Anything About The Industry

Ask A Commercial Photographer Anything About The Industry

Have questions you want to ask a creative industry professional, but wasn't sure who to turn to? I've been writing for Fstoppers for over a year now. I've been able to share my own BTS shoots, those of friends, reviews, tutorials, and more. I've had the chance to interact and meet some great people through here, and I really want to do something more for you folks. Rather than do a fresh article this week on something I find interesting, I am leaving the content completely up to you. Want advice or curious about something photo/video-related? Ask below!

For those that are not familiar with my work as a photographer and filmmaker: I went to RIT for my advertising photography degree, graduating in 2004 to pursue a full-time photo career. In the early days of my career, I did photojournalism work in places ranging from The White House to living life as a rock and roll tour photographer for the top 40 bands. As time progressed, I found that I loved working with on-location lighting and environments and began to shoot more magazine editorial work, ad campaigns, album covers, celebrity portraits, etc (photos with more pre/post production and controlled lighting). I've shot campaigns for clients like Apple, Ford, Jeep, Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Time Magazine, and Universal Republic Records.

About 5 years ago, I co-founded a video production company called 8112 Studios. We produce, direct, and edit music videos and ad campaigns for TV and web. We started with one camera and a lumber cart and have progressed to some pretty large productions with multiple grip trucks, large crews, etc. I also started a charity site called with some great support from National Geographic with hopes to change some of the negative stigmas towards bully breed dogs that need rescuing. I've also been a Photoshop World / Kelby Training instructor and have given speeches all over the world about photography. The above is not meant as a boast, it is intended to give you a framework of understanding of my experience in the industry so that I may better assist you when you ask your questions.

From photography to video, it has been a wild and educational ride with lots of adventure. I am very thankful to do this for a living all over the world over 100k miles a year. If it at all interests you, here is a short video about the kind of things I do on set.

I know it can be a challenge in this very competitive marketplace to survive as a creative. Feel free to ask me any reasonable question in the comment section below about the creative industry, opinions on technology, and even questions on things like business and marketing. I'll do my best to answer every question posted before midnight (East Coast/New York City time) of March 24, 2104.

I won't be able to do portfolio reviews because that takes a lot of time to do properly, but maybe sometime in a future post! Please keep it clean. I know I open myself up to possible monkey business in the comments section, but my full intention is to spread the love and help my fellow photographers and filmmakers where I can. If this goes well, we will get some of our talented friends in the creative industry to do more of these "ask anything" guest posts!

Thanks for a great 1+ year with Fstoppers and I look forward to answering your questions!

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If you have a solid portfolio and are confident in your ability to get the shot, how do you go about contacting clients for paid work?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Well, it all depends on the KIND of work you want to land. I assume you are referring to Ad and Editorial work rather than consumer based headshots/family portraits. I mean this is the true name of the game right? People charge/pay lots of money for photo marketing classes.

In the end, like any industry, you have to climb the ladder. Don't expect to shoot for Rolling Stone right off the bat. You have to do the legwork with smaller publications to prove your abilities.

When I started off, I went to the newsstand and found magazines with national distribution but very poor art direction. I figure they may be desperate enough to hire a kid just out of photo school. Having published work (aka tearsheets) help give you credibility with the bigger dogs.

Yeah, I meant to say commercial clients. Thanks! I'll see if I can find some desperate publishers.

Douglas Sonders's picture

or even nice publications that are focused on your region work out nicely. Back in DC we have Washingtonian, Washington Life, Bethesda Magazines, etc

Patrick Hall's picture

I know a lot of friends who goto porfolio reviews in order to put their work in front of potential art buyers. I always thought "portfolio reviews" mean having celebrity photographers tell you what they thought and to give you shooting advice. But that's not what they are at all. Instead, you setup meetings with buyers like Rolling Stone Magazine, Men's Health, Victoria's Secret, Sony, Nike, etc. This way you can show your portfolio to clients you want to work with while making face to face connections with the people who will probably be involved in booking you.

I can't remember if these reviews cost money (I'm sure they do) and many of them were literally 5 mins long. However, if you take your career seriously and want to make those personal connections to book editorial and commercial jobs, this is a great avenue to go.

Douglas Sonders's picture

thats true too!

So how do you contact these publishers? Do you call them up and ask them to meet with you?

Douglas Sonders's picture

you can buy contact lists like from agency access or you can look inside the magazines themselves. they typically have credit pages and contact information. Ill ask about coming in to show my work

Yes, like everything else involved with photography, they cost money. The two groups that come to mind hosting these are Palm Springs Photo Festival and NYC Fotoworks.

Chris Cardoza's picture

Do you manage the pricing and business end yourself or do you have an agent and/or manager that takes care of that for you?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Sometimes I wish I had an agent on the photo side to help handle my back end, but I've never found an agent that fits me. Its like getting into a marriage, having a photo rep/agent. They are so integral to your income and your brand. I've essentially done all of my business/negotiating for years (barring an odd job here and there where I was referred a job). There are times where I have opted to hire a consultant to help price a project. You pay them a small percentage of your overall project budget (usually) and they help price things out for you based on their extensive industry knowledge, but i've gotten pretty good at pricing out campaigns for the most part.

I note you refer to yourself as a 'commercial photographer' and in reply to an earlier question you refer to the world you work in as an industry. I wondered how working in this world has affected you as an artist. Do you still feel the same passion now as you did when you graduated?You have a separate section for personal work on your website. Do you feel differently about these projects to your commercial work? Do you feel you have had to compromise in order to earn a living from your art?

Douglas Sonders's picture

interesting question. I think everyone defines being an "artist" differently. I've never considered myself very "artsy". That being said, I do like capturing and creating content that appeals to my interests and aesthetics. I use my personal work to accomplish these creative cravings and its actually my personal work that gets me hired for profitable commercial work. If you look at my portfolios, a large portion of the work up there is from my personal work and not commercial work. Sure I have been very proud about my advertising/editorial projects, but my personal work, thats what I'm into and conveys what inspires me. Sure, we all do mundane things in every job to make a living, but as long as I can spread my wings in my personal creative time, I am happy

David Vaughn's picture

This is somewhat vague, but how do you network? I live in a mid-sized city (pop. 300,000), and most of the photographers are in the family/senior portraits sector. I only know one other editorial photographer and no other photographer I've talked to knows who he is but he's shot for The New York Times, Texas Monthly, etc...So he's obviously getting a lot of work and is pretty well known elsewhere.

So, what if you're a photographer who isn't well known and lives in an area where there just isn't a lot of opportunity for making in-person, relevant connections (the nearest big city where those connections might be is 6 hours away).

Sorry if this question seems unanswerable. I don't know any other way to explain it.

Douglas Sonders's picture

I mean, I could write a novel about this. Back in the day, I would actually cold-call magazines. Id research their phone numbers and call editors on the other side of the country and tell them I'd like to email them my website and they would actually be receptive! Now the world is digital intensive. There are many options out there like source books and flikr and google optimization (hoping someone finds you in a search). I opt for mailers and focused email blasts. I have my own email list that Ive created from people i've met at networking events and shoots. Then I have separate lists from emails I have pulled from magazine contact pages or lists I but from services like to find the contact information of art buyers / creative directors. Ill send car work to car art directors, and editorial/portraits to those editors with those needs in a shooter. You can also use these services like A.A. to get addresses to send creative postcards. You can also get yourself on an online listing like (although i found that they typically have only gotten me magazine work in my region).

But hey, if you dont have the budget, there is still the good old phone call to magazine creative directors with follow-up email.

David Vaughn's picture

Thanks for the reply. :)

Jasper Verolme's picture

I finished my photography education last year and am starting to build a decent portfolio. I'm struggling with reaching my clients. I think this is a problem allot of photographers have when starting out. I can't live from my photo work alone so I part- time in a photo store. (The dutch version of Calumet b&h.) How did you make this work when you started out? did you tried to live from your photography alone, or did you do part-time work until you could switch to your photography. I'm wondering if i shouldn't quit my work and go full on with photography until I get enough work.

Thanks for this opportunity by the way, great fan of your work!

Douglas Sonders's picture

I feel your pain. Don't give up hope! I was lucky that I was focused during photo school and got myself odd jobs that allowed me to survive a bit. I also lived at home for a year or two after school and also sold my 1966 mustang to help fund my full time photo career. I focused all of my time on trying to get jobs, going to networking events, setting up meetings, or shooting personal work to get new client attention. This old article I wrote may help:

Also, read some of the answers below. They may help!

So, Doug, which 645 lens do you find most useful for your automotive work?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Phase One 75-150 Schneider Leaf Shutter with CPL filter

I've been using the 55-110 or the 120. What is the filter that you referenced?

Douglas Sonders's picture

Circular Polarizer


Douglas Sonders's picture

Sure, best of luck

What brand/model?

What would you suggest as the best way to reach potential clients outside of your city if you're looking to expand your reach? We do music/entertainment/celebrity photography in Canada but aren't currently located in one of the media hubs like Toronto or Montreal, but we would like break into these markets, as well as looking beyond border into the USA. Relocation to a more complementary city in the US or Canada is also something we'd like to do eventually, but how to pack up and move and do this wisely for business is the question. What would you recommend to be the best way to get noticed? Direct emailing a website link and perhaps a few images?

Douglas Sonders's picture

See my response below to David Vaughn. That may help. Direct emails are great and even better if you setup follow up phone calls after to touch base!

Thanks for the info! And I must say - I really think it's cool and super appreciate the fact that you're taking to time to answer questions like this, that's pretty amazing of you - So thank you. =) As a follow up question, I assume these email blast lists that you refer to, consist largely in part of contacts that you don't know. So, you're introducting yourself and your work to them in hopes that they will like what they see and will hopefully hire you for a gig. How do you craft your email to them? What do you say to these people so they want to continue reading more about you and your work? Do you provide links only or attach images to the email? Is there an art and science to writing these emails so you'll be given the time of day?

By the way, we love "Not a Bully"! We have our own charity that we've been doing for the last few years through our photography that raises money for dog rescues. Emma is lucky to have a human like you - keep up the great work! =)

Douglas Sonders's picture

oh weird, did my link showing my mailer go through? did you see that?

I finish my degree in two months time so this will reall help. I wondered if you feel there is still a living to be made as a photographer and what would your first steps be in becoming successful?