How to Become a Professional Commercial Photographer

How to Become a Professional Commercial Photographer

There are many paths in professional photography. I have gone down the route of commercial photography, and whilst I am nowhere near where I want to be in professionally, I thought I’d share a few points that can go a long way to making it as a professional commercial photographer.

1. Get a Studio

Having a studio space is so important. When the phone rings, the first question is often “Do you have a studio?” Clients see this as an additional cost if you are renting one, even though it’s often built into the photographer's fee. Having a studio also allows you to take on really last minute shoots without the stress of having to find somewhere that’s available to rent. They also help to keep your sitting room, kitchen, bedroom, hallway, garage and car clear of photography kit.

2. Be Kitted Out

Having the best and most up to date cameras and lights in the world is not really a requirement anymore. The image quality of cameras has surpassed most peoples viewing options today. However, if you shoot on a certain camera you need to have at least two others of them. That way, if one goes down during a job, you can carry on producing the exact same files using the spare.

3. A Diverse Client Base

Having few clients who pay big money is a risky move. If one of them loses their budget or goes elsewhere it can leave you financially vulnerable. Having a mix of high paying, low volume clients through to low paying high volume clients maintains stability and a healthy cash flow. 

4. Agent/Manager

I had my first manager about four years ago. I am now with an agent in London and it makes a huge difference to the way I work. Having an agent allows you to play good cop/bad cop, removes you from difficult conversations about fees, and frees you to actually take some photos rather than chase invoices and discuss diary constraints with clients. 

5. Being a Good Friend

Pulling in favors is a major part of starting out. if you are a good friend to people then they will happily help you out too. I cannot stress how vital this is. 

6. Networking

Social media is a great tool to get you noticed, but nothing compares to meeting people in person. Once someone has met and liked you, the chances of you getting work are far higher than if someone likes your latest Instagram post. If calling it "networking" makes you feel queasy think of it as making new friends. People buy people. 

7. Assisting

Assisting other photographers is a great way to learn how to work with clients in the professional world. From what I have heard from U.K. graduates in photography, this is something that just isn’t taught over here. Understanding how a photoshoot should run from inquiry to delivery will help you keep your clients coming back for more. 

8. Research

Knowing the latest trends and what other companies are using in their ad campaigns is important. When you are in a meeting and the client talks about what their rivals are doing, you are expected to know exactly what they are talking about and to understand why the market is moving in that direction. 

9. Technical Knowledge

This seems like a given, but in commercial photography knowing your way around hyperfocal and the inverse square law is vital. When a client draws a scamp you need to instantly know how to produce that image. 

10. A Strong Portfolio

Without a strong portfolio, you will find it hard to win high-end commercial work. Find something you love and run with it. Regardless of your interest in photography, there will be a client out there willing to pay good money for your skill set. 

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Mr Hogwallop's picture

This is a very good list of things to consider. Some are obvious and need to be said. There are few that I'd like to comment on:

1. Depends on your location and costs. In Detroit every photographer was in a studio and had to own all their gear. In LA most people do not have a studio, due to the costs. Many people have a live/work loft, or rent as needed or share with group of other photogs. In LA you can rent everything so a lot of people don't need to own a full kit. (2)

4. Good Agents and Managers are very difficult to find, they are outnumbered by photographers 100:1. They will usually only rep established talent. They are good to have but you need to be at the very top of your game, or create your own.

7. I agree 150% with this as I think that many young photographers now learn from youtube and workshops from dubious instructors. Not from working alongside an established photographer where you learn not only how to light and shoot but how to work with clients and my pet peeve how to charge rates that reflect the value of the photos to the client. I saw a FB post with a client looking for 40 studio shots of models in t-shirts, he offered $300 and was overwhelmed with photogs with studios offering to shoot. He probably didn;t pay the models either but that is for another forum.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah your location has a big impact on how you work.

Where I live, having a studio is a must.

Ro Ker's picture

A scamp is a rough sketch or layout mock up.

Scott Choucino's picture

Ro ker, yes that's a scamp.

William. If you mean, are there people looking for photographers with the kit and not the tech knowledge over those with the tech knowledge and not the kit, then no. You can always rent when starting out.

Fritz Asuro's picture

Isn't the basic answer to this question is "Start billing your clients." Because the term "professional" doesn't really mean being good at something but instead, charging your clients for work you have done. It has been misleading people for a long time.
There's a lot of professional photographers, but not everyone can deliver (price vs quality wise).

*Don't get me wrong. The article is a great!

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes. As long as you are making £££ then you are a pro. However, to get to that point in ad campaigns and commercial work can be a bit tricky

Mark Davidson's picture

Excellent article. Other commenters here have good points that expand on your premise.
In my experience the studio is very valuable but so many see the photography market from the low end and thus cannot ever make the money necessary to run a studio.

Granted, if you are always on location because of client demands the need for a studio may be irrelevant.

Christian Santiago's picture

1: Many successful commercial photographers specialize in environmental work. I don't think it hurts to have a studio, and I'd sure as hell love to be in that position one day. Far be it from me to question someone with more success than I, but is it really an absolute necessity? A lot of photographers in my market are killing it just shooting on location. But maybe it's just because i live in one of the most photogenic places in the country.

5: Definitely has not been the case for me. I don't think think I've yet to really be rewarded in anyway for doing favors. More often than not, It's either neutral, or i just get screwed.