Becoming as a commercial photographer can't be defined with a formula. Each story is different but lots of stories share similar basic principles. They can be applied not only in the areas of photography and filmmaking, but also in other businesses.
For many amateurs being a photographer means to be good at many areas of the craft, but the truth is being good is not enough. As I mentioned in a previous article, becoming a successful photographer requires time. Our lives are not enough to become skilled at everything and that's why focusing in certain areas for longer periods is vital.
In the beginning I started with photography exclusively as a business. The first steps were to gain technical knowledge and abilities to work with camera and light. I decided to work as a family and children photographer and for that reason I started making portraits of people around me so I could build a portfolio. I knew I had to get better at posing, so I bought books and videos to educate myself. I marketed my business with the images I shot and waited for the clients to come in. They started calling after I tried lots of ways to market myself.
About two years later I decided to go into the commercial area. I knew nothing about it. I had to educate myself more and started researching the types of photographs that were needed by the clients, how prices were calculated and negotiated, what kind of preparation was needed, and what kind of contracts were being signed. I bought more books and videos related to commercial photography and the business of it. As I needed to start from somewhere I asked a few friends to help me photograph images for my commercial portfolio. Yes, you don't need actual businesses to create images with a commercial look. You can do that with friends or you can hire models.
Do you see the pattern? Decide what area you will focus on. Gain knowledge about the details for doing work in that area. Build a portfolio and probably wait for clients to come in. Well, in the commercial photography world waiting is not the best option. Creating commercial images with real or fake clients is the only a way to build a portfolio. But these images are just on your website and profiles in the social networks. They don't do work for other people. Commercial photography is all about creating work that does work for others and makes their businesses grow.
Working With Real Businesses
Besides profit there's a much greater value to working with real businesses when producing commercial work. You can always ask a friend to dress appropriately and create a few polished portraits, but they remain just a nice images in your portfolio and on your friend's Facebook.
Photographing real businesses is much better. You not only show the image in your portfolio but you can share a story why you were hired, what the images are going to be used for, share tearsheets, photos of billboards with your work, etc. This elevates your profile as a professional. I had lots of clients who hire me because I have shot someone or some company they knew. Even before the photoshoot I already have their trust.
Real Business People You Know
The first real businesses you can work with are those of people you know. You will be more comfortable when negotiating prices and have less risk when executing the task. The first several projects are usually done for free or for a low price. If you want to be good at what you do, always do the work as if you are working with your dream client no matter if it's a friend of yours or a paying client. Set yourself limitations. Try to do the best you can regardless of the circumstances. When a dream client comes it won't be your first rodeo.
Potential Clients You Don't Know
Another thing I have practiced is to ask a real business client if I may get a permission to shoot one or several images of them for my portfolio. In case they like the result they can pay for it. If I get a permission, I negotiate the price before the shoot and sign a contract with them. Having a written agreement is very important. It means you are a professional and also sets a legal bond between you and them regarding the project you do. It's crucial to state in the contract they can't use your work unless it's paid for, otherwise they may download the images from your website and profit from them while you won't be able to prove that is an infringement.
The most difficult thing here is the idea for the photoshoot. The client will eventually buy your images only if they could help them grow their businesses. Before you contact anyone research them. See if they can afford paying you. See how they market themselves. Think how you can help them with your work, not only add nice images in your portfolio. There's more chance to get paid if you create real commercial work.
Current or Past Clients
If I want to gain exposure in a certain area I may ask my current client or a client from the past if I can do some extra work for them for a small fee or as a free service. Usually they agree. This way it's like asking them to run a marketing campaign by paying with my services or with my work at a discounted price. This also builds a stronger bond between me and my client. I do that only for those that I really like to work with. The main goal here is to create images they would actually use which promotes you. I've had both clients who liked the extra work and used it for their businesses and also those who said "it's OK" and never published it.
The best way to market your work is through word of mouth. The only approach to that is building relationships with people you know or those you can get to know. I'm old school and I think the classic word of mouth marketing is timeless regardless of culture and technology. Starting to work in a certain area does not guarantee high profit from day one. Learn how to grow both your skills and bank account slowly.