How to Become a Commercial Photographer

How to Become a Commercial Photographer

Have you ever walked by a beauty image on the shelf at ULTA or scrolled by a brilliant shot on Instagram and thought: “I want to make images like that”? Or perhaps you are a photographer who saw a picture and thought: “I could have shot that better!” You have the skills, but you don’t know how to break into the commercial market. In this article, I’ll share about how to break into the market and disclose tips and tricks to succeed in the commercial photography space.

What Is Commercial Photography?

In its most simplified definition, commercial photography is imagery used to promote a business. Whether you’re shooting a product or a person, if it’s used to advertise for a business, it falls under the umbrella of commercial photography. 

This is a shot I (@michellevantinephotography) did for JACQs Skincare, which is sold in Target.

What Do I Need to Get Started in Commercial Photography?

Because the definition of commercial photography is so broad, it’s hard to make a minimum gear list. When I started, I had a few poster boards from Hobby Lobby, a bounce card, and a big window. I could never produce the images I’m creating now with such a simple kit, but I had to start somewhere, and that was where my journey began. 

This image is from many years ago, but here are a few tools I use on a daily basis.

Your first purchases will be backdrops, reflectors, and any props specific to your shoot. You can use simple papers from a craft store or backdrops designed for photography. My favorite brand for this is Club Backdrops. They are waterproof, they can take a beating and not show it, they are affordable, and the colors and patterns are fun and modern. Other brands I have used are Savage Universal, Replica Surfaces, Ink and Elm, Kate Backdrops, and more.

Once you’re getting into more advanced work, you’ll want to add strobes, reflectors, translum paper, snoots, and gels to your setup.

I've gathered thousands of dollars' worth of props and tools over the years, but I started with a small setup and small brands. My current clients include national and international brands, but when I began, I pitched small packages to solopreneur startups. 

My current setup is the Canon R5, translum paper, Godox strobes, a variety of softboxes and reflectors, a snoot, the Lindsay Adler Optical Spot, the V-Flat World Lighting Cones, extension tubes, a rimless water tank, and probably over 100 backdrops and papers. In 2018, I began renovating my garage into a product studio. Over the span of four years, I redid the walls, installed an AC unit, built custom shelving, and redid the floors with waterproof vinyl “oak.” I even had a colorful custom wallpaper made and added a bold yellow sofa, making it my happy creative space to splash, style, spill, and snap.

A rimless water tank is a must for skincare work. Some of my (@michellevantinephotography ) work for Oasi skincare

My favorite lens to shoot product work with is hands down the Canon RF 100mm f/2.8L macro, though I sometimes switch to wider lenses for different shots. 

How Do I Get Clients in Commercial Photography?

The number one rule of acquiring clients in photography is: you attract what you put out. You have to show brands what you can shoot before asking them to hire you.


I had been working in the CPG (consumer packaged goods) space for a few years when I had a yearning to break into the commercial sports space. My schedule was quite busy already, but I decided for one year to do one unpaid sports shoot a month. I would have people vote on my Instagram (@sportsphotographermiami) for what sport I should capture next. I did everything from skateboarding to golf, boxing, swimming, and calisthenics.

This is one of my collaboration images from when I started in sports photography with golfer Merisa Messana. I see many things now I would do better, but putting out images and building a portfolio is the first step to building a sustainable commercial clientele.

I didn’t make it to the 12th month of my project month because by month 10, the work I had put out was already attracting clients. Within a few years, I’ve been contracting work for everything sports-related, including celebrity athletes, sports supplements, and corporate entities. If you create fantastic work and market it well, you’ll be pulling in clients in about a year or two depending on how consistent you are.

A paid shot I did for a contract with MMA fighter Amanda Nunes.

With my CPG work, I started with one skincare line (and my minimalist window setup) to work that is seen by brands in ULTA, Target, Whole Foods, Cosmoproof, and more. I followed the same pattern: create the work, market the work, and attract clients. Currently, I work heavily in the clean beauty space and in food.

Welch's released a protein smoothie line over a year ago, but it had never been professionally photographed. I had the great pleasure to create their first line of commercial images for this item last month.

You have to show people what you can do. I was at an event last week in South Beach, and there was a newly launched modern wine. I loved the branding and everything about the line. I networked my way around the crowd and found the man in charge. I asked if I could have a bottle to take home and show him what I could do with the wine. He handed me a bottle with a smirk, saying: “I already have a photographer, but I like the confidence.” A few weeks later, I got that email I was expecting! Showing brands what you can do, if you do it well, is how you break in.

Some of my shots for @wildlilly.

If you’re not at that point yet in your skill level, try working as a photo assistant to a local commercial photographer. I allow aspiring photographers to assist me on certain shoots, and there is no better way to learn than working with a pro live, where you can see the process and ask questions.

How Much Should I Charge for Commercial Photography?

As in most industries, your prices will depend on a few things: your level of skill and experience, the client’s needs, image usage, and the time it will take to create the images. When I started with nothing but passion and a bounce card, I’m embarrassed to say that I charged $350 for 30 images. I can't believe I just wrote that publicly. I knew I was not experienced in this space (though I had been shooting weddings for eight years), and I needed a justification to learn. Now my contracts are 4-to-5-digit invoices depending on the work and usage.

A little behind the scenes on my Welch's shoot.

Tips and Tricks

Here are a few tips to help you have a smooth shoot.

1. Plan Your Shots in Advance

I used to gather information for my shoots using email, google forms, and Pintrest, but I've recently switched to Bloom IO and the platform has streamlined and centralized my process tremendously. More about this in an upcoming article. 
Make sure you have a brief or mood board from your client. This should include color scheme, style, props, etc. I require clients to give me a brief two weeks before the shoot day. This allows time for me to order any shoot-specific props or backdrops.

2. Have a Contract

I’m going to say that again. Have a contract. Always. Every time. No matter who you are working with. Your contract should outline image usage, payment, and photo delivery at the very least. Mine also anticipates situations: what happens if the client doesn’t get their products to me by shoot day? Can they get the raw images? Am I granted permission to use the images for the promotion of my studio? And more.

3. Work on Your Post-production Skills

There are a few things that separate beginners from pros: the photographer’s lighting and editing skill. I recently had to shoot a line of white products on a white background with foil lettering. Wow. That was challenging. I wasn’t sure if I should celebrate or run when they requested to move to a monthly contract. Lighting and editing skills take years to develop and fine-tune. There are dozens of tricks I’ve learned over the years, which have elevated the look of my work. With product photography, it’s almost imperative to work in Photoshop, as it allows you to make specific edits, fine-tuning fonts, colors, and details of each image.

If you feel overwhelmed reading about editing in Photoshop, using strobes, and having a studio full of specialized gear, let me bring you back to this image.

I shot this image on one of my first ever "I'm just giving this a try" collaborations. My package was $350 for 30 images (eek), and I just used a window and a bounce card as my lighting. 

I shot this eight years ago with a window, a bounce card, and a white poster board from Hobby Lobby. I would go mad trying to work with such a basic setup now, but you can start creating images now with what you have.

The best part is always in the comments. If you have any questions feel free to drop them there, or if you work in the commercial space, I would love to hear about your journey and any favorite tips you want to add. Leave your social handle; I would love to see your work. 

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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I’m too far down the road in my career as a lawyer to change to photography. Life choices. Your point about contracts intrigued me. First, you’re right contracts are vital to and part of all transactions. Often they’re verbal and not written. My mind was blown on the first day of law school when our contracts professor pointed out that when you buy a candy bar at a convenience store, you’re accepting the store’s offer to sell it to you by tendering payment in that amount (a contract). That’s also a great example of one of the few contracts that need not be in writing. Yet the cashier still offers you a receipt (the writing).
Second, for anything that matters, it’s best to have a written contract. Even lawyers—who should know better—do things all the time without written contracts. When disputes arise, written contracts are MUCH better and can help avoid court battles involving lawyers and help you win if that’s necessary.
Third, even simple writings are sufficient. If you have a call with someone and agree to terms (project, price, time to complete, etc.), send an email confirming those points. While often a more complex writing is best, an email confirming the key points of agreement is much better than a conflict of memories about the terms after you’ve done the work. Emails (like photos) have metadata that can help you show that help show when the terms were agreed upon. The confirming email can be as simple as saying, “Thanks for the call today. This email confirms we agreed: (1) [price]; (2) [terms]; (3) [term]. Please respond letting me know you agree. I will assume you do if I don’t hear back. Thanks. Sincerely, [name]”
Fourth: Use emails for this, not texts. It’s easier to print the email to pdf and save it to a file. Or to find it later if you ever need to refer to it.
Fifth: If you want to have a stock contract with blanks to fill in for use in multiple transactions that would be good to later use in court (hopefully never), then hire a transactional lawyer from a reputable firm to help you. It costs money, sure, but that type of lawyer (not me) should be able to tell you what the law is where you live, whether there are multi-jurisdictional legal concerns you should address (depending on your needs and whether you’re doing business across borders. And, most importantly, if the lawyer who helps with your contract gives you bad advice, paying them buys the security of their malpractice policy if they make a mistake. (All humans make mistakes from time to time, and quality professionals carry malpractice insurance for that reason.)
I hope this comment is helpful to you or someone else.

(Disclaimer: I litigate. I don’t do “transactional” legal work—such as drafting contracts. So this is NOT an attempt to sell legal services. and any legal advice here is gratuitous and generalized, not specific to a particular location or the laws there. Since it is not advice that is meant to address a particular transaction, I am not creating and do not intend to form a client-lawyer relationship with this comment.)

Thank you for these tips. Excellent feedback. I also do the follow up email outlining the conversation points and agreed upon terms. You can never have too much "CYA" thank you!

Great summary of our career. Keep working at it despite what others are saying about AI replacing photographers. Now is the best time for us photographers to work with all the tools and convenience available.

Thank you Zhen Siang Yang . I just looked at your work- STUNNING!!! Clean, and it has an incredible sensitivity for lines and patterns. I love it!

Hello my name is Damion Coppedge

I’d love to work with you as an assistant photographer in commercial photography.
My instagram @a_lens_above_
Is where my photo work can be seen.
I can also be reached at 347.749.2530
I’m an NYC based photographer