How to turn commercial photography into a career

Becoming a commercial photographer takes more than just skill with a camera. In reality, it takes a lot of planning and dedication to make it into a sustainable career. The fact of the matter is, the commercial photography industry is a vast industry with no clear path towards success.

While that might sound discouraging at first, it’s one of the benefits of becoming a commercial photographer. You have a lot of freedom to develop your style and branding and find out what kind of commercial photography you want to do. It will take time, but it’s possible to achieve with the right amount of determination and hard work.

What is commercial photography?

Commercial photography is a career where photographers take images for commercial purposes. Often, commercial photographers take pictures for businesses and clients to market their services or promote a product. Though, those are just a few services commercial photographers offer. They work closely with brands and clients, collaborating to ensure the end product is cohesive with both its branding and marketing campaign’s messaging. Many commercial photographers work as freelancers and work for hire. It’s common for commercial photographers to have a network of clients they consistently work with.

Common areas of commercial photography


Product photography is one of the most common areas of commercial photography. It involves taking images of products for commercial use. Product photographers use things like flattering, soft lighting and sharp focus to ensure the products look their best. Elements like camera angle, lighting type and the background will depend on the product and the brand. For instance, in the example below, the photographer incorporated the colors of the Coca-Cola Zero design into the background. This choice not only creates a striking contrast between the black and red, but it also keeps in line with Coca-Cola’s branding.



Commercial portrait photography usually includes people in certain instances or actions that help promote the uses of a product or service. This type of photography allows brands to communicate to their audience the benefits of the product and why it’s relevant. It’s also a way to get people to associate a person (often a celebrity) with a product or brand. An example of this is the photos of the McDonald’s marketing campaign featuring BTS. The campaign uses images of all the BTS members eating different portions of a McDonald’s meal. In turn, this encourages people to associate the members with McDonald’s and the meal’s contents — influencing BTS fans to purchase the meal.

Image courtesy: McDonald’s


Fashion photography promotes new clothing lines and show off the latest fashion trends — think fashion magazines. Commercial photographers can either shoot fashion with a standard focus or a more creative, artsy approach. Some advertisers will want to craft a story between the model and the clothing they’re wearing, resulting in a unique advertisement for the clothing line.


Interior photography can help clients and real estate agents show off the best parts of a building’s interior. Commercial photographers working in this space focus on presenting the building in the best possible light. Those selling homes might consider working with an interior photographer to market their homes in hopes of attracting potential buyers.

What you need to become a professional photographer

Have a portfolio

While you don’t necessarily need formal photography training to become a professional photographer (although understanding the basics is a must), you’ll need a portfolio to land work with clients. Your portfolio is essential, especially when starting out without much prior experience. Potential clients will want to see what you can do technically. They’ll also want to make sure your style as a photographer works with them or you’re versatile enough to make your style work with what they’re looking for.

Have either a physical or digital portfolio you can show — preferably both. You want to ensure it’s easy for potential clients to find your work. Take the time and create your portfolio online using a website builder. A few good options are Wix, Squarespace and Weebly. A solid online portfolio will categorize your areas of expertise, show off your best pieces in those areas and provide a breakdown of your process for each photo. Also, keep your portfolio as simple as possible. You don’t want to fill your portfolio with unnecessary works or designs. Keep it clean and straight to the point.

Develop your brand as a photographer

The commercial photography market is highly competitive and full of talented, experienced photographers. Skill will only get you so far. You need to find your own style and branding to make sure you stand out from the rest of the crowd. It will take time to find your style, so feel free to experiment whenever you can. First, determine your brand’s personality. Is your brand professional and clean or is it more artsy and drastic? Once you find your personality, find ways to convey it emotionally in your work. Your personal brand will also determine what kind of clients you work with and help you decide the type of clients you are open to working with.

Know the laws

As a professional photographer, it’s up to you to know your rights and what you need to do to operate within the law. Specifically, know your image’s usage rights. Since you’re taking photos for clients, you have to make sure both you and your clients understand the licensing rights you agree to. For instance, if you’re selling your commercial photos as stock photos, you can set up usage fees — fees clients pay to use your images. You also want to make sure that you agree with your clients that you can include your work in your portfolio after finishing a project. This is all done in the early stages of negotiation.

Tips for starting your commercial photography career


When it comes down to it, the more people you know, the more work you’ll be able to get. That’s the truth of being work-for-hire. So be sure to stay in touch with clients you work with. While they might not need your services at the moment, they may recommend others to you. You can also attend networking events. There are usually a few events in larger cities. If you live far from one, you may need to travel, but it’s worth it.

Keep your gear up to date

While you don’t need to have all the latest gear, you should keep tabs on new releases. The industry standard for equipment is constantly changing, so you want to be sure you’re keeping up with what clients will expect you to have. Of course, have a budget and don’t feel pressured to go past it. If your gear works, then you don’t need to upgrade just for the sake of it.

You want to stay on top of what’s popular in your area of photography. Not only will you impress your clients, but you’ll also help your and their bottom line. Capitalizing on what is popular (or what’s soon to be popular) will attract more eyes to your photos and the business. Look at what competitors are doing and find what’s working for them and do your own spin on it.

Skills you’ll need

  • Knowledge about digital photo equipment
  • Communication with brands and clients
  • An understanding of business strategy and practices
  • Creativity


Making a career out of commercial photography isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a long journey. You have to build your portfolio and find your unique style and voice in the industry. Once you do that and start forming a circle of connections, you’re well on your way to making a sustainable income as a commercial photographer.

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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