Commercial Photography: 10 Tips For Getting Started

Apr 10, 2018 | Business Tutorials, Tutorials


(image for local brewery)

Last year I made the jump into commercial photography.  Family photography is still my primary genre and I have no desire to change that, but the family photography business can be quite cyclical.  I was looking for a way to smooth out my income flow throughout the year AND I was looking to do it with more daytime work.  For me, working with local small businesses is has been a great solution!

Commercial photography is a large umbrella that spans from working for a national Nike campaign down to working for your local barber shop.  Clearly there are going to be very different approached to  marketing, planning, pricing and execution depending on the type of client you are working for!  So, in this tutorial I am just going to share what I have learned about working for local small businesses.  And then I can dream of someday working for one of the big guys.

And before you read on, let me just add that I am still very much a newbie to this market.  I have SO much to learn, and I have been reaching out to others who are more experienced in this area than me for their help and guidance.  So please read on knowing that these are tips from someone who is just getting going……but we all have to start somewhere!

1.  Unless commercial photography is your bread and butter, you don’t need a lot of clients – commercial clients often come back to you several times a year.

One of the best parts about commercial clients is they often book you more than once in a year.  So you may find you get more sessions out of the relationship than you do with your family clients.  For example, I work for a few breweries that I do photos for twice a year, and for a few kitchen design companies that hire me about once a month.  Since the bulk of my business is still family oriented, having only a handful of commercial clients works for me.   It’s enough to fill in the available scheduling space that I have, but not so much that it pulls time away from the family business that I love so much.


(image for local kitchen designer)

2.  Put yourself out there and don’t underestimate the power of the old-fashioned cold call.  

I got going in the commercial space by emailing local businesses, telling them about me and my background, explaining that I am looking to move into the commercial space, and that I would give them a good deal to take a chance on me.  I probably sent out about 15 emails and two businesses took me up on my offer.  That was all I needed to get the ball rolling!

So email away, or better yet, take a walk down Main Street!  It can be scary to put yourself out there, but I promise you it will be worth it!


(image for local group of farmers)

3.  Talk to your friends – find people who own small businesses

Just as we are small businesses owners ourselves, I bet you know more people than you think who are directly involved with local small businesses.  Reach out to your friends through Facebook or your local mother’s group asking them who they know.  Post something to your social media accounts about your move into commercial photography and ask your friends to share it  with those they know with local small businesses.  Work any connections you have to try and move into this market!


(image for local fire station)

4. Know what you are selling:  You are selling commercial usage licenses not print releases.

In the family photography business you are usually giving clients a print release – meaning they can print the images as they are for their own personal use.  The the commercial industry, you are selling commercial licenses.  A commercial license gives your client the ability to use you images as they need to for their marketing and promotional purposes (this may including cropping or minor altering as you deem acceptable within your agreement.)   Because it is expected that commercial clients will use the images more frequently and more liberally,  you will charge more for the license that you do for a portrait print release.  Every market is different in terms of what they will pay, but hopefully you can be at least 2-3 times (or more!) your portrait per image rate.  When determining your license rate you will want to consider:  how it will be used, who can use it, where it will be used, the length of time of the license, and wether or not the client can make any adjustments to the images.  Note: Some commercial clients may request copyright release but most will hire you without this release, and it is always within your power to say no to a copyright release, or to charge your clients appropriately if releasing the copyright is required.


(image for local brewery and restaurant) 

5.  Be specific about usage rights.

You will want to have a separate Commercial Use contract for your commercial work as the terms of your agreement will be different that with family work.  Further, you need to be specific about the usage rights of your agreements.  For example, if you are taking photos for a kitchen designer, can they release the images to the lighting company that did the fixtures?  If so, who is paying for that release?  Are you going to charge a higher per image license fee to the kitchen company so that they can release the images to whomever they want, or will the lighting company have to purchase their own license to use the image?   You must specifically address this with your client or you may find your images going out to other companies that have not paid for the right to use them.


(image for local brewery company) 

6.     Itemize your pricing – but consider having a special introductory rate.

When you charge for commercial work, you will usually break the shooting time and the image licenses out separately.  It is also common practice to specifically itemize all shooting charges such as: gear rental, assistant fee, extra time, travel fee, special processing, etc.   You will want to itemize all of these items in a quote that you send to your client for them to sign prior to the job, so that there are no surprises when the final invoice is due.

When you are just getting going, it may be helpful to offer a special “portfolio building rate” so that people are willing to take a chance on you.  However, when using this rate, be sure to show the true cost in the quote and then mark it down to what you will charge them per the special.  This way your client understands the true value of what they are getting in the event that they come back to you down the road after you have completed the portfolio building phase.


(image for local curbside compost company)

6.  Offer a strong referral program

Encourage your clients to tell their business colleagues.  Many small business owners are part of small business groups.  Offer a strong incentive to both the referrer and the one who comes to you via referral to encourage people to spread the word about your commercial work.


(image for local group of farmers)

8.  Get comfortable with lights.

I have had to use lighting on most of my commercial jobs.  It is always my preference to use natural light, but sometimes that simply isn’t an option with commercial work.  So before you enter this market, be sure you have a simple and portable setup that works for you.  I like to use  a speed light in a soft box and I also have a continuous light that I bring with me to fill in any remaining shadowed areas (especially when I photograph kitchens).


(image for local kitchen company)

9.  Buy a tether cord. 

Two of my clients like to review the images as I’m shooting.  This was hard for me to get use to!  In my portrait work I just away and don’t really think about what I got until I upload back at home.  The kitchen design companies that I work for like to see the images as I’m shooting to be sure we got exactly what they envisioned, so I tether to my laptop as I am shooting.  The upside is that I shoot a lot less!  We are able to click once or twice, make a few adjustments, and then I click again to get the final shot.  As soon as I’ve clicked the shot we are happy with I give it a star in Lightroom so I know that’s the one to edit when I get home.  Overall this approach makes the at-home workflow a lot quicker and easier!  And I charge for extra time spent on the job, so it my client wants to keep reviewing and trying new shots, it’s on their dollar not mine.


(image taken for local farm) 

10.  Stay true to your style.  

Even though this is an entirely different market, it is always my goal to have my work still speak to my style.   Of course this is easier on some jobs than others, but at the end of the day, I still usually walk away feeling like my commercial work is my own art and creation.  Just like with portrait work, if you stay true to your vision and your style, you will find clients who want to hire you for who you are as an artist.


(image taken for local brewery)

So best of luck on this new adventure!  And as always – don’t forget to charge your worth!



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