The Difference Between a Commercial Photo and a Portrait Photo

Just because a wedding couple or parents or pet owners are in love with a photo doesn’t mean it’s a good or even passable candidate for commercial use in an advertisement or marketing strategy.


This is a bit of a grey area, and there are an infinite number of variables that depend on the use, the client, the environment, the target market, etc, but the table below shows some general differences between a commercial photo and a portrait photo that should help you approach your commercial shoots differently from your portrait/wedding/pet shoots.


Subjects often looking straight into cameraSubjects often looking away from camera
Backgrounds contain details; environment is key playerBackgrounds lack details; subject is main focus; simple is better
Little or no negative space with subjects filling frame or centeredNegative space with room for text copy, subjects often off-center
Often static and posed, lacking specific behavior or movementOften dynamic and capturing behavior and movement
Subject engaged with the cameraFly on the wall, photojournalistic style
Even lighting across frameFocused lighting to draw attention to subject
Captures a simple moment in timeTells a bigger story


The best way to learn the differences between commercial photos and portrait photos is to study the work of commercial photographers.


My favorite resource to use for commercial photography inspiration is the example portfolios on Photofolio, which is a website provider used by many of the best commercial photographers.


When you look through the websites, you will notice there is a huge variety of photos that fall under the ‘commercial photography’ umbrella, but interestingly they all have a similar ‘look and feel’ that is very different from portrait photography.


The biggest difference is quality. The quality of most commercial work is very high. Images have been retouched to perfection, and one credible photo, called a ‘hero photo’, may be selected from an entire day of shooting to be used in an advertisement. So naturally these images are the cream-of-the-crop.


Another great way to learn what ‘look’ your photos may be expected to have, and how you should be shooting is to buy magazines that contain ads from the brands you’d like to shoot for, and study the photos they use in their ads.


It won’t take long for you to have a deep understanding of how to shoot a commercial photo for a company differently than a portrait photo for an individual or couple.


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