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The Difference Between a Commercial and Portrait Photo

 

For the sake of clarity, for the purpose of this article I’m using the term ‘portrait photography’ to indicate photography for private clients, which includes family portraits, senior portraits, pet portraits, wedding photography and any other photography that consumers purchase. Commercial photography is photography purchased by businesses for their commercial use. 

More and more often, portrait photographers are being solicited by commercial clients to do photography for them, which is often an art buyer’s response to meeting squeezed budgets. And many of those portrait photographers are happy for the opportunity, for a wide variety of different reasons. But it’s important to understand that 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.

The following 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.

PORTRAIT PHOTOCOMMERCIAL PHOTO
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
RealisticAspirational

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 incredible 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.

You can even tear those ads out of the magazines and bring them with you to your personal project shoots for on-set inspiration. 

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. That understanding will be reflected in your work, which will result in more frequent inquires from better and better clients. 

Other articles you may like: 

How to Know if You Are Ready to Do Commercial Photography

https://commercialphotography.guide/who-hires-commercial-photographers

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