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10 Ways To Get Started in Commercial Photography

© Patrick Tomasso

If you are a wedding, portrait, pet or generalist photographer and have been wanting to make a change with your business, you may have considered offering your photography services to companies, agencies and small businesses (e.g. ‘commercial photography’).

You may have already been contacted by a potential commercial photography client, either from an ad agency or from the marketing department at the company itself. Or even one of your friends or family members who owns a business.

You may have felt a little lost as to how to move forward, answer questions, and come up with processes and pricing.

It’s exciting to think about doing commercial photography, because the revenue can be so much higher than most other kinds of photography.

But information can be hard to find online, and most of the books and articles out there are old and outdated.

When you think of how to get started in the industry, it can feel really daunting.

The good news is in this article I go over 10 simple steps that will help you get started offering commercial photography to clients on a scale that’s approachable, manageable and scalable.

With this process you’ll start small (the ‘approachable’ part) by working with smaller local companies. You’ll reach out to contacts you already have, in a way that’s simple and direct (‘manageable’), and you’ll scale up with bigger and bigger clients as you learn and build confidence in your abilities.

You’ll also create your ever-important team, which will enable you to do bigger and more challenging shoots with more ease.

Ready to get started? Let’s do it.

1. Decide WHO and WHAT you want to be shooting

© Morris Fayman

This is a critical step that many photographers skip, but it’s also the most important one, and should be the very first decision you make in your commercial photography career.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. WHO do I want to be shooting for?
  2. WHAT do I want to photograph?
  3. What kinds of people do I want to be working with?

YOU get to decide all of these, and then allow your decisions to guide your path.

If you think you should be doing things a certain way, consider this: there should never be a ‘should’ in commercial photography. (“I should be shooting for company x/y/z, even if I don’t really want to”, or “I should be shooting this subject matter, because that’s what I’ve been doing all along”.)

What you should do, is decide what you want that to be.

Commercial photography is challenging enough when you are shooting something you really love. You don’t need the added complication of shooting something you don’t really love simply because you think you should.

How to find your ‘people’:

Head to the nearest newsstand and buy a stack of magazines, or make a pile of the ones you already have. Flip through the magazines, looking specifically at full-page ads, and dog-ear or tear out the pages of the ads that really resonate with you.

Then make a list of the local small business and companies that have a style similar to what you love in those ads.

Maybe it’s the muted colors and strong angles in a fashion ad that really resonates with you, and there is a boutique clothing shop in your town that has the same aesthetics.

Or it’s the moody rustic feel of a leather bag ad, and there’s a brewery in your neighborhood that has the same kind of feel.

Or you light up over the bright colors and happy people in an athletics ad and there’s a gym near you that has a similar vibe and similarly energetic and joyful people.

Let your emotions guide you, because it’s your emotions that will be the most invested in doing the work to create awesome photos that your clients really love.

Make a list of:

1. Style/vibe/feel of the brands you’d want to shoot for.
2. The types of people you’d love to work with as far as the company’s customers go. (Digital nomad millennials, retired wealthy people, cat owners, etc.)
3. All the businesses in your area that fit within the previous two.

The reason why #1 is important is because you will invariably stumble upon (or get referred to!) other businesses in the same brand vibe, and you’ll want to remain open to them.

It’s a lot easier to find clients if your criteria is ‘companies that have a beautiful design aesthetic with light, airy pastels’, than ‘a flower shop that sells lots of roses, and uses mint and green in their branding’.

A brand vibe or ‘feel’ is often a lot easier to define than a specific business type, and doing this will really help you hone your photography style too.

You get the idea, right?

Plan to spend at least a few days doing some research and brainstorming your niche, as this work will set the stage of your intentions as a commercial photographer, as well as provide a mental blueprint for your marketing plan.

2) Make a marketing plan
© Fabian Irsara

If you already run a photography business, treat your commercial photography service as a whole separate business. Because of this, you’ll want a unique marketing plan to go along with it.

In your new marketing plan, list all of the strategies you plan to put into action in order to acquire your first corporate/business clients, include the costs of each marketing strategy, any timelines and deadlines you have, assets you’ll need for each (ex: new photos for a booklet cover), and anything else that you.

Include the list of businesses you came up with above, and include, in detail, how you plan to get in front of each business.

(More ideas on this later in this article.)

3) Buy and install pricing and bidding software
© Katie Harp

Have you tried to come up with commercial photography pricing off the top of your head? It’s not easy, is it?

Without using any kind of pricing database that draws on pricing from other photographers, it’s almost impossible to provide accurate pricing for image licenses (the rights-managed ‘leasing fee’ you charge to clients for use of your images), or even know what to charge for a photography fee.

And without bidding software, it’s very hard to pull together a professional estimate that doesn’t leave any important expenses out. You really need both pieces of software in order to provide fair market pricing and appear professional.

The two types of software that the majority of commercial photographers use are BlinkBid, and FotoQuote/FotoBiz X by Cradoc Software.

You can also use Getty Images’ pricing calculator for comparison but those suggested numbers cover every conceivable scenario and are usually way, way more than the vast majority of commercial clients will ever pay.

You may be inclined to ask “how much should I charge for this commercial photography shoot” in the groups you are in, but you’ll rarely get a straight answer. Instead, you’ll get pricing that works for other photographers. Pricing that you won’t be able to explain or justify to your clients.

So become the professional that your commercial clients expect you to be, and pick up the pricing and bidding software.

4) Design and print a portfolio and make a separate website for your commercial work
© Beatriz Perez

Ideally you should have two portfolios- one on the web, and one in print.

Your website is what you drive prospective clients to when you meet them in person, and your printed porfolio is what you show them when you meet them in person. Makes sense, right?

Many photographers who already have websites ask me if they should have a separate website for their commercial photography.

My answers is always- absolutely yes.

The reason for this is a website is designed to target and appeal to a specific audience or market. If you are doing wedding photography your market is going to be totally different than when you are targeting cafes in your area and/or doing headshots.

Build a totally separate website with your commercial photography portfolio, your commercial (and editorial) client list, and keep the branding simple and the frills off.

Put only your very best work on there, and don’t overload your galleries with photos. Think quality over quantity.

Don’t be afraid to feature your best commercial photos as a full-screen photo, or one that can be expanded to full screen. Your goal here is to knock the socks off potential clients. You want to be conveying quality, because it’s that quality that’s the biggest component of your success in landing commercial photography clients.

After you’ve done a half dozen or more commercial shoots (for clients of any type and/or size), you will make what’s called a ‘client list’, which is simply a list of companies you have shot for, and include your client list on the about page of your website, underneath your ‘about/bio’ text.

You’ll read more about the client list later in this article.

As far as a printed portfolio goes, you don’t need to worry about making something fancy at all. The key is just to get it made.

It can be a porfolio with prints you slide in and out, or a hardback Blurb book that you design using their software on their website.

You don’t need any text at all in this. Just keep the focus on the photos. White space is good too, so you can make white borders or have margins above and/or beside the photos.

You can either do a cloth cover or printed photo cover. Be sure to have your name somewhere on there.

Simplicity is key here. You just want to be able to show it to the people you meet with in person.

And promise me you won’t allow the overwhelm of making a portfolio to prevent you from doing any marketing.

Give yourself a time limit- like 90-minutes to pick images and design and order the book.

The key is just to get it done.

You can worry about picking the perfect cover and the perfect images after you’ve gotten feedback from prospective clients and have been able to see the looks on their faces when they look through your work.

5) PM all the people you know (friends, family, coworkers, colleagues, etc) and ask for referrals to businesses
© Kon Karampelas

You have local friends on Facebook, right? They work places I assume.

Maybe some of those places are companies you’d like to do photography for.

Think of who you already know that would be willing to help you pitch your commercial photography services to the companies they work for.

For example: you could do a corporate headshot or personal branding photo event, and you could ask a family member for a connection with their marketing lead.

Or you mention to a friend that you recently started doing product photography, and would love to talk to someone at their company since they are a product-based company. Ask if you can meet with someone at the company to show them your portfolio.

Take time to go through your pre-existing list of contacts, and see if any of them work at/for companies you’d love to have on your client list as having shot for.

When you are going through your list of contacts, think about who else they know in terms of businesses. Do they have a best friend that owns a children’s boutique? Or a restaurant? Or maybe they are close with the people at their church.

A direct connection is worth its weight in gold, as this can be just the key for getting your foot in the door, and landing that all-elusive ‘book showing’.

You don’t need to get fancy with your message when reaching out to your network. Just a quick personal email or PM will do.

Something like this:

“Hey __name__,

I just wanted to reach out to you and let you know that I’m now offering commercial photography services. If you are evert in need of high quality photography for your business, please keep me in mind. You can see my portfolio here. (<– insert link.)

Thanks and hope you are well!”

Simple, short, easy to read and gets the point across.

They’ll reach out to you if and when they want more info. Don’t freak out if you get a reply. The goal is to merely ‘plant a seed’ in their mind, so that they think of you first when the need arises. It could take months (or even a year or two) before you hear from them to book a shoot, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen!

(It’s a good idea to reach back out to those folks if and when you plan to raise your prices, before you raise them, to get them to book under your current rates. This can be incentive for them to move forward sooner rather than later too.)

Also, DO NOT be ashamed to promote your work and your successes on your personal social media pages! The people you know want to know what you are up to, and even if they aren’t commenting, you never know when one of them might share your work with someone who will hire you.

Don’t be afraid to leverage the connections you already have when getting started in commercial photography.

In fact, it’s really the best thing you can do. Your success as a commercial photographer will be directly proportionate to your ability to network. #fact

6) Design a multi-page printed promo
© Bundo Kim

When you get to the point where you are ready to work with bigger and more established companies (what I call ‘medium-sized companies’), you are going to need more than just a simple email sent to their marketing department, or your basic Blurb book.

Think:

  • Multi-page sales flyers
  • Multi-page booklets
  • Large fold-out postcard
  • Any other impressive printed piece that nicely features your work

Because you are going to be investing in the printed pieces, if you aren’t a designer yourself, you’ll want to hire a designer to design a template for you that can include a handful of your very best photos. The piece will be your first impression you give to the client, so you want to make it a good one.

You want them to open it, be impressed and say “huh, nice…”

Make it personal to the companies you are sending it to, and of don’t forget to include all of your contact information and a link to your online portfolio.

Type a sincere, personalized letter to the individual you are contacting, explaining why you want to work with their company (remembering how their brand resonates with you), and how to reach you when they are ready to work together.

Whether or not you include any information on pricing is up to you, and it’s always a tricky call.

I recommend that if you do decide to include anything with a dollar sign, that you keep it simple and somewhat vague, like for example saying that ‘rates start at $850 for a full day shoot’, but don’t mention any kind of licensing or list what expenses that includes. You could write something like ‘get in touch for a customized plan that meets your needs perfectly.’

Your goal in reaching out to these bigger companies is just to get the conversation started, which is always the most challenging part of any new relationship. Honestly IMHO it doesn’t even matter what you are talking about. It could be something totally unrelated to photography. You want them to know you and like you. Once you feel comfortable with each other and they know you, you can start discussing pricing and licensing.

After you have your fancy collateral (printed promo pieces) printed and ready to ship out, place it in a nice envelope (even better if the envelope is branded) and address it to an individual in the marketing department and mail it. (Even better is if you can find the marketing director’s name on LinkedIn.)

Don’t be surprised if you pour some love and effort into making and sending some kick-ass promo pieces and don’t get a response right away if at all. This is totally normal and it does not mean the company isn’t interested. All it means is that it’s not a priority right now. But it certainly can be in the future.

Follow up via email or phone a week or ten days after your mailing and confirm that they received it. Then follow up again every six months or so. Stay top of mind and there is a good chance that you’ll be the first photographer they think of when they need someone.

7) Pitch your photography to local businesses that you already patronize

© Joshua Case

Think of the businesses that you already go to. What are your favorite restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, etc in your area?

Do you already know any of the servers, employees, managers, etc?

If you answered yes, then pitch your services to them!

Front-of-the-house or back-of-the-counter employees can be some of your biggest advocates, so don’t hesitate to sell yourself to them, even if you know they aren’t the decision-maker.

It could be something as simple as casually throwing in a “hey, do you guys ever work with photographers?” to your conversation, and gauging their reaction.

The next time you go, bring your printed portfolio and show them a few examples of your work if they seem like they have a minute and are interested. (Note- show them a few photos, not allll the photos. Be respectful of the fact that these people are working and have other customers. Unless they don’t and want to see more- in which case- share away!)

Since you are already a regular at the business, you can point out things in their existing marketing strategies that you noticed, and tie them into ideas you have for things you can create for them.  “I noticed the fall banner you put up behind the counter. Have you thought about doing something like ____?”

If you come up with a really brilliant marketing idea, they’ll value you for even more than your photography.

If you aren’t a natural salesperson, hustling your photography services in person at a local business can feel intimidating, but if those people already know you (and we assume they like you), you’re already well on your way to winning them over.

Also remember that the service you provide is something they really need if they want to be successful. The benefit is absolutely a two-way street.

8) Network with local producers, digitechs, assistants, and other crew

© Tom Sodoge

The most successful commercial photographers are those that have a team. And since you never know when you’ll need one (always for big jobs, and often for medium-sized jobs), it’s best to pull your own team together before you land the shoot where they are needed.

So who will you need on your team?

At minimum:

  1. Producer
  2. Digitech
  3. Assistants

The producer plans and organizes and manages all the little details. They are the project manager.

Your digitech will sit at his/her laptop, with your camera tethered to it, and manage the files as they come into the computer. They may make adjustments to exposure, color, tag photos for deletion, help your client see what a photo might look like ‘darkened a little in this area’, and many other critical photo-related tasks.

Your assistants of course are your ‘right-hand-man’ (or woman). The best assistants will be mind readers, and be able to predict your needs. They’ll adjust your lights, carry your gear, hand you lenses and camera bodies, and all kinds of other things you can’t do because you only have two arms and one body.

Because you are certain to need all these people before any decent-sized shoot (and you’ll need an assistant for many small shoots), definitely plan to nail down your crew before your first big job.

It’s as simple as doing a Google search for those folks in your area, sending a quick email to introduce yourself and let them know you’d like to work together.

Ask them if they attend any industry events, and if they say yes, plan to attend so you can meet them in person.

Shaking hands with your peers, sharing a beer and a story is a great way to start networking in your industry.

Because you never know where the photography opportunities will come from, always make an attempt to connect with all kinds of people in the industry.

9) Add the names of clients you’ve shot for to the client list on your website

© One Zone Studio

Remember I mentioned a client list above?

It’s one of the most valuable tools you have to market yourself. It’s the commercial photography industry’s version of ‘social proofing’. Being able to demonstrate that other clients have hired you and trusted you enough to have you make photos for them.

At the end of each job, always remember to add the name of each company you did photography for to your client list on your website.

When you are trying to build trust with brands that you have never worked with and who don’t know you from Adam, your client list can go a long way in helping them trust you, and most importantly- hire you.

As far as the technical aspects of making a client list, you don’t need to get fancy with it, just make a bulleted list, or place dividers in between each client if your list is short.

Like this:

Rockin Bodies Gym // Kinley’s Kid Space // Hammonds Hamburgers // Steam Cafe // Hotshots Sports

And try as hard as you can to always get ‘tearsheets’ from clients who have used your photos in print, like in printed ads for example. These tearsheets (examples of final ads/brochures/banners/mailers), are worth their weight in gold when you include them on your website. They enable new clients to visualize what your work would look like in their own ad campaigns.

When your are JSO, don’t feel bad about working primarily with smaller companies. As your portfolio and experience grows, so too will the size of the companies you are shooting for.

Pretty soon you’ll have some impressive names on your client list, and ultimately, there’s a strong chance that that’s all you’ll have.

That’s how it goes in the commercial photography industry.

10) Pitch even bigger businesses

© C. Dustin

When you are at the point where you have proven experience shooting for a variety of small and local businesses, you will be ready to start reaching out to ‘bigger fish’.

What’s exciting about shooting for bigger fish is that you’ll (generally-speaking), earn more revenue, have cooler shooting opportunities, be more challenged, and experience greater artistic rewards.

How do you know you are ready to shoot for ‘bigger fish’? When you feel confident that you are sufficiently educated in all aspects of your commercial photography business, including:

1. Your photography abilities in a variety of different circumstances. (In general with photography, regardless of the environment you feel like ‘I got this’.)
2. Your pricing. (You know the ins-and-outs of your pricing, can explain it well, and aren’t afraid to negotiate with any size client.)
3. Your processes. (You have your pre-and-post shoot processes nailed down, and can work efficiently and quickly.)
4. Your contracts. (You know what’s in your contract and why, and feel confident that it’s protecting you and setting clear expectations with your clients.)
5. Your team. (You trust your team, and you all work well together with the same end goal in mind- to please your clients.)

If you meet all the above criteria, then you are ready to start pitching bigger clients for better and higher-paying ($$$$$) jobs.

All of the work you’ve done up until this point is to that end- to make more money (ideally a lot more money!) and do more fulfilling work.

And what photographer doesn’t want more of both?

Chase after those big clients. Follow them on social. Send them printed marketing pieces. Call them. Email them. Ask for meetings. Rinse and repeat and do it all over again until you land them.

They may be a little more challenging to get in front of, but the payoff is oh-so-worth-it in every respect.

Hope you found this article helpful for getting started in commercial work!

Come join us in our Facebook group if you aren’t already there.

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Comments (2)

Hi Jamie,

Spot on !!
Super article, extremely accurate!
Precise!
I’ve am a commercial photographer, and this marks my 40th year as a full-time custom assignment commercial photographer.
For you new photographers out there this article should be your blueprint.
And for old-timers like me, this article reminded me of some areas I’ve allowed my own marketing to become slack…… Thank you Jamie

Mike Boatman, Photographer

Thanks so much Mike! So happy to hear that even an ‘old-timer’ like yourself agrees with the info!

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