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How to Know if You Are Ready to Do Commercial Photography

How do you know if and when you are ready for commercial photography?

You may be an outstanding businessperson.

You may have learned how to knock it out of the park when it comes to client sales. You may be an expert at marketing your business.

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But the single most important factor in determining whether or not you are ready for commercial photography is this:

The quality of your work.

By it’s very nature, commercial photography is premium quality work.

The best photos are referred to as ‘hero’ photos, and everything else is considered ‘b-roll’.

Hero photos are akin to the one photo a private client purchases to blow up big and hang on their wall.

If you consider a regular 2-hour portrait shoot, you may only create five images that would be considered ‘commercial worthy’, and only one or two ‘hero’ photos from the entire batch.

It’s not uncommon for commercial photographers to create several hundred images to get that one perfect hero shot.

When it comes to quality, how great a photo looks is in the eye of the beholder, and completely subjective (although photo contest judges would tend to disagree with me here).

Case-in-point: an independent retail store owner in your town might think your photos are ‘gorgeous’, but the big brand that’s headquartered a few miles away might think they are ‘just ok’.

After you’ve been doing commercial work for a little while, and start receiving inquiries from new clients, the type and quality of the inquiries will be a good barometer for the quality of your work.

There are some questions you should ask yourself to determine whether you are ready to work with commercial clients.

Ask yourself:

  1. Are my client processes dialed in? 
  2. Are my editing skills solid? (This means you can select the best images while post-processing, and know which ones your client is likely or unlikely to use for their needs.)
  3. Am I a skilled retoucher or do I have a retoucher I can work with who is
  4. Do I have a way to deliver files to a client that is easy and hassle-free for them?
  5. Am I easy to get ahold of, and responsive to clients? (Commercial clients can’t wait for days, and often not even hours to hear back from you. When they contact you, you need to reply fast.)
  6. Am I available for shoots on weekdays? (Commercial shoots are usually on weekdays as opposed to weekend days.)
  7. Do I know the difference between a commercial photo and a portrait photo?
  8. Do I have a solid commercial photography contract
  9. Do I understand how to price photography and usage fees for commercial clients?
  10. Can I produce outstanding photos in any kind of environment given any kind of challenge?
  11. Do I have a solid grasp of lighting, either natural light or auxiliary lighting or both? (Great lighting is extremely key in commercial work, and you’ll often be shooting with auxiliary lighting, even outside of a studio.)
  12. Do I have access to others who can help me with my shoots? (Assistants, producers, stylists etc.). 
  13. Am I great at managing projects, and can remain engaged from the first client meeting to the final deliverables? (Every commercial gig is a project.)

If you answered no to any of the preceding questions, take some time to work on those areas before taking on your first commercial client. You’ll feel far more ready once you have dialed all of those things in.

As far as being mentally ‘ready’, I’ll be honest when I say that you’ll never really be truly ‘ready’ for commercial photography.

Why?

  • The industry is constantly and rapidly changing and it’s impossible to keep up with all of the changes. There is only one of you and you have limited time.
  • Your skills are continually improving and growing, which will present better and more frequent opportunities for you which come with their own new set of challenges.
  • You’ll never know everything you need to know, because you can’t get in the heads of other commercial photographers, nor know everything every art buyer or every agent knows. You will be continually growing and learning throughout your career.

Look at it like buying a new digital camera.

You can’t possibly learn everything there is to learn about every new make and model of camera and lens, every technological advancement, every rumor of new gear coming down the pipeline, etc. You could spend months or years researching gear, but while you are researching, all of those advancements are passing you by.

At some point you just have to pick one.

With commercial photography, once you’ve learned enough to feel confident with the business aspect of it, and your photography and editing skills are advanced enough to produce engaging high quality photos in a variety of different environments, you just have to dive in with both feet.

Starting small working with small local businesses is the best, (and least intimidating!) way to start. You can work on improving your quality over time, experiment with pricing, and get to know how the whole process works without the pressure of an agency art director hovering over your shoulder. You also get to grow your client list at a scale that’s manageable with your other business tasks, which is especially important if you are shooting for other kinds of clients. 

There’s no need to jump into big agency jobs until you are ready, and you can work on improving the areas in the questions I asked above until you are ready to work with a big client. And when those big jobs do come along, you’ll be so grateful that you can to answer “yes” to every question above!

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