Commercial Photography

Commercial Photography


Commercial Photography, a branch of professional photography that produces images for businesses, institutions, or individuals. Commercial photographs are often of products or people and may be reproduced as illustrations in catalogues and brochures or as advertisements in magazines, newspapers, and other media. Commercial photographs are often used to communicate information and influence viewers’ attitudes about their subjects.

Photographers often specialize in a subject, such as advertising, architecture, automobiles, fashion, food, or portraits. Many commercial photographers are freelancers; that is, they operate without long-term contractual commitments to any one employer.


Portrait photography, called portraiture, is the business of photographing people. Portraiture includes many levels of photography, from photographers who travel between schools taking student and faculty photographs, to those who own private portrait and wedding studios, to photographers who specialize in fine-art celebrity portraits. Portrait photographers’ fees vary greatly depending on their reputation and location. Portraits may be used for business brochures, in company directories, or as keepsakes for personal enjoyment.

Advertising photography is designed to sell products or services by capturing a viewer’s attention. It can be found in magazines, newspapers, and catalogues. The photographs may stand alone, or they may be combined with words to sell a product or illustrate a concept. Typically, an art director or advertising agency determines the content of the picture and hires a photographer to create the image. The image may be a still life of a company’s product, or the photograph may try to elicit an emotion the advertiser wishes to associate with a product. Male and female models are often used to create moods, especially in fashion photography. The photographer visually translates the idea into the final image using a variety of tools and techniques. He or she charges a daily rate for taking photographs, plus expenses, including the cost of hiring freelance assistants, stylists, and makeup artists when necessary. Some of the technical elements a photographer must skillfully control include sharpness, exposure, lighting, composition, and colour reproduction.

Stock photography refers to existing photographs that may be purchased for a fee and reproduced in an advertisement, book, magazine, or another medium. Freelance photographers usually take stock photographs, with the hope that they may be purchased for a variety of uses at a later date. Stock photographs can be of any subject but are often broad in theme, so they can be applicable to many situations. The best stock photographs usually evoke general moods and ideas rather than specific things or places. For example, a photographer may take a picture of a thunderstorm or tornado in the hope that a textbook or encyclopedia uses it to illustrate an article about the weather. Likewise, a car dealership could use the same photo in an advertisement to symbolize the power of their automobiles. Textbook companies generally buy stock photographs to illustrate the concepts and subjects covered in their books, rather than hire photographers to create custom images. A stock agency acts as a library and marketer for the work of its photographers by cataloguing their photographs and renting them to customers. A stock photograph costs much less than a commissioned photograph. Users pay a rental fee based on the scope of distribution of the picture. Users can see exactly what they are getting, and deadlines are easier to meet because the pictures are readily available.


Commercial photographs are judged by criteria different from those used for other types of photography, such as photojournalism or documentary photography. A commercial photograph is carefully crafted to produce the desired image. Advertisers pay expensive fees to run advertisements and they demand high-quality photographs to communicate their ideas. Commercial photographers often photograph, or shoot, their subjects inside a studio. A studio is a neutral surrounding where sets can be constructed and lighting controlled in order to achieve the intended result. The walls of a studio are often painted black or grey to avoid unintentional reflections. A general-purpose studio can usually accommodate a still life or portrait photographer, while larger subjects such as an automobile or a dining room set to demand a more specialized and costly facility. A basic studio can include a small darkroom for loading film; a dressing room for models; storage for backgrounds, cameras, and lighting equipment; and an office area.

Location photography refers to images taken outside the studio. When on location the photographer selects the site, transports equipment, and erects and dismantles any sets. Specialized equipment is often needed, and location shoots typically use several assistants to manage details. Weather is an important consideration on location, and days can be added to the schedule while waiting for good weather.


A commercial photographer relies on a variety of equipment and products. The camera is the photographer’s indispensable tool and comes in various sizes, called formats. Different formats are used for different subjects. In each format, extra camera bodies and a variety of lenses are required for versatility. Single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras use 35-millimetre film and are small, portable, and versatile. SLR cameras are typically preferred for documentary work, such as shooting moving subjects. Medium- and large-format cameras use increasingly larger film negatives and are best for portraiture and advertising photography.

Traditional film cameras have been the mainstay for commercial photography, but the use of digital cameras, scanners, and computers has grown rapidly in commercial use. In digital cameras images are recorded digitally and stored on disks or within a computer, considerably shortening production time. A scanner can be used to digitize traditional film-based negatives. The image can then be enhanced, retouched, or altered with a computer and sent directly to a printer. See Photography: Recent Developments: Digital Photography; Computer Graphics.

A professional, full-service photographic laboratory is an important component in commercial photography. Few photographers do their own laboratory work because of the time and specialized equipment required. Laboratories offer traditional services such as film processing, printing, and retouching, as well as electronic services like scanning and digital output.

There are no professional licenses or degrees required to become a commercial photographer, but there are many routes for reaching that goal. A novice can gain experience by working or apprenticing with a photographer. Many colleges offer associate or bachelor degrees in photography, and workshops and courses are also available. Professional organizations provide networking and educational opportunities for their members.

Contributed By:
Nancy M. Stuart