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Expert Guide to Commercial Photography: What It Is and How to Succeed

Commercial photography is arguably one of the most profitable photography industries you can get into, right next to weddings. But what exactly is commercial photography? Our nifty guide is here to help! 

In the simplest answer, commercial photography is photography that aims at selling or advertising a product or service. The goal of commercial photography is to accurately and aesthetically express something that can be purchased. If a photograph makes you want to buy something, it is successful! Commercial photography spans a very large variety of subject matter, styles, crops, and even photoshoot budgets! 

That being said, there is so much more to commercial photography than just selling a product. Commercial photography has characteristics that are exclusive to this particular niche, as well as the requirements of legal forms such as model releases. 

The Types of Commercial Photography 

The big goal of commercial photography is the sell, sell, sell! But even in that, there are subgenres of commercial photography. The most common types include…

  • Fashion Photography. Fashion photography revolves around the art of dressing oneself, from clothes to accessories. Fashion photography is a very specific niche intended to show off clothing and wardrobe accessories in the most flattering light. 
  • Catalog Photography. Catalog photography is a style that is used to market products directly to everyday consumers. The images appear more informational and direct, with little story or narrative behind them. 
  • Product Photography. Product photography is a type of commercial photography which is about representing and capturing an inanimate product. The intent is to show the product in the most attractive and sale-able way. Product photography is used in advertising products, whether it be for sale online or in marketing.
  • Food Photography. Food photography is similar to product photography but is utilized to sell items on a menu or promote a restaurant. Food photography takes advantage of beautiful presentation of dishes and captures them in a tasteful way (no pun intended). 
  • Environmental / Workplace Portraits. Also referred to as branding portraits, environment and workplace portraits are a form of commercial photography in which a business is being advertised rather than a specific product. This involves taking photographs of the business owner, employees or workers in their element at the business. An example of this would be a welding company with images of welders working. Workplace almost always shot on-site.
  • Head Shots. Head shots are portraits that are used for professional profile images in brochures, resumes, websites, and on social media. As the name implies, these are typically taken from the shoulders up. 
  • Architecture and Real Estate Photography. Real estate agents use photographs of the properties they are selling commercially in order to obtain buyers. Real estate photographers will use a combination of natural and artificial lighting and a variety of wide-angle lenses.

Gear for Commercial Photography

Commercial photography really does rely heavily on the equipment you use. Even though art is in the eye of the beholder, commercial photography really is more of a work-endeavor than it is a creative one. As such, having top of the line equipment is really a must-have if you want to survive in the industry long term! 

The Camera

Quality is key in commercial photography, and that starts with the camera resolution. The megapixel count begins to matter. You want to ensure that your image is captured in full detail. Full frame sensors are also pretty high up on the needs list as a crop sensor will not have a high enough resolution. 

Don’t even bother with a crop sensor, or APS-C camera. Commercial photography is printed and often blown up to a very large size. If you’re looking to print very large canvases, crop sensors won’t work well for you because the image will likely be too small! You would also need to look for a camera with a lot of megapixels for a very big print. Sensors tend to go hand in hand with another technical term called megapixels. Megapixels are a unit of measurement for resolution that literally translate to “one million pixels”. Megapixels dictate how much detail your sensor can capture. The larger the megapixel number, the more detail your camera can catch. Only full frame sensor cameras have large megapixel counts. 

Alongside prints, the megapixels do impact the details and quality of an image. As you may deduce, the more pixels, the higher quality the image because there will be more details. Megapixels is a unit of measurement for the amount of pixels in a photo. 

Noise at high ISOs also impacts the details. The more noise, the more mucked up the image is. Noise control options help to alleviate some of the grains present when shooting in darker conditions. As such, having this option is pretty nifty!

It’s also important to look at how many focus points the camera has. How you select what is in focus and how accurate the autofocus is is through focus points. Focus points are the dots that the camera uses to lock onto focus. The more there are, the more accurate and detailed the focus can be. 


The final image result is due to the lens. This is where a lot of the high quality lies. When determining which lens to invest in, consider lenses that use pristine high grade glass (preferably with some fluoride coating to eliminate light glares). 

For the most part, you will stick to standard lenses and telephoto lenses. Both of these types of lenses have an equal benefit of not distorting the proportions of your subjects. This aids in the product you are capturing being fairly accurate to life, especially if you’re doing something like catalog photography. 

In the commercial world, glass matters. Camera brands and lens companies have a high end lens line and a low end lens line. The high end line uses high quality glass that will make images sharp, vibrant, and rich. This is because the grains of sand used to make the glass differ between the two qualities, high-end glass is clearer! The problem with lower end glass is that it tends to not be very sharp and have a dull appearance.

Look for lenses that have wide apertures so that you have more control over the aperture you choose. Depth of field is controlled by the aperture. If you can invest in one lens that can go super shallow and quite deep, you’re golden. 


Commercial photography more often than not has artificial lighting involved (even when shooting outdoors). This is because you want colors to be accurately represented, and artificial lights tend to be the best for this due to how true the light from the bulbs or strobes are. There are different types of artificial lighting to choose from, neither is better nor worse than the other: 

Continuous: Light that is always on and does not flash. These can range from LED strips and LED bulbs all the way to tungsten bulbs. These lights tend to have a softer look to them.

Flash/Strobe/Speedlite: A device used in photography that bursts a powerful bright light. For fashion photography, you’ll likely want to look at flashes that feature TTL to preserve the depth of field. An acronym for “Through-The-Lens”, this is a setting in a flash, strobe, or speedlite automatically determines the output of light based on information it is receiving from your lens. This lighting tends to have a sharp and contrasted look to it. 

Client Communication is Key for Commercial Photography

Ensuring that all expectations are met is the key to longevity in this industry. Really fine tune your communication skills in order to meet the needs of the business you are capturing images for. 

It’s a really good idea to hop on the phone and talk to your client verbally, and then summarize the contents of the phone call in writing. Send this over to your client for approval. Ensure your contract outlines all of the expectations and requirements and have the client sign off on this. 

Creating a mood board for the session and designating a shot list is also a big trick to success in commercial photography. This helps keep the client involved in the process every step of the way and ensure that their vision is accurately captured. A mood board is a collection of reference images that express the aesthetic you are capturing. A shot list is a detailed checklist of the images you need to capture during a shoot. 

Commercial Photography Law: Release Forms and Licensing 

Commercial photography is not as cut and dry as other types of photography- because you are advertising something, there are laws surrounding commercial photography that one must be aware of. The two primary ones are release forms and licensing. 

Release Forms 

A release form is a document between the photographer and the client, subject, owner of something in a photograph. Release forms secure legal permission to publish images of people and property. Publishing means releasing the images for a commercial purpose, such as advertising a business or selling a product. 

In commercial photography, you will be utilizing model release forms at all times. A model release form states that the model of the photograph consents to having their likeness used commercially. A model release form protects you or your client against future lawsuits your subject might file. This can mean anything from claims like invasion of privacy, defamation of character, and so on.

If you’re shooting on private property, a property release form will come into play. If you want to publish photos of the property that does not belong to you, it’s essential to get the owner of said property to sign a release document. However, this is specific to whether or not the property is recognizable beyond a reasonable doubt.

Many likely think of physical locations when it comes to property release forms. However, the law in the United States also considers animals to be property. If you want to commercially use photographs of a recognizable dog, cat, or other pet, you will need a property release form. Same goes for a car, garden, and anything else considered property. This is key for photographers who shoot for pet product companies. 


Now, the other part of commercial photography is licensing. A photography license is a contract in which the photographer grants specific rights to the client who wants to use your image(s) for a stipulated amount of time. 

The common types of licenses you will find in commercial photography include usage, intellectual property (copyright), approved uses, duration of use, and number of uses. All of these refer to how images are used and for how long. Make sure to read the details of what the client needs in order to determine the right kind of license to apply. 

How To Become a Commercial Photographer

Becoming a commercial photographer is not as difficult as it may appear- there are so many opportunities in this niche that the possibilities are pretty endless. 

What we can say is that the best way to get started is to build up your experience and portfolio in one specific area. Pick a subject or several subjects you are passionate about and create a portfolio built around those niches. This will help you to get your first paid clients. You can then look for mid-level and small businesses which are talking about upcoming launches or whose imagery at the moment is not great, and make them a pitch. Another is to search for job boards and photography sites that list opportunities you can apply to. 

In conclusion, commercial photography is a very fruitful endeavor that can lead to a lifelong career. Just follow the advice here and you will be shooting for major companies in no time! 

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