Commercial Photography: How to Get Your Foot in the Door

Commercial Photography: How to Get Your Foot in the Door

Commercial Photography: How to Get Your Foot in the Door with Audrey Woulard

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Seeing our work published is a goal for many of us. In the commercial world, the competition is steep. Your voice is your images, and it is important to speak to potential advertisers through your portfolio.

So, how do you get your foot in the door? First, let’s define what commercial work is. If you haven’t worked commercially, it’s likely unclear to you how to approach the actual work and pricing. Defining it can help clear things up.

Commercial photographers capture images that will be used to make their client money. If Procter & Gamble hires a photographer to produce images for its latest Tide campaign about how its product gets whites whiter, then the photographer must create images that convey that message. This is usually the highest-paid type of commercial work. The finished works are tear sheets. You find the images in magazines and on signs and websites. Commercial photographers are paid each time their images are used for an agreed amount of time.

A photographer may also be contacted by a business to take pictures of its products that will be used for website, brochures or some other form of collateral. This subgenre of commercial photography is called product photography.

The most prominent commercial work is editorial. Editorial photography includes those images that are used to illustrate a story in a magazine. If Parents magazine features a story about picky eaters, it asks photographers for pictures of kids eating, kids protesting their meal or other images to would help convey the story.

Editorial photography is the lowest paid. One of the reasons for this is the photographer is granted photo credit. If you ever look at a magazine article, it will state the author, and then it will say “Photography by Jane Doe.” Why do photographers do editorial work if there is so little money in it? Because advertising agencies and creative directors find a lot of their talent looking at editorial articles.

It is important to note that there is a big difference between commercial images and portrait images. Advertising agencies do not want to sift through a photographer’s gallery that’s full of portrait work.

So what should you do first?

Find your voice and what you’re good at capturing. Your portfolio should be consistent. That doesn’t mean you have to photograph all the same subjects. It means you should be able to tell the same story with any subject.

Advertising companies hire photographers based on their vision. You must have the ability to convey the same look and vision with any subject. For example, I exclusively photograph people under 18. I do not photograph anything else. Why would Iams pet food company hire me for its biggest ad campaign if I have never photographed an animal? The ad agency hired me based on how I use light, and wanted me to design a modern set with strategic splashes of color. Those elements were consistent in my work with kids, and they wanted that look with animals. Having a substantial portfolio of 12 to 15 strong images is your first step.

If you are a DIY type, pick up a copy of the latest edition of Photographer’s Market. This massive resource is updated every year. 2018 Photographer’s Market was released in September. It has listings for hundreds of agencies and publications, and includes contact info, type of publication and imagery desired. Just look out for occasional outdated information.

Create a large postcard with four to five of your best commercial images and your contact information. If you’ve already done a commercial assignment, include one tear sheet on that card.

Pick up a few magazines that you would love to see your work published in. In the front of every magazine, you will see the photo editors’ names listed on the masthead. Because photo editors are always looking for new talent, they expect emails from photographers.

Before you email a photo editor, make sure that your style of photography fits with the images featured in the magazine. In your email, show that you read their magazine and that you’re knowledgeable about their style, and that you’d love to shoot any upcoming editorials. If the photo editor likes your work, you may not receive a response until they have an article that fits their criteria. When they need certain images, the photo editor will usually send out a mass email to those they add to their list asking for individual images. If they love your work, they may contact you to shoot specifically for an article.

Remember, editorial work is key to getting your foot in the door with the major advertisers. Editorial work is the grassroots marketing of the commercial world.

Send your postcard directly to the creative director of every agency you want to work with. If they like you, the creative director will place your information in their file. Creative directors receive a lot of direct mail. Most mailed submissions go unnoticed. So how do you gain their attention? Send it via FedEx. That envelope will spark their attention, and they will most definitely open it.

Don’t shy away from opening an online gallery with many of the free websites, such as Workbook, 500px and Flickr. Advertising agencies are always combing through those websites. Again, you want to make sure you have a cohesive gallery and that you’re showing your best commercial-style images.

The last thing you can do is seek the help of a photography agent, also known as a representative. It’s not easy. A photography rep acts as a liaison between photographers and advertising agencies. The rep finds the photographer work and negotiates all terms and payment on your behalf. Reps work for you, and will always work hard because they take 20 percent of your earnings.

Agents are skilled at recognizing talent that sells. If you feel you have what it takes, seek out reps who have no more than one other photographer in each of the genres you’re interested in. The smaller reps manage only one photographer per genre, while bigger agencies take on two to three photographers per genre.

There are only two ways to get in front of a photographer rep. You can email them with a link to your commercial photography website, or you can send in a physical portfolio for them to review. If you send your physical portfolio, include a self-addressed envelope/box so they can send it back to you.

If you contact agencies that do not represent another photographer who specializes in the work you do, your chances are higher that they will contact you for a meeting. If you’re unsure where to find photography reps, visit and search for “artist representatives.”

Let me reiterate a few things. If you’re serious about venturing into the commercial world, it takes work. You have to market yourself, and there are no shortcuts. Those who do the work will be rewarded. Do not turn away from editorial work because the pay is meager. Make sure the editorial work you agree to do is legit. The idea behind editorial work is to be seen by those who could grant you a high-paying commercial contract.

With a solid commercial portfolio and a determination to follow through with everything you need to do, you can achieve your goals.

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To read the full article, launch the digital version of the October 2017 magazine.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Reality Reimagined

    THANK YOU! This is the article that I’ve been looking for, for quite some time now. My jaw is on the floor with the content, instruction and direction. So much to get started with – thank you!!!

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