How do I start taking commercial photographs?
November 2, 2009 3:10 AM   Subscribe

I've been taking photographs for a few years with the aim of becoming a professional, and I think I've got enough experience and material to start billing myself as one (published work, fancy website, etc). I'm working towards photojournalism, but in the meantime I'd like to do some travel or commercial-type photography for the extra cash. I'm not really sure how to kick that off, though. I'm living in a huge tourist city in Asia and I suspect fancy hotels are a good place to start, but where else should I be putting out my feelers?

Additionally, how should I approach potential clients? I'm sure it doesn't work like pitching journalism, but my guess would be an email explaining who I am, my qualifications and the services I offer. Is there a standard way to do this?
posted by borkingchikapa to Work & Money (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Coupla things:

1) First figure out what you want to do and what you are good at. Because you need to show people photographs in order to get people to pay you to take photographs.

2) It's a tough business, with a million people starting out right now. I'm just warning you because EVERYONE owns a DSLR which can take pretty amazing photos. Some of them have been doing it for 10 years, some for 5, some for 1. So there are some people ahead of you in line for jobs. I just want to warn you...there are some difficulties with your plan.

3) I think people make money shooting pictures of hotel rooms for hotels. I believe there was an article about it in a couple of years ago. Would you ever consider doing a street studio stand and shooting tourists on the street? I think you might be able to make some money doing that. Just a thought.

4) I'd be reading Best Business Practices for Photographers and every photography business blog I could find. The business side of photography is WEIRD and you have to understand how it works. Both to make sure you don't get screwed, and to make sure you are not screwing your photographer friends, who you want to help you out.

Good luck!
posted by sully75 at 5:31 AM on November 2, 2009

Call the highly regarded pros in your area and offer your services to them. Do that for a year or so. You might be ready for the photography itself, but the the business side of photography isn't one you want to learn by trial and error.
posted by paanta at 5:32 AM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Marketing yourself to hotels is a backwards way to get pictures published in brochures. You have to approach the ad agencies that they work with. Use a portfolio or your website to market yourself to them and then be very aggressive because there are a LOT of excellent pro photographers out there looking for work. The economy has hit the press industry very hard and you will compete with photographers with many years experience. You really have to be at the top of your game and that means knowing the business side. Knowing how to take good pictures "on assignment" is only one skill you need to know. Hopefully you have experience doing assignement work or you will be spinning your wheels.
posted by JJ86 at 6:20 AM on November 2, 2009

Before you do anything, make sure your work is good.

I say this because I wish I had a nickel for every person who told me how much they wanted to be a pro photographer whose work was mediocre at best. You may not be one of these people, but, if you haven't already, I would advise getting a serious, harsh critique from a professional or several.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:22 AM on November 2, 2009

Please see my post in this previous thread.

The only thing I can really add to what I said before is that if you're going to show your work to potential clients, make sure a significant portion of it is the kind of photography they actually use.

Over 20 years ago I was in charge of a daily newspaper's photo department. At hiring time, when I met with an applicant who brought in nothing but wedding photos, or nothing but portraits, or anything but a strong solid photojournalistic portfolio, I generally didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.
posted by imjustsaying at 8:23 AM on November 2, 2009

What paanta said, to the nth degree. Seek out the pro photographers in your area, and assist them, for as long as you can stand it. It is the quickest, easiest, and best way to learn the business side of things. You may think you have experience, but spend enough time on professional shoots and you'll see that that kind of experience is completely different than just the ability to take nice pictures under ideal conditions.

Also, published work doesn't really mean much. You need to be able to make publishable work on demand and repeat it over and over. This is what separates the pros from the amateurs. When the light is less than ideal, when its raining, when the subject matter is ugly and uninteresting, you have to be able to perform no matter what.

Your fancy website - these days anyone with some cash and some time can make a fancy website. It doesn't matter how fancy the site is, the pictures matter the most. AND, this is so important, because everyone else can easily make fancy websites (and the photo editors know this very well), the real test is someone's print portfolio. It sounds counterintuitive, and almost old-fashioned, but if a PE sees a nice printed book with lots of forethought on the edit and layout, they will respond, because they know you're serious. A website is a gateway, not the real measure of your work.

I work at a photo agency in NYC, everyone I know who is shooting professionally at one point assisted an older photographer. They got to know the flow of things, got to know clients, the way things happen naturally. They build up slowly so that finally, when the call came for a commercial shoot, the client said 'oh you worked for so and so? yeah, let's do it.' They will never take a chance on an unknown. There is too much at stake for them to trust someone they have never heard of, no matter how much marketing you throw around. But if a client knows that you did time on set with an established pro, it means that they will be that much more comfortable entering into a long-term relationship when you are finally ready to start on your own.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 8:58 AM on November 2, 2009

I can't stress how right girlmightlive and inifinitefloating brains are. It's sort of like cooking: there's a world of difference between your mom being a great cook and your mom running a kitchen. It's an entirely different ballgame.

Shooting hotel rooms is a pretty specialized job. You need to make small places look big while controlling your verticals and perspective. You need to light them in such a way that they look natural but aren't. The way we light rooms to live and the way we light them to look good in a brochure are completely different. Balance indoor and outdoor light. Know how to style a room so it's perfect and then retouch it when you realize it's not. And you need to know how to charge for it.

But if you're ready to go through all of that, go for it.
posted by jedrek at 11:34 AM on November 2, 2009

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