So You Want To Be A Commercial Photographer?
Seven years ago I made the decision that I wanted to be a commercial photographer, and I haven’t looked back since. Today I have a 4,000 sq ft studio that specializes in food and beverage tabletop photography, a full commercial kitchen, a stocked prop room, I shoot with Broncolor lighting and a Phase One medium format camera system, and have created images for national and regional food brands such as Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Ruby Tuesday, Tony Chachere’s, The Four Seasons, Tijuana Flats, Metro Diner, and a dozen locations at Disney World and Disney Springs. I’ve also created two classes with KelbyOne (the second one debuting this week!) to teach others some of what I have learned along the way. It’s been a great ride so far and I’m only about halfway to where I want to be. But I thought I would share a bit of what my experience has taught me about becoming a commercial photographer.
Choosing A Genre
After 20 years in advertising, I had always been interested in commercial photography but struggled to find a genre that really interested me. I didn’t want to take photos of sunglasses or skin care products, chainsaws or cars, and fashion was really not my thing. In 2015 I won a cooking competition with a grand prize of a week in Ireland. I brought my camera with me on this foodie trip and took nothing but photos of food for a week. While I was there, it dawned on me just how much of an industry was out there surrounding commercial food photography, and, by the time I returned, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my career next.
Selecting a genre to focus on is very important to your success as a commercial photographer. If a potential client were viewing my portfolio and they had to search through galleries of families, weddings, cars, or whatever I might have posted as a photographer who doesn’t specialize, they may have second thoughts about me as the right fit for their company. This is even more of an issue as you climb further up the ladder and are talking to creative directors at large advertising agencies that represent big brands. You simply will not get hired for a job that you are not a specialist in. We’re talking big budget productions, with lots of money and reputations at stake, and the person who gets the job is the one that is extremely proficient in the genre.
If you’re really interested in making a career in commercial photography, you have to be ready to spend the next 5, 10, 20 years focusing on becoming the best at the genre you choose to pursue. You must love the work. You must have a desire to shoot the same thing for the 100th time and still love the process of making it the best work you’ve ever shot. Personally there is something very rewarding and also satisfying about working to become one of the best in my field. I love pushing the boundaries of my work every day and making every production better than my last. I love the focus and concentration working in a specific genre affords me and I love the challenge my job brings me every day.
I hear people all the time say they don’t think they could ever focus on just one thing, that they’d get bored or that they think they are better as a photographer who can create work across multiple genres. That’s all fine, but I’m here to tell you if you want to work at the high end of commercial photography, you need to find a field to specialize in and make a name for yourself.
Separate Art and Business
Getting a start in anything is neither quick nor easy, and starting as a commercial photographer is no different. The business of photography is vastly different from the art of photography, and you have to go into this career understanding that. I absolutely love what I do now, even when I’m photographing my 20th hamburger. It’s always different and unique and every image is a challenge. I love a good challenge and I don’t have much quit in me, so that has lead to success for me thus far.(more…)