Commercial versus Consumer Photography: What’s the Difference?

Every famous photographer is known for his or her specialty. Annie Leibovitz is known for her celebrity portraits, Ansel Adams for landscapes, Jasmine Star for weddings, Sue Bryce for glamor, etc. The point is that successful photographers fill a specific niche and become the very best at it. As you start your photography business, you too will need to specialize your skills.

To do so, start with determining whether you are aspiring to be a commercial or consumer photographer. This is an important decision that greatly impacts everything from the design of your website to how you price your photography services. I’ll explain the differences below with examples.

Commercial vs Consumer: What’s the Difference?

What distinguishes a commercial client from a consumer client has nothing to do with photography subject matter. You could be shooting photos of nature, people, or food, and these images could go the route of commercial or consumer client. The main difference you need to pay attention to is how your client intends to use your photos. For example, consider a photo of a happy couple at a wedding. If the photo will be used commercially, say printed on a huge billboard to advertise the bride’s wedding dress, this photo is extremely valuable and should be priced accordingly. However, if that same photo will be printed and hung on a wall inside of the bride’s private residence, that photo is not being used commercially and should be significantly lower in price.

What is commercial photography?

If your client will be using your images to make a profit, they are commercial clients. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. If the resulting photo will be used by your client in a way that generates them profit, it’s considered a commercial photo shoot. Think corporate headshots that are used for company websites or internal charts, or photos that will be used to market or advertise the company. Fine art photography could also fall into the commercial sphere if the images will be printed and displayed in an office. Again, it all comes down to the way your photos will ultimately be used.

Who are commercial photography clients?

Commercial photography clients are typically either an in-house department within the corporation or an external agency working on behalf of a corporation. In either case, the client’s photo needs are usually very specific to a certain expertise in photography subject matter including but not specific to product, fashion, architecture, food, automotive, healthcare, etc. This is why it very important for the commercial photographer to specialize in a specific aspect of photography.

Advertising Photography Versus Editorial Photography

Both advertising and editorial photography fall into the commercial photography bucket, they differ in the way that you would approach the photo shoot assignment.

Advertising Photography Sells a Product or Service

An advertising client hires a photographer to take photos in order to sell their product or service. The resulting images are almost always used solely for marketing and promotional purposes and it’s not unusual for advertising photos to be heavily manipulated in post-production. Advertising photography typically occurs as an organized photo shoot, and your client will likely be there with you to provide direction and input. If any models or recognizable property is involved, you must get signed model releases and property releases; any noticeable branding and copyrighted logos should also be removed unless the brand has given its prior consent.

Examples of advertising photography:

  • Print or digital media ad campaigns
  • Commercial websites
  • Corporate brochures, newsletters, and presentations
  • Book covers and album covers
  • Product packaging
  • Films and television
Commercial advertising photography

Ads are sometimes cleverly disguised as sponsored content in such a way that they don’t look like ads anymore.

Editorial Photography Tells a Story

Similar to and often encompassing photojournalism is editorial photography, which is all about documenting real-life issues and current events. Editorial photographers are hired by a media outlet to tell a story through images, often to illustrate an upcoming story.

Why Do Editorial Photography?

Even if you choose not to focus solely on becoming an editorial photographer, you may want to consider doing editorial photography on a freelance basis for a couple of reasons. First, you gain credibility by having your work published. Second, your photos published with a byline (photo credit) is a form of marketing that visually reinforces your name. Also, if you manage to get a hyperlink to your website as part of the photo credit, this can boost your website’s search engine optimization (SEO) rankings. So there are definitely positive reasons to do editorial photography, even though they may not translate to immediate new clients or revenue.

What Makes a Good Editorial Photo?

Since editorial photography is about telling stories through imagery, the best photos display strong visual context. In this case, generic, nondescript images might make for good stock or advertising photography, but they are typically useless in an editorial sense.

Examples of editorial photos:

  • Magazine, newspaper, or blog articles
  • Special editorial features
  • Documentaries
  • Textbooks
  • News broadcasts

Note that just because a photo appears in a magazine or newspaper doesn’t automatically make it an editorial image. A photo is editorial if it is accompanying a story, but it is advertising if it is part of sponsored content.

Commercial photography exampleUltimately, commercial photography is about your client’s vision

Commercial photos, whether they are advertising or editorial in nature, must convey a strong concept or idea as determined by the client. This is important to understand and is largely what separates commercial and consumer photography. Most commercial photography is about executing the creative vision of the client, not the photographers’.

Before approaching commercial clients, you need to know their needs for the photo shoot. Sometimes the client will not have a clear vision in mind when they hire you. You may have to offer your creative input. Ask for samples of previous photo shoots or styles they are looking to draw upon. Find out how they will use the resulting images and request a mockup so you know exactly where your images will fit in. This can determine in how you compose your photos and what photography equipment you will need. In the below example, I wanted an environmental headshot for my blog homepage with text on the right-hand side of the image. Thus, the photographer I worked with made sure to shoot a variety of images with lots of open space on the right side for my text overlay.

Ultimately, spend time before the photo shoot making sure you know exactly what the client wants. This will help make sure your client is satisfied with the end result.

What is consumer photography?

If commercial photography involves taking photos for commercial use, the polar opposite is consumer photography. Consumer clients use for photos for personal reasons. If the client does not intend to use your photos for commercial or profit-making reasons, they are consumer clients. Again, photo subjects don’t matter.

Consumer clients typically hire professional photographers because they want important personal moments well documented. These personal moments typically come one after another so it can be easy for the consumer photographer to grow with a client as their photo needs evolve.

Consider a newly engaged couple. They will typically seek out a photographer for engagement and wedding photos. Down the road, they can be repeat clients for newborn baby portraits, family portraits, and wedding anniversaries. All of these events are also great networking opportunities to find new clients.

Commercial Consumer photography

What makes a good consumer photographer?

At the end of the day, consumer photography is all about making your clients look and feel their very best. Just like Thus, photographers must be comfortable interacting with all types of people in a variety of personal situations.

Examples of consumer photography:

  • Wedding (engagement, ceremony, anniversary)
  • Portraits (family, senior, pets)
  • Personal events (birthdays, family reunions)

In Conclusion

Some photographers focus on just one type of client, and others go back and forth between commercial and consumer clients. For the sake of consistency, photographers should focus on either commercial or consumer photography. Either way, always make sure to ask your client how they intend to use the photos once they receive them.

Further Reading

How to find commercial photography clients

How to find consumer photography clients

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By | 2017-01-11T11:33:33+00:00 January 8th, 2017|Comments Off on Commercial versus Consumer Photography: What’s the Difference?

About the Author:

Suzi Pratt is an event, food, and concert photographer based in Seattle. She started Intrepid Freelancer to inspire and teach others how to start a photography business. View her at photography portfolio, and subscribe to herYouTube channel.
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