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Commercial Photographers

Explore the job opportunities available to commercial photographers.

Commercial photographers can work for an agency full-time, or they can freelance and set their own hours. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Commercial photographers can work for an agency full-time, or they can freelance and set their own hours.

Commercial photographers are part of a diverse field and require highly-specialized technical skills, creativity and visual literacy. Commercial photographers use their technical and creative skills in the fast-paced fields of advertising, architecture and publications to produce images used in newspaper and magazine advertisements, architectural digests and catalogs, books and business reports. As part of the digital and Internet revolution, their photos now increasingly appear online, as well.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for salaried photographers in 2006 was $26,170, with the top 10 percent earning more than $56,000. Growth in commercial photography is expected to come from Internet versions of newspapers, journals and magazines, while print versions of the same publications will decline. Because many people are interested in being photographers, competition for positions is intense and further heightened by improvements in digital photographic technology, which makes it easier for anyone to take high-quality pictures.

What Commercial Photographers Do

Commercial photographers work in a studio or on location taking pictures of models, merchandise, artifacts, buildings and landscapes. Depending on the subject matter being photographed, they work with various types of professionals, such as art directors, graphic designers, makeup artists and food stylists. Commercial photographers employed by advertising agencies usually work a five-day, 40-hour week. Freelance photographers can set their own hours, ranging from a part-time schedule to extended hours, according to the assigned job. Some commercial photographers may also teach at technical schools or universities.

In the past, many commercial photographers sold their work through stock photo agencies, but improvements in digital storage now enable many companies to keep a larger stockpile of their own images. Conversely, the Internet is making it easier for many freelance commercial photographers to deal directly with companies interested in using their images by allowing them to post their portfolios online.

Commercial photographers who work for themselves also write their own business plans, bid for jobs and hire models. They obtain permission to photograph people and locations as necessary, write contracts, set prices for their works and keep their own financial records. Commercial photographers have to market their services to clients and know how to negotiate with them, as well as have a working knowledge of how to license and copyright their photographs. Generally, salaried photographers make more money than freelancers, who have to bear the costs of their equipment. Commercial photographers are better able to support themselves than are those who specialize in the fine arts.

Commercial Photographer Training

The ability to visualize and compose shots is important to becoming a successful commercial photographer. They then set up lighting and use their cameras to capture what they visualize. Commercial photographers are skilled at digitally editing and reproducing photographic images. They have knowledge of camera lenses and filters and increasingly use computers, photo-quality printers and digital imaging software.

While it is possible for commercial photographers to learn these skills on their own, most learn their photography skills through college or trade school classes in photography. Some schools offer degrees in specific areas of photography, while others offer general photography or fine arts degrees.

Training covers photographic equipment, processes and techniques. With the increasing number of freelancers, many schools also offer training in business skills. After graduation, aspiring photographers are usually apprenticed to more experienced photographers to learn how to apply their camera and business skills on a practical basis, and they are frequently employed by studios to find new clients.

Commercial photographers can further enhance their skills and network with others in their industry by joining a photography organization, such as Commercial Photographers International. The group connects commercial photographers to assistants, models and equipment vendors; provides business advice on pricing, preserving and displaying photographs; and offers legal advice, group liability insurance and options for health care coverage.

Finding Commercial Photographers

Many commercial photographers post their portfolios online on their own Web sites. Because of the large number of photographers to choose from, several sites have sprung up as clearinghouses for the works of commercial and other photographers. These sites include:

These online directories provide listings for thousands of photographers, reviews of individual photographers' Web sites and the ability to search for photographers by name, specialty or geographic location. They also provide photographers with resources on photographic techniques and business management, contests to sharpen their skills and links to Web-hosting services.

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