The Biggest Myth About Commercial Photography

There is a common myth about commercial photography: it is a genre just like landscape, macro, and product. However, this could not be further from the truth. As someone who thought so, I spent too much time creating “commercial” work. What I should’ve done instead is this.

By “this,” I mean to create work that is personal, work that speaks to you, and work that you like. It is perhaps scary to put yourself out there. I know this myself, as I spent some time doing what I thought the clients would like. However, by doing this, I simply copied other photographers and was not being myself. As a creative, you must eventually find your own authentic voice. It is almost impossible to find your voice if you work to suppress it and speak with a tongue not native to you. In other words, in your search for work, don’t forget who you are. Speaking from personal experience, I landed more jobs by producing what is authentic to me than by copying someone else.

Commercial Work: What Is It?

The term “commercial” refers to the concept of the images being used to promote a product or service. The images are created with the goal of being used commercially. Now, the party that decides what image will work for selling the product is not the photographer; it is someone from the company. Simply assuming that a white background high-key shot is considered commercial is wrong.

The world of advertising changes with every campaign. The whole purpose of advertising is to sell a product in a unique and creative way. Imagine how much creativity one needs to sell the same item season to season. Putting a definition on what is commercial photography and what isn’t will eventually make all commercial work boring. Advertising is there to captivate you. Each new commercial campaign aims to show something new, even if it is the same Whopper. It has to look fresh and exciting.

Perhaps one example of commercial work would be the controversial as well as disappointing Balenciaga ad campaign. The photographer, Gabriele Galimberti, who was hired to do it, was hired because of his famous flat-lay style. For a campaign that promoted objects, this was the perfect photographer. It is unlikely that they would hire someone else to copy Gabriele Galimberti for the campaign. While you don’t want to get caught in the controversy around Balenciaga, you should pay attention to the fact that the best ad campaigns hire their staff based on their personal taste. In other words, the best campaigns hire photographers not because of their technical ability, but because of their view of the world.

Naturally, this takes years to develop. Let’s see how you can progress and create a body of authentic work. Be ready for it to take a few years at least. However, the truth is, your portfolio is a constantly growing organism, and it is never fully grown.

Developing Taste

One of the best ways to develop your personal taste is to stop looking at photography. Completely. Think of it as a bubble: every photographer looks at a different photographer, they copy, get inspired, and eventually, their work ends up looking the same. This is counterproductive. Instead, you can try to bring in something new by looking at mediums outside of photography. Pay a visit to your local gallery, go for a coffee with an artist, or seek something that is not photography. For example, while I am aware of what other photographers do, I am not interested in breaking down their work by elements and trying to see what is it that they’re doing. 

Instead, I am interested in seeing how artists working in different mediums see the world. For example, a fashion designer sees a photo in a completely different way. The same can be said about painting. While a painter may look at the way colors interact with one another, a photographer will look at a facial expression or the light. Being a photographer that is sensitive to not only photography, but to art will do wonders for how fast your taste develops and how fast you can create work that is both authentic to you, but also commercially viable.

Commercially Viable but Not Commercial

Perhaps the reason people confuse commercials as a photographic genre and commercially viable work is that so many presenters on YouTube create what seems like a “commercial” but, in fact, has nothing to do with real advertising. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching such videos and seeing the technique used as well as the final shot, but when it comes to the end result being viable as an ad, it often is not.

For example, if you want to see an example of a commercial for Twix, check their website, don’t search YouTube for it. There is bound to be a recent commercial that was created by their team. Then, research this ad and find out what the team that worked on the project is. Having done that, take note of the personal work that photographers did. It is more likely than not that their personal work resonated with the direction the client wanted to go in, hence the person was hired.

There is such a thing as commercially viable personal work. It represents the work that can be used commercially. Going to the basics, being commercially viable simply means that there is a market for the images. Pay attention to who you’re trying to impress: is it your local camera club, or is it the art buyer? There is such a thing as bands that only other bands know. They write complex music that impresses musicians, but no one else. Without diving too deep into musical analysis, I doubt that Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” is particularly renowned for being a musically complex piece. It is commercially a very successful song, though. Then again, there is no recipe for a commercially successful song or photograph. Technically simple creations easily outperform complex photographs, but also vice versa. There is no such thing as a “commercial” light setup. If there was, Elizaveta Porodina as well as almost every photographer would be out of work. Forget the boundaries of “commercial” setups and create work that is authentic to you.

Closing Thoughts

I would not be myself if I didn’t write an article saying that there is no such genre as commercial. Any image that is commercially viable can be commercial. Instead of focusing on creating a portfolio that looks like you’ve done commercials before, focus on creating a portfolio that has meaning for you. Create a portfolio that is personal, and that speaks to you. For example, if you go on my website, you are more likely to see work from personal shoots than from commercial productions.