Commercial Photographer

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Commercial Photographer


Imagine taking photographs of your favorite rock band to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine or having your pictures of exotic models reproduced in the latest Vogue or Elle magazine. Sounds like a dream come true for many, but being a successful photographer takes a great deal of hard work mixed in with artistic talent. Famous photographers like Annie Liebovitz and Ansel Adams have both taken many famous photographs of people, capturing emotion and beauty for viewers to appreciate in magazines, books and other advertisements. Commercial photographers use their skills and artistic talent to depict people, products, events, fashion, landscapes and other subjects on film.

Commercial photographers usually specialize in a type of commercial medium, like fashion magazines, advertising, public relations, manual illustration, brochures, sales catalogs, flyers or other commercial purposes. The subjects they photograph include merchandise, industrial products, clothes, food, equipment, buildings and people. The primary differences between these specialty areas lie in the subject matter, work site, type of equipment used, and the amount of training and precision required for design and composition of the photograph. Accordingly, commercial photographers must be versatile, able to shoot almost anything and produce dramatic, quality work quickly. They often work closely with art directors and use computers to digitally manipulate images.

Commercial photographers use a variety of cameras, lenses, filters, lights and background props. For instance, if the photographer is trying to create a beach scene, they may set up fake palm trees, paint a backdrop and import some sand to create the impression of reality. Lighting is one of the most important components (whether it be natural or artificial), along with shutter speeds, camera settings and apertures. Photographers either use traditional cameras with 35mm film or digital cameras that record images electronically. Nevertheless, many traditional photographers feel that digital photography is just not the same medium and lacks the technical and manual aspects of photographing people, places and images.

Fashion photographers cater to a variety of clients, fashion houses, designers, portfolios for models, fashion journals and newspapers. Many successful fashion photographers develop a unique artistic style that separates them from their contemporaries. Also, many try and incorporate social and controversial messages within their photographs. These fashionistas are required to have an eye for detail and knowledge of fashion styles, moods and trends. Similarly, advertising photographers must create a striking balance between creativity and the client's demands for conveying the desired message. Being a commercial advertising photographer offers tremendous scope for experimentation and creative skills.

Most professionals develop and print their own photographs. They also use flatbed scanners and photo-finishing laboratories to produce computer-readable, digital images from film. After converting the film to a digital image, photographers can edit and electronically send images, making it easier and faster to shoot, develop, and transmit pictures from remote locations.

Computers and specialized software also allow commercial photographers to manipulate and enhance scanned and digital images to create a desired effect. In fact, most of the photographs we see in magazines or ads are not simple reproductions of reality, but rather carefully constructed versions of it. Airbrush techniques are constantly used to make models look "perfect". Since so much photography now involves the use of computer technology, photographers must have hands-on knowledge of computer editing software.
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  Interests and Skills  
Commercial photographers must have great manual dexterity, be detail oriented and have a good sense of timing. Since a photographer's aim is to capture the perfect picture, they must also have good eyesight and color vision. Those who work with people must have great communication skills, patience, be good listeners and have the ability to put people at ease in front of the camera. Successful commercial photographers enjoy composing and arranging innovative pictures and working with cameras and in dark rooms.

Since a scene, fashion model or basket of oranges can be photographed in a hundred different ways, it is up to the photographer to use proper lighting, composition and other techniques to present that scene in the best, most imaginative way possible. Commercial photographers who constantly practice their skills in order to become professionals are most likely to succeed.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Consult with clients or advertising staff and study assignments to determine the locations and type of equipment needed
  • Select appropriate cameras (i.e. 35mm, 6x6, 4x5 or larger format) and props
  • Study requirements of a particular assignment and decide on type of camera, film, lighting and background accessories to be used
  • Determine picture composition, make technical adjustments to equipment and photograph subject(s)
  • Adjust cameras for desired focus, exposure, composition and other settings
  • Choose lenses designed for close-up, medium range or distance photography
  • Select the type of film, filters and lighting equipment (i.e. electronic flashes, floodlights or reflectors)
  • Set up studio lights to achieve the best balance and the most flattering illumination for the subject
  • Take numerous photographs and choose from the best
  • Test and maintain all equipment
  • Use specialized film and paper processing or new technology
  • Process and develop exposed film in darkrooms
  • May use airbrush or manipulate other techniques to retouch negatives and prints
  • Working conditions for commercial photographers vary depending on the type of photographs one takes. However, they usually work standard hours, even though the actual hours may not be regular. Most photographers work in all kinds of environments -- studios, outdoor locations, in buildings and even in exotic, foreign countries. The pressure of having to meet deadlines can be stressful.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Commercial photographers work for photographic studios, film, radio and television stations, newspapers, magazines, fashion magazines, museums, theaters, department stores, hospitals, publishing, advertising and printing companies. Some are employed by the government, while others may be self-employed. In fact, a majority of commercial photographers are independent freelancers. Full-time employment is usually available only in specialized fields such as forensic or science photography.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Since the field of professional photography is quite competitive, versatility is an important and often critical element in obtaining work as a commercial photographer. Many start out as assistants and learn the fundamentals about cameras, developing and printing. As one gains more experience, it helps to localize talents and artistic properties in a particular area and create a unique style for oneself.

Some commercial photographers may decide to teach at a university or college whereas others may start an independent business or studio. These days, it is important to learn about digital cameras and related computer programs in order to move ahead with the speed of technology. Furthermore, with digital and computerized programs, commercial photographers can learn how to manipulate their photos, add color and generally create works of art.

  Educational Paths  
Although there are no required educational steps involved in becoming a commercial photographer, in today's competitive job market, schooling will really help aspiring photographers find employment. Community colleges and universities have some specialized training and courses in photography and offer diplomas and degrees in photography and fine arts.

Most commercial photographers learn by practice and working in related fields. These days, computer skills are essential for digital photography and are becoming increasingly required in other forms of photography. Volunteering for high school and university newspapers provides some experience. Working in a photography store or developing laboratory also provides experience in this field.

Commercial photographers should compile a portfolio of their best work, especially when applying for jobs. Companies will look at a portfolio to assess the photographer's ability and past experience. The best advice is to practice by taking as many pictures as possible.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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