While lifestyle photography predates social media, the authentic look of photos that brands now seek out has transformed the advertising photography landscape. Instead of product photography done in a studio, the commercial genre has branched out to include the nebulous and wide field of lifestyle photography, which “has a human element in it, or shows interaction with a product,” according to Bennett. In lifestyle photography, the actual product or service may take a back seat to the environment or the artistry of the image. The goal is to create an image that shows the product or service seamlessly integrated into the subject’s lifestyle.
No matter what kind of commercial work you want to get into, there are a few surefire ways you can set yourself up for success in the industry.
How to break into the commercial photography industry.
Build your photography portfolio.
While there are many routes to a commercial career, from real estate to sports photography, the most important thing you need to land gigs is a strong portfolio of work. It’s okay if you don’t know what type of photography you want to specialize in right away. You might not have the luxury to start out shooting exactly what you want.
As a general rule, stay away from providing your services for free. This can devalue your work and the photography industry as a whole. But that may be a judgment call worth making for a new photographer. “It’s vital that you fill your portfolio early on with the kind of work you want to shoot. And if that means shooting it for free, then that’s what you should do. No one’s going to hire you for things you haven’t shot before,” says Bennett.
Do projects on your own time, and agree to gigs that pay and build experience. As you go, pay attention to what you’re drawn to. “It took years to figure out what I like to shoot and what my point of view is,” says photographer Caydie McCumber.
Get hired as a photo assistant.
“I started out as a lighting assistant, and I recommend that to anybody trying to get into the commercial photography world,” says McCumber. “You get to learn about all the different types of light modifiers and become proficient in how to light any subject. You also learn set etiquette, which is really important.” Set etiquette is knowledge about how a set runs and why, from understanding who’s who to the dos and don’ts that make up spoken and often unspoken rules of life at a photoshoot.
Assistant jobs are a great route for aspiring photographers because, apart from technical know-how, assistant jobs introduce you to a variety of working professionals. It’s a great opportunity to network, build connections, and land future jobs.
Which projects should you take on?
As a new photographer, you might find it tricky to balance the pros and cons of different projects. Use this simple rule of thumb to help you weigh potential profit with portfolio work: “With every project there are three factors: portfolio, people, and price. You must have two of those to take on the project,” says Bennett. For example, if a project comes up that would really boost your portfolio, and the clients are easy to work with, you should consider it even if the payout isn’t high. On the other hand, if a project pays really well, but would add no value to your portfolio, and the clients are difficult, you might want to pass.