The Biggest Myth About Commercial Photography

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.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya Ovchar is a fashion photographer based in Europe. In his work, Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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Hi Illya,
I just visited your website and I would say you need to take your own advice a bit more and more tightly edit your website as your style is all over the place. you have some really great work there and a lot of different styles on your landing page.

While the styles are certainly diverse the voice and tone of Illya's work is pretty consistent. I didn't get a feeling of creative whiplash when viewing the website portfolio. But that's just my review.

I would have to disagree. When I look through his landing page, I get an immediate sense of his style and genre. It's not like he as wedding, wildlife, landscape, street, etc. all in one page.

Glad it comes across that way, that means a lot to me! You'd not say the same 4 years ago haha :)

I loved this article. Those images with the black and white (Linday Adler Spot?) are just stunning. Beautiful! And great piece

Thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, those were made with the LA snoot.

In the film era, commercial photography was always related to advertising. It's definitiely not a genre and the most successful commercial shooters often intentionally mixed up genres. Helmut Newton, the famous fashion photographer, said that he always tried to make his images look like portraits or paparazzi photos instead of typical fashion shots.

In Newton's case, there was a self awareness to his deviation from the norm. However, it's usually the case that photographers mix up categories because they don't actually know the difference. I see youtubers and other influencers constantly saying that headshots are portraits, travel photos are landscapes, B&W photos are fine art, and blurry pictures of their friends around a campfire are lifestyle shots etc. Truthfully, I think that a lot of photographers wrongly use the term "professional" too. It's so intentionally vague and hard to define that I'm not sure it really describes anything at all.

Perhaps it's not hard to define, cause the definitions are self-evident, albeit absolutely vague: a professional is someone who makes money / professional photography is any photography that makes money (somewhat directly - by selling those images) is professional. Commercial photography is photography made for or used by advertisement. (At least that's how I understand the way the term commercial is used in photography context.)

Therefore those adjectives are not that useful. :) Which, maybe, is part of Illiya Ovchar's point.

Anyway, how would you define landscape photogaphy? Or why would you discern between a landscape and a travel photo? Every genre is so diverse itself it's bordering absurd trying to define what falls in such category and what don't fall inside. Portrait and headshot... ask Rembrandt what a portrait is. ;) An image of a subject, but that's also vague. Headshot is by definition one of subgenres of portrait.

I agree wholeheartedly with this article and am trying to back it up for better and not for worse.

Since Lindsay Adler has already been brought up in the comments, I'll point out this post about how she differentiated herself from other commercial or "professional" photographers:

At the bottom of the page she shows 2 photos of a family. The first could be described as a typical family photo or maybe even a snapshot, but the second looks more like an editorial photo Anne Leibovitz might have done for "Vanity Fair" magazine. Lindsay Adler obviously understood there was a difference between common examples of family photos and editorial style shoots so she blurred the lines between the two genres to become commercially successful. If she couldn't have made that distinction, then she might never have succeeded in the first place.

The ability to discern the subtle differences between multiple genres is exactly what photographers often have to know to be successful in just one genre. When photographers pretend that those distinctions don't really exist or if they are just unaware and mix them up accidentally then they're really just hurting themselves in the end by eliminating a method of competing against other photographers.

We all know that there are plenty of people that call themselves professional even though they aren't making any money at all. All they accomplish is to "water down" the meaning of the word and confuse themselves as well as others. Unfortunately, this isn't kindergarten and not everybody gets to participate. Some people are genuinely frauds, role players, wanna-bes etc and their inability to categorize correctly helps to reveal them.

I appreciate your effort and agree a lot, and thanks for the discussion; but I must stress (and repeat) one point of disagreement (probably based on my ancient academic studying of aesthetics, well...)

The thing you are describing is not a matter of a genre. (Period.) It's a matter of style, effort and perhaps simply quality. In a commercial sense you could perhaps call such distinctions "a matter of genre" (because you are taking the advertising industry modus operandi into account), but you are doing yourself a disservice. A snapshot taken regardless of the light and composition is still a portrait or a landscape, or a still life. The style differs, and quality. Not the genre.

Of course, pursuing a career you should be able to tell betwen subtle difference and "commercial genre" rules - but you should be aware of the difference between a genre and a style. Genres evolve, surely, but styles evolve much faster.

And as you state above, the best pro's mix and match styles - or genres; because they know them, are able to work with them, their elements, their rules... and by transcending their borders their craft (not art, art has seldom place in the realm of commerce) may grow better, be provocative even.