We spend a lot of time talking to photographers and evaluating their work. As we do so, we first try to determine where a photographer is in their career as well as to what types of clients they are most marketable. This conversation often involves distinguishing between two separate marketplaces in the industry: retail and commercial photography. Before we dive into transitioning from one to the other, let’s define the two genres.
Retail photography is commissioned by an individual, rather than a company, for personal use of photos documenting weddings, bar mitzvahs, or family portraits.
Commercial photography is commissioned by a company or institution, rather than an individual, either to promote a product or service for a brand or to tell a story for a publication.
A lot of photographers start out in the retail sphere, as it gives them a chance to get their foot in the door. After all, everyone has friends and family members that might need some wedding photos or portraits, which can help them develop reputations and build word-of-mouth networks that can lead to more paid work. But at a certain point, many freelancers have the desire to transition to commercial photography and work “big league” shoots with name-brand clients. One of the challenges is promoting yourself to potential commercial clients while still relying on retail work for a steady paycheck.
That brings us to the main question: how do you create a portfolio of work marketable to commercial clients?
In this article, we’ll outline a step-by-step process to making this happen. The three stages are as follows:
Oh yeah, there is a fourth aspect to this transition, but it’s an obvious one: don’t give up!
You can’t expect clients to hire you until you have a well-developed portfolio of relevant work to show them. This can be frustrating for photographers who are hired to produce deliverables that are not reflective of their aspirational brand. A wedding photographer, for example, can’t realistically expect to get hired for an editorial portrait shoot based on a website of wedding photography. Creating a body of work that is commercially marketable often involves self-assigned projects. These projects can be a powerful way to reposition yourself and to show potential clients your skills. For photographers hoping to transition away from retail work, this often involves a significant investment of time and resources, as Dallas, Texas-based Collin Strachan explains.
My self-assigned projects have been invaluable learning experiences for me. They offer me the opportunity to shoot an entire catalog, recognize where I’ve fallen short, and then go shoot some more. Of course, when they’re successful, I incorporate them into my portfolio until a commercial project more suited to the product I’m trying to represent can take their place.
In today’s day and age, clients tend to ask for links to your website in order to get a sense of your style and work history. As we discussed, you don’t want to send potential employers in the commercial world a sampling of your best stuff that includes retail-based assets. There are a couple of ways to go about separating the two distinctly different sets of imagery. One method is using orphan links, which are links to pages on a website that cannot be found through the site’s navigation. New York-based Tina Boyadjieva is a proponent of this practice.
I used orphan links as needed to keep retail work ‘off’ my primary website. That way, it didn’t muddle my presentation when I reached out to commercial and editorial clients.
A more time-consuming arrangement is to have two completely separate, well, websites, etc. Dedicating one website, business card, and set of social media accounts to retail work allows people like Charleston, South Carolina-based Kate Thornton to not worry about a muddled presentation because she simply sends the platforms featuring solely her commercial work to potential clients.
I have two different websites, logos, Instagram accounts, Facebook pages, and business cards. This site is for my commercial work:
Meanwhile, this site houses my wedding and family portraits.
It’s a lot of work to keep up with it all.
Kate’s transition from retail to commercial work is one worth noting for a couple of reasons. First, it took time, so if you think you’re having trouble making the switch, fear not! It won’t happen overnight. Second, Kate was successful because she carefully allocated her resources, focusing her efforts on beefing up her commercial portfolio and seeing a return on that investment as a result of a patient, methodical approach.
I photographed weddings and families for 15 years. For much of that time, 70% of my business was weddings and families and 30% commercial and editorial work. But I’m excited to say I’ve flipped that!
Aside from Instagram, I haven’t put any efforts or advertising dollars into the wedding and family portrait side of my business over the past three years. My goal is to phase out weddings and continue to do family portraits under Captured by Kate.
Once you’ve got all your ducks in a row, it’s time to start making a splash. In our discussions with photographers who have successfully transitioned from retail to commercial work, we noticed one thing they all did before reaching out to potential clients: they narrowed their scope so the clients had no doubts of the kind of work they did.
“Get focused,” says Collin. “Your potential clients must understand who you are and what you do. Beyond that, you have to understand who you are and what you do in order to avoid becoming distracted. Create a portfolio and positioning statement that clearly identify your expertise within a relatively narrow market segment, then go knock on every door.”
Kate had even more fantastic advice regarding delegation and education. She emphasizes sticking with what you’re best at and asking for help with everything else. She also mentions that taking classes is a great way to up your business acumen — and make sure you’re not dilly-dallying when it comes to creating your portfolio.
Play on your strengths and recognize your weaknesses. Don’t hesitate to outsource tasks that are not your strong suit. Use interns — I had three different interns last year. They were all great and excited to assist on shoots and cull images. And make sure to invest in your self-development — I did a course in sales and marketing last year and would love to do another or possibly work with a business coach. My biggest takeaway from the class was 70% is perfect, 100% is bad. I tend to be a perfectionist, which results in procrastination.
Like Kate, it took Macon, Georgia-based Matt Odom years to see his commercial dreams become a reality. This is where that fourth aspect of transitioning from retail to commercial comes into play. Another way of saying “don’t give up,” of course, is “be persistent.” Just because a potential client doesn’t get back to you right away doesn’t mean you should stop reaching out to them.
Have a ton of patience and get used to disappointments along the way. Even now, I’m just getting around to shooting for clients I reached out to several years ago.
If you have any questions, or if you need help with making the switch from retail to commercial photography, please give us a call at 1 610 260 0200 or reach out via email.