The Ups and Downs of a Commercial Photographer

For me, one significant aspect of being a commercial photographer is my ability to produce professional photography from many varied assignments and commissions. From magazine editorial portraiture to providing lifestyle and 'people' images for the Wildlife Trust, documentary assignments for the Sunday Times Magazine to visual storytelling for charities to corporate shoots for City banks and Law firms. Working in commercial photography allows me to express my vision, utilise my creativity and illustrate my ability and experience in adapting to different disciplines.

During my 15 years working with the Daily Mirror Newspaper as one of their senior staff photographers, I was tasked with photographing a multitude of different assignments, from conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan to major natural disasters and significant events not only in the UK but also around the world. I also needed to be skilled as a studio and location photographer, using my lighting skills to photograph a host of “A” list celebrities from Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Beyonce and many more, to photographing top sports stars, and leading actors on TV and film sets. But I was always especially pleased when I was handed a fashion feature to shoot. This is one of my favourite genres of photography. Working alongside the Newsgroups fashion Depts., I'd produce feature spreads for the newspapers and their supplements. I think if I could pick my favourite themes in photography, then fashion would slot just behind portraiture and documentary photography.

Indeed, I’ve spent a good amount of time helping to put together fashion stories, concepts and shoots, which I absolutely love. Providing fashion styled stories have also helped me in my other work, applying certain fashion aesthetics to my editorial and documentary work, and conversely to my portraiture photography.

I still keep an interest in this form of photography, I provide fashion styled portraits for many private clients as well as model look-books too.  I have a separate website and marketing approach to my other site for private clients,  and on occasions, it also pulls in commercial clients too. 

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It's through these fashion portraits that I was contacted by a bridal fashion brand enquiring if I would like to produce a series of e-commerce shoots for their companies new catalogues and social media platforms. Well, it didn't take me very long in agreeing to work with them, and I have to say, it's been a joy, and looks as if they will become a long term client for me which is exactly what I, as a commercial photographer am looking for.

Bridal Catalogues Studio Shoot- John Ferguson -1

Bridal Catalogue studio photo-shoot. John Ferguson Photography

Location Bridal Fashion Photo Shoot - John Ferguson

Location Bridal Fashion Photo Shoot - John Ferguson

I've been asked many times on how I go about sourcing new clients for my business. Well, this is a tough question for a singular answer.  There's no silver bullet or secret formula which leads to finding the right clients or the desired work. It's a combination of many different things, with some of them, such as word of mouth referrals, directly out of my hands. My father used to say that one makes their own luck, and the harder one works, the luckier one gets. I like to think this is true, up to a point. The emergence of better digital cameras, social photographic platforms, access in uploading and displaying photographs for free on numerous submission magazine sites, photo competitions and other websites promoting photography, as enabled (or seduced) more and more individuals in making the leap and taking up the profession. Either on a part-time or full-time basis, thus, some say, diluting the business and driving down the value of photographic images.

But on the other hand, because of the ubiquitous nature of the internet, there's never been more opportunities for photographers to show off their work to a much wider audience, and therefore finding new clients and prospects.

So one of the best ways photographers can help themselves in finding new business is by offering-up new ideas for these companies whose visual social profiles lack any coherent or considered plan, providing creative solutions in helping to build upon the companies visual communications will usually receive a welcoming reply. There are undoubtedly thousands of photographers out there who can assist companies to fill these empty spaces with images, whether it's on their websites or through promotions and campaigns, but the one thing that should differentiate a photographer from all the other photographers work is their style and vision. This is, I hope, why businesses, charities, picture editors and marketing managers, employ particular photographers and their services; they have something to say with their work. If one can offer something different from their peers around them, then there's a good chance of advancing their photographic business.

But businesses need to be wary too, I've lost count of the times I've missed out to someone cheaper because the client thinks firstly about the budget and secondly about the photography. On a couple of occasions, I've had two different clients come back to me because they weren't happy with the photographers they eventually choose.   

In the advertising sector, the higher the profile of a specific photographer the more likely it is that they have niched down to one particular theme, and thus can, and do charge more for their services. If a photographer excels in fashion imagery and is in demand, then their concentration will stay in this field. If a photographer's expertise revolves around automobiles like Michael Furham,  or architectural photography such as Mike Kelley or John Keatley’s conceptual portraiture - then that's where their focus will be. Of course, these specialist photographers can also shoot other disciplines, but choose to limit their service to usually one or maybe two genres. They have found their niche.

Commercial photographers, I believe should be able to accommodate and service many different clients,  but it's essential to concentrate on those jobs that you enjoy and are comfortable with. I, for instance, wouldn't cover an architectural brief, I wouldn't feel comfortable, so my photography revolves around working with people; I like people, I love talking and meeting new people, so it's natural for me to concentrate my efforts in this direction, whilst also using my skills to establish long term working relationships with clients.

Art direction is another great asset that has proved very useful for me when attracting new clients. I'm now not only employed to provide just photographic images, but I'm also asked to come up with new concepts and ideas for my clients. For instance, I've recently started working for a city firm whose business centres around the Law industry, they're looking for something "very different", away from their previous year's photo shoots which followed a more traditional and predictable line of headshot photography. These are the clients I love working with, having a more creative and collaborative approach to the job, which ultimately brings a more significant and aesthetically pleasing feel to a shoot and finished product and one that also allows me to grow in confidence and experience. Another aspect of working with these and other forward-thinking clients is their awareness of using good photography for social media. Every business now has a presence on one or more social media platforms, this usually requires a more nuanced approach to their visual message. I've been talking to a number of my existing and newer clients about the importance of visual storytelling, allowing their companies core message to engage and resonate with their audiences. We as a society, love human stories, we're all familiar and comfortable with stories. Visual stories are easily relatable, and we're much more attuned or aware of visual clues within messages today than ever before; either manipulative, deceitful or persuasive and informative. Visual messaging has been used to change the way people think for hundreds of years, done in the correct way it can be a powerful ally for any marketing promotions or communication initiatives.  

This is especially important for charities, marketing communication executives as well as businesses seeking to attract more audience participation. The public's awareness in understanding and connecting with actual real-life stories as changed exponentially over the years, using dynamic, thought-provoking images which can lead the viewer into the stories in which organisations would like their audiences to see and engage with, helping them grasp the importance of the message or campaign.

The importance of personal projects has also been crucial in me securing new work and clients for my practice. Not only are they essential, but highly enjoyable too, giving me a sense of freedom that I wouldn't usually have when working on commissions. And, on a few occasions, I've been asked to continue working on my personal projects for editorial clients.  I'm currently in negotiations in securing sponsorship to reproducing two particularly personal projects, but on a much bigger scale, something which is very exciting. I will be posting more info once negotiations have been finalised.      

The use of short video stories has also become an essential tool in helping to provide business messages via the internet. Platforms such as Twitter, originally a more text-based portal can now show visual messages to a much wider audience than you could ever imagine. Clients now want or would like both still photography and video content from their photographers, and depending on the scale of the job, I will accommodate both disciplines, if the budget is sufficient.   

So companies, charities even editorial clients are looking for photographers who can appropriate their message to wider audiences, they're looking for me, the photographer to bring something different to the table, they're hiring me to bring my vision, my creativity and abstract ideas to their campaign or project.  In today's grossly over-saturated visual market place they need more than just a pretty photo.  They need something with teeth, something that will turn heads, something that will make their audiences stop for a couple of seconds and look.

There's more and more demand for visual media than ever before, with the advancement of the mobile phone and portable tablets; this will only grow, it pushes photography more as an art form than ever before, even in the commercial sphere. The number of stock image libraries on the web is a testimony to the rise and popularity of photography and video, and therefore the need for more businesses to include visual messaging in their marketing and promotions as increased. But competition in this market will get even harder for those trying to find their place in this over-crowded profession, it's become more and more apparent that it's about the ability of the photographer to sell themselves. Good photo's alone are nothing if you can't sell yourself and your vision to your clients.

Being an in-demand creative professional means more than just showing up and sticking up a couple of lights to impress your clients, or getting tack sharp pictures, It takes more than this to land great clients and contacts. We, as photographers need to give our clients something that we alone are able to produce for them, using our imagination, inventiveness, perceptiveness and inspiration. If you really want to progress and forge a great career in photography, you need to get through the cul-de-sac of "sameness" that many photographers get caught up with, and take risks.

Check out my new favourite photographer Tyler Shields

This is no easy task, but anything worthwhile pursuing is never going to be easy for the majority of us, I should know, I've been trying for thirty years.

Maybe sometime soon I'll decide to narrow down and find my niche, concentrating on one or perhaps just two disciplines, I know this will come sooner rather than later for me, and I'm ok with that, but for now, working for a fashion brand alongside my other non-fashion clients suits me down to the ground.

JOHN FERGUSON