Tips for Breaking into Commercial Photography

Tips for Breaking into Commercial Photography

This interview is just one of many from our free, downloadable Guide: Breaking Into Commercial Photography. For more tips, download your copy today, here.

Chrissy Lynn got her start in photography in 2000 shooting her friends’ bands in Washington, DC. From there, she spent several years dabbling in documentary, editorial, fine art, interiors and, well, anything else that struck her. “I’ve done everything,” she says. After some soul searching, she realized should couldn’t keep being a jack-of-all-trades. Now based in San Francisco, this sought-after photographer has found her niche in lifestyle and fashion shooting for brands like Google, Salesforce, Rainbeau, and Rand + Statler. Here, she reveals how honing her focus helped her build a successful commercial business.

Photo by Chrissy Lynn

Photo by Chrissy Lynn

How did you find your niche and discover your focus in commercial photography? 

About five years ago, I looked at my website and realized I was really struggling to put together a cohesive body of work. I’d done some portraits here, a corporate job there, and nice interiors. I was under the impression that I had to put all my jobs up so that people could see who I’ve worked with and what I’ve done. There wasn’t a point of view at all. The work looked like five different photographers shot it. I wasn’t happy with that, but I didn’t know how to fix it.

I tried to read some articles and talked to everyone I knew. I got the advice to pick five words that you want to describe your work by and five words that actually describe your work—and try to make those lists match. I like to think my work is authentic, light, intimate, believable, and inspired. Another photographer might say “dark, moody and dramatic” to describe their work. Write those words down and keep going back to them. Change them if you have to, but find your point of view. It has been a helpful way to find my voice and figure out my style.

How did this change your business?

I get hired for that now. It’s a magical thing. A big tech company just hired me to shoot seven of their top executives. The words that the client kept using were “backlit,” “full of light,” “authentic,” “natural.” They looked at my portfolio and reached out to me directly because of my style. That doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it feels really good. I have a point of view and someone sees it. It makes me feel like I’m doing all right.

How did you find the time to work on this career reboot?

When I realized I needed to step back and refocus, I took a break from shooting and took a retouching job at The Gap. It put some money in my pocket. It let me focus on my photography and not just take on every single job to pay the bills. I took only jobs that I liked and worked on building my portfolio and finding my photography voice. Then I started shooting for The Gap. That propelled me into fashion. I started picking up local boutiques and start-ups in San Francisco. Now I’m shooting for some bigger brands and tech companies.

Photo by Chrissy Lynn

Photo by Chrissy Lynn

Why is it important to find a niche?

I think finding a niche is key. Your niche will define your style, which will define your niche. If your style is minimal and crisp, you probably gravitate more to product photography, for example. My style is more authentic, intimate, believable. I can really get people to warm up and ease up fairly quickly. Maybe that’s a strong suit of mine and maybe it’s not a strong suit of others. We all offer different things. Maybe you’re a lighting genius. I’m really good with natural light, but some clients need more than that. Once you have a point of view and a focus, then there’s value. Then people are coming to you for your style and ability and are willing to pay for that.

What are your tips for new photographers who want to break into commercial photography?

It’s really hard, so your mantra has to be “stay diligent.” It’s impossible to fail if you work hard. I told myself as long as I’m diligent and I don’t stop working for it I’m not going to fail at it.

Set goals. Put all sense of doubt aside and define your dream job. What would you like to be shooting that’s going to make you happy every day? No one ever gets that all the time, but it’s good to know and define that. Then you can take steps in that direction.

How can you build up your portfolio before you have clients?

One thing you can do is reach out to a local modeling or casting agency. You’d be surprised how great that can work out. Tell them you’re a budding photographer and want to build your book in executive portraits. Ask if they have talent that needs examples like that for their portfolio. It’s totally worth it because then you’re building a relationship with an agency and other professionals out there are seeing your work. I still do testing with new models to try concepts I want to work out.

Photo by Chrissy Lynn

Photo by Chrissy Lynn

Do you have any tips for finding clients that may be open to working with new photographers? 

When I was building my book in fashion photography, I Googled “San Francisco fashion designers” and looked for websites that could use better photography. If I really liked their brand, I reached out to them. When I reach out, I’m super friendly, but with a purpose, and I think people are receptive to that. Of the five designers that I reached out to, one of them is now a client. It’s important to reach out directly to people you want to work for because they’re not looking for you.

There’s not a lot of money in editorial work, but you can get a lot of experience working with editors and writers. You’ll meet interesting people and get tear sheets.

I also think it’s important to pick your dream clients and reach out to them directly, when you’re ready, when you have the work to show. That comes with gaining a level of confidence behind your work. When you’re creating photography that is from your heart and you truly love doing it, it comes through in the imagery. When you love what you’re doing, you stand behind it and you’re more confident about your work. And then you’re more confident to reach out to that dream client that might seem unreachable to you. Just reach out to them, you have nothing to lose.

What promotional tools do you use to reach out to clients you’d like to work for?

I use email marketing lists and targeted promos. I hand-select every one of my clients as opposed to sending lots of emails to a big list from a database. I think it’s important to make it personal. Then it’s real.

I use an email template with one hero image that’s my favorite at the moment or something that’s tailored to them, and then three links to galleries with smaller thumbnails of recent projects and a link to my website. I send emails through MailChimp, which lets me see who’s opening and clicking through them. If they’re clicking around, they’ve spent a little more time. If I really want to work with that person, I send them a direct mail piece.

When I create direct mail promos, I try to visualize what’s going to happen when they open that package. Are they going to want to hang this up or prop it on their desk?

Photo by Chrissy Lynn

Photo by Chrissy Lynn

How do you prepare for a meeting with a new client about a job?

I usually do a lot of research on the company to see who the people are and get an idea of what kind of revenue the company is generating. The meeting often involves educating them a little bit about usage licenses and image licensing. I learned that the hard way early in my career.

What are your tips for quoting commercial jobs?

No two jobs are alike, so I definitely say research the client, get a clear understanding of the scope of the project, and never give a quote in the first conversation. I’ve shot myself in the foot before by giving a quote too early without a real understanding of the scope of the job. Ask a lot of questions. How many images do they want? What is the usage for those? Are we going to be indoors or outdoors? Can I have a scout day or do I need a scout day? Do we need hair and makeup or a wardrobe stylist?

A lot of times, asking people to give me a clear understanding of the job prompts them to ask more questions within their teams. A lot of times people don’t always think about the total usage or if they will ever want to use the shots for a billboard, for example. Most people want unlimited use, unrestricted, but they don’t realize that they never need that. Usually I find out what they want and I’ll send them a quote for unlimited usage for them to share. Then I’ll give them a quote for what they will likely use the photos for so they can see a range of what photography is really valued at and what it really costs. I’ll give at least two estimates for a big commercial job.

Are there any other mistakes you’ve made that photographers could learn from?

Don’t sell yourself short. I’ve done that so many times. There was a steady client I had for a few years, but I was working for a rate that wasn’t really making me any money. At that time I was still building my fashion portfolio so I looked at working with her as a way to build that, but when she couldn’t wiggle up to a reasonable rate, I eventually had to fire that client. Not giving away your photography is very important to the integrity of the industry. It’s really important to understand the value of photography, and that’s a really hard thing to define when you’re starting out.

How do you decide which jobs to take?

There are three things I like to consider for every job: Is the money good, is it good for my portfolio, and will I make a good connection with a person or company that’s in the direction that I want to keep going in. If I can hit on two of those three things, then it’s a solid deal. Sometimes it’s just for the money, but if you’re just starting out, it would be good to hit on at least one of those three things.

Want more tips on how to start getting your dream commercial clients? Download the Guide today!

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This article was written by

Marketing associate at PhotoShelter

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Rob at 4:19 am

    Great advice, however, I have a few friends who are commercial photographers and they’ve had to be a jack of all trades in order to survive and make a living. Specializing in one area of photography can work, but, if you’re new and starting out, I think you’d have to take on as many jobs as you can get to pay the rent.

  2. Alisa Murray at 12:33 pm

    I agree with many of what you say, I am now an established photographer and I have a specialty, I am know for something. You have gotta build that, but rob is right as well. Its tough to make a living with photography, you gotta network like crazy and do whatever jobs you can. Fighting for every job is key, especially when starting out. If a client is difficult or rude you do not have the luxury of being able to afford turning them down. You do not have to like someone to take their money. The more people you work with the more people you will have in your network and the harder you work for people the more often you will get referred.

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