Companies hire photographers for more than just advertising shoots. Learn about the kinds of images they need, the skills and tools you need to create them, and how to get and keep corporate clients with this excerpt from Kirk Tuck's Amherst Media book Commercial Photography Handbook.
This excerpt from Commercial Photography Handbook is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media website.
This is my favorite category of photography and the field in which I’ve been able to earn the most money, most consistently. In this niche you work directly with large corporations and supply them with all different kinds of images. Though they will usually have a large advertising agency that services their account, the agency will be tasked with creating global or national ad campaigns with large budgets. The agencies will want to hire specific photographers to match the look and feel of the concepts they create. You may or may not be what the ad agencies are looking for. They will be focused on finding a very specific look that is very much "of the moment."
But those advertising shoots are short lived and, by their very nature, don’t engender much additional work from the same client. And those ad shoots are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the day-to-day imaging needs of major companies. They will also require a never-ending stream of executive head shots, product documentation shots, press style coverage of major announcements, and lots and lots of event photography.
Top image: Though a style is everything in the realms of fashion and advertising, you never want your style to overpower the content in a CEO portrait. The whole point is to put the attention on the person, not the presentation. For a shot like this, I use a fairly straightforward lighting design that consists of two lights. One is used in a big umbrella or softbox to the subject’s right, and the second is used in a small softbox to illuminate the background. A white board or reflector is used on the opposite side of the subject’s face, providing fill light.
Encouraging Repeat Business
Working for major corporations is so different from advertising photography that it is nothing short of amazing. An ad agency is generally looking for the current "hot photographer." They want a polished and practiced "one-trick pony" who can overlay his cutting edge style onto their client’s ads. Once the style is mainstream it becomes dated and the photographer is no longer in demand.
In corporate work the opposite is true. If you get your foot in the door at a corporation (generally through the marketing services or public relations departments) and you do a good job at an acceptable rate, you will most likely be invited back again and again. The people inside a corporation are generally looking for good, consistent work that is in a widely accepted style which evolves relatively slowly. They seek repeatable results. They adore "known" resources and reward consistency. In many cases, if you are invited to do a portrait of the CEO (and if the CEO, his staff, and his family like the portrait), you will find the executives all down the hierarchy will demand that their next portrait be taken by the same photographer.
Once you’ve been accepted by one department, and done good work for them, your name will get passed on to the next department. The new department may be charged with getting great photographs of their products. Product photography is a discipline that’s totally different from portraiture, but in the eyes of the corporate guys you are already a proven commodity, and if you say you can do a different kind of task, they will believe you until you prove otherwise. For one high-tech company in my market I provide executive portraits, product photography, complete coverage of all their events (internal and external), and even the artwork on some of their walls.
You get a client like this by building trust assignment after assignment, year after year. And, while corporate rates tend to be smaller than the day and usage rates for advertising photography, you may have gotten a hold of a client that uses you monthly for a decade or longer. All that’s required of you are these three things:
- Never promise something you can’t reliably deliver!
- Always deliver more than you promise, both in images and in service.
- Never forget to thank your client each time they use you.
If your client needs microphotography of products using a specialized light that you’ve never even heard of, you’ll be laying your future assignments with them on the line if you try to wing it. You’d be much smarter to help them find the right specialist. If you’ve built a strong relationship with the client, they will continue to support you. If you try your hand at a technique and fail, especially under a tight deadline, you will have squandered the trust you built and may never recover.
When I say you should always deliver more than you promise I mean that if a client needs a photograph delivered by noon the next day, you should aim to deliver that photograph by 8AM instead. If you see beads of sweat on their foreheads as they make their request for a noon delivery, you would be an even bigger hero if you could deliver the shot by the end of the day. Not all jobs will be a rush, but they will remember that you made their lives easier when it really counted! If you are asked to do a product shot, you should deliver what was asked for but also deliver several variations that they might like even better. If you develop a reputation within the organization as a valued team player, you will be giving yourself a tremendous amount of free word-of-mouth advertising without even trying.
And when I say "never forget to thank your client each time they use you," I am thinking of several good clients who have stuck with me for so long that they’ve helped me afford a nice house, a good car, and a college fund for my son. Who wouldn’t want to thank business partners like that?
What does it take to be successful as a corporate photographer? You’ll need to know your way around cameras and lights, but you’ll also need to know your way around corporations. You’ll need to know when it’s okay to show up in "business casual" and when it’s critical to show up in something a little more formal. If you work with assistants, you’ll need to ensure that they are equally tuned in to the dress code because they are a direct representation of your business.
I had lunch recently with a friend who is a well known advertising photographer. We met up at our favorite burger joint. Since I was coming from a shoot with a major CEO I was wearing a nice sportcoat and a tie. My friend was dressed in cargo shorts, a tee shirt and a pair of sandals. He laughed at my formal dress. This is Austin, TX, after all; we pretty much invented casual. He mentioned that he had to buy a suit to attend a niece’s wedding. I mentioned that I have seven suits and nearly as many different sportcoats in my closet. That’s one of the requirements of shooting for corporate clients. Ad agencies are only interested in creating an image. Corporations are all about appearances. And it’s always better to be a little overdressed than even one degree underdressed.
What You’ll Need to Deliver
You’ll need to provide flattering and consistent headshots. Once you start with a certain custom backdrop you’ll need to use the same basic lighting style and that backdrop for every executive headshot you photograph for that particular corporate client, whether in the studio or on location. The web designers and graphic designers want the consistency because in many cases multiples of executives will be used on the same pages. And nothing is more jarring than warring backgrounds and wildly different lighting styles juxtaposed to one another. You’ll need to be able to deliver retouched files that work well as small Web images, but you’ll need to shoot them at high resolutions in case they decide to make large prints.
You’ll need to provide product shots that are well lit and are similar to, or better than, the competitors’ images. If your corporate client makes large appliances, you’ll need to learn how to best handle the challenges of lighting large objects, and you’ll need to know how to correct for perspective in Photoshop or in camera. If your client makes microprocessors, you’ll need to get up to speed on shooting things at high magnification, and you’ll need to know how to retouch cosmetic manufacturing flaws that wouldn’t normally be visible to the human eye.
When shooting products of any type you’ll also need to know how to make good clipping paths, which are required for applications where backgrounds are dropped out to white. And you’ll need to make sure that every step of your workflow is calibrated so your results are accurate.
Knowledge of Location Lighting
You’ll need to possess a good working knowledge of location lighting because more and more marketing departments are asking for good environmental portraits in addition to head shots taken against canvas or paper backgrounds. This means being able to "take your show on the road" and still come up with pleasing and consistent results. If you need a little help, you might want to check out my book Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Photographers. It’s basically a primer on using small lights on location.
You’ll be asked, from time to time, to take images of the client’s factories, headquarters, and other buildings, so you’ll want to brush up on your skills in architectural photography as well. This includes interiors and exteriors.
You’ll need to understand how to photograph all the components of weeklong corporate events and be able to provide well-exposed, well-lit, intelligently composed images of everything from the signage at an event venue to available light shots of speakers delivering their presentations, to cocktail parties, to concerts. The event staff will want well-executed shots of the stages (the construction of which may run hundreds of thousands of dollars), the food served, as well as shots of happy attendees lining up to register, networking in the convention spaces, and much more.
Given time and experience you’ll figure out who the "heavy hitters" are, when and how to photograph them, and when (most importantly) to get the heck out of the way and blend into the background.
In my estimation the large showcase events are the most fun and the most challenging part of corporate photography. I love heading to a convention city like Orlando or Las Vegas and spending a week totally immersed in the kind of convention or showcase that shows off the best of my client’s company. We hit the ground running, shoot for twelve to fourteen hours a day, edit down specific events, and constantly feed those images to our client’s PR people and webmasters, and then keep everything archived and sorted. The nice part of shooting a major show is being able to put four or five days of shooting fees and two or three days of editing fees all together in a row. A side benefit is that, as a trusted part of the company’s imaging team, your client will put you up in the same (nice) hotel that their people stay in.
Left: Good, clean product shots are a "bread and butter" part of corporate photography. I shot this unit for a manufacturer whose chips are used in the Apple Mac Mini. Learn to shoot on white because you’ll be doing a lot of it. Right: Some clients require product photographs to be delivered
with a clipping path, so you’ll want to polish your Photoshop skills or hire a good retoucher.
My wife complains that my clients have spoiled me. After having stayed at hotels like the Breakers in West Palm Beach, the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, the Langham in Pasadena, and a Four Seasons Hotels here and there, it’s tough to get excited about staying in a La Quinta or a Holiday Inn Express for family vacations.
If you make yourself indispensible to a company by dint of your knowledge of their industry, its players, and its social customs, then you’ll find yourself doing a fair amount of enviable travel. Over the past few years, several of my corporate clients have taken me along to wonderful international destinations such as Rome, Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, Monte Carlo, London, and St. Petersburg, as well as really wonderful destinations in the United States and, in each case, I’ve been well compensated for my photographic skills and the travel.
Understanding Corporate Culture
As I’ve said before, the main requirements for corporate photography include the ability to do good, workman-like photography under tight deadlines and in diverse locations. Equally important is understanding the corporate culture of the company you’re working with and fitting into that culture—that means dressing like them, understanding all the human resources issues required by companies, being able to eat with clients in formal settings, and knowing when to shoot and when not to shoot. Some of this you’ll learn over time, but you’ll definitely not be invited back if you:
- show up in cutoff shorts and a promotional t-shirt to a formal event
- volunteer your unsolicited opinion about any part of the business
- draw unnecessary attention to yourself or your photography
- evince a prima donna attitude
- cause any delays (Most high-end events are timed down to the minute.)
- violate any of the rules (A few big stumbling blocks include hitting on the interns, eating a big plate of shrimp at an executive reception, drinking on the job, telling off-color jokes, etc. Everyone in corporate environments has at least one college degree and they expect you to act like a peer.)
- fail to deliver the goods.
What’s in the corporate photographer’s gear box? It’s all digital now. Any of the major camera systems will work well. I use a pair of Nikon D700s, but by the time you read this they may be old news. I have three main lenses: the 14–24mm, 24–70mm, and 70–200mm f/2.8, but I routinely supplement these with the 60mm and 105mm macro lenses and a few older macro lenses that I use on a bellows close-up attachment. I bring three or four portable flashes that can be controlled by the cameras or by Nikon’s SU-800 flash controller. This is my core event package and the basis of the package I use on most other jobs too.
For head shots, environmental portraits, interior architectural shots, and product shots, I add a range of electronic flashes from Profoto that include: three Profoto Compact Plus monolights, two of the Profoto Acute AB (600B) battery-powered pack-and-head systems, and several of their traditional power packs with four heads. Obviously I pick and choose the components I take to each job. I also have a collection of light stands, umbrellas, softboxes, and reflectors that I use depending on the look and effect I’m trying to get.
In addition to your office computer, you’ll also need a laptop in order to archive and deliver work on location during multi-day events.
This is a category of photography where more is not always better. Many times you’ll need to forego the control and power of a heavier lighting kit to provide more mobility and flexibility. A 13-inch MacBook that fits in the back pocket of my Domke bag trumps my better spec’d 15-inch MacBook Pro. Though clients might appreciate the files from a state of the art, medium format digital back with 60 megapixels, they’ll quickly tell you that they don’t need that kind of resolution and they don’t want to deal with the giant files. Also, you wouldn’t want to carry all of that weight on jobs that may move through five or ten locations in a day.
The best way to enter this part of the field is to assist for someone who does all of the above. Provide the photographer with the same great service you’d give a client, and when the time comes he or she may pass along a potential client whose business creates a conflict of interest for them. Never poach your boss’s clients! It’s in poor taste and it’s tremendously bad karma.
Some Axioms for Doing Business
I’ve been working in this business for a while, and I’ve discovered several axioms. Here they are in list form:
- The larger the market, the more profitable it is to specialize.
- If you specialize, ensure you are casting a wide geographic net. Make the country or the world your market. Look beyond your city and state.
- Play to your strengths. If you are a wonderful "people person" and you are delighted to make new friends, you probably won’t be a happy product or still life photographer, but you might be a wonderful wedding guy. Let your strengths lead you to your specialty!
- People like to buy expertise, so make sure your marketing reflects this. If you want to be a wedding photographer and an advertising or corporate photographer, then consider investing in two different company identities with two different websites.
- When starting out, try to immerse yourself in as many of the niches as possible to facilitate the "aha!" moment when everything becomes clear and you discover your preferred specialty.
- If you are working in a smaller market, be sure to master several related specialties. You’ll want some diversification in your primary market. Just don’t try to market too many "personalities" to the same decision makers.
- Time in the market can build your reputation and your clients' ability to remember your name, so be consistent and market yourself with a view to the long term.
- Charge for what you know, not what you do. If you are the best at a particular specialty, be sure you charge accordingly. That means charging more for the things you do well, not charging by the hour for something you can do quicker and better as time goes on!
- If you are aiming for the biggest markets it pays to perfect your work in your current market and "arrive" as an expert rather than as a journeyman.
- Do what makes you happy, not what seems like the coolest part of the business. If you are truly having fun, it will be easier to make money because your enthusiasm will be contagious.
This was shot on 4x5 inch sheet film for a high-tech client. The watch is a prop made from a microchip. This is the kind of shot that was a bedrock of stock sales in the 1980s and 1990s.
All the preconceptions in our industry get rethought decade by decade. When I started out in Austin, TX, it was critical to be able to handle all kinds of work. That "trial by fire" of diversification has been very helpful in successfully competing in the corporate photography sector. It was absolutely the wrong approach if I had wanted to pursue a career as a fashion photographer. If I started over today I’d choose one specialty that included a lot of people to people work, high fees, and relative consistency. In my market it would probably be a combination of high-end, retail portrait photography and wedding photography. In a much larger market I would try my hand at editorial and commissioned portrait work exclusively. At this point I feel so invested with my corporate clients that starting over would be too scary.
Think about this as you contemplate where you want to be in five, ten, and twenty years. Make sure that the "fun quotient" has the potential to stay high.
Where Does Stock Photography Fit In?
Stock photography is an interesting side story to commercial photography. It’s important to know how stock photography came about, how it grew and, ultimately, how it has largely disintegrated into a commodity that, for most practitioners, is no more profitable than cultivating corn.
Stock photography had its ascendency during the 1960s as a byproduct of the growing annual report market. As corporations came to regard their yearly, four-color brochures as their flagship communication tools aimed at their stockholders and potential investors, the cost, complexity, and production value of what was once an accounting document grew by leaps and bounds. It became commonplace for publicly traded companies to send the best of the best photographers jetting across the globe to artistically record their interests and investments.
These pros shot thousands and thousands of highly creative images, showcasing life in foreign lands, diverse workforces, and breathtaking landscapes. Designers chose dozens of images to include in the reports, and the rest of the images were returned to their creators. The majority of these photographers were adamant about keeping the copyright to their images. Once their clients used the images in their annual reports, the photographers were free to sell the images to other industries who might be able to afford a healthy stock fee but not wealthy enough to afford the globe-trotting assignment costs regularly undertaken by the Fortune 500s.
At its inception, stock was not perceived as either cheap or as a commodity. Once the ball got rolling and agencies formed to service the growing secondary market, more and more photographers were anxious to share in the big fees that stock could bring. And since they owned the copyright, the images could be sold again and again as long as the rights were managed so as to prevent a use that might compete with a previous buyer’s license period.
The popularity of stock among design professionals skyrocketed, and by the 1990s professionals around the world were skipping assignment photography altogether and pursuing stock as its own segment of the photographic industry. Agencies grew larger and larger and started marketing all around the globe. As costs grew the distribution of fees between the agency and the photographer started to change, with the agencies taking a larger and larger cut. As long as the total market kept expanding photographers griped but signed the contracts offered.
Stock agencies were pushing stock photographers to produce at higher and higher levels of quality. 35mm gave way to medium format film. Available light gave way to intricately lit scenes, and "production quality" became the mantra. Then something unexpected happened. The web struck the industry with the growing force of a hurricane. As bandwidth grew cheaper, more and more agencies moved their inventory of images to the web and created online marketplaces with expedited digital delivery and payment. Even though the price of providing the product went down, agencies sensed that the power in their relationships with photographers had turned. The advantage went to the entity that could aggregate the most images and distribute them to the widest audiences. Individual photographers knew they would never be able to create and implement the technology to compete with the agency, and the agencies were flush with cash from public offerings.
Then a truly revolutionary event became a "game changer." Inexpensive, high-quality digital cameras were marketed to consumers, and they’ve used these cameras to create billions and billions of images. At the same time, the momentum of visual advertising shifted from high-quality print to low-quality Internet display. Enterprising amateur photographers intersected with enterprising entrepreneurial agencies and prices drifted lower and lower as the volume of images used around the world exploded. Great images meant less to volume distributors than "good enough" images. Choice was substituted in many situations for creative vision. The last three years have truly been "stock photos by the pound." It is an unsustainable model.
The original stock photographers are throwing in the towel. If you are willing to do the research and shoot tens of thousands of technically perfect photographs of generic stuff each year, you may be able to make a decent living shooting stock. But you’ve really got to ask yourself if that’s why you wanted to get into the business. Did you really want to be the microWalmart of the photo industry, or was your original desire to make beautiful images in your own inimitable style?
If you want to proceed into the dollar stock market, here are some tips:
- Shoot what you don’t see on the stock web sites. Having a distinct vision is usually an advantage.
- Don’t get too fancy. Most dollar stock customers are looking for "good enough" and are not willing to pay extra for perfection.
- Do shoot everything as both horizontals and verticals to give you more selling options.
- Photograph really beautiful people, as their images tend to sell better than those of "real" people.
- Get model releases and property releases from everyone you photograph and every property owner whose property you record.
- Don’t sign exclusive contracts. The more portals showing your work, the greater your prospective sales.
- Don’t change your style to please a "perceived" need in the market. What you are looking at today from your competitors is already dated. You should be aiming into the next cycle. The forerunners here always profit.
- Keep production costs as low as possible.
- Get a contract from every agency and portal you deal with so that both sides know exactly what is expected from them and what protections exist.
- Remember that it is a numbers game and that the more images you have on the market, the higher your chances are at having sales.
Just remember as you sally forth with twenty thousand dollars of the latest gear, intent on making stock pay, the ultimate buyers don’t know you from Adam and are just as willing to buy the right images from amateur housewives, students, laid-off IT guys, and assorted other people who have scraped up enough money to buy a Canon Rebel or a Canon G10 point-and-shoot camera. As with all widely available commodities, the market for cheap photographs is now the story of a market rushing to find its bottom.
For my time and money I think that dollar stock is a waste of time. Others disagree. There are established photographers who make additional money from their work by sending all of the outtakes to dollar stock agencies. They figure that any income from material that would just end up sitting on their hard drives makes good financial sense.
The reason I disagree has to do with a concept that I think of as "mind share." Humans can only juggle a certain number of balls (or projects) successfully at one time. Every ongoing task that you undertake requires a little part of your brain to "check in" from time to time to monitor progress. It takes up some of your mental "bandwidth." If I write a column for a web site, I find myself returning on a regular basis to see what sort of comments have been left by readers. If I buy stock in a company, there is an irresistible urge to check in and see how the stock is doing from time to time. If I’m in a relationship, it takes a certain percentage of mind share to make sure I’m doing the right stuff. This sectioning of mind share is endless and self-perpetuating, and if you add something as open ended as stock photography, with its implicit promise of financial gain, you’ve got to donate a significant amount of mind share to the undertaking. That leaves you with less unencumbered "juice" and creative attention to do the kind of work that makes you happy and fulfilled. It’s a mean spiral.
In my world, the nice photos come from concentrated periods of focus and attention to the task of seeing clearly. Anything that distracts is a negative.
Want to make big money in stock? Don’t shoot it, own the agency. While the photographers work their butts off and take financial risks, you get half or more of every single sale. It’s the aggregators who have done well in this market, not the producers.