The Differences Between a Commercial Photo and a Retail Photo

by | Commercial Photography 101, Starting up | 4 comments

bruce mars 3


For the sake of clarity, for the purpose of this article I’m using the term ‘retail photography’ to indicate photography for private clients, which includes family portraits, senior portraits, pet portraits, wedding photography and any other photography that consumers (individuals and/or couples) purchase.

Commercial photography is photography purchased by businesses for their commercial (marketing and/or advertising) use.

More and more often, retail photographers are being solicited by commercial clients to do photography for them, which is often an art buyer’s response to meeting squeezed budgets.

And many of those retail photographers are happy for the opportunity, for a wide variety of different reasons.

But it’s important to understand that just because a wedding couple or parents or pet owners are in love with a photo doesn’t mean it’s a good or even passable candidate for commercial use in an advertisement or marketing strategy.

Commercial photos for companies are very different from portrait photos for individuals or couples.

The following is a bit of a grey area, and there are an infinite number of variables that depend on the use, the client, the environment, the target market, etc, but the table below shows some general differences between a commercial photo and a retail photo that should help you approach your commercial shoots differently from your portrait/wedding/pet shoots.

Subjects often looking straight into cameraSubjects often looking away from camera
Backgrounds contain details; environment is key playerBackgrounds lack details; subject is main focus; simple is better
Little or no negative space with subjects filling frame or centeredNegative space with room for text copy, subjects usually off-center
Often static and posed, lacking specific behavior or movementOften dynamic and capturing behavior and movement
Subject engaged with the cameraFly on the wall, photojournalistic style
Even lighting across frameFocused lighting to draw attention to subject
Captures a simple moment in timeTells a bigger story (a commercial photo *always* tells a story)

The best way to learn the differences between commercial photos and portrait photos is to study the work of commercial photographers.

My favorite resource to use for commercial photography inspiration is the example portfolios on Photofolio, which is a website provider used by many of the best commercial photographers.

When you look through the websites, you will notice there is a huge variety of photos that fall under the ‘commercial photography’ umbrella, but interestingly they all have a similar ‘look and feel’ that is very different from retail photography.

The biggest difference is quality. The quality of most commercial work is very high. Images have been retouched to perfection, and one incredible photo, called a ‘hero photo’, may be selected from an entire day of shooting to be used in an advertisement. Commercial images have to be supreme quality because they need to effectively sell a product or service. So naturally these images are the cream-of-the-crop.

Another great way to learn what ‘look’ your photos may be expected to have, and how you should be shooting is to buy magazines that contain ads from the brands you’d like to shoot for, and study the photos they use in their ads.

You can even tear those ads out of the magazines and bring them with you to your personal project shoots for on-set inspiration.

It won’t take long for you to have a deep understanding of how to shoot a commercial photo for a company differently than a cute retail portrait that would look nice on a wall. That understanding will be reflected in your work, which will result in more frequent inquires from better and better clients.

Other articles you may like:

How to Know if You Are Ready to Do Commercial Photography

Who Hires Commercial Photographers

Learn how to start booking more clients and making more money TODAY


the business of commercial advertising photography course product


  1. Very interesting and insightful article. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be looking forward to more quality articles like this.

    • Happy that you found it useful Nicolas!

  2. Great article, the differences are often blurred and confused, doing one doesn’t always mean you can do the other. There’s a lot more to commercial photography than actually taking the pictures.

    • This is so true. Being successful as a photographer means being a good negotiator, salesperson and marketer as well. I think too many photographers are so focused on the photography that they forget all the other (much) more important stuff.


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