How to Hire a Commercial Photographer

Yay! You have a business that is growing (maybe even again). It’s time to hire a commercial photographer and get some new images. You and your company deserve to look fantastic!

Gosh, why is this world so strange, day rates?  Stylists? Set designers? Crews? “Craft Services” – wait, that kind of means catering and snacks? Oh gosh, where’s my Pepto – Retouching – you mean photoshopping?  “Number of Final photos”? A Tiff? Usage? So what’s in that price? Brb 🤮. I thought you just took a picture.

How am I going to explain this to new clients? I got an idea, what if we just sold the cameras?

Jacob Meyer, Director of Marketing of OMS Photo
– Day One

My name is Jacob, and I’m the marketing guy here at OMS Photo and have been for quite a few years now. I’ve helped many new clients dive in and get a grasp on commercial photography. Photography can feel overwhelming at first, but it’s easy once you get an explainer. So in this article, I’ll break down the scary bits, and hopefully, you’ll feel confident and empowered after you finish reading.

I know photography can be an emotional process. It is, after all, the time to make your brand look valid in the eyes of your customer. And nothing quite compares to the fun and excitement of a photoshoot. I want you to enjoy it!

Here is a baby-step process to hire a commercial photographer the right way, and I’ll explain each point in depth.

  • Know your vision (sort of)
  • Know how the photos will be used, how they could be used
  • Exploring visual ideas online
  • Budgeting for a photoshoot
  • What can a photographer do in a “day”?
  • Choosing photographers based on skill and style
  • Get a quote (and a few more)
  • Book it

Note: I will use the phrase “final photos” a lot. The term means the number of photos that have been selected, retouched, and delivered. Sometimes a photoshoot will have hundreds of photos taken, but only ten “final photos” are what you need.

Know your vision (sort of)

Every great photoshoot starts with a vision, but not a rigid one.

Most of us hire a commercial photographer because our company is growing, and it’s time to update everything so you can compete and grow. Or because your company is established and is working from marketing campaign to marketing campaign. Either way, the process is started with a vision.

A vision can be as simple as this:

“More retailers are starting to pick up my company’s products; I need some photos to show my products are awesome for runners and cyclists. I like what my competitor does, but I want to do it differently. New photos would be great for our in-store promotions and our website.”

From that simple start, it’s time to dream and think of ideas you’d like to see for photography. However, the critical point in this step is to be fluid, not rigid. Think about how your product could be used and enjoyed, who enjoys it, and all the usual marketing questions.

Until you’ve pulled in creatives like photographers, producers, and designers, you should let yourself be fluid with ideas. Let the creatives bring your vision into focus.

Check out this article for a breakdown of the types of photography to consider

Know how the photos will be used, how they could be used

You need to have something specific in mind for how the images will be used; maybe it’s layouts in a web design, a billboard, or more. You don’t want to be guessing here. It hurts when you receive a photo and realize the crop is wrong, or heaven forbid the image just won’t work for what you need. 

Start planning concrete ways to use the photos, including the potential sizes (pixels, inches, etc.). Determine a range for the ideal number of final photos you want to be delivered (i.e., 8-12). Then ask yourself, how else could they be used? Maybe your ideas will work for packaging, advertising, and social media.

Start making a list now! A simple word doc will do. Having an essential list of ways to use the photos and an ideal number of images will guide everything in your journey.

Even something simple like this will work at the start.

  • Five-seven banner photos to use for our website.
    • Horizontal images would be good. I’d like them sized to be around 2500px wide and have plenty of negative space in the middle for text to wrap around.
  • Five-seven vertical photos to use for in-store promotions and social media ads.

Having a list is going to guide two critical steps in your process.

  1. Knowing your list will help you hone in on styles and visual ideas that will work practically.
  2. Your photographer will love you if you say I need these for X, Y, and Z, and here are some specific sizes and crops. If they know what you want, they can deliver with perfection.

Exploring photography ideas online

The first time you hire a photographer, you don’t need a fancy shot list. But having a visual board or folder of photos is essential. You should start compiling it now. Sending visual ideas along with your determined list of images is going to make photographers and producers happy.

Grab a cup of coffee (or tea) and go to Google image search, Pinterest, Behance, and your competitors. Start saving the images you like. 

Collecting a broad set of images is the best way to start. Anything that you go, “Ohh, I like that,” save it. After you’ve gathered a bunch, start eliminating ideas that won’t fit the brand, vision, or layout ideas.

Aim to collect 10-20 images for your ideas. That should be more than enough to figure out the next steps in the process.

Budgeting for a photoshoot

You might notice I saved budgets for after the first visual step. Budgets and visions are balancing acts. Determining a budget range now will help you hone in your concepts and be a litmus test when you start getting quotes. 

Many people want solid answers for photoshoot pricing without providing details, but that is difficult. A photographer is only one person, and a photography shoot often requires more people, gear, props, and time than you might think. 

A good starting point is $2,500 to $12,000+.

Two significant factors change budgets dramatically:

  • Complexity – The more straightforward the photo, the lower production costs (i.e., product on plain white). The more complex the image, the higher production costs (i.e., a colorful set full of props and people with stylized foods).

See these examples of two wildly different levels of complexity

  • Precision – Photos that require high levels of granular detail, splashes, or visual trickery often need specialized camera bodies (100mp) and significant amounts of photo retouching to make the vision a reality. The more precise the photo, the higher the price. The less controlled an image, the lower the price will be.

See this example that demonstrates demanding levels of photography and retouching precision.

Gillette razor Before photo retouching Image Gillette razor After photo retouching Image

Now, go back to your visual ideas and look at the complexity and styles. Is there food? Well, you might need a food stylist. Are there props? You might need a prop budget. Are there people? You might need models. The list can go on and on.

However, this isn’t a time to sacrifice your vision for your budget. A great photo can set a brand apart from all the competition in an instant.

Figuring out an ideal budget is a chance for you to be prepared and give a heads up to your accountant, owner, or your bank account. Once prepared with a reasonable budget, you can ask photographers what is possible within your constraints. You never know; some friendly photographers will bend their price a little to work on cool projects.

What can be done in a “day”?

In commercial photography, photographers often have “day rates.” This price covers the photographer’s time for one day. It encompasses their skill,  guiding final image selection, color correction, and general expenses that are sunk costs for the photographer (studio, camera, equipment, etc.).

It doesn’t determine what can be done in a day, the crew, props, or photo editing. But because day rates are a thing, I wanted to acknowledge they do exist. You will hear about them, and you will see them. But it’s an inferior way to determine the costs and possibilities of a photoshoot.

That aside, what can be completed in a day with that day rate thing?

You don’t need to know this answer before picking up the phone. Your photographer and producer will determine this answer for you.

But here is a way to estimate what to expect.

I’ve seen very complex shoots take all day, and the client gets one photo. That’s it, and the client is thrilled. I’ve seen location shoots last all day, and the client receives 30-50 final images, and the client is delighted. The precision and complexity of each were vastly different. The variables are why “what can be done in a day” is hard to determine or say plainly.

It all comes down to complexity and precision again. Here are a few examples:

  • Imagine a shoot where we have simple products shot on white. Once the first product is complete, the rest of the day runs smoothly and a photographer can deliver 15-30 final photos.
  • Imagine a shoot where each photo requires unique colored sweeps, unique food items, different products, etc. A photographer can deliver around 4-8 final images in a day.
  • Imagine a shoot where you want a party of friends and models using a specific beer brand on location. A photographer can run around all day, and can deliver 20-40 final photos. Here it’s about giving up fine-tuned control and asking the photographer to capture the moment.
  • Imagine a shoot where you want one image with models and products to be layered in photoshop so you can move people and products around after the shoot, and the photographer needs to captures everything with a 100mp camera. After digital team composites multiple images together it will make only one final image. One day, one photo.

So now go back to your list and visualize ideas again with this new information.

Again, your photographer and producer will be able to determine this answer for you fairly quickly. But I think it’s good to prepare. If you want 50 photos in the studio, you might need to imagine budgeting for 2-4 days in the studio. That can turn a $5000 day into a $20,000+ project pretty quickly. As you can see day rates become somewhat irrelevant, once you throw in all the variables.

Choosing commercial photographers based on skill and style

Now you’re cooking. You’ve got your list, your visual ideas, and your budget all roughly sketched in. Time to do what this article is all about – picking your photographer.

A great place to start is referrals. Ask around and see who’s been photographing your friend’s businesses, your competitors, or just who might be good. Suppose that’s not turning up anything. Search around on the internet. Also, look back at the visuals you gathered early on in the process. Can you find out who the photographers were?  Everyone who is somebody has a website. Go check out their work!

With the pandemic, the need to be local for your shoot is pretty much a thing of the past. At OMS Photo, we’ve become highly adept at shooting for clients all over the country. The world is your oyster as you search, but I would recommend leaning local if possible. It’s fun to go to a photo shoot, even if you have to wear a mask.

Here are some things to look for when choosing a photographer:

  • Do they do “cool stuff,” in your opinion? 
  • Do they do a lot of work in the category you need? (food, product, lifestyle, etc.)
  • Have they created photos similar to your vision already? If not, could you see them doing a good job anyway?
  • Does their personality seem like a good fit with yours?
  • Are they true professionals? Do they do this full-time?
  • Follow them on social media. Do you like their profiles?

One pitfall we struggle with here is losing out on work because we haven’t shot it before. Some people want photographers to have taken the photo they want before it even exists. It sounds a little strange, but it happens more than you think. At OMS, we’ve never photographed a golf ball, but it’s absolutely something we could do.

Don’t be like that. Please, use your imagination and intuition. If a company has photographed everything else but your specific product, they could still be excellent for you. Do not look at this process like choosing stock photos. Photography is a creative process.

You are not buying something off a shelf. You get to make it any way you want it.

Getting a Quote From A Photographer

Today’s the day! You’ve got a vision, a list, a visual guide, a budget, and a shortlist of photographers. You Rock!

It’s now time to contact your favorite photographers. Most of them will want to talk to you on the phone as they may have some clarifying questions and ideas for you. These conversations are much easier to do on the phone. 

Before the call, share everything you’ve been cooking up. The photographers or producers will want to prepare questions for you and guide you through the process.

You have a lot riding on these images. One thing that’s important to assess on the call is the personalities of everyone involved. You don’t want to work with people you don’t like. Hiring a photographer isn’t like a plumber or an electrician, where a job well-done is more important than the personal process. The process here can genuinely improve the quality of your results.

There will be a discussion of budgets and share what you feel comfortable sharing. It’s ok to keep your cards close to your chest until you see the first quote. The choice is yours, but transparency usually won’t hurt you here. Quality photographers will try to work with your budget and explore possibilities you might not have considered. Creative constraints can be a good thing. You might even find your budget is more significant than your idea, and that’s great!

Questions to ask your photographers:

  • What do you think of my idea? (feeling out personality)
  • I’ve seen some photos on your site that look great, but do you have more in your archives that speak to this project?
  • How many days do you think this might take?
  • What is your availability in the next week or two? How much time do you need to make it all happen?
  • How much photo retouching do you think this will need?
  • How big of a crew do you think we’ll need (stylists, assistants, etc.)? Can we do it with less? How will less affect the quality?
  • Are there ways we can save on props and models? 
  • Do you have a ballpark on the price today?
  • What do you think could make my ideas work better? (feeling out personality)

HEADS UP – Some of these questions might need a few internal conversations for the photographer and crew to answer. And that is OK and normal! They want to get you the correct answers.

After the first quote, I encourage you to get more than one quote as a good business practice in general.  But, I realize this is an emotional process and a bit like picking a school for college. There are the dream schools, and the rest are just the rest. Push for your dream and see if they can make it work if the budget isn’t what you expected.

Once you get the quotes in front of you, it’s time to pick and schedule the shoot. Go with the photographers that feel good, not just the cheapest.

And that’s it; you’ve hired a commercial photographer! Woo! The photographer and producer will help with every step moving forward.

Expect your final files retouched and delivered 2-5 days after the shoot is complete.

Have any questions? 

You can contact us on our contact form, or you can DM us on Facebook or Instagram. From there, I will respond personally to every question.