Avoiding Failure On Your First Commercial Photo Shoot

It is very exciting to have the opportunity to produce images for a company.  Finally, someone that understands the importance of high quality photography and wants to make an impact with their marketing!  And they came to you to help them with that!  While the idea of shooting beautiful models on-location is thrilling, there are many basic things that can be quickly overlooked that will lead to headache or disaster.  In order to avoid a complete failure on your first commercial photo shoot, keep these tips in mind.

My First Commercial Shoot

I met my very first commercial client while photographing a charity ball pro-bono for a local chapter of Habitat For Humanity.  I wanted to give back to the community with my talent and reached out to this charity organization and it so happened they had an event coming up for which they had not yet found a photographer.  I don't really have much experience shooting events but I was happy to give this a shot and I had a great time.  The expectations were so low that I didn't feel pressured to get the most amazing shots in the world.

While I was taking a break during dinner (people don't like to be photographed while they are eating, surprisingly), I was chatting up a few people who were sitting at my table, tucked all the way in the back.  “What did you do you land yourself a spot at the kid's table?” I asked.  It turns out they signed up late and this was the only place left.  As we got to talking I found out they worked for a home exteriors marketing company (like landscaping or outdoor lighting companies, that sort of thing).

They asked me if I shoot a lot of events and I told them that I wasn't really much of an events photographer but volunteered to photograph this for Habitat for Humanity.  I said that I am much better at real estate, architectural, and landscape photography.  That caught their interest because they were in need of a photographer for an upcoming outdoor lighting project.  I gave them my card and said I would be happy to discuss it further.

Several weeks later they contacted me saying they reviewed my portfolio and loved my work and wanted to get the ball rolling.  I was thrilled beyond belief, as you might imagine.  In my excitement, I skipped over much of my due diligence that ended up hurting me in the end.

The first thing we talked about was price (this is usually the first thing everyone wants to know).  Now, I've read a hundred times across the Internet that the first person to give a price loses.  Creatives (photographers, graphic designers, etc) have all sorts of tricks to get their clients to divulge their budget first so they (the creative) can “work around it.”  It is believed that if you, the photographer, tell them your price first you could be leaving potentially thousands of dollars on the table.

I don't agree with this.  I don't much care to play the cat and mouse game and prefer to get to the point.  The last thing I want to happen is for someone to feel like I am hustling them.  Being hustled almost guarantees they will never work with you again.  Instead, I like to give a quote based on my skill level and what my time is worth.  If I am quoted well under their budget, that's great for them, they just saved a couple grand.  If I come in over their budget and they don't hire me, that's OK too.  I'm not going to lower the price of my time and I probably wouldn't want to work for someone who can't afford me or doesn't think I'm worth what I believe I am worth.  Just give them your price and if it works, it works.  In the end it will be up to you on how you approach this.  I quoted them a price based on a 1 year license that they didn't seem too thrilled about ($30-35/photo).  This is also very common because most people don't understand that good photography takes more time and effort than pointing a camera and clicking a button (despite what some iPhonetographers believe).  I learned from my previous mistake of overquoting for a job by a factor of 10 because I am a nobody and won't be able to charge high prices.  I thought $35 was a pretty good deal for them.

We settled on $30/photo and I asked them how many photos they wanted.  “About 40 or 50,”  they said.  I confirmed, “You want to purchase 40 or 50 final, edited photos for this shoot?”  “Yes.”  Ok, let's break out the calculator, 30 dollars times 45 photos issssssss $1,350.  Nice!  “Ok, great I can work with that,” I say.  We set up a time and date for the shoot and that was it.  No contract, no further questions.  The allure of a big fat paycheck was all I needed to have a great shoot.  How much more did I need to know?  Just take some pictures of some outdoor lights, make them look pretty, and Bob's your uncle, right?

Wrong.  I never scouted the location (not even on Google maps first), I didn't ask who was going to be in charge during the shoot, if there was going to be an art director, if there were going to be models, what style they were going for, or any of those (now) obvious questions.  To my credit, at the time it didn't seem like any of this would even be a factor in this shoot.  I mean, it's outdoor lighting, how complicated is it going to get?

Turns out, it was pretty complicated.  The style of shoot they were expecting was an outdoor BBQ setting and they had employees of their company be models during the shoot.  Since they were employees, I didn't feel that I really needed a model release for each of them but it might not have been a bad idea to have them sign something anyway.  The most important thing I learned during this shoot was that if there is no art director to guide you through the shots, you will be the art director.  This is very challenging to have to pose and arrange people while considering composition and lighting.  Playing the role of art director AND photographer stretched me to my limits because I'm honestly a much better photographer than an art director.  I could have simply said, “Let's reschedule, I didn't know there would be people to pose.”  But the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional delivers results regardless of the circumstance.  I think Gordon Ramsay could cook the best meal I've had in my life with what's stocked in my kitchen right now, using MY pots and pans.  Because Gordon is a professional he wouldn't just say “Oh, you don't have a Viking stove?  I can't work without that.”  Instead, he would be like, “OK, this bowl of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with hot dogs is going to blow your mind.  The secret is to brown the butter with a bit of minced garlic before stirring it in…” or something like that.

So because I'm (learning how to be) a professional, I don't make excuses, I make things happen (occasionally).  Also, I'm trying to impress these clients so I get more work from them in the future.  I made the best of a not-ideal situation and delivered photos they loved.  Here is when the next thing went wrong.  I came into this shoot understanding they wanted 45ish photos.  I was thinking this was going to be a huge backyard with a water feature, and a giant patio with a built-in BBQ, and gorgeous landscaping.  It was actually a pretty small backyard with a fire pit and some chairs.  45 photos of this was going to be a challenge.  I confirmed with the guy in charge when I arrived that they still wanted to purchase about 45 final, edited photos.  “Yep,” he said, “we are thinking maybe give us 60 or so to review and we'll pick 40 or 45.”  I took about 100 photos, culled them down to 60 photos and they ended up purchasing 19.  Nine. Teen.  One Nine photos.  Had I had a contract that stated they would purchase a minimum of 40 images, I would have been covered (and made as much money as I was expecting).  But I didn't think to do that so now I'm left with less than half of what I was expecting to make on this shoot.  Of course, I didn't really blame them; most of the shots were redundant because there are only so many compositions you can make from an area that small.

There were sooooo many things I did wrong during this first shoot.  I want to help everyone who is shooting commercially for a client to avoid these mistakes so you not only manage their expectations but also have a great time working together.


First and foremost is having a photography contract in place.  This will protect the interests of both parties (you and your client) before, during, and after the shoot.  The contract will spell out the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the shoot.

For example, if you were hired by your local city council to photograph a few places around your beautiful town, a contract will cover:

  1. The scope (what is to be included and excluded; specific locations, parks, buildings, etc)
  2. The time and/or date the shoot will take place
  3. The deadline for the submission of your proofs
  4. How many edits will be included in the price
  5. The deadline for the submission of your final photos
  6. How and when payment will be made
  7. How and when the final photos will be delivered
  8. How the client can use the photos and for how long (online, local print marketing, billboards, national advertising, etc)

A contract could potentially cover much, much more than this.  They are as simple or complex as they need to be to make sure everyone understands their responsibilities.  If you are shooting models, you'll need to get a model release for each of them as well.

If you are unfamiliar with contracts and want some further help, check out all these great resources Improve Photography has to offer.  Also, check out this pricing and contracts bundle from the Improve Photography store where you'll get a host of contract templates and pricing guides for just $29.

Questions to ask

I know, you are really excited to have a paying commercial client and that excitement is starting to overwhelm the logic centers of your brain.  There is still lots you need to know about this shoot before you start shooting.  Many times the client doesn't even know what they want, or at the very least they don't know how to articulate it, so asking questions like these will help them (and you) through a journey of discovery about what they want and don't want.

Here are some important questions that you could ask your clients.  You don't need to go down the list one by one but use this as a guide to help you and your clients understand what they really want.

  1. What about this shoot is the most important to you?
    1. What is the most important feature?
    2. What do you want to be showcased?
  2. Will there be an art director?
  3. Who is your target market?
    1. What is their demographic (age, gender, familial status, income, location, etc)
    2. How/when do you expect them to use this product/service?
  4. Is this a premium (expensive) product/service?
  5. What “feel” are you going for? (time of day, season, location, activity, etc)
  6. Do you want models to be involved in any way?
  7. Do you have examples from previous shoots you've done or from other companies you've seen that you like?

Let's go over each of these questions to understand why they are helpful and what information you can get from them.

What about this shoot is the most important to you?

Your clients have reached out to you because they have an idea of how they want their product or service to look and they are confident you will be able to make that happen.  Sadly, we haven't developed telepathy yet, so you don't just automatically know what they imagine this to look like.  As I mentioned before, they often don't know what they want so talking about it helps them define it.  You'll want to know if there is a specific thing about their product or service they are wanting to highlight or showcase.  If it is a professional chef at a fancy restaurant, maybe they want to showcase the color contrast of the main dish.  Now you know you'll need to be lighting for that specific feature.

Will there be an art director?

An art director, or someone providing direction on posing models, arranging flowers, moving furniture, deciding colors, choosing locations, backdrops, etc, is very important to know about.  If they're not planning on having an art director, YOU will be the art director.  For some people, this is totally fine.  For other people, like me, I'm not so great at making sure this obscure thing in the background is lined up just so or that the girl in the pink tank top's hair is falling over her shoulder because I'm more worried about things like f-stop and if I have any really bad flash shadows somewhere.

If you don't feel comfortable being the art director AND the photographer, consider hiring this out.  If you are working with models, you'll want someone that is good with posing people.  Perhaps even having another photographer there as a second set of eyes on the scene to make sure everything is just right would be sufficient for most commercial shoots.

If they say that yes, there will be an art director, then most of the questions below should be directed to him or her.  You will be working closely with this person and you'll need to know these specifics.  Understanding the purpose of the shots makes it much easier to follow the art director and interpret what he or she is saying.  It's the difference between memorizing a few phrases in another language or knowing the grammar, verb conjugations, and sentence structure.  It just makes more sense when you have all the details.

If you get hired by a big brand, you probably won't need to ask much, if any, of these questions.  They probably know exactly what they want.  And kudos to you for landing such a big client right out of the gate!

Who is your target market?

This is really important to know.  Is your client going to be advertising to stay at home moms or single businessmen?  Knowing who is going to buy the product/service will help you know how, when, and where to photograph it.  If this is a product for women-on-the-go you won't be doing a stylized shoot with 2 friends enjoying it on a park bench.

How is their product going to be used?  In my example above, my clients wanted an outdoor BBQ styled shot.  They didn't explain this to me and I didn't think to ask what feel they were going for.  In the end, the shoot ended up being a few people sitting around a fire pit which looked a little awkward.  Had I had the foresight to ask about this (and had I known I would be the art director) I would have suggested that we have an actual BBQ with someone grilling burgers and dogs, a few people playing some lawn games, and a few people enjoying some beers around the fire; and I would photograph that, keeping in mind the outdoor lighting subject of the shoot.

Or even better, I would have suggested something like a wedding reception or birthday party; something that commands fancy outdoor lighting.  The more I think about it, the more I realize no one is going to purchase an outdoor lighting service for a BBQ with some friends.  Now, if I was shooting for an outdoor fireplace company, that would be perfect.  Remember to include your client's target market and how they will use the product/service in how you plan your shoot.

Is this a premium product?

Also really important to know.  If this is a premium, expensive product, people will expect to get a premium, expensive result from it.  You wouldn't photograph a Mercedes in front of Burger King.  You'd do it in front of a valet at a fancy nightclub.  Knowing what kind of product it is helps you to know how to plan the shoot and, if your client hasn't thought about it, it will help them realize how they want their target market to perceive their product/service.

What “feel” are you going for?

This plays well into the first question because it helps the client think about the style of shoot they want.  This helps you so you know how to plan for it and can arrange the time of day and the scenery.  They might throw around words like cozy, warm, inviting, friendly, jovial, romantic, exciting, sexy, tempting, or familial.  Now it's your job (as the art director, if they don't have one) to come up with ways to express those feelings in a photograph.

Warm? Scarves, steam, and fireplaces.
Friendly? People laughing, having a good time.
Jovial? People hanging out, maybe some kind of food or drink present.
Familial?  A family, obviously: mom, dad, kids, a dog.
Exciting?  Cliff jumping, rock climbing, slack lining, sky diving (how great would it be to get paid to go sky diving and take some pictures?).
Romantic? Candles, flower petals, and sunsets.

Do you want models to be involved in any way?

The first reaction to this question for some commercial shoots is “No, we don't need people.”  But people can add a personal touch to a photograph that makes it that much more special.  Check out the aurora borealis photo by Max Rive to get an idea of what I mean.

“No” doesn't always mean “absolutely not.”  In fact, as the creative person in this conversation, it is your prerogative to suggest things like this.  Even having people blurred out in the background laughing and having a good time can turn a boring photo of a light bulb into an experience that everyone wants to have.  If they are open to the idea of including models you can offer to find and bring the models but be sure in add that to your costs.  Finding and working with models can be difficult and if you are the intermediary, you should be paid for that effort.

Do you have examples from previous shoots?

If they have done shoots like this before, it would be great to see those examples.  If not, ask them if they have examples of photos they've seen of their competition or photos on Instagram or Pinterest that give the same look and feel they are going for.

Going into a shoot without any information of what it looks like or what they are expecting will place the odds against you of having a successful shoot.  It won't be impossible to create something they'll love, but you'll have a better chance if you can see examples of things they like.

If you are doing a location dependent shoot, it is also super helpful to know what the location looks like beforehand.  I should have at least Google Mapped the location I would be shooting and not created an idea based on their description of “an awesome backyard.”  Knowing what the scene looks like will help you prepare for angles, sight lines, lighting, and composition.  Also, if your shoot requires a significant amount of pre-planning, make sure you are charging a creative fee or including this in your quote.

I know that's a lot of questions to ask, but here is the secret: the more questions you ask, the more people will trust that you know what you are doing.  And, as a bonus, the more likely they will work with you because you asked all those great questions (it makes you seem like you know what you are doing).

A couple more tips for having a successful commercial photography shoot is to never let your client see un-watermarked proofs or drafts.  There is a chance (hopefully a small chance) that your client will decide to just steal the proofs from you (right click > save as, or just take a screenshot if they don't need or understand high resolution) and then tell you that they changed their mind, changed direction, need to pause the project, or just aren't happy with your work.  Then they'll use the pirated images at their leisure.  This probably happens more than you think but hopefully not all that often.

When I got my senior photos done in high school, my mom signed me up for one of the shoot-n-burn chop shops that contract with the local high schools.  I think she paid $45 for a sitting fee and I drove out to their studio and got maybe 3 or 4 different poses.  They delivered the proofs in the mail: unedited, un-watermarked 4×6 matte prints with a white footer that said “Proof – Do Not Copy.”  She simply cut that part off and then framed 1 of each of the poses in a collage and hung it on the wall.  I know, highly unethical.  But in her mind, this is what she paid for.  She thought the sitting fee paid for her ownership of the proofs and since she didn't want or need any other copies, her business was done.  This just goes to show that most people do not understand copyright law and it is up to you to make sure it is nearly impossible for them to steal your work without paying for it.  Always watermark your images until your client is ready for final delivery.

Secondly, I would recommend against doing subsequent jobs for a new client until they have paid for their first job.  Many times photographer will find themselves sliding down the rabbit hole of shoots and/or edits with the promise of payment coming.  There was an article about a photo editor warning other editors about a photographer who would hire out work but would never pay.  Sometimes he'd go over a year without paying, always coming up with excuses of waiting to be paid himself or having a sick mother and being busy taking care of her, but always promising “just give me a couple days.”  Give everyone you meet the benefit of the doubt, and don't assume people are going to try and rip you off (because that is rare), but don't be a sucker and keep doing work for someone who has yet to pay you.


Commercial work is exciting.  It is a great way to expand your skills and your portfolio and do photography work that you wouldn't otherwise have a chance to do.  In order to make this a great experience for you and to really wow the pants off your clients, make sure to maintain your professionalism by asking lots of questions and protect everyone's interest by using a contract.

Do you have an experience with commercial photo shoots?  Tell us about your first shoot in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Avoiding Failure On Your First Commercial Photo Shoot”

  1. I really enjoyed this article! Loved your writing style, the story you told and the way you told it. Reminded me so much of my “start”. Now I shoot around 10 charity events a year which is a great marketing/ networking tool. Each event usually leads to at least 3 paid jobs, from real estate to commercial work.
    Yeah, my first commercial gig went about like yours. I have the same mentality as you (just do it. there’s no time for excuses). Asking questions relies mostly on knowing what to ask. Your suggestions are an ideal starting point. Some folk need a LOT more info, some less. It seems I’m very close to your list 🙂

  2. Awesome article. I started out doing a charitable house spread and it did lead to more work. Also, I cannot stress the importance of a contract with expectations written end out.
    Your article was excellent.

  3. Usually, when taking a photo you can never avoid making mistake. Hence, this article would help you also in avoiding such an obvious mistake on your first commercial photoshoot.

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