Design, Photography, & Fashion

What’s the Difference Between Editorial and Commercial Photography? Learn How to Become a Better Professional Photographer

Written by MasterClass

Jun 3, 2019 • 5 min read

If a photograph of a rock climber ascending a mountain was used to accompany a magazine article about rock climbing, it would be considered an editorial photograph. However, if a similar image was used in an advertisement for rock climbing gear, it would be considered a commercial photograph. The main difference between editorial and commercial photography are process and result.


What Is Editorial Photography?

Editorial photography refers to images that run alongside text in publications to help tell a story or educate readers. For example, a feature story about a new restaurant might include images of the building, the décor, and the menu items.

Fashion photography is a type of editorial photography that can tell a story without text. For example, fashion editorials in magazines can be multi-page spreads that depict a theme without words. In these images, photography is less about selling products and more about representing a mood.

What Are the Uses for Editorial Photography?

Editorial images can be candid shots of a sports game, or magazine cover shoots of celebrities or rock stars. Editorial photography can be found in:

  • Newspaper or magazine articles
  • Textbooks
  • Editorial features
  • Essays
  • Documentaries

Editorial photographs cannot be used in advertising without a model release and/or a property release. If an image shot for editorial purposes contains copyrighted logos or recognizable branding, it is restricted to editorial use only. Publications generally set a period of time for exclusive usage rights to an image. After the contract ends, editorial photographers might syndicate the images at other publications or license the photos for stock photography.

What Is Commercial Photography?

Commercial photography, or advertising photography, is used to promote and market products or services. Commercial photographs usually require more setup than editorial photographs.

What Are the Uses for Commercial Photography?

A commercial photograph might be used as an advertisement for a major pharmaceutical company, or perhaps as a promotional poster for an upcoming film. Here are some more examples of commercial use of photographs:

  • Entertainment promotion
  • Advertising campaigns
  • Brochures
  • Product packaging
  • Book covers

If a commercial photograph contains branded products, recognizable people, or private property, legal permission to publish the images must be secured. Model release and property release forms serve as agreements between the client, the photographer, and the subjects of the image. These forms outline where the images will be published and the terms of usage. These contractual agreements protect the photographer and allow the photographer to use the images for other purposes. Additional negotiations may need to be included if the photographer intends to resell images to a stock agency.

What Is the Difference Between Editorial and Commercial Photography?

One of the biggest differences between editorial and commercial photography is budget. A commercial shoot budget is generally higher and allocates more money for post-production costs. Here are some other differences between editorial and commercial photography:

  • Goal. The objective of editorial photography is to tell a story, whereas the end goal of a commercial photography project is to tell a brand’s story and connect to a product’s consumer audience.
  • Client. The client for commercial photography is a publication. For commercial photography, companies or brands are the clients. The clients are also generally present throughout a commercial shoot.
  • Photographer’s role. A photographer has more creative freedom as a storyteller in editorial photography. A commercial photographer must follow the direction of the client.
  • Ownership. In editorial photography, the photographer usually retains ownership of the images. It is common that a magazine or publication would request exclusive ownership for a set period of time. Editorial work pays less than commercial photography, but editorial photographers can license their images for stock photography. In commercial photography, advertising photographs may be a buyout or work for hire, meaning the photographs are owned by the company or brand that commissioned the work. Commercial photos may be licensed for a set period of time and then relicensed if needed.

How Can You Get Editorial Work As a Photographer?

An editorial photographer might submit a portfolio or a tear sheet—which is a page from a magazine or print publication showcasing their work—to a photo editor at a magazine to be considered for the job. Here are some tips on how to pitch editorial work from photographer Jimmy Chin:

  1. Brainstorm ideas for a story. Write down concepts for a project and pull visual examples of your ideas.
  2. Research existing coverage of your ideas. Do research to find how the subject has been captured before. Take note of the articles’ point-of-view and if there are any missing gaps in the coverage that you would like to further explore.
  3. Refine your ideas into an elevator pitch. Write down your pitch and practice saying it out loud. The pitch should be clear and brief.
  4. Identify outlets for your pitch. Look for publications that might have a readership interested in your project. If you’re just starting out, find smaller publications that accept freelance submissions.
  5. Prep your portfolio. Have a portfolio of work ready to showcase your work, either with a website or Adobe Spark.
  6. Prepare a rough budget. You need to have an understanding of how much money it will cost to execute your story idea. The budget should include costs for your time, crew members, and materials, as well as insurance, food, permits, and location fees.
  7. Pitch. Send a brief pitch directly to an editor at a publication. Hook them with a subject line and offer for them to see more of your work.

How Can You Get Commercial Work as a Photographer?

There are a few ways a professional photographer can be contracted for commercial work. One way is through a photographer’s agent, who might have relationships with creative agencies and major consumer brands. A photographer can also be contacted by a creative director. This is an ideal situation because the creative director has seen and likes the photographer’s work.
A photographer might also be sent a Request for Proposal, called an RFP, which invites the artist to pitch for a job.

Here are some tips from Jimmy Chin on successfully pitching for commercial jobs:

  • Do your research. Look at past advertising campaigns from the client and familiarize yourself with the brand.
  • Create a pitch deck. This should include an overview of the project and reference images to support the pitch. In addition to the pitch deck, you should send a bid for the project and a calendar listing the potential prep and shoot days.
  • Draft a budget for the pitch. Make sure that the available resources align with the creative concept. If there is a fixed budget for the project, be sure to outline how the money should be allocated to execute the job.
  • Be passionate. It is important to show the agency or client that you are passionate and fully engaged in the project.

Learn how to become a better photographer with Jimmy Chin’s MasterClass.