Commercial Photography

SIC 7335

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category includes establishments primarily engaged in providing commercial photography services to advertising agencies, publishers, and other business and industrial users. Establishments primarily engaged in still and video portrait photography are classified in SIC 7221: Photographic Studios, Portrait, and those primarily engaged in mapmaking are classified in SIC 7389: Business Services, Not Elsewhere Classified. Establishments primarily engaged in producing commercial video tape or films are classified in SIC 7812: Motion Picture and Video Tape Production.

Commercial photographers provide the images for American business. Whether those images are as simple as a daytime photograph of a small town ice cream shop for a newspaper advertisement or as complex as a carefully lit, elaborately staged still photo of an ice cream sundae for a nationally distributed magazine advertisement, they are created by commercial photographers. Commercial photographers also provide photos for annual reports, brochures, catalogs, and a range of other business needs. "Commercial work means: You make it. We photograph it," photographer Bud Hjerstedt told the Northeastern Wisconsin Business Review. "You can't think of a single thing, a single company, that cannot use photography."

The commercial photography industry is remarkably eclectic, with few boundaries in terms of business size or activity. Large cities may provide employment for hundreds of commercial photographers, some working out of shops with several thousand square feet of studio space and sophisticated film processing facilities and some working freelance with their own equipment and facilities. In larger markets, many commercial shops develop specialties in some area of photography, such as food, fashion, or industrial photography. Small towns, on the other hand, may have just a few commercial photographers who shoot an advertising layout one day, a senior picture the next, and a wedding on the weekend. At the time of the last industry census in 2007, there were 3,870 commercial photography establishments with combined revenues of $1.7 billion operating in the United States.

Salaries for commercial photographers depend on the region and how hard the photographer is willing to work. Ken Bourdon of Bourdon & Bourdon Studios told the Tribune Business Weekly that a small town photographer may charge between $600 and $1,200 a day for his or her work, while a photographer working in a large city can charge from $2,000 to $3,500 a day. Such per day charges include all the lighting, staging, and assistants that the photographer may employ. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that there were about 150,000 people employed as photographers and camera operators in 2007; more than half were self-employed, which was much higher than average for all occupations. Larger commercial photography shops also employ photo processors and lab technicians. Self-employed commercial photographers have the potential to earn much more than the salaried studio photographer, but the potential risk for failure is greater. An established freelancer with many jobs and contacts can make $350,000 in an average year. By contrast, median annual income for salaried photography/camera professionals was about $29,440--the middle 50 percent earned between $20,620 and $43,530, while the top and bottom 10 percent earned more than $62,430 and $16,920, respectively.

The commercial photography industry has traditionally been open to self-starters who learned the trade in the armed services, at one of many photographic schools scattered throughout the country, or from a more experienced photographer. With some technical expertise and a flair for visual images, one could set up shop. As the industry became more sophisticated and more dependent on complex digital equipment, additional training was required.

The leading technological development in the industry in the late twentieth century was digital image processing, which was revolutionized by the 1992 introduction of the Leaf Digital Studio Camera, made by Leaf Systems Inc. of Southboro, Massachusetts. The Leaf Camera, which sold for a base price of $29,000, converted visual images to computer pixels immediately. This allowed the photographer to instantly view and manipulate the "photograph" on a computer screen. No film processing was required.

The cost of digital equipment remained stagnant through the late 1990s. However, the equipment and technology expanded and improved at a phenomenal rate; new digital cameras and computer photography software, as well as new digital printers, were developed that could make high resolution images on photographic paper as good as standard photographic prints. By the close of the century, Kodak, Ricoh, and Sony had all developed small, handheld compact digital cameras in the $300 to $500 price range, including software. However, digital cameras with resolution comparable to standard photographic methods still sold at prices as high as $20,000.

For those studios that could afford the high price of going digital, it was a profitable transition. Infinite Photo & Imaging, an Arlington, Virginia, full-service lab, equipped itself with state-of-the-art cameras, computers, and printers to become a fully digitized lab in the mid-1990s. Their new equipment produced high quality 4x8 foot prints, the most requested size, with any style of paper needed for commercial, trade show, corporate, and museum printing. By the beginning of the new century, they were capable of producing the world's largest, seamless photograph (48 inches by 67 feet) and large-scale reproductions up to 80 feet in length.

A watershed for the industry came when the publicists for Warner Bros. 1994 film Batman Forever used some of the latest digital technology. Warner credited the technology with helping the film break summer box office records. Publicists used standard color negative cameras but used digital scanners and printers to make the posters and publicity photographs. The digital printer used could create a print every 75 seconds, greatly speeding up their production. These images were also scanned onto CD-ROM for delivery to New York for processing onto the movie website. At the premiere of the movie in California, photos of Jim Carrey's arrival were taken on digital cameras, stored on a memory card that could hold up to 84 images, then sent via modem to New York. They were placed on the website before the premiere was over.

Digitizing also changed the industry in unexpected ways. For example, it introduced companies to stock photographs kept on CD-ROMs. By 1997, stock photographs sold for $250 to $1,500, depending on quantity and demand. With a CD-ROM, a company could buy a disc containing thousands of stock images for a cost of $10 to $250.

By the mid-2000s, most in the photography industry had gone digital. One survey by TrendWatch Graphic Arts found that 82 percent of commercial photographers used digital cameras. The most common application for digital photography was the capture of high-resolution images for print advertising at 50 percent. As digital use increased, so did technology for storing and printing images. Printer makers Canon, Epson, and HP all developed printers that were equal to or better than traditional commercial chemistry-based photo printing processes. Digital Fine Art (DFA) printing was one new arena for these and other printing companies, creating "museum quality" prints.

The rise of digital photography in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries benefited commercial photographers as they were better able to produce quality photographs in less time, but it also impinged somewhat on their market. As stated by IBISWorld in a July 2010 report, "While photographers are benefiting from the changes by increasing their efficiency and availability, consumers are now able to take professional-quality images without the need for a specialist." IBISWorld predicted that revenues for U.S. photographers would increase between 2010 and 2015 but that many would need to focus on niche markets in order to maintain profitability.

The commercial photography industry remained highly fragmented, with the 50 largest companies accounting for about 20 percent of all revenues in 2010. Two major players in the industry included Getty Images of Seattle, Washington, which served customers in more than 100 countries and employed 1,750 workers. Owned by private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, Getty Images garnered a majority of its revenues from outside the United States. Corbis Corp., also of Seattle, was another industry leader and had a library of more than 100 million images. Microsoft's Bill Gates owned the firm, which employed about 650 people.

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