What Do You Do For A Living? I’m A Commercial Photographer

New York City is unlike any other city in the United States. Most young professionals who move here do so to be the very best at whatever it is they want to do for a living. If I were an accountant, I would want to work for the very best accounting firms. If I were an art director, I would want to work for the global office of the best creative agencies. As a photographer I want to work for the top magazines and shoot the biggest national advertising campaigns for the biggest brands. It is a very career-centered city and what someone does for a living really defines who they are in the eyes of others.

When I’m meeting someone new at a function or at a friend’s house, I’m not surprised that the first question I am often asked (after my name) is, “What do you do for a living?” In other cities, someone may first ask where I live, or what church I go to, or if I have kids, or if I work for one of the big companies in town… but not New York.

So, how do I answer this grand question? I respond by saying “I’m a commercial photographer: I shoot food, portraits, interiors, and still lifes for magazines, catalogs, and advertising agencies.” My answer is usually followed by another question as the individual tries to figure out what it is I really do. It is usually something like “Do you shoot weddings?” or the less common “So, like, for magazines and billboards?” to which I answer, “Yes”.

There is nothing really exciting about this question, or my answer to it. The questions they ask after the initial ones are what is interesting. There is one question in particular I feel merits discussion since I am asked it quite often. The conversation usually goes something like, “What kind of camera do you have? You know, my uncle has a great camera and it takes amazing pictures.”

I politely respond to this by discussing how you only need a “good enough” camera and the rest is all about how you use it. At this point I swear they think I’m lying to them. It is ingrained into the minds of most people that the better your camera is, the better your pictures are going to be. The photographer behind the camera is also important, but not the most important thing. They also believe that the longer your lens, the better your pictures are going to be as well. Why is this?

Now, if I had responded to their initial question with “I’m a writer” instead of “I’m a commercial photographer”, do you think they would have continued on to ask what kind of pen or paper I write with? Would they have claimed that because I have the newest version of Microsoft Word I must be a better writer? If I had responded that I was a surgeon, would they have asked what kind of scalpel I use when I operate? They wouldn’t, but who am I kidding, the camera is obviously a very important and technical tool and this is why it is given so much credit.

Those who don’t really know how to take pictures often do take better technical pictures with better cameras. Most of the time these people are just lazy: photography takes hard work and thinking. By using 30 point autofocus, zoom lenses, auto exposure, and cranking up the ISO in low light, all they need to do is push a button and let the camera take care of the rest. Just because the picture is now properly exposed, in focus, and without camera-shake doesn’t mean that this person knows how to take pictures — it just means they know how to push a button. There is nothing wrong with this if you’re an amateur out having fun with photography… By all means keep pushing the button and making images, I think it’s great that you love taking pictures and that modern cameras help you make good pictures.

On the other hand, being a commercial photographer is all about making decisions and being in control of your process. The second you are being paid to do a job for someone else everything changes. The ability to create controlled, purposeful images is what being a commercial photographer is all about; it’s not about being lazy. There is no room in the commercial photography world for lazy people; it’s survival of the fittest and only the hardest working photographers survive. Anyone with a great camera can get lucky every once and a while, but you won’t go very far as a commercial photographer if most of your jobs rely on luck. This industry doesn’t tolerate photographers who don’t produce the images they are paid to produce. There is no such thing as, “I’m sorry, I promise I’ll take better pictures the next time you hire me”.

Most of the time I work with a fully manual camera with fixed focal length lenses. This is how I started working as a photographer and how I continue to work. This process makes me think about every decision I make, and I have found that this leads to more purposeful images, not just lucky snapshots. Anyone who has ever shot with a 4×5 camera knows exactly what I mean. As a commercial photographer I’m not hired because I get lucky often, I am hired because I am aware of what I’m doing and making creative decisions which shape the images I create. As far as luck goes, I am lucky to love what I do for a living.

About the author: Steve Giralt is a NYC-based photographer who was selected in 2005 by PDN magazine as one of 30 emerging photographers to watch. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

Image credit: New York City at night by midwinter, Shaking hands by Chris-Håvard Berge, Pen and Notebook by sparkieblues, Monkey with a Camera by rosswebsdale

  • Carl

    I really enjoy PetaPixel, but enough with the same old post from a pro photographer bitching about how people don’t understand his/her craft. People make the “good camera” comment all the time – we get it. Give me a break already.

  • Jens Hamada

    “…..It is a very career-centered city and what someone does for a living really defines who they are in the eyes of others…..”

    yeah im sorry that you live in such a sick world, where everything you are depends on your job and the money you make…. :(
    that´s why every american who makes enough money visits a shrink.

    try to surround you with some people who have more in their lifes then that!

  • Jens Hamada

    +1 i can´t stand that stuff either.

    honest… it´s boring.
    everyone and his dog brings the “im a writer” analogy.
    that discussion goes back to the kodak brownies i guess.

    i mean i don´t write about my life as 3D animator an architectural designer.
    who cares? not even my barber… he has enough to think about.
    most people think i make silly games for iphones when i say im a 3D animator.
    who cares?

    all the social media crap about “ME”… it´s only a cry for attention.

    i don´t have to present my life on facebook to feel alife.. look at my profile.
    i don´t want people to know everything about me.

    it´s all too much these days… just noise.

  • ChristianRudman

    I really miss the old PetaPixel, back when it was mainly
    Michael doing the posts. The majority of stuff is no longer original
    content now, it’s a very lame series of reposts of people who’s
    photographic work I am sure is quite good, but their writing skills and opinions are less than enthralling.

    Michael, please, come back. I miss your insightful posts, consistent
    structure, and good understanding of your readers. No offense to your current writers (when they are the ones doing the writing),
    but I used to love to read everything that came up on your site, now I
    cringe at most of the posts. The site feels cheap and lackluster now. What happened??

  • ChristianRudman


  • Michael Zhang

    Still here :) Still trying to do the same content myself, but at the same time making PP open to other peoples’ viewpoints and opinions. Feel free to link to some memorable posts that you enjoyed during the “old PP” and we’ll try to feature that kind of post more.

    Thanks for sharing your opinions guys!

  • Checkmate

    I’ve come to associate professional photographers with snobbery. Steve Giralt is a good representation of this.

  • Check

    I don’t see any snobbery at all in this article, just reality. I feel some people think of all pro photographers as snobs just because they call themselves pro photographers.

  • Jennifer Crispin

    And everyone who has access to Word Press thinks he can craft an eloquent argument.

  • Michael Wilkinson

    What on earth is wrong with telling people what you do ?
    Im proud to be a photographer,Ive been one all my working life and shot B+W on 5×4 as an apprentice in 1963 and have never looked back.
    For those of you who never experienced processing your own 5×4″ B+W,C41 and E6 after a shoot, just imagine the responsibility of being in charge of all the process from start to finish,knowing about chemistry and mixing your own, sensitometry and using a densitometer to asses chemistry values,being able to work out lens extension exposure compensation,etc and handing the finished job to the client.
    It was challenging and very very satisfying.
    A histogram tells you all you need to know now and I suspect few new photographers even know what the hyperfocal point is.
    Fact is that photography is a craft and believe it or not the good photographers knew how silver halide reacted to light and how to process it to get the effect they wanted,the culmination of skill technique and experience harvested over time.
    New technology has taken much of the skill away, just tweak in photoshop,clone over the mistakes the old pros never suffered from and hey, your a pro.

  • Chris

    Photographers complaining about how people ask about their cameras has become one of the most boring cliches on PetaPixel. But, if I was a pro photog I’d just say I have a Nikon D4 and a modified left-handed Canon 5d Mark 3 so I can shoot stills and video at the same time. They won’t check and it doesn’t really matter.

  • Ute Sonnenberg

    Love it! Great comparison with writing. Its so true.

  • gavin stokes


  • Nikevo

    What a perfect example of the “arrogant photographer”.

  • photographer X

    If you get past him calling amateurs lazy he makes some good points. I know I find myself just pointing and clicking without thinking much about what I’m doing.

  • Daf

    Of course people don’t think it’s all about the cameras – but they do enjoy having a connection with people and talking about things – such as the cameras you/they have. I love to as I still have a passion for photography – and that includes the gear.
    These pro togs who come out with such pieces come across a tad jaded to me.

  • Matt

    Too be honest I think “snob” is an understatement with this guy’s attitude. It is why you couldn’t pay me enough to live in NY.

  • Trey Campbell

    The guy has a point but I do get tired of “the pros” always saying “it doesn’t matter what camera you have, great images are made by the photographer” and blah blah blah. Funny how those same pros are always shooting with the latest and greatest DSLR’s!!! Give me a f’in break.

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for the feedback :)

  • Knight to Queen

    Steve writes about amateur photographers as if they are as intelligent as a three year old. As though a pro photographer’s job is sooooo complex that you can’t discuss it in friendly ice breaker conversation. That in itself is snobbery.

  • Jon

    it all comes from the inferiority complex most commercial photographers feel. the old ‘the camera doesn’t matter’ is a way to justify our industry.
    lets face it, photographers are overpaid. but don’t tell anyone otherwise I wont be able to buy a new apartment.

  • jon

    evolve or die, I guess.

  • lily

    what do you have to dress like?

  • Toronto Product Photographer

    Great Article Thank you.

    I also do commercial photography but I also shoot boudoir. When I go to a party, this is all people want
    to talk about. I guess I can’t blame
    them; boudoir Clients provide more drama.

    – No show Clients,
    – Weird Clients,
    – Partners in love,
    – Stoned Clients,
    – Chicks who hate how they look,
    – What does my wife think????

    My prefer part as a commercial photography is product and
    food photography since the pay is good.

    You forgot one thing in your article: the aspect of selling yourself
    as a photographer. I cold companies everyday to expand my clientele; it works well and I recommend it. I also do extensive marketing. I think the most successful photographer today are probably skilled marketers. Your blog is evident of that!