Fine Art Photography vs. Commercial Photography. What are the significant differences?

Nude Shadows

We hear a lot of talk of fine art photography and photographic art, but how do these sectors differ to the world of commercial photography.  In a word, I would say “mind-set”!  As with so many things, there is often a thin dividing line, although between photographic art and commercial photography, I think the line is actually a lot thiner than many people perceive or realise.

An artist, is first and foremost “an artist”, regardless of the medium of choice.  His/her medium of choice may happen to be photography, it could equally be any of the numerous other mediums with which we are all familiar.  The important thing is that he/she has the mentality of an artist, with the medium of choice being a secondary factor.

Commercial photography needs little explanation.  Clients provide photographic assignments of an immensely diverse nature, and photographers fulfill the needs of those clients by providing the photographs they require.  This could be in relation to advertising, editorial, promotions, weddings, etc., etc. (as we all understand).  Outside of this brief, many commercial photographers will also have their own personal portfolio, wherein this work is sometimes also defined as “Fine Art”.  Some commercial photographers will even include a specific fine art portfolio, and quite often, images from that portfolio will be offered for sale as stand-alone artworks.  Is the latter “Photographic Art”?  Mostly, the answer would have to be “no”.

Artists themselves can be broken-down into various categories.  There are those full-time professional artists, normally listed and well referenced and often represented by one or more formal representatives, such as an art gallery, dealer or agent.  There are many other artists, who produce a very high-standard of work, but for whom art is a secondary profession, the majority of whom will not have formal representation, instead, marketing and selling their works directly to their clients.  Subsequently, we have artists producing what I would define as decorative arts, following which we have craft works and kitsch.

Each of these have a unique value within the sector in question, and each a place within the art-world. However, in practice, each sector is quite autonomous to the other, and it is unlikely that you will find a main-stream art gallery selling decorative arts, just as it is unlikely that a gallery dealing mainly in decorative arts would be selling collectible artworks (and by collectible, I mean of interest to serious art collectors, the likes of whom also patronise major international auction sales).  Effectively, it’s each to his own.

Likewise with photography.  In the majority of cases, those aforementioned “Fine Art” portfolios, are generally more in the decorative arts category, and generally selling at prices well below those works of established photographic artists.  Personally, I have seen many examples where this can be quite ambiguous, as many commercial photographers also producing “Fine Art Photography”, seem to be under the impression that this alone classifies them as photographic artists, which of course in reality, is rarely the case.  The confusion heightens, as many works by established photographic artists, are also frequently referred to as being “Fine Art Photography”.  In the general context, this is not wrong, as “Fine Art” is “Fine Art”, but the process of advancement and recognition is of course a different one.

If we turn this on its head, we also have numerous highly acclaimed photographic artists that also work primarily as commercial photographers.  However, this also can be broken-down into two categories. Firstly, we have the “artists”, who think of themselves as such, but who also undertake a variety of commercial assignments.  Secondly, we have those who are main-stream commercial photographers, but the popularity of their works has driven them to attain the status of photographic artist.  Of course, we also have what I would say is the main-stream photographic artist, who has never undertaken a commercial assignment in their life, and probably is never likely too.

I could quote numerous physical examples of all of the aforementioned, but that is really beside the point and not the objective of this post.  Primarily, the objective here is to highlight the differences and bring awareness of them, to both photographers and non-photographers alike.  For photographers, perhaps to make us reflect on oneself and for non-photographers, to bring some clarification to what can be a very confusing arena.

What is not the objective of this post is to be judgmental, i.e., as in what is good, better and best.  To the individuals concerned, each sector is as important as the next.  Notwithstanding, it can be useful to have an over-view, and in that context, I hope I have provided one here-in.

  1. Hi Thomas
    Now you know why I chose you to review my work……..I appreciate your view very much.

  2. Thomas,
    Thank you for helping us clarified this long time dilemma. Now, try to make an art director that might want to buy your work!
    Thank you for the start up of this discussion.

  3. Hi Pedro,

    Thanks for commenting, appreciated. Actually, from a commercial perspective, I deal with very many “art buyers” and fortunately for me, sell a lot of work for commercial use. Of course, you have to be dealing with art buyers that have an interest in the work being produced. It’s all a question of being in contact with the right prospective buyers and producing work that fits their requirement.

  4. It seems in some circles to be a battle of good and evil, if I can use that analogy. I could care less how it is classified, I love a great image. If it moves me somehow and is technically acceptable, that’s all that matters! I do however, have a problem with academia. Their elitist attitude towards anything that isn’t Fine Arts is glaringly obvious when judging images. I have seen this first hand, if you have a fine arts image the size of a postage stamp in a mat the size of the Grand Canyon vs a beautiful sunset, they almost always choose the fine arts image. I like all images both big and small and I never get tired of sunsets, none are exactly alike and I have missed so many in my lifetime. Everyone just keep snapping and be happy with your creation because not everyone will like it.

  5. Perhaps the postage stamp size fine are image to which you refer, has significant qualities to set it aside from the image of a sunset. Ultimately, size is of little importance, what matters is that one is fine art and the other is not. In the world of international photographic fine art, there remains a very important distinction between “fine art” and other images, and it is this distinction that determines the categorisation of the image and its acceptability to collectors of photographic fine art. The vast majority of photographs are not fine art, despite the fact that very many of them are masqueraded as such. For any photographic image to be truly classified and accepted as fine art, there are numerous criteria to fulfil, not least of which pertain to the actual artist him/herself. My article “What Is Photographic Fine Art?” addresses this subject in more detail:

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