When trying to determine the difference between commercial photography or editorial photography, it can be difficult. While there are differences between the two styles, there is the potential for overlap as well. Let’s take a look at what each style of photography is, where they are similar, and also where they diverge.


What is Commercial Photography?

To break this definition down to its finest points, commercial photography is the taking of photos for commercial use. Commercial, in this case, means a business taking these photos to generate sales and money for themselves. This style of photography is seen in advertisements, brochures, sales pitches, leaflets, business cards, menus, etc. Pretty much if you take a picture and the purpose of that picture is to drive sales, that is a commercial picture.

Commercial photography is crucial in the world of commerce. The saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” That is beyond true in commercial photography. If you are looking at a brochure for a hotel and the pictures are terrible, are you really going to want to stay at that property? Think about restaurant collateral. If you read the ingredients for a dish and you think it sounds delicious, but the picture is terrible, do you really want to try that dish? That is the power of good commercial photographs. They can get you to order that dish or purchase that dress. That is the point and the power of that category of photography.


What is editorial photography?

Editorial photography refers to pictures that are not used for selling purposes. An example of an editorial photograph would be a picture taken that accompanies a newspaper article. These photos help further tell the story of the newspaper article, book, blog post, etc. For some stories, the images are the setup for the story. In other cases, they further what the words are telling you. While this may sound like photojournalism, the two are different and should not be confused.

This style of photography also has its place and purpose. If a journalist is telling a human interest story, pictures help convey the emotion of the story. If one had written a piece about living conditions for animals at an animal shelter, a picture of animals from that shelter in poor conditions helps drive that message home. Those photos took the emotion from the article, amplified them, and helped make the point even stronger. That is the essence of editorial photography.


Can an image be both editorial and commercial?

You would think the answer would be no. However, it can still get a bit more complicated than that. While images begin with the purpose of editorial or commercial, some pictures can serve as both. It all comes down to the licensing agreements.

Let’s take a look at an example. Let’s say a photographer took pictures of a beach, and people spending time on that beach were visible in the photo. Unless the photographer went to those people and got a signed release for their image to be used, that photo can only be used for editorial purposes. If the photographer did secure a signed release, then that photo could be used for commercial purposes. The release is how one photo can serve two different purposes.

It can be possible that some photographers and people seen in a picture only want those photos to be used for certain things. It is then possible that an image is only licensed for editorial purposes or only for commercial purposes. All of these details are clearly outlined in any agreements the parties sign regarding the use of the photo. When using a stock photo website, always check the fine print for usage details. You don’t want to run afoul of any agreements and find yourself in the position of having to pull down your post to remove or replace the photos.


To summarize

Hopefully, this makes things a bit more clear. This is a topic that seems very straightforward at first until you get into the minutia. When in doubt, always check the fine print on photos before you use them. This way, you don’t open yourself up to liability for using an image for a purpose it was not intended for.