The changing fortunes of commercial photography

Many photographers are diversifying into printing and graphic design

In Summary

• In the old days, having a camera was enough to earn someone invites to every event 

• Smartphones have made everyone a photographer, but professionals still in demand

Journalists cover a past event
Journalists cover a past event
Image: FILE

For many people, getting into commercial photography was the small step that launched their careers and business.

Whether in rural or urban areas, a camera was enough to get its owner into the ranks of the local elite. One would get invited to every event that needed photography. The camera would get its owner into every household to take all kinds of pictures.

Corporate communications consultant Raphael Karani credits photography with starting his career. “I didn’t know what to do after completing high school. I had been at home for three years when I thought of getting into photography,” Karani recalls. As he did not have a camera, he borrowed one from a relative.

“It was a very simple fixed lens camera that used films. That was before digital cameras came into Kenya. You had to roll the film manually before taking a picture,” Karani says. He started taking pictures in the estate where he lived in Nairobi. He eventually saved enough to buy an automatic camera that was easier to use and produced better quality pictures.

“A year after I started, I joined a busy photo studio in Nairobi and got exposed to large, professional cameras,” he recounts. Karani’s work was to take pictures at conferences, workshops and weddings, take the films to the studio, have the pictures printed, then rush back to sell the photos to event participants before they left.

“We used to be known as paparazzi,” he recalls. Paparazzi is a word that originated in Europe to describe very aggressive photographers who stalk celebrities. “I didn’t like being called a paparazzi, but that’s how customers described us, so the word stuck.”

With time, he gained customers in the corporate sector. “They encouraged me to pursue higher education so I could get jobs in their companies.” Karani joined the University of Nairobi, where he graduated with a degree in journalism and media studies. “That’s how I got into corporate communications,” he says.

Like many photographers in the past, Karani thrived because he was one of the few people who had a camera. Demand for his services was high. The situation is different today. Cameras have become affordable. Easy to use digital cameras are available for less than Sh10,000, and they can take both photos and video. There’s also another development: the smartphone.

Except for very cheap models, most smartphones take reasonably clear photos. Of course, not everybody is talented in the art of subject composition. The average phone camera of today produces clearer pictures than a digital camera from 15 years ago. At most events, half the crowd will be taking pictures with their phones. These developments present a gloomy future for commercial photographers, who rely on events to earn a living.


Good thing is that many photographers are already diversifying into printing and graphic design. David Nzioka, a commercial photographer in Nairobi, made the move when he noticed a downward trend in the photography business.

Ironically, his biggest customers are those taking pictures with their phones.

“I receive photos from people who need them printed and they took them using their phones,” Nzioka says. The shift towards printing and graphic design helped him survive the ban on public events imposed in 2020 to control the spread of Covid-19.

What are the prospects for newcomers into photography in the smartphone era? The good news for aspiring photographers is that not everyone who has a smartphone knows how to take great pictures. There is room for professional photographers doing event coverage, modelling shoots and advertisements.  

One can start by taking a course in professional photography. Similar courses are available online; some free, others require payment. Spend time with professional photographers to learn the intricate details of the trade. Get the right photography equipment. Smartphones have good cameras but a photographer covering an event with a smartphone will not inspire confidence among customers.

Edited by T Jalio