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How to Add Graphic Design Services to Your Photography Business

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Read Time: 10 min

Photographers and video-makers get this kind of request all the time: "Hey, you're smart; you know how to use computers! Can you make my website?"

Clients want you to build their website, create a brochure, design their new logo, and take their headshot for the new website, even if the task is not really your normal business or skill. Likewise, if you're a graphic designer or web designer, there's a pretty good chance you've been asked to take a picture or two.

Investing time in learning a new skill is rarely wasted. If those new skills have significant overlap with your existing abilities, all the better. In this tutorial, we’ll look at how to add design services to your photography business in ways that can benefit your income, boost the quality of your projects, and keep your clients happy.

Designer sitting at a computer with digital camera and graphics tabletDesigner sitting at a computer with digital camera and graphics tabletDesigner sitting at a computer with digital camera and graphics tablet
Graphic designer stretching her arms, Wavebreakmedia/Envato Elements

What is a Graphic Designer?

Most people doesn't know the difference between Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and who can blame them? Small businesses, from the local mom-and-pop corner store to the next tech startup, tend to be less stuffy and selective about images than service providers are. Most clients are just looking for someone to help them communicate with their target audience. Why shouldn't that person be you?

The lines between trades, like our digital tools, are blurring. Let's take a minute to review who does what in our corner of the world of visual communication.

Graphic Designer

A well-regarded association for graphic designers, the AIGA, says that a graphic designer is a person who is responsible for "the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content."

Right. Did you get that? It seems like a graphic designer could be anything; she could go from making 'zines and gig posters to wedding invitations, to laying out national magazines, to emblazoning teacups with prints of cute cats.

What most people think of when think of graphic designers is a clever person who can use a computer to arrange artwork, text, and graphics on the page so that everything looks nice and communicates well. That could be you, at least in part and with the right tools and support.

Web Designer

A web designer is, more or less, a specialised kind of graphic designer. There are many, many specialisations available for web designers, but as with graphic designers, what most people think of when they think of a web designer is a clever person who can use a computer to arrange artwork, text, and graphics on a web page so that everything looks nice and communicates well. That could also be you, at least as a sideline for some small projects.


In the commercial world, an illustrator is an artist who interprets a concept or idea from a graphic designer to create an image, usually using pencils, paints, or a computer, to communicate the designer's vision in a particular way. Illustrators work in their specialism to create images for all kinds of things. With every new project, a graphic designer thinks about how to add the best illustration, which of their favourite illustrators to use, and so on.

This could be you, too, under the right conditions and possibly with a little timely help.

Photo Illustrator

Photo illustration is one of the most direct ways to cross between photography and graphic design. Photo illustration incorporates elements of both.

To most people, a photographer is a clever person who can use a camera to make photographs. If you're a photographer, that's probably how you think of yourself: an artist who makes pictures using light-sensitive material such as photographic film, paper, or digital sensors. You probably also think of photography as a practice distinct from graphic design.

Many graphic designers, however, think of photography as just another kind of illustration, and of photographers as a kind of specialised illustrator. This is because, to graphic designers, that's exactly how it is! Pictures are a form of illustration for graphic designers: a tool to help communicate a message. 

Consider a photographer who's hired to make a portrait photograph for a magazine. She's likely to work with an art director, editor, or graphic designer to develop an idea that fits the mood and space available in the magazine. Everyone will collaborate to develop the look and choose the best final images. Ultimately, however, the image depends on fundamental choices made by the photographer, and she is credited in the magazine as the artist.

By contrast, the photographer of items in a product catalog produces photographs to portray exactly the designer's intentions. The photographer often works to recreate in a photograph when a designer or illustrator has provided in sketches or mockup images. This photographer is usually not credited because the photograph is not an interpretation; it is a an illustration using photographs of something already created. 

Here's a handy definition to keep things straight: a photo illustration is any image made using photography that depicts a concept or idea from a designer, usually to specific design specifications.

If you are making news or editorial photographs, headshots, or other images where your personal creativity and name are part of the equation and you wish to continue in that stream, adding graphic design skills might not make sense. If you're already making photo illustrations—work so near to design—then adding some new design skills might very well be the most sensible thing for you to do.

Team of people in an office setting working with paper notes on a boardTeam of people in an office setting working with paper notes on a boardTeam of people in an office setting working with paper notes on a board
Woman showing plan to the team, FlamingoImages/Envato Elements

Hugging the Line Between Photography and Graphic Design

Pick One New Skill to Learn, Get Help for the Rest

It's hard, if not impossible, to offer photography, web design, graphic design, and illustration and do them all well.

Choose a design course from Tuts+, try it out, and see how you feel. If it appeals, continue learning. If it doesn't, try another skill to focus on. Add only the skill or skills that interest you most or that would be easiest for you to develop. You're better to add one skill that you can use reasonably well than add a few skills that you do poorly.

For everything else, find good people to whom you can subcontract the work or refer your clients. A good working relationship like this can be a lifetime partnership.

Get to Know Your Clients

Many clients need both a photographer and a graphic designer; the clients just don't know it yet. Some have a designer and need a photographer, or the opposite. When booking a job with an existing client, try to discover what needs the client has (beyond the needs you've been booked to address) and consider what skills might fulfill those needs.

If your client is already working with a second skilled professional, be respectful and honour that relationship. But if your client seems stretched or uncertain how to address their needs, use the opportunity to suggest how you might be able to help.

Your client might also have needs that they are not yet aware of. You may have been hired to design a brochure and the client is not aware of how important it is to use site-based rather than stock photography. 

Know Your Limits

You can't be everything to all or even one of clients. Know what you can and can't do, and when to get help or refer the client to someone else.

Graphic design you can reasonably do as a photographer includes provide\ing stock images for layouts and design. Anything that requires illustration or complicated layouts is best sent to a partner or subcontractor. More involved things—projects with longer timelines, more stakeholders, and back-and-forth—are not impossible, but there is a risk you'll get in over your head and not be able to deliver.

If you're a designer getting into photography, headshots, basic tabletop product photography, stock photography, slideshows are all doable.

Architectural photography, more complicated animated videos, and voiceovers are subcontract-able. Jobs best left to photographers include live-action video, photography that requires complex lighting (e.g., food photography and real estate) or complex staging (e.g., fashion shoots).

illustration of a graphic designers workspaceillustration of a graphic designers workspaceillustration of a graphic designers workspace
Creative workspace concept, PureSolution/Envato Ee

Crossing Over: How to Bring Graphic Design and Photography Skills Together

Knowing photographic principles can help you make better decisions with design, and knowing design principles can help you make better photographs. You know what works well in one and can translate that knowledge to the other.


Practising composition techniques through photography is an instant win: you can see whether something will work right away without spending hours in creation. Selecting images that work together with each other and with other elements, such as type, is also an important aspect of composition. This can be one of the most time-consuming parts of graphic design.

"For graphic designers, and web designers specifically, layout and balance are critical. While photography and design are separate, they do share some of the same artistic 'rules,' and learning more about photographic composition can also help you with graphic design." – Steven Snell, Editor of Vandelay Design

With graphic design, how you lay out your project and place your elements is key to how the piece is interpreted and received, and it’s the same with photography. When taking a photograph, how you tell the story of that image means considering photographic rules and then deciding whether to use them, or break them.

Colour, Tone, and Contrast

Photographing something for use as a reference can be useful, even if you're not planning to use that photograph within your project. Take this example of autumn leaves. Both the shape and the various colours and tones found around autumn could easily have been taken from photographs, even though the finished result is rooted very much in design.

Autumn LeavesAutumn LeavesAutumn Leaves

Designers and photographers all tend to have a good knowledge of colour, tone, and contrast. Photography can help develop an appreciation for how these things affect the purpose and impression of a photograph, which in turn can then influence other work.

Inspiration, Story Telling, and Visual Communication

Starting from scratch in design can be daunting. Sometimes it’s hard to narrow down exactly what you want, or worse, you may have no ideas to begin with … that dreaded creative block.

"In order for design work to be effective, it needs to accurately convey a powerful and relevant message that effortlessly tells the story of your business." – Lee Penton, Konstruct Studios

Photography is a great way of telling a story visually—not always, but sometimes. Taking a photograph or getting a photograph can be a starting point, creating a knock-on effect of ideas. In our office, when we’re writing, our much-heard phrase is, "You can’t edit a blank page." The same applies to visual mediums; sometimes you just need a starting point to cast off.

Design and Photography, a Dynamic Duo

Sometimes we won’t have (or be able to easily get) a photograph to demonstrate something we might need. Knowing how to take decent photographs means you can use your own photography in elements of design, keeping things simple. It will likely also result in better continuity in style between design and photographic content. For those times when you do need quality stock photography, sites like Envato Elements are a big help.

"Design and photography are very similar in what they require from creatives. Learning both of these doesn’t make one a 'Jack/Jill of All Trades,' it simply is reinforcing your core skills as a creative professional. The more diverse your application of your creativity is, the stronger it becomes and the more freedom you will find in creating compelling images and stories." – Roberto Blake, Graphic Designer
Person working with pen and paper in a bright sunny officePerson working with pen and paper in a bright sunny officePerson working with pen and paper in a bright sunny office
Getting your house plan ready, nexusplexus/Envato Elements

Design and photography go together. In an age when technology is affordable and accessible for many, programmes such as Photoshop allow us to easily combine the two.

How this evolution between professions and skills continues is anyone’s guess, but we’re in the fantastic and privileged position of being able to learn across a variety of skill sets, take that knowledge and use it to hone our own craft, maybe even helping others do the same along the way.

Any extra skills you learn are a bonus to future clients and increase your hiring potential. It’s always wise to add strings to your bow, you never know when you might need them.

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