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Photography Studios: To Have or Have Not


Consultant Bobbi Wendt questions the notion that photographers must have their own studios.

As long as there has been a photography industry, commercial photographers have required studios to create and print their images. However, in today’s economic climate, the wisdom of this convention is being questioned.

I can speak from experience. Early on in my career in the photography business, I worked as an in-house artist agent and executive producer for a successful photo studio in Denver. The environment was stunning. It was a remodeled, 5,000-square-foot movie theater with a 17-foot tin ceiling and four large skylights that allowed us to go from bright and sunny to pitch-black in a couple of minutes. It was studio heaven.

Then we made a move to San Francisco, where a tiny studio in SOMA was twice the price of our dream studio. The neighborhood was a bit dicey and the building was a fixer-upper, but we worked hard to make it inviting and efficient. It was a lot tougher establishing our business in a larger market, but our new space also ended up being another studio heaven — just a lot smaller and a lot more expensive.

Several years later, the dot-com bubble started to inflate. Increased competition, fewer assignments and smaller profit margins didn’t help the situation any. Many photographers and other artists who had worked hard to improve their work environments and neighborhoods were forced out of the area due to skyrocketing rents.

Similar sad scenarios occurred throughout the business. But the photographers that have thrived in these difficult times have creatively managed their businesses with an eye on profit. One of the best ways to increase your profit margins is to lower your overhead — namely the studio.

Down and out in L.A.

A few years ago I met with a successful photographer in Southern California. He had a wonderful family, a stunning view of the ocean and a large studio, but he was too busy trying to make more money to enjoy any of it. He was clearly a Type A+ personality in a full mid-career meltdown. His portfolio consisted of location and studio photography. The location work was terrific, but the studio work, although technically well done, was uninspired.

It was obvious in talking with him that he had lost his passion for photography and was simply looking for more work with bigger budgets. He was trying to figure out what the next trend was so he could get ahead of it. When we started to discuss marketing and promotion, he went into a rant about how his advertising never worked; he felt it was just more cash out the door.

The next day we visited his studio — a large, well-appointed space that was mostly empty, except for the staff of three full-time employees who were working hard to look busy.

When we broke for lunch, I asked him why he was driving two hours a day to visit this money pit. I recommended that he get out of his lease, open a production office near his home, keep his studio manager, cut the other two employees loose and hire those services as needed.

He looked at me in total disbelief. “I have to have a studio — clients expect it. Successful photographers have their own studios.”

I told him that successful photographers need to have outstanding work and the resources to promote it. We spent the next couple of days working out a plan. Within six weeks, he was out of his studio. With more time and money available, he was able to focus on creating a new body of work that was consistent with the direction we had carved out. He also was able to invest more money in advertising and promotion with cash left over for savings. His career was back on track.

Shared space

If you don’t need full-time access to a studio, you also could consider a studio share or a day rental. One of my clients, an advertising photographer, was able to cut his Chicago studio overhead by more than two-thirds by sharing his studio space and expenses with two other photographers.

This arrangement allows each photographer a separate production office within the space, and common spaces include a conference room, bathroom, kitchen, darkroom, storage room and the shooting space. The schedule for the shooting space and darkroom are shared equally. If anyone needs more access to the conference room, shooting space or darkroom, a studio mate can surrender his or her time; the photographer needing the space pays the photographer not using the space a day rental fee.

This has been a great situation for everyone involved, and the money they’ve saved has been invested in upgrades, such as creative development, marketing and equipment. They’ve even put away some money for a rainy day or two.

Another client recently took out a five-year lease on a live-work space in Boston. He often rents out his production space when he is on location. He rents only to photographers and production companies whom he knows or has worked with in the past. His studio manager stays in the studio, and her normal salary is marked up and added into the day rental. My client is able to cut his staff expenses every time the studio is rented, and the rent money usually contributes one- to two-thirds of his monthly lease payment. Also, the studio manager makes more money on the days the studio is rented, so everyone’s happy.

Whether you own or lease your own studio space, you’ll want to check out local studio rental rates and include fair-market-value rental fees in your estimates and final invoices. And I don’t just mean the shoot day. If you have prep and wrap days for a project, you need to bill for that time as well.

The same strategy applies to equipment rental and darkroom rental and supplies. Some photographers still look at providing free studio space and equipment as a cost of doing business that shouldn’t be passed on to the client. I respectfully disagree. I’ve been factoring these line items into estimates and invoices since the early 1980s, and my clients have been able to pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit as a result. Why shouldn’t you make a profit on your investment? It’s just good business.

Bobbi Wendt
Story Author: Bobbi Wendt

Bobbi Wendt offers creative marketing and licensing services to commercial photographers, graphic designers, artist’s agents and publishers

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