Year Three of opening and running a studio...Pt. 1

Dateline: February 2016...and my doors are still open. I don’t mean that to sound like a surprise. Yes I’m really happy I have been able to survive and that’s a true statement. It has been probably more survival than anything coupled with some small amount of business acumen. Whats it been like? Here in as few words as I can muster is a snapshot (pun intended) of my first few years and what I did. As a business. In case you are thinking of…

Operating any business is not easy but I think it’s made a bit harder when you are only one person. Especially in my market. I can think of no other working brick and mortar photographic studio in the area or even outside the area with a staff of one that is operating as a business. Still. Being a photographer full time does not require a studio. The one caveat being the type of photography work you do. A photojournalist has little use for a studio. Ditto for a travel photographer. For a portrait, commercial or wedding photographer it’s a desired element to the business but it is an added expense and responsibility. So why bother? What are the gains, the benefits to taking on a lease, insurance, adding furniture, and other necessary equipment? Putting up with inspections, permits, maintenance and soaring utility costs.

Well, a studio adds credence to your business and your work. No one is going to go through the effort to establish a studio unless they have a lot of money to waste, or, they are very serious about their work. I’ve gotten a few good jobs because I did not operate out of garage or a bedroom in my home. I don’t really want my customers coming into my home either. My home is only around 2500 sq./ft. so I don’t have the space anyway. People come into my studio, or see it online, and they love it! I have yet to find anyone that wasn’t impressed. Big upside sell there. So that helps your brand and frames you as a stable business. You have an office; a workspace dedicated to your work. You are a business. You can exist, sort of, using your home/garage/den workspace and Facebook to promote your photography business but you won’t really get to the revenue producing levels a business needs to sustain because Facebook friends don’t spend that kind of money and businesses that do spend don’t use Facebook to find services. Weddings might be an exception but I’ve found that it really only applies to cheaper weddings, you just won’t book the more elaborate formal wedding shoots for over $3k off of Facebook at a sustained rate. So how do you promote your studio? How do you get your brand known? How do you get businesses to notice you? I think that may be different for everyone. Again based on your work, trends and what you chase. I have found putting the work into web search optimization to work well. Google is your friend but it takes a lot of work. Linking to your web page from Facebook is an effective tool and the only reason I use Facebook. The idea is to link to your web page from anywhere you can. You must have a very good gallery style web page with a few words for a bio AND the words from others praising your work. Change your displayed galleries every few weeks to show new content or simply recycle the content but make changes. Always use meaningful names for your photos too. I’ve found Twitter to work at times if you can get other companies to follow you. You have to structure your posts accordingly. The same goes for Instagram. Businesses, especially ad businesses, use Instagram and the number of followers you have as a measure of your success. A 16 year old recently got a large campaign awarded to him because he has over 20k Instagram followers. His father is also a top UK soccer player, which helps but still, there was no downside. They are after a youth market. I’ve also found LinkedIn to be useful more as a reference than anything else. People will hear of you, then go check out LinkedIn to see what sort of business you run. Finally, good old fashion networking is still one of the best ways to gain new business. I tend to lump referrals into networking. Join organizations that can help refer work to you. Your Chamber of Commerce is a good place to start. Regular creative meet-ups work too. Know your creative community and be active in it. Collaborate. Display your work where you can. Many cities and towns have organizations to promote local business and arts. Find them.

One down side to owning a studio business is often associated with the business building and location.  The location should be in as visible or in a higher foot and vehicle traffic pattern as your funds allow. Price will vary here. My idea of a photo studio for working out of means high ceilings, open space with length to move things around and the ability to use a longer lens at times which means you need at least 20 ft. from camera to subject. Add 5-6 ft. from subject to background and you need at least 25 ft. often. You need rest rooms, changing space and room for make up and hair work. Good even floors and white walls round things out. Mine has old even wooden floors and a very old brick wall too. Bonus. I’d love a bank of south and west facing windows but those locations are usually pricey. And very hard to find cheap. Rent has to be cheap enough to make the whole thing worthwhile from a business perspective. So I have a couple decent west facing windows – but they overlook a garbage dump. I’ve struggled with this matter of the local garbage “stash” being outside my window for two years. My landlord (a great landlord is such a boon – mine rocks!) and I have been to the city, and this year with the help of my local Chamber and the threat of legal action plus some letters to aldermen and the health board, the city is moving the dump this spring and all will be well. Finally. Parking is the other huge issue at times, although my repeated requests to the city have helped, it still remains an issue. It all sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? Like a total pain in the butt. I won’t lie, at times it is and sometimes I just do the mental calculations of what it would take to just walk away. But what business doesn’t have issues? Then I’ll get customers in, other clients will call and once the work starts its pretty much all forgotten. I like working in a studio. I like being able to stage my shoots prior to having my subjects in, I like being able to try lighting scenarios beforehand and I like having my equipment available on the floor within reach so the customer never waits on me while setting things up. I hate building out a set with the customer present. I like meeting my customers in my studio and bringing in new potential clients to see where and how I work plus it gives me a way to show off the work I have done. I devote my front sidewalk window space now to display along with portions of one wall inside. My studio sells me.

I had shared studio space with others for years prior to doing this. I had an idea of what I wanted and from a working perspective, I was correct but from running it as a business, I fell on my face so many times – hard in the first six months – and even still these past few years…I thought I had an idea entering in to this, but I wasn’t even close. Every market is different. Nowadays too you have to go with trends and I have had to adjust my business model accordingly. I take on work I didn’t see myself doing when this all began. I rent my studio out, not as a business thing right now, but that might change. I’m not taking anything off the table anymore. There is work out there I could do but don’t enjoy and I do not think I would do it justice. So I don’t pursue it. I want to explore other creative areas associated with photography but struggle to find the time. I wish I had a partner at times, but who else is crazy enough to do this with me? In all of this I work hard too, to keep my creativity up; to not become stagnant. I have partnered at times with some other talented photographers and that has helped tremendously. More on that in another post. I’m always looking at my last quarter, looking at how I can do better, at how I can bring all my talents, equipment and knowledge to the bank. It’s not all about making money, but sadly I do need to make some money to keep the studio open. And for all the agony and work, I do want to be writing another post next year extolling the whys and how’s of how I’m doing it again for year number four.

Thanks for being there people. I appreciate it. My next post will cover owning and operating a studio when you don't necessarily use it! Yeah that sounds weird but location work is a huge amount of the photo business - yet a studio is still important. Stay tuned.