Thursday, April 5, 2012

To Studio or Not to Studio...

LUCIMA STUDIO on the eve of Magic: Fashion-Editorial Master Class

I get this question occasionally and I talk about it even more for our Business Photography Workshop; should I have my own studio?

There's no right or wrong answer to this question but I can lend you my perspective to the question.

I leased LUCIMA STUDIO I (that's what I call it because it was the first LUCIMA STUDIO) back in February of 2010. It was the beginning of my second year as a professional photographer (being the sole source of my income). The space was 1,304 square feet and selectively situated 7 miles from downtown LA and 13 miles from Hollywood. I made sure to put the studio close (but not too close) to all the "commotion" because I didn't want the distance to dissuade clients from shooting with me. I signed a 1-year lease (which then became month-to-month), to hedge my bets in case I "didn't make it" as a photographer.

Today LUCIMA STUDIO II is a 2,100 square-foot studio in Monrovia, CA.

Why did I get the studio? I was tired of setting up shop at home because I didn't have a garage or a cool workspace at home. 8.5' ceilings made it all but impossible to shoot the high-angled 45ยบ Rembrandt lighting that I loved. I had a living room with enough length but not enough width to shoot comfortably. Most importantly however, inviting strangers to your house on a regular basis was getting weird. My wife didn't feel safe, especially when they were models that would routinely wear very little clothing (this was before I even shot nudes).

I held off for a long time getting a shooting space because this was primarily a financial/business decision. At the time, I didn't have the cash flow to float a studio. My old studio was $1,250 a month. That's $15k a year. When I leased the space I wasn't making any money. Little did I know that I wouldn't even make enough to pay rent until November 2010.

But money decisions aside, it is hard to be recognized by the industry as a legitimate photographer in this game without a workspace. Few photographers share a shooting space much less own and operate their own studio. Much like the decision to buy a Hasselblad, I realized that having my own fashion photography studio would serve to differentiate my status as a professional fashion photographer here in Los Angeles.

Does having my own studio make my pictures any better? Of course not. Not directly at least. But indirectly it has affected public perception of the LUCIMA brand. And indirectly it also helped allowed me to cultivate my photography skills further. Because of the new space, I found myself subconsciously experimenting with new light setups that would previously put holes in my ceiling or require walking through walls. With the new space, I found myself shooting with different focal lengths because I was no longer limited by walls. With the new space I found myself experimenting with shooting against the roll-up gate, or on the warehouse floor, or with the ambient light that came through the side window. With the new space I was simply afforded many new learning opportunities. Did it justify $15k a year? I don't know. What is education worth to you? For me, my education is priceless. But for me, it's also a tax-writeoff :)

People treat you differently when you have your own studio. Mind you, my studio wasn't (and still isn't) a glamorous marble floored Beverly Hills photography studio with a receptionist and 82" LCD screens plastered on every wall. It was (and still is) a very functional workspace. A workspace where I could go and experiment whenever I wanted to, shoot without worrying about when my "time was up", a place where I could leave my equipment (and by then I already had a lot!), a place where I could meet other industry professionals, a place where I could hang my work on the walls and proudly say "Yes, those are my pictures" a place where I could have models take off their clothes without worrying about other studio renters/workers/participants walking in, a place where I could build new props, and more. Over time I could see that having LUCIMA STUDIO affected the way that models, MUAs, stylists, clients, etc. psychologically measured me up. They realized that I wasn't a hobbyist/amateur/weekend warrior. And without having to say a single word, my pictures on the walls spoke volumes for me.

Is it worth $15k a year? I don't know. How much is your brand value worth?

I often say that studio ownership is a "cost of doing business". Yes, it cost me $15k a year to run my old studio (costs me even more now). But the assignments that I'm afforded through having my own studio, is a huge advantage. I can price-in (or not price-in) the cost of my studio when quoting rates to clients. Clients are more comfortable knowing that they always have an option to shoot at your studio, especially when those clients are models, especially when those models want to shoot nudes. For my fashion photography workshops it's priceless, especially now that I need the 2,100 square-feet of space for 6 shooting stations, classroom space, and makeup/changing room. And these are just the benefits that I'm aware of...

The downside? Covering the cost. If I wasn't cash flowing at least $1,250 a month, I was in the red. Actually it's more than that because of utilities, insurance, etc.

But what about those famous photographers that don't own their own studios? Sure, most of them probably don't. I know Matthew Jordan Smith doesn't. He rents whenever he books a job and the job covers the cost of renting not only the studio, but the HMI lights, catering, and also the Hasselblad or PhaseOne, as well as his full team of assistants. What do you mean that doesn't sound like the jobs you book? Oh that's right, your name isn't Matthew Jordan Smith. Because Matthew Jordan Smith is a brand. He books clients that you can't get, clients with large budgets that make it easy to rent anything ad-hoc. Furthermore he travels enough to not warrant the overhead costs of a studio.

But you're not a famous photographer.

For me, I can't imagine not having my own studio anymore. While the commercial clients have some budget, the models I shoot don't have enough budget (especially the agency-booked shoots) to cover studio fees. And I can't imagine saying to a model, "Well, I don't have a studio so can we shoot at your place?" or "Well, I don't have a studio so we'll have to do all our looks outside". That might work for a few models, but over time that could spell trouble.

If you take the renting consideration one step further, one could even justify that the cost of owning your camera isn't worth it either. After all, technology keeps changing and prices keep dropping. Why not rent one when you need one? But can you imagine asking your potential client, "Can you cover the rental cost of a camera for our shoot? I don't actually own one. I only rent them when I book jobs. Oh and I need another $50 to rent a 50mm lens..."

Yes, that's an exaggeration of the argument. But it illustrates the idea that with any profession there are basic costs of doing business that you can't avoid. Where you draw that line is up to you!


  1. Great post as always Charles,

  2. Fantastic advise. So, setting aside, if you do not have the budget to afford the $1275 a month in rental, how would you proceed with garage space, which yes is limited in room?

  3. Great post! I enjoyed reading this. :)

  4. Perhaps one potential solution is to team up with another photographer you trust and split the rent. There are 7 days out of the week and I don't imagine both people need the entire space 7 out of 7 days. Sure, there might be some bumping of elbows, but it beats dropping thirteen-hundred a month for a studio, especially if you're starting out in the profession.

    1. Unless of course you have problems with sharing ;)

    2. True that. I have problems sharing :)