Updated: Jun 8, 2021
I have had a studio space for probably 15 years now and I always get people asking me questions, so here it goes! Some things to think about when you get your first studio space, what to watch out for and what to avoid!
Home Studio VS Retail Studio
This is a tricky question. A home studio is always going to be cheaper. But, some local ordinances and Homeowner Associations may not allow it.
Can you afford to leave your home and pay for a studio space? Do you have money in savings for your business as well as for your personal finances?
Covid has also made retail spaces more appealing for studios, as you can keep the germs out of your home.
For my husband and I, having clients come to our home, potentially at all hours, was not something that we wanted. There are horror stories on the boards about psycho clients or someone dropping by on a Saturday when the photographer was braless and watching TV.
Having the separation of work vs home also helps keep me motivated. When I'm at the studio, I am WORKING. When I go home, I do NOT bring my laptop, that is my home life.
Where to find space
When it's time to find space, one of the hardest parts is ACTUALLY locating space. Here are some ideas to help you find space.
Friends--ask on Facebook or your other friends if they've seen anything
Vendor Groups--Do you have a local wedding group or Tuesdays Together? Ask in there. Sometimes, another vendor may be open to renting with you or have space with the room. If you are a wedding photographer and they are a DJ or planner, this could be especially useful for helping each other's businesses through referrals.
Craigslist--you can still sometimes find offices here
Loopnet--This has been my most recent favorite and helped me score my current office.
Drive around! Go to the areas where you want to rent and just drive around with a notebook. Sometimes I can find spaces via signs in windows.
My current space. I use a custom-made banner for my main signage.
Office Complex, Warehouse, Retail Store Front, Etc.
So what type of space should you get? The answer could depend on how much money you have. The type of space you choose might also need to reflect your style of photography. If you're shooting models, a warehouse may not be a bad idea. Especially, if you're in an area where the weather is favorable for most of the year.
I have been in several types of spaces. My first space was basically the basement of a huge home that had been turned into an office complex. The nice thing about these types of spaces is that they sometimes provide a secretary at the front to greet your guests. They typically also have well-appointed conference rooms. Which if you're booking weddings, could be useful.
My next space was shared with an insurance agent. She had a retail space and didn't need the big room in the back. Rent was super cheap and the space was close to my home. However, being INSIDE another business may be confusing to your clients.
When that share ended, I moved home for a bit and then found a space back in the historic district of our city. The location meant everyone knew the neighborhood and it was central. The buildings also had character. BUT, I was upstairs. And while we had an elevator, it would sometimes go out.
And being in a historic area meant that parking was often an issue. I started out with one oversized office space that I used as a studio. I shared it with other photographers. Then I rented a second office unit in the same building and used that for a meeting space with brides. I shared this office with other wedding vendors to help with rent.
While a lot of people knew where this building was, the building was old and our studio space was hot and the AC never kept it cool enough. The landlord wasn't going to do anything about it, it was basically just this one room that wouldn't cool too much. We got a portable AC unit that had a hose to drain off the water. You had to turn it off and empty it before you leave. One of our vendors forgot and actually flooded the store downstairs!
When I outgrew that space, I debated moving downstairs where there were commercial storefronts but the rent was really expensive. So I started searching around and looking at all my options. For me, I could pay for a storefront and be constantly advertising to people walking by. Or I could find a space that may not have foot traffic but was more affordable. To me, if I had a bad season, I would still have to pay rent no matter what. I would rather have a cheaper space and use that extra money towards advertising when I needed to. Plus, I do in-person sales, and most people walking by are not my target audience.
I know photographers that have rented mall space. And this is def. a great way to go if you want lots of foot traffic. However, that type of space would be more ideal for someone who does quantity over quality. Malls typically also want you to be open 7 days a week for the hours the mall is open. For me, I want more flexibility.
Warehouse space is typically the cheapest, but they may not be completely heated and cooled.
For me, I want to spend less than $1 a square foot a month. So, if I got a 1,000sf space, I would want to spend $1,000 or less. In my area, commercial space can go up to $20-50 a sf. There is NO way, I would want to spend $20k+ on 1,000sf.
The price of rent will typically depend on several things... location, type of building, and condition. If space has been vacant for a while, you're more likely to get a deal on it. In areas with big-name stores and retail, those will all be more expensive.
My current space was close to my house, but I live on the edge of town. It is a retail space, but it had been vacant for a couple of years and it wasn't on the main drag. It was next to the highway and next to a Cracker Barrel, making it easy to find in comparison to my last space, along with a large parking lot.
Whoever was in my space before had done a lot of modifications without telling the landlord. They had two 1200sf units and had torn down the lobby wall in between them and then torn down several office walls in the back and had done some other reconfiguring. So it was basically a 2400sf unit, much larger than I needed. The walls were all different colors, the carpet was messed up and there were mismatched pieces on the ground. The unit on the left was supposed to have 4 offices in the back, but the walls were torn down so it was just ONE big space. For me, this was fantastic. And the right head space to use as a salesroom and offices to sublease to help with rent.
He had two units next to mine that wasn't connected that were about 1000sf each. The price was better obviously, so I mentioned I wanted one 1,000sf unit, but I would need to knock down walls for a studio. He gave me the 2,400sf space at a great price because it already had walls knocked down and he wouldn't have to pay to have them put back up and he didn't want to.
This is what our lobby looked like when we signed the lease. The line on the floor is where a wall used to be, the former tenant knocked it down.
The lease agreement
When you do find a space, there are a couple of questions you need to ask or look for.
Who will pay for things like a broken window? What happens if the AC unit gets stolen? What if the AC breaks?
Lease agreements typically have a clause that says anything below $X you are responsible for. My leases have typically said $20. So if a toilet flapper breaks or I need a new lightbulb, I am responsible for that. However, if the AC unit breaks, which it has (and flooded my office), they are responsible for all repairs.
I knew other young entrepreneurs who had someone either break their front glass or stole their AC and their landlords refused to fix or pay for it. I did NOT want to be stuck paying a couple grand for a commercial AC unit, so I always made sure to SPECIFICALLY ask about who is responsible in those situations. Make sure you also get this in writing!
You will want to watch for fees labeled CAD or maybe "facility fees". These fees are ON TOP of your rent. They are supposed to cover things like lawn maintenance. I'm the type of person that I do NOT like to be nickel and dimed or be shocked with hidden fees and I want everything to be open and upfront. Plus, what if they decide to up those fees every year?
You will also need to know who pays for electricity? Internet? You can call the electric company in your area and ask them what the last bill was so that you can figure out an average. This is especially useful in older buildings that may not have newer equipment or might not be efficient. You may think you're getting a good deal on rent, but your electric bill may kill your bottom line.
This was taken from the other side of the lobby, but this is after our renovations.
Also, when you sign a lease you need to make sure there's a clause about competing businesses. Would you be upset if they allowed another wedding or portrait photographer to go in the same complex or even right next door to you? This happens all the time. You have to make sure your lease spells out that they won't rent to competitors.
For me, I also make sure that my lease allows for me to sublease. Most have a clause saying I can't, so I just explain that I'm a photographer and I'd like to sublease to other vendors as it's beneficial to my business. All the landlords I've worked with have always been willing to renegotiate this if you word it in a way that is positive.
Most landlords do NOT want to change out who is on the main lease and would prefer that you be accountable for all of the rent. You can sublease and what you charge is up to you, but you are responsible for paying the full rent every month, whether you have subleasers or not.
This is a break room, it has a sink. I didn't need a break room so I leased this space out. It has been ideal for makeup artists who need to have a sink nearby.
Some landlords want you to sign for one year, most of mine have requested 3-year leases. The longer the lease, the longer you're secured in your rate. If you get a one-year lease and you know you'll be there for a while they could completely renegotiate your lease at the end of that year.
Because I got my space WAY UNDER normal price for my type of space, my rent goes up every year by 3%. It sucks, but I understand. You will want to check if there are any rent increases.
This tiny space was the office space I had that I shared with 3 other photographers. The background stand was attached to the back wall next to the window on the left. To the right and my left were shelves filled with our props and stuff. It was so tight that our clients often had to wait in the hall for their turn!
Sharing a space
I have shared a couple of spaces with others under different circumstances. Because I have it in my lease agreement that I can sublease, I do this often. This helps me cover my rent. I never disclose my rent to the people I sublease to, it's not their business and they don't have to pay for the electricity, maintenance (I pay for lightbulbs, clean the facility, etc) or internet either. So what I pay for rent is one thing, the actual amount I pay for my space every month is much more.
What you charge needs to cover not only their portion of the rent and utilities but also have a little bit of a buffer in case they leave and you have no one paying rent for a couple of months.
One of the first spaces I had, rent was like $450 a month. I rented it out to three other photographers. I had an electronic backdrop stand installed (about $2,000 at the time) and set up several Alien Bees. I then gave everyone shelving space for their own props and supplies.
I think I charged them like $200 a month and that covered everything. This was more than enough to cover my rent and many months I did not have to pay rent at all. The other photographers did not know this and they didn't need to, they also didn't pay for the studio equipment and they didn't have to worry about being accountable to the landlord should no-one else be subleasing with me.
For that space, we had a glass door. I put a vinyl decal of a camera on the door, very large. underneath it I listed each of our names in the same font and size, right under each other. This kept the door clean looking and it kept our clients from knowing that there were different studios using the same address.
What we did to manage the studio usage and availability was use a Google Calendar. I named it the studio name and then each person was added to it. If they left our space, they were deleted from the calendar. When anyone books a spot on the calendar, they need to block off enough time for setup and cleanup as well. The photographer put their name first on the calendar spot, so it might say: Photog name Client name. This allowed me to know who was using the space and the photographer to keep track of each client's session date and time.
For me, I don't like other photographers using my props. I don't want them to get messed up and I have spent a lot of time building my sets, so each photographer using the space can use the backdrops but not the props.
We never had an issue with anyone hogging the space, but you may want to limit how many hours each person gets a month, say 20 hours. This way you don't have a photographer bogarting the whole weekend or evenings.
I would also suggest installing a door lock like this that you can change out the code every time a new photographer comes in or leaves. That way you don't have to worry about key copies, etc. You can also see who has been coming and going, should an issue arise. Make everyone use a 4-6 digit code that they won't forget, NOR will they be inclined to share. Like the last digits of their social.
Need help on a subleasing contract? This is what I use.
This is what my studio room looked like when we moved in. Where the lines on the floor is where walls were supposed to be.
The space needs work
If you find a space you like, but it needs work, don't be afraid to negotiate. Let the landlord know what you would like to do. See if they can give you a break on the rent in exchange for the work.
When I had the office at the historic building, the landlord asked what color painted we wanted and they painted it for us.
My current building was a hot mess. The flooring needed to be pulled up and replaced, some walls needed to be fixed, everything needed to be painted. I was able to negotiate with my landlord whatever I spent fixing it up, they would take off my rent. So if I spent $5,000, I got rent free until that was covered.
This is an older image of the studio, but this is after the renovations. I use tacks to hold backdrops to walls. The electronic backdrop stand to the right is attached above the back exit door. We replaced the flooring and painted it.
Most places will require you to have liability insurance, usually a million dollars. If you're a wedding photographer, you may have this already as some venues require it. While the amount seems scary, you can usually get it for less than $500 a year. But you need to remember this when you're budgeting.
You'll also want equipment insurance. What if your light stand falls? Your camera? Shop around as I've found very different pricing for this. Also, some have a higher deductible than others. Mine has a $200 deductible and I pay about $400 a year. This also covers my backdrops, my flooring, my laptop, etc.
This is the layout of my current space, in case you're interested! The prop rooms are new, the props used to be stored in the studio and the back prop room was my salesroom. A videographer used to rent the space where my current salesroom is. The space is larger than I need, but it has been nice because as I have grown and changed, the space has changed with me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christy Whitehead is a photographer in Jacksonville, Florida. She specializes in newborns, families, and headshots. She used to do weddings but after getting into In-Person Sales, she quit weddings and got her weekends back.
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