Gordon L. wanted to know what I thought about having (or not having a studio). I thought this might be a fun topic.


The view from my desk. 
Happy that for once you can actually see the floor...

Gordon asked me this:

"How about your perspective on the pros and cons of owning studio space? Do you have or have you had a studio?  If so, has the space gotten larger, smaller, or non-existent? (Or if not, why not?) What do you use it for? Do you have a need or interest in using your photo studio as a video studio?"

Gordon asks an interesting collection of questions. And I have about 35 years of experience trying to either rationalize having or not having a dedicated studio space. Let's jump into it. 

When I started out in photography I was a teaching assistant at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. I was assisting three really great photographers: Reagan Bradshaw, Charlie Guerrero and Tomas Pantin. All three were highly accomplished advertising photographers who were teaching commercial studio photography. We had an enormous studio space in the fine arts building and a lot of my job consisted of supervising students as they learned to work with 4x5 and 8x10 inch view cameras in conjunction with electronic flash lighting. For four semesters it was the perfect place for a budding photographer (me) as I sat in on the studio lessons (generally five hours a day for four days a week) and then I helped students grapple with the technical stuff. I was getting paid to learn from true masters.

A real benefit of my time as a T.A. in that space was the space. A giant working studio with high ceilings and what seemed like unlimited A/C power on tap. And all the camera and lighting gear a 1980's photographer ever dreamed of. 

After my teaching assistant gig several of the instructors gravitated back to the much better paying occupation of making and licensing great photographs for huge companies. I was tagged to enter the teaching arena to replace the exiting pros. I guess the administration figured I had learned a lot by osmosis. I worked for UT for the next two years as a "Specialist Lecturer" in commercial photography and I must have done a decent job since a fair proportion of my students went on to successful careers at the tops of their photographic fields. Some popping up a bit later as direct competitors.

But staying with the subject of "the studio" it can be a burden to have too much too soon because when you finally resign to follow your own dreams you miss all the largess of an excessively well funded university. You actually have to figure out how to acquire your own gear with your own money. And pay for space to put the gear into.

Back in the mid-1980s real estate was cheap in Austin. I rented a studio in a building that used to be a musical instrument warehouse in east Austin. A crafty entrepreneur who was also a film maker bought the building and divided it up into individual studio spaces. Mine was bare bones. It was on the second floor of a building with no elevator so when we went "on the road" with the heavy gear of the time it required us to bring it all up and down the central stairway. 

There was no central air or heat in the building so each individual studio took climate control into their own hands. My studio space had no outside walls but it was at the end of a long corridor. I put a small window unit A/C up on a wall, vented out to the corridor. Complete with a drip line to the outside. In the winter we thought warm thoughts and prayed for a quick return to warmer weather. Sometimes gloves were standard studio wear.

At the time I was shooting tabletop images and portraits for Texas Monthly Magazine, shooting daily co-op ads for a bookstore chain, and occasionally photographing local bands like "The Butthole Surfers", "The Lounge Lizards" and Charlie Sexton. 

I mostly survived financially from the table top tableaux, illustrating book content. If it was a detective novel with a femme fatale we were selling I might have gotten a comp from the ad agency that included a Walther PPK handgun integrated into strands of pearls and always the book itself would be part of the photo construction. All these ads, done almost daily, were used in newspapers in black and white. 

I would shoot the images, soup the film in our small, shared darkroom down the hall, go grab dinner or a beer and some nachos and then come back to the studio (about 800 square feet of space) and make 11x14 inch prints until I got one just right. It could take a couple of hours, it could take all night. Some subjects, like white on white took forever to get right because black and white prints tend to dry down darker and you end up having to go back in and lighten them. But in the wet print days there were no sliders to slide.

And my constant nemesis was having to spot each print with Spot Tone to make sure any dust spots were rendered invisible. 

My studio rent was about $500 a month and that included utilities. I probably did 300 or 400 assignments in the space over the three years I rented it so it was definitely worth the cost. I don't think I could have done as many of the jobs I did if I had to work in a shared space or a temporary space. And dragging the gear back and forth would have been a killer. 

Once the business outgrew that space, and I developed a preference for effective heating and air conditioning, I moved over to another building close by (all just one block east of the main freeway that divided the warehouse district from downtown proper) that was developed by the same guy. 

My space seemed infinitely bigger. It measured about 60 feet in one direction and 30 feet in the other. The ceilings were 24 feet high and there was a full on loading dock down the hall. There was also room for a full darkroom which I had carpenter finish out for me. I put in a Leica V35 enlarger for my 35mm film work and an Omega D5 for the larger formats. In the late 1980's and until 1997 I was shooting in that studio nearly every day, six or seven days a week. And then printing the black and white stuff which we never sent to a lab. We shot 35mm for some stuff, and everything else was medium or large format. 

The bigger, nicer studio enabled me to go after much bigger and nicer projects. We did tons of work for Motorola, Texas Instruments, IBM and Dell. When I say, "We" I'm not referring to the royal we. I worked almost every day with an assistant who kept the details straight. I also had famous photographer neighbors like Wyatt McSpadden and Michael O'Brien. Really wonderful photographers that I could call on if I got stuck with some photo problem. Or with a bidding question.

Some days we'd shoot in the studio and other days we'd bring the station wagon around to the loading dock door and fill the car. We'd head to a location and shoot all day long and then come back and unload and lock up the gear before dropping color film by the lab. Black and white still stayed in house.

The larger, longer space helped define a style for me. I was able to put backgrounds 20 or 30 feet behind a portrait subject and I was able to use longer lenses further back from my subjects. Many of my favorite portraits that grew out of that style are the ones I often show here. It was a technique I learned from Albert Watson.

While the space was great I was spending half of my life there. And spending $1500 a month for the privilege. It wasn't a burden since annual billings were in the $250,000 area. And rent is tax deductible. 

But then B. and I decided to grow up and have a kid. And digital was ushering itself into the business mix for professional photographers serving high tech clients. Photoshop became pervasive. The darkroom became a storage space and more and more of my work was being done on location doing environmental portraiture and location ads. The totality of that space was less necessary.

With a kid on the way we needed to move out of our nice but small condominium in Austin's Tarrytown neighborhood and find a place where we could raise a child well. That meant moving into the best school district. We looked for nearly two years before finding a house with a detached garage building that could be transformed into a studio and office. The rent at the downtown studio had crested $2,000 a month and when combined with the condo mortgage we figured that if we could find a single larger space to own, that would incorporate both our home and my office and studio, we could put together much nicer version of both and eventually fully own the space instead of throwing away the money on studio rent. 

We found a lovely home in central Texas's best school district and bought it. I hired a friend who was a contractor to take the large, freestanding rock and cedar garage building and finish it out into workable studio space. He charged me about $20,000 and I have used it nonstop for the last 25 years. The space is about 800 square feet and has a high ceiling with no cross beams to clutter up the space. I can float a softbox up about 12 feet in the air without it being impeded. When we did the studio construction I had my builder do a wall of windows on one side and two more windows to the north side. There are storage closets on one window-less side that have solid core doors and deadbolt locks. The studio space is about 12 feet from the front door of the house. 

In this space I've done countless portraits of the rich and famous as well as members of the middle class and many unknowns. I've done too many technical tabletop projects to remember. And, in the process, we cut our monthly outlay by about half during those peak earning years. 

Right up until the onset of the pandemic we were shooting projects in the space. Mostly they were individual headshots and technical work but more and more stuff was moving to locations. People are currently enamored with environmental photos. It's a plus to be able to schedule portraits here though around my schedule instead of trying to do work out of a shared space where you would have to juggle multiple peoples' schedules in addition to the client's schedule. But the biggest benefit is that my post processing computer and business computer are housed there and if I'm not shooting something chances are that I'm doing post processing, making web galleries, doing marketing projects or billing clients.

The biggest benefit of all was the near elimination of a daily commute for 25 of my most productive years.  I could see Ben off to school, do work, take a break to go volunteer at his schools, all of which (from K-12th) were less that five minutes away from our house/office. Assistants would regularly join the family for dinners after long days of work and the kitchen was always open during the day. 

I use the studio these days to shoot individual headshots for a couple of large medical practices that are part of national speciality groups. The rest of the time it's a place to store cameras with some assurance of climate control and to write these zany blog posts. It's home base for the business. 

Finally, if you think about it, being able to combine a house with a studio on the same property and on the same mortgage means that having a studio enabled us to reach a little higher for the property. When one thinks of businesses on thinks of the long term investment. According to the tax assessors the value of our property in west Austin has increased by ten times since our purchase. Considering my "free" rental of the studio for 25 years and the eventual return of more money than I ever imagined in home equity the studio basically made possible my entire photographer lifestyle and could also have paid for a couple's good retirement. 

I'm not getting rid of the studio space even if I decide to retire from the commercial work in the near future. I love having a quiet space to work in and write in. I love having my gear and lights close by. Sometimes I'll watch a video about a technique and walk out of the house and into the studio to try it out for myself.

Gordon also asked about using the studio for a video space. While it would be nice it's not practical given the size of the space and the ambient noise. I have an air conditioner that works well but is too loud for the audio to work. I live in a neighborhood where people are buying houses for a million dollars and up and then scraping them off/tearing them down and building bigger and zanier houses on the lots so there is constant construction noise during the days. The construction comes and goes and I'd have to go crazy on sound proofing to make the space work at all well for video. It's also too small to do effective video camera work in. You can cheat a lot in photography but you need a wide frame for video; especially for green screen work. This just isn't enough. 

But that's fine with me. Most clients are looking for video production in their own spaces (interviews and process stuff) so when I have a bigger video project I hire assistants and sometimes a producer and we pack up a rental van or big SUV with our C-Stands, carts and lights, etc. and head to the location to work. When the job is over I'm not having to chase P.A.s and clients out of my house and studio before dinner. We pack up at the location and leave. Nice and done. 

But, where video is concerned editing is a bigger part of most projects, time-wise. So a fast computer and a small assembly of SSDs is somewhat critical and the office here gives me a space and the gear to do as much editing as I think I want to do. I can also have editors work here in the studio and I can drop in during the day, after swim practice, to see their progress.

There are a number of rental video studios around town if I have a project that needs interior, dedicated space but video projects have a longer time line from concept to approval to final scheduling so there is usually more than enough time to find a rental resource. Some photo assignments come up quickly and the studio is a nice fall back for those times. 

I'm happy to rent studio space elsewhere for video work because we always bill it back to the client and we always mark up the cost. In effect it's a profitable part of the job budget. It's the same way that we rent our video gear packages to our clients to cover the cost of maintaining and replacing gear. A standard way of doing business in the video production industry. 

So, the mortgage is paid off, and the studio is still open. That means every job I take is even more profitable than before. 

Good quiet studio space is critical if you like to experiment with lighting, photo techniques and post production workflows. It's critical if you want to leave lighting and sets set up for days at a time. But mostly I find it emotionally important to have a dedicated space to do art in. When I walk in the door I'm there to do something related to my craft and having those formalist boundaries helps motivate me. 

So --- nice to have a space. Good for clients. Great investment when combined on one's own property. A nice refuge from daily work stress. A sharable space to help out friends or younger photographers who sometimes really need a space to do an important project in. Close to the fully stocked refrigerator in the house. A small tax deduction for the space. Great security. Great neighbors. 

Live without a studio space? No thanks.

Gordon, let me know if I answered your questions. Thanks for the prompt. KT


crsantin said...

I would love to have a studio space but it's not a possibility on my current property, which we are quite happy with and almost mortgage-free. And thank God for digital.

Gordon L said...

Kirk, you not only answered my questions, you anticipated answers to questions I didn't ask, but knew you could and probably would. What your answer makes clear is that studio space is just another tool in your kit. A smart pro adapts the tool to the jobs and lifestyle they want, not vice-versa. We can both recite cautionary tales of commercial photographers who went broke trying to find enough gigs to pay for their oversized studios, or succeeded at the cost of working themselves to the point of burnout. Readers who are seriously thinking of acquiring and maintaining a studio of their own would be well-advised to save and re-read this post on a regular basis. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

Marcio K said...

As a music fan, knowing that you had photographed The Butthole Surfers brought me a smile. Great band (although have no idea how was to handle Gibby Haynes in a studio shooting) :)

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Paul Leary was the business brains of the band and he kept everyone on task. Gibby was totally engaged because we were shooting his band for Spin Magazine and he loved the idea of exposure. Well behaved behind the scenes....

Do you remember Rough Trade Records? I think that was their label for a while. We ended up doing a bunch of shoots for their bands...

Mitch said...

What a wonderful intersection of "The Times", careful planning, high ceilings, strategic thinking, favorable zoning, a growing area that was already fairly developed with options available, and a bit of luck. Being a photojournalist in those days, I finally switched careers but it was when those times had ended because landlords and zoning folks decided we creatives were to be squeezed as much as possible, making having my own dedicated space impossible. So, rentals and hauling gear.

And if it's the same Michael O'Brien, he came out of news and rocketed his way into the commercial/editorial world. Priceless to have folks like that to either rub elbows, or serve as your occasional consultants.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Mitch, it's the same Michael O'Brien. National Geographic, Apple, Bank of America..... etc. He's also a friend.

Mitch said...

Kirk, many of us in the news business at the time looked up to him both for his thoughtful news-work and later for his magazine projects, like The Australians. Wasn't a photography major in college if I remember right. Which gave him that unique and necessary combination of camera skills with a completely divergent education/focus/interest/perspective with which to use those skills. Made some of us wonder why we'd pursued degrees in photography/journalism instead of in another discipline. Which seemed the path so many of the best photographers seem to emanate from.