Being a professional photographer in the UK pretty much means having a studio. We are not blessed with good weather, so I decided to set up a studio early on in my career.
Obviously, there are lots of people who don’t require photographic studios, but for storage of gear alone, having somewhere outside of you home is great for both your work and your work-life balance. There is nothing worse than waking up from a monster job to see camera gear strewn all over your house. Likewise, in the UK, there is nothing worse than constantly trying to find indoor locations to shoot in to avoid the rain cancellations that can ruin a business.
When I first started out in photography, I was mostly working with musicians. I quickly worked out that for their budgets and my time, getting to locations, finding new locations, and chancing the rain meant that my dreams of being a photographer would quickly fall apart. So, I quickly found a location to rent at a very reasonable price, and I set up my first studio, where I spent the next two years there honing my craft. When I first moved in, I was running my studio with two speedlights, one white paper roll, and a line of AA batter chargers (electric was included in my rent). Over the years, I moved from bands to portraits and then finally to food. By this point, my requirements for a studio had changed a lot, as had my equipment needs. My second floor space was no longer suitable for my work, nor was the location of the studio. So, I set about building a new studio, which is still a work in progress two years later.
What I Needed
The requirements seemed pretty straightforward. I wanted 15-foot ceilings, ground floor with ample parking and loading bays, office space, a shooting kitchen for stylists, and a prop storage area. I also wanted to keep the length of the studio long enough to allow me to shoot a full-length portrait at 100mm on a 35mm camera. I still have some long-standing clients who require this sort of work, and I didn't want to limit myself for any changes in career direction in the future. At this time, I was regularly running workshops too, so that space is often utilized for that.
With all of this in mind, a warehouse seemed like the most logical place. The planets aligned, and a friend of mine was moving out of his space and leaving it empty. So, I quickly moved in with some friends (it didn't work out, but that's another article in itself), and I have been there ever since. I think I spend more time in my studio than I do in my house.
How I Built It
This isn't going to be a technical, step-by-step DIY project. But the short of it is this: building a studio is very expensive and very time-consuming. I did most of it myself, with help from friends or by paying people to do tricky stuff like electrics. I started off by building the office and storage space, which took 8 days longer than I expected and cost $500 more than I expected; this has become a running theme throughout the build. This allows for ample desks for us to work at, while allowing me to have a small kitchen for myself (coffee) and plenty of gear storage. The space will eventually be reworked, as it's not how I want it, but it does the job for now. The computers are all hard-wired into the broadband hub, and from this location, I spend 80% of my working life there editing and emailing. It has two huge and high windows that let in beautiful light in the summer, so it isn't too unpleasant to be in, although the storage is vile and needs a rethink.
The next step was to sort out the prop storage; for a lot of photographers, this wouldn't be an issue, but in my niche, it is very important. I ordered a load of industrial racking and chucked all of my props onto them. It looks awful, but it is highly efficient. Long-term, I am planning to take on some additional space to keep my props in, as I really don't like the aesthetic in the room. It is also an accident waiting to happen with big boom arms and loads of glass. Again, sitting in my niche as a food photographer, I built a kitchen. It is purely functional, and as far as kitchens, go it was very affordable. I would recommend having some form of kitchen, regardless of your niche, though. Being able to make bacon sandwiches or offering real coffee is an important part of looking after your clients. It also means that you can have real food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner when you are working long days back to back.
With the shooting area literally being an empty spot and not all that interesting to talk about yet, the last actual building part of the studio was my workbench. I am forever building, modifying, fixing, or creating something (I also use it to service my bike). The space is a bit cluttered, but it has all of the grips, tools, and consumables I need on photoshoots. I love how easy this space makes my job, and having everything laid out really pleases my aesthetic taste, which is great for morale.
The Shooting Area
The shooting area in its simplest terms is all of the space in the middle that I didn't fill. I now have eight dedicated sockets for lights, which are doubles and a nice air conditioning unit directly above. It's not pristine, it's not pretty, but it is all I need: a big, old empty space that I can spill paint on the floor, drop slabs onto, and just not worry about anything but getting the shot. I generally have the blinds down if I am shooting, so a few eight-foot strip lights offer about enough ambient light to keep me awake on very long shoots. With the blinds up, I get heaps of natural light coming into the room that is rather beautiful, although not overly useful in my niche.
Being a commercial food photographer, most of my equipment is there to modify light. I have a big flight case full of 500-watt studio heads and then a few packs and old 3,200-watt heads. I then mount them onto C stands, which I also use to hold flags and scrims. C stands are so useful, as I often end up with 10 stands in very close proximity. For tethered shooting, I picked up a food trolley, which is what hotels use for their room service. I use the top level for my laptop and camera, second level for light meters, color calibrations tools, and little bits I may need, and then the bottom layer has a Velcro’d into place, fixed multi-socket and some speakers mounted. After that, the only real hardware I have is an old studio salon stand. I was always very anti tripod, but in recent years, I have found that it is rare that I will take a photograph without one.
The build has taken two years and still has a lot of work needed (or wanted), but in a very brief article, this explains how I built my studio and a rationale that hopefully others can apply to theirs. Choosing the required size of the building and correct ceiling height was the most important choice for me; after that, it is just making the space work for you. I spent a lot of time on Pinterest at beautiful studios, but they just didn't work for what I wanted to achieve with my photography. My instagram stories are 50% being on shoots, and the other 50% are me doing DIY projects in my warehouse/studio. There is no way I could have moved into my niche without a studio, but I also couldn't afford a big studio before moving into my niche. It is a very chicken and egg situation, and there were a few starving artist years, but if you are looking to become a professional photographer, it is certainly something that I would advocate.
How will/did you plan your studio build?
Nice article, Scott. Good practical info. I'm in the process of trying to buy a single fire engine firehouse that has stood empty for 8-9 years. It is a "pull-through" set-up with roll-up doors front and rear.....so plenty of ambient light if I want it. The main bay has 18 ft ceiling with a gear storage area on one side and the kitchen and dayroom on the other. So storage and client area is covered. But the cool part is the brass pole from the 2nd floor crew sleeping quarters is still in place!! That space will also make a nice studio flat complete with shower. Negotiating with the city is a pain due to the planning commission thinking about declaring it an historical property. Wish me luck.
That sounds like a super cool place if you can get it! Hope you got it since I'm realizing you commented this a few weeks ago!
I was hoping for a studio tour! Let's see the place!