Do you need your own studio to be a pro?

Can you make a year-round living using daylight, client’s homes and the great outdoors?

A couple were walking up the drive of our house to meet us. They were choosing a photographer and this was the first time we would meet in person. In fact, it was the last time, too.

Explorer Alex Bellini brought his family in for a came for a commercial portraiture shoot in the garden outside our studio. We had just about finished when I invited him upstairs for a quick studio portrait on his own. That’s when I captured the image you see here, which went on to win Studio Portrait of the Year at the Master Photographers Association 2018 Awards. If the studio wasn’t set up and ready to use straight away, I would never have taken this. That’s an added bonus of a dedicated shooting space.

I was inside and they didn’t know I could hear them, or that I would pick up on the disappointment in the woman’s voice. “Oh,” she said, “it’s just a converted garage.” We didn’t win the job.

That’s when my wife Sarah and I knew it was time to make the next step. There had already been other clues that we’d outgrown our current set-up.

There was the time when a client was watching an emotive slideshow of their portraits in our lounge, set to music, and our daughter strolled through. Or when a client walked into the toilet to find our son sat there, reading his comic.

We wanted to grow the business and work with high end clients. We wanted them to spend several thousand pounds with us. And inviting them into our home and garage wasn’t going to cut it.

That’s why we took the big and very scary financial commitment of leasing a business premises. We chose a place with the wow factor. It was designed by influential architect Peter Aldington OBE and had huge, dramatic doors, an airy lobby and stunning steps that drew you into the heart of the building.

At the back is a world-famous garden. In front is a quintessential England village street, with textured walls and huge, overhanging trees. I use a combination of the studio, garden and street outside in almost every shoot. This increases the chance of me capturing something my client will love and shows that even though I now have a studio, I still choose to shoot outdoors, too.

Because that’s where I started. Before we leased the studio; before we converted our garage; like most photographers I had to start with something even more basic. I would take portable flash to clients’ homes, or meet them at woods and parks.

When the weather was dry, it worked just fine. But here in Britain 43% of days are rainy*, so that meant we regularly had to postpone outdoor shoots. As you can imagine, that’s bad for business.

There are photographers who run successful businesses from their own homes, or by going to where their clients live. For us, however, we wanted more control. We wanted to be able to work in any weather, and we wanted to show clients their portraits in a location where we could display products for sale and ensure a calm atmosphere.

That’s why we converted our garage, and it worked well enough to take our business to the next level at that time. We put all the furniture on wheels, and within ten minutes we could switch it from a shooting space to a slideshow space. It helped ease some of the growing pains of the business, but a few years later we heard that comment from the couple as they walked up the drive and realised it was time to grow again.

Now, with a dedicated studio space, I feel incredibly motivated to become the best studio photographer I can be. With multiple rooms on the premises, we can show a client their portraits at the same time as I’m shooting: we’ve doubled our capacity.

In addition, when our converted garage was set up for a reveal, sometimes I couldn’t be bothered to change everything back to a studio set-up. Instead, I’d decide to stay outside, which meant less variety for the client. Now that the studio is permanently rigged, it’s so quick to walk in and take a picture that I almost always take some indoor shots, too.

Today when a client walks in, I don’t need to sell my skills to them. The impact of the space, and the photographs on display in it, tell them everything I want them to know about my business. The wow factor sets the expectations for a wow experience with me, and that leads to the shared expectation that the client will invest accordingly.

So no, you don’t need a studio. But if you are struggling with growing pains like we were, and you want to impress your clients, it might just be time to sign that lease.

*According to the UK Met Office.

N-Photo Magazine

This article first appeared in N-Photo Magazine, issue 100.

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