(Editor’s Note: David DuPuy is a New York City-based photographer specializing in family portraiture, professional headshots, event and product photography. You can learn more about him on his website.)
A global pandemic might not seem like a good time to go looking for a new photography studio, but I’m someone who believes in turning obstacles into opportunities and, ultimately, I didn’t have much choice. To make a long story short, late last year I was rather abruptly kicked out of my photo studio in New York City and needed to find a suitable replacement space fast.
While the pandemic has negatively affected my photography business, as it has for countless other professional photographers out there, having a safe, controlled environment for portrait sessions, head shots, and product shoots was essential to my work. In the past, I had tried the home studio route but had quickly outgrown those cramped quarters and needed something more professional like a true brick-and-mortar studio.
It might seem counterintuitive, but the pandemic actually offers quite a few advantages to photographers trying to find studio space right now. For one, there are a lot of vacancies as I discovered during my search and landlords are willing to be more flexible in pricing and amenities. Secondly, with so much retail moving from traditional brick-and-mortar to online even prior to the pandemic, there’s less competition and a photographer is exactly the kind of low-impact tenant building owners are looking for.
Fortunately, my search didn’t take long, and I was able to find a wonderful and affordable ground floor storefront to rent in a convenient neighborhood in NYC. Below are five things I learned while looking for my new photo studio.
#1 Leverage Your Contacts
If you’re looking for a space, don’t be shy about blasting it out to as many people as you know. Leverage your network, whether it’s through friends on social media, favorite clients you’ve shot for in the past, or building owners or superintendents you might know in areas you are targeting. Yes, you can always go through a real estate broker but they’re more likely to upsell you to a more expensive spot to earn a higher commission. Personal contacts might know something more affordable or flexible to meet your needs. Plus, you cut out the middleman. Most likely nothing will come back but there’s a chance someone you know might have an opportunity right next to them. You’re sort of obligated to see if you get lucky like that. And in my case, that’s exactly how I found my new studio space.
#2 Don’t Be Afraid of Raw Space
Sure, it’d be nice to find a turnkey photography studio that’s move-in ready. But if you’re looking for that type of plug-and-play solution, be prepared to pay top dollar or to have to share your studio space with other photographers. Personally, I wanted raw space so I could make it the way I wanted while keeping a cool industrial look. The truth is most spaces you look at aren’t going to be finished for photography. They’re going to have drop ceilings or they’re going to be painted an ugly shade of beige. Be prepared to do a lot of the work yourself and find a buddy who is in construction or a contractor and can give you a good deal. The other thing about raw space is availability. One of the reasons I found my spot is the landlord wanted some activity in here. It’s a ground floor commercial space in a residential building that had been vacant for a number of years. Now, somebody coming by sees a nice, clean bright environment, which adds a level of security to the building and increases property values.
#3 Know How Much Square Footage You’re Getting
If you do decide to use a real estate broker or even if you’re dealing directly with a building owner, make sure you know how much square footage you’re really getting. If you’re looking at a place that says 1500 square feet, it’s likely the place will be more like 1000 square feet because the extra 500 is for a public bathroom or shared hallway. This allows brokers and property owners to negotiate for more money. You really have to measure the place yourself, which is what I did since I knew I needed a place for an office, a place to store my gear, along with an open area to shoot. The other thing to be aware of is that nobody knows the height of ceilings or, to be blunt, they’re not always honest about it. For a photography studio, there’s a huge difference between an eight-foot ceiling, a 12-foot ceiling and a 16-foot ceiling. When you’re checking out spaces, bring a sturdy tape measure or, even better, a digital tape measure.
#4 Consider Month-to-Month
Another real estate “benefit” of the pandemic is that building owners are open to shorter term arrangements. No longer do you have to agree to a five-year commercial lease and, if things don’t work out, you’re forced to pay a penalty for breaking it. In fact, many landlords I spoke with during my search were open to month-to-month rental agreements. Month-to-month is a great option if it’s your first time having your own photo studio and just want to try it out. On the downside, it gives you less security if, for instance, the real estate market picks up and your landlord decides he can make more money with another tenant and kicks you out. If you do decide to go month-to-month, see if you can negotiate a 1–2-month move-out cushion so you’re not suddenly kicked to the curb. Either way, make sure your stuff is on wheels and there’s nothing permanently attached to the walls. Most importantly, create some kind of blueprint of your set-up. That way, you can just bring everything to your next space and restart your photo studio without missing a beat.
#5 Think Multi-Purpose Event Space
One way I’ve been able to pay for my photo studio is to rent it out for events. This is one of the benefits of keeping the design fairly simple: you can easily use it for just about anything. Also, it’s easy to add Hue lights and a wireless sound system to give the space some atmosphere. I’ve had two secret engagements here, chefs have done catering events, there have been birthday parties for kids, a birthday party for an adult, I’ve had baby showers and I’m going to have a wedding in here. The best part? I also do the photography and/or videography, so I get paid for both the rental and my creative services. I also have nights where I just invite photographers and videographers over for a drink. Not only do you get to network, you also get to be a hub for the community. For me, that’s motivation enough to have my own studio.