Search for the perfect space

Once upon a time, putting your name on a studio space validated your status as a professional photographer. And having your name on the perfect studio space affirmed your place on the top tier of professionals. But not anymore. Candide McDonald investigates.

The great photographer’s dream

Ask any number of photographers to describe the perfect studio space and the responses you get are unlikely to differ greatly. It’s a massive ground floor studio in a disused warehouse whose aesthetics, and gardens, are gorgeous. It’s located on the edge of the city. It has adequate parking and a loading dock with direct entry. Its ceiling soars. Its width is immense. It’s equipped with everything. It’s flooded with natural light – but only if you want it. It can turn day into night. There’s a huge cyclorama. Every light you’ve ever dreamed of. Enough power to light the Opera House. Props, soft-boxes, light stand, and polyboards in every colour. A dressing room that would make Mariah Carey happy. A MasterChef kitchen, whether you shoot food or not. Fresh flowers turn up every day. And the coffee is world class.

Hell Studios, Melbourne.
Hell Studios, Melbourne.

But these days, very few actually own it, or want to, for that matter. Why? Because you can hire all, or at least most of this for a fraction of the cost, whenever you want to, without all the headaches and immense expense that comes with owning the space yourself.

The great photography reality

“There is no perfect studio,” states Alison Lydiard, executive producer of Photoplay Photography – a newly formed offshoot of international production company, Photoplay. “Sometimes you need a cyclorama, sometimes you need a black box. In an ideal world, a perfect studio space for me would be one with every available option and rate, with a smile. The smile line sounds really contrived, but our industry is so fast paced that sometimes the smile can really help along the way. That’s not to say no one smiles, it’s just that 7am is the new norm, and the longer working hours are tough on all of us.”

From then to now

Michele Aboud started out sharing a studio with an established photographer. “You were given a desk and a phone, a share of the environment and its equipment, and you paid 50% of your photography fee for the privilege of getting what was considered a leg-up,” she recalls. After that, she moved to her own studio. Back then, it was what photographers on the way up did.


Shot at XO Studios, Melbourne, for United Airlines magazine, "Rhapsody".
Makeup: Liz Kelsh. Hair stylist: Kieran Street. © Michelle Aboud.

Matt Reed’s early career also travelled the road that was expected. He lived and worked in his own studio, which he rented out to other photographers to help cover costs. “The advantage of living and working in the same space was that I spent a lot of time experimenting. And that really helped my skills to grow,” Reed says.

The problem that both discovered with maintaining your own studio is that the rent/mortgage is regular, but unfortunately the work is not.

Aboud and Reed both now rent studios and equipment when and where they need them. This approach, in particular, works so well for Reed because so much of his work, and all of his wedding shoots, are shot on location. Given that Aboud now works throughout the world, having her own studio space now makes no sense whatsoever.

Emerging food photographer, Amanda Michetti does a lot of her work at home. “The beauty of food photography is that natural light creates the best images. You also don’t need a big space to shoot in,” she says. “I invested in a couple of tabletop lights early on when I was shooting at home because I was often cooking and shooting at night, but now that I cook and shoot during the day, I hardly ever use them. But they helped me learn how to manipulate and place artificial light early on.”

Ksubi, known then as Tsubi, shot at Reed’s studio in 2000, for Italian Grazia magazine, on a Cambo 5x4 and with B&W type-55 Polaroid film. © Matt Reed.
Ksubi, known then as Tsubi, shot at Reed’s studio in 2000, for Italian Grazia magazine, on a Cambo 5x4 and with B&W type-55 Polaroid film. © Matt Reed.

Sydney-based advertising photographer, Toby Burrows has his own small studio which he uses for small jobs. Like Reed, most of his work is on location, but for major studio projects he relies on rental space. “I need the height and the width, and it’s remarkable how much space you use. But most importantly,” he says, “what I need is a certain presence for my clients. I know my own space and its equipment and that’s an asset, but in a rental space everything is there for you, and your clients. A photographer can be happy as Larry on a job, but if the client isn’t, then you’re not doing the best for your business.”

For Reed, having all the right equipment comes first, and this is especially important on the big jobs. “You need all the lights, and you want all the latest, greatest shaping heads,” he says. And unless you’re made of money, only rental studios can offer this convenience.

According to both Reed and Michetti, how well a studio is maintained is critical. “I want to think about nothing else but the shoot. The last thing you want is to have to do housekeeping and replace equipment that’s not working properly before you start,” Burrows says.

Being around other creative people is something that Michetti is looking forward to when she “leaves home”, noting that she’s not that far off moving to a shared studio space. Given her speciality, the kitchen set up is key to a successful food shoot. “I’ll usually ask to see it before a studio is selected to understand what equipment is provided so I know how much kitchen equipment I need to cart in. My pet peeve is when a studio kitchen doesn’t have any glass mixing bowls.”

© Nicholas Wilson/Nine Network.
© Nicholas Wilson/Nine Network.

Does the perfect space matter?

According to Lydiard, it does. And this is particularly true when it comes to equipment. If a studio is set up well, it allows the photographer and crew to focus on the work and not worry about the unknowns, and many of the mundane practicalities that makes a shoot run smoothly. “Everything is at their fingertips and works how it should, which is especially important when a photographer works across a few studios. It’s hard to adapt to a new working environment when on a tight schedule, budget, or both. For me though, relationships play a big part. Time is precious and a helping hand goes a long way.”

How to get it

For those hell bent on having their name on the door, finding a group of like-minded photographers and studio-sharing is a logical solution when money is an object. This isn’t perfect, of course. It’s a lot like flat-sharing, with all the same inherent friction triggers, except that your business is on the line. Some people thrive in a communal environment, others don’t.

For those not fussed with having their name on a sign on the door, the range of full-service rental studios is an excellent option. And this option provides a wide spectrum of offerings, many of which you might not traditionally associate with a rental studio. Sunstudios has facilities in both Sydney and Melbourne, and is recognised in the industry for more than just its rental spaces and equipment here. “Beyond expertise and renowned industry support, Sunstudios provides numerous workshops, seminars, exhibitions, awards, and events in a creative space,” says Alan Brightman, Sunstudios’ general manager.

The Treehouse, at Sunstudios in Sydney.
The Treehouse, at Sunstudios in Sydney.

Brightman says that Sunstudios offers unparalleled scale with five studios and a large equipment rental facility in Sydney, with most opening onto gardens. And if you require more light, each studio has electronically controlled panels in its roof to let more in. There’s also a space for motion assignments, if required. But most notably, their latest addition is the Treehouse, a co-working space “aimed at providing a community environment for visual creators to connect and grow.” It offers meeting rooms, desk spaces and an editing desk, available for either daily or long-term use – not something you’d typically associate with a rental studio.

According to Glenn Gibson, the manager of Melbourne’s Eleven40 Studio and Gallery, one of their greatest assets is the amazing coffee they’re known for – all made possible with a state of the art machine, fresh beans delivered weekly, and three staff who are passionate, albeit amateur, baristas. Photographers who regularly use the facilities say that it’s getting a helping hand when they need it that seals the deal. “60% of our clientele is from interstate or overseas. When we say full production support, we mean it,” Gibson says. “Most of our clients come back. They like being here, we’re really friendly, and we offer all the whole box and dice.”

Another drawcard of the studio is what Gibson describes as “the largest pro photo stock in Melbourne, by a long way”. All the equipment is top quality and near to new. “And if Eleven40 doesn’t have what you need,” Gibson says, “we’ll go out and get it for you.”

Eleven40 Studio and Gallery, Melbourne.
Eleven40 Studio and Gallery, Melbourne.

If you have something new to offer, Hell Studios in Melbourne always keeps an eye out for photographers who can expand its repertoire. It runs in the style of a collective, but operates as a photographic production company. It was begun by Carlos Alcaide and Richard Wilson when CI Studios closed. “It was an off-the-cuff thing,” Alcaide recalls. “Suddenly there were all these talented people with nowhere to go. We found a place with 600sqm of studio space and added the works, right down to the 10 car parks and retouching studios.”

Hell’s five photographers get the advantage of being part of a company that does the leg-work for you – both before and after the job. It has two business development managers who get work, two producers who run it, two full-time retouchers, and a full-time studio manager.

Want to woo and win a special client? Rokeby has the aura. Rokeby Studios occupies a converted cardboard box factory that was associated with a former Yorkshire Brewery. It’s full of history, style and Melbourne charm with its Ghostpatrol murals, and has been customised during the six years it has been Rokeby – both for functionality and unique aesthetic style. Rokeby’s second studio features a custom designed kitchen by Studio Moore for food shoots, large crews, as well as catering.

© Nicholas Wilson.
© Nicholas Wilson.

One of the advantages of hiring space in a studio like Eleven40, Sunstudios or Rokeby is that when things go wrong, there’s help on hand to fix it. ”We’ll even wrangle new gear to iron out any problems before they become problems. And after so many goes at it, we’re rather good at getting people around roadblocks,” Gibson says.

Rokeby studio manager, Elizaveta Maltseva says that one quickly learns that no two days are ever the same, and this makes for numerous daily challenges. “Daily problem solving and creative thinking almost become second nature,” she says. “We’ve accumulated an incredible collection of logistical challenge conquerings. During these not uncommon periods, it’s really all about working closely together as a well caffeinated team. And knowing that there’s nothing we can’t do.”

Maybe your perfect space has nothing to do with where you shoot, but rather how often you get to shoot. One option to consider might be signing up to a production company. Photoplay has recently become a one-stop shop for brands, publishers, and agencies who want content of various kinds for each campaign. Some of its photographers shoot stills, and direct videos. For those that don’t, they might be paired with a director on a job. Flint Productions has four photographers who wanted to spread their wings and conquer directing. They have their own studio space for small jobs and will hire a space for larger jobs.

If you’re wondering if this last option is the best one for you, first you have to be right for it. “What matters most to me is the quality of [the photographer’s] work and that their personality will fit with us, and the rest of Photoplay stable,” Lydiard says. “We want to be able to have fun with our photographers. They obviously need to have a camera, but otherwise almost anything can be hired for shoots because it’s almost impossible to have everything you might need on every shoot. So their set-up matters much less than whether they are capable of delivering beautiful work, on budget, on time, and with a laugh along the way.”

Ultimately, the needs of every photographer vary with each project, and their personal work style. No single option, be it owning a studio, being in a shared studio, or part of a collective, and no single rental studio, regardless of what it has in its bag of tricks, can honestly claim to be the perfect match, or solution, for every photographer. Burrows knows this, with his small studio plus option to hire space as needed arrangement. Aboud knows this because she works in cities throughout the world. Reed knows because he runs two very different kinds of photography businesses. And Michetti knows because she is about to grow out of working from home.

If any one studio comes close to being the perfect dream though, Aboud says, it’s Milk Studios in Los Angeles. Not because you need a travertine-lined entrance, a six star lounge area, and the very real possibility of brush with fame, but because it’s motivating to think you might one day have it.

Huevos Rancheros. © Amanda Michetti.
Huevos Rancheros. © Amanda Michetti.


Michele Aboud       

Alison Lydiard (Photoplay)

Amanda Michetti    

Matt Reed    

Eleven40 Studio and Gallery       

Rokeby Studios      

Sunstudios Australia