Organize a Pop Up Studio for Your Photography Business

Photography: Grant Kessler

Apple has used pop up outlets to sell iPads to conference goers. Chefs have used them to serve diners at temporary restaurants. But can one-off studio shoots, open to anyone who wants to drop by, work for photographers? The answer depends on how you plan them, what you offer — and what you hope to get out of them.

The idea comes mainly from the catering industry. Chefs travel from location to location, sometimes using food trucks to prepare the meals, allowing them to experiment with new dishes and meet diners who otherwise wouldn’t be able to taste their cuisine. In photography, where pop up studios are still relatively new, the aim is similar. Instead of meeting clients in their studio or shooting one client in one location, photographers pick a spot, announce where they’ll be photographing and invite anyone who wants to come along to make a booking and pick up some professional pictures. They get to reach new markets, take new orders and spread their name further than their fixed studio usually allows.

In March this year, Rhapsody Road, a new two-woman wedding photography studio in the UK, used a pop up studio to launch their business. They rented a room at Craft Central, a London arts initiative with space to hire and a generous approach to creative ideas. Helped by their intern — as well as family and friends — they brought in their camera equipment and lighting gear, then set about converting the room into a branded studio.

“We really had to think about how we wanted the studio to look,” said Emma Lambe, one of the company’s founders. “So we used lots of props, made lots of things, invested in signage. If you are going to do it, do it properly.”

A Six-Day Event

Their “Wedding & Family Photography Pop Up Studio” lasted for six days and offered portrait sessions, bridal shots and children’s photos, as well as workshops, games and talks.  The pair teamed up with other businesses including a dance studio which put on a class, wedding providers who were able to give brides expert advice , and food companies that helped to market the event and fill goody bags with snacks.

“Everyone involved found it useful for self-promoting plus it’s good to be connected with strong professional brands,” said Emma.

The biggest costs were the room hire, the event leaflets, travel and signage, which is reusable. Costs were spread out though and all the expenses came back in the form of bookings for future wedding shoots and portraits. Both Emma and her partner Natalie Sternberg were happy with the results. People are talking about them, Emma said, and referrals are coming in.

But things don’t always turn so well. Chicago food photographer Grant Kessler found that his pop up studio was much less effective; his first attempt barely broke even and he called off his second attempt after two of his three bookings canceled.

Like Rhapsody Road, Grant used a public location that suited his clients: a shared kitchen where start-up food producers can rent space to prepare their products. His aim was to move around in future, using different locations which would promote his service to their users. He took his usual location gear: a simple lighting kit, a white background sweep for table-top work, cameras and a laptop.

“If a client wanted anything else in terms of background and props, that was their responsibility to bring along,” said Grant.

His only hard expense was the cost of renting the kitchen.

Offline Networking Beat Social Media

The level of investment was one difference between Grant Kessler’s pop up studio and the six-day event organized by Rhapsody Road. But the most important different was the intention. Rhapsody Road saw the pop up studio as an investment in the future of their business, a chance to “shout it from the rooftops” and give people an opportunity to get to know them without any sales pressure. Grant Kessler divided his pop up studio into nine paid slots of 45 minutes each and saw the day as a way of creating a reliable revenue stream that he could control.

“Typically as a freelance shooter, you are at the mercy of others as to whether you shoot on a given day or make any money in a given month,” he said. “Had this pop up idea worked, it seemed to me I could repeat it on an ongoing basis and essentially define for myself that on Day X I am going to earn a certain amount of money.”

Grant only managed to fill five of those nine slots and all were for small businesses who won’t need to make a repeat booking. The only full job that the pop up studio produced came from a firm whose project turned out to be too large for the small space available.

Grant’s marketing differed drastically too. He posted a page on his blog to encourage people to register and turned to Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. The space would have helped, too, but competition between users of different shared kitchens in the city meant that clients of one space would have been less likely to attend a studio used in a rival kitchen.

While Grant depended on online networking to bring in paying clients, Emma and Natalie of Rhapsody Road used their offline networking to bring in sponsors. Emma dances when she’s not shooting so was able to persuade her dance studio to participate. They had connections with food brands and both had worked with a number of wedding providers before going into business together. Those connections allowed them to expand the scope of the studio, increase its benefits and reach more potential clients.

Creating a successful pop up studio will require some solid marketing and preparation. Emma talks of a pop up studio requiring six months to prepare and generating six months of work. But it also seems to work best as a marketing tool rather than a sales tool, a way of giving away as many free samples as possible that will lead to future jobs rather than a way of making as many paid bookings on the day as possible. And it also gets you out of the studio.

Updated: At Em and Nat’s request the post has been edited to reflect more accurately sponsor contributions.

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