Magazine Article


Assumptions & Other Studio Start-Up Disasters
Tips to get it right from the beginning

© Studio m/Michael Spengler Photography

© Studio m/Michael Spengler Photography

© Studio m/Michael Spengler Photography

© Studio m/Michael Spengler Photography

You've probably heard the saying, "When you make an assumption, you make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me.'" Well, my husband and I made plenty of asinine assumptions as we launched our studio five years ago, and I'd love to share a few of these in hopes of saving a photographer or two on the rise from some of the pain we endured.

While not all of our assumptions were incorrect, we found that hard data and experience serve us far better than our early gut instincts and blind hope. The following are some of the "doozies" you might want to avoid…

If buying an existing studio, don't assume that the former owner does business in a manner you (and the majority of the business world) might understand.

While the retiring photographer from whom we purchased our studio was well-respected and beloved by many in our town, he hadn't advertised in several years. Nor did he keep organized client records. He was perfectly happy having just a few clients a week and kept track of their appointments and orders on a calendar. When we took over the business, we had absolutely nothing other than talent, a very small studio space, and a couple of old Hasselblads to start with. We really should have done our due diligence. We liked the photographer very much (he'd even photographed our wedding a decade prior) and don't believe he was trying to pull one over on us, but we paid too much for a business that had been grinding to a slow halt for some time.

Don't assume everyone in town heard about your grand opening.

Opening a studio was the biggest decision of our lives. To do so, my husband left a lucrative career, we sold our house, and I became a full-time mom and business owner. The studio was all we could live, eat, and breathe for months. We talked to everyone about it. We bought ads in the local paper. We purchased a full-page listing in the yellow pages. We opened our doors, threw a grand-opening celebration, and then wondered when the calls would come streaming in. They came eventually, but we first had to realize that we needed to place ourselves into the lives of our potential clients. People are very focused on their own little world, and if you want to draw people into what is most important to you, you have to actively reach out where they can be found. Put displays in children's clothing stores, volunteer with local parenting groups or at your own child's school, offer gift certificate donations to local schools and charities, join networking groups. Do whatever you have to do to make your business visible in your potential clients' daily lives.

Don't assume folks read the local paper.

I read everything I can get my hands on; I even look forward to the free local weeklies. I have a hunger for knowing what's going on in my community, city, and beyond. I love to be up on current events and even celebrity gossip. I like seeing whose home is on the market and what restaurant is opening in town. Even more, I love discussing this information with my friends and colleagues. That is, when I can find one who actually reads the local papers. I know someone other than me must read them. I can't imagine they'd go to all that trouble of researching stories, writing them, selling ads, and paying the printer just for me and a few senior citizens in town. But I rarely find people in my peer group (other parents, women at the gym, business owners)-all of whom also happen to be included in our target market-who read them, which is why we no longer advertise in them. We also found that not many people look in the yellow pages anymore, nor the half-dozen other directories we blindly bought listings in because we were too scared to turn the sales reps away in those first few months. Our advice: focus on word of mouth, community involvement, and an awesome website.

Don't assume your portrait talent translates to all other areas of photography.

Once our doors were open, we were ready to take on any challenge-or so we thought. A jewelry designer brought in a few of his pieces one day to be photographed. He was willing to pay anything, and we were revved up to provide beautiful images of his works. My husband, undeterred by his lack of product photography experience, carefully laid the jewelry atop a drape of black velvet and photographed each piece. He caught the deep colors of the rare gems and the sparkle of the 24-carat gold-along with a million dust particles on the fabric and the strange bursts of light caused by poor lighting. Luckily, the jeweler didn't seem to notice, but as we look back on those images, we find proof in the belief that one should focus on what one does best.

Don't assume your clients know how to dress…or behave.

We live in an affluent coastal community in Southern California. You wouldn't expect lumberjack shirts and polka dots to be all the rage, but there are days when you'd be surprised. In our first few months of business, we'd often take a step back from one of my husband's perfectly composed, well-lit images and wonder what the heck went so wrong. We then realized that the jumble of prints, patterns, colors, and fashions our family groups were wearing were wreaking pure havoc on his work. How, we wondered, were all those Midwest photographers getting clients to show up in matching outfits? And how could everyone in the image, from the infant to the great-grandmother, be smiling at the same time?

Let us save you some nightmare sessions and even worse images. Schedule a consultation before your sessions. Talk to your client about clothing choices (plaid and polka dots: bad; outfit coordination: good) and the best time to photograph all those participating, whether it be after baby's naptime or on a day when Dad might actually be able to stay longer than five minutes (no conference call or ball game on TV within a two-hour window of the portrait session). The consultation isn't always a guarantee for a trouble-free session, but it gives you a touch more control. And if the clients still dress poorly or act like maniacs, just give it your best shot (pun intended) and have another photographer's name ready as a recommendation the next time they call.

Jennifer Spengler, a PR specialist, and her husband, photographer Michael Spengler, own studio m/michael spengler photography, located in the heart of La Jolla, CA. studio m specializes in family, children, high school senior, and wedding photography and offers corporate and commercial photographic services as well. They can be reached through their website (