My Super Niche Business: An Equipment Rental House and Studio for Commercial Photography

Entrepreneurship

Window Logo & Client Area - Gaeme

A niche business? How about renting studio space to commercial photographers?

That was my first entrepreneurial venture, called Silver Street Studio, LLC. (I’ve previously blogged about it here.) For eight years I supplied a fully-equipped shooting space to photographers by the day.

Little known outside the photo industry, commercial photographers utilize day-rentals for equipment and studios. It makes perfect sense. They work in hundreds of cities around the world, rarely shooting in the same town more than a day or two at a time. They don’t travel with their own gear; the equipment doesn’t travel well; it’s heavy, yet fragile. Plus, the risk of damage, or of the airline losing the equipment, is too great when a $50,000-a-day budget depends on a strict production schedule.

The solution: renting the gear and studio in the city of the day’s shoot. For gear, they rent lighting equipment, computers, even cameras.

More importantly, by industry custom, the photographer expenses the client for every rental. Most will even charge the client a 15%-20% markup on equipment rentals. For photographers, this is the ultimate in low overhead.

My business stocked over 200 different studio lights and accessories. It made me nervous to keep over a quarter-million dollars worth of gear in our equipment room.  We carried the Profoto and Matthews brands–the global industry standards for lighting and grip.  High-end commercial photographers will work with nothing less.

profoto poster

Our studio sported a very nice, two-station hair and makeup counter, a client lounge, a wardrobe styling area, and a modest-sized cyclorama.

silver street hair and makeup - new - taylor

studio page 10

studio page 2

We hosted countless shoots, some for celebrity portraiture.  When Blender Magazine needed a cover shoot of comedian Dave Chapelle, they caught up with him in Houston and booked our studio. In the days leading to the shoot, Chapelle’s producer urged me to keep a low profile for the day’s events.  Then they arrived in the not-so-low-profile tour bus!

Chappelle bus

For location shoots (i.e., not in our studio), I would deliver equipment throughout the Houston metro area, as well as to Austin, San Antonio, and New Orleans, where high-end photo equipment rentals did not exist at the time. I hauled the gear with my trusty little Thule trailer.

trailer

Favorite Clients from My First Small Business

Entrepreneurship, Media

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While running my rental studio, Silver Street Studio in Houston, it was exciting to work with photographers and agencies of international renown, like Mary Ellen Mark and Mark Seliger, Art Department and Greenhouse Reps.  But it was a special pleasure to work with those photographers and crews that were at bottom simply great human beings.

TONY D’ORIO PHOTOGRAPHY

I think immediately of Tony D’Orio, of Altoids fame.  (Note:  Tony’s photo used in the ad above was not shot in my studio).  How refreshing that, in a profession so rife with jealously guarded tricks of the trade, Tony instead offered a broad openness and generousness of spirit.  Over the course of a two-day shoot for McDonalds, he showed me a couple of studio equipment hacks that made my job easier and that would be enjoyed by other photographers in my studio for years to come.  For instance, he showed me how to switch out the hand-crank machine clamp of an Elinchrom Octabank–which have infamously weak grip—with the more robust clamp from a Matthews C-stand.

http://www.tonydorio.com/

FULTON DAVENPORT, PWL STUDIO

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Lucky for me I like photographer Fulton Davenport as much as I do since he was perhaps our biggest repeat client over the years.  With his busy creative firm, PWL Studio, Fulton was shooting in our space practically every other week for years.  One of his specialties is product photography, which was also a specialty of ours.  Take a look at the photo above, of Fulton at work for a high-end antique shop client.  The tabletop set is comprised of expendables and hardware we kept in stock and offered at no extra charge.  Even more to the point of product photography was our studio’s unsurpassed natural light.  Heres Fulton on shooting day light in our space:

“I love the highly technical work, like photographing objects with intense detail, a la Irving Penn shooting for Saks Fifth Avenue.  You’d normally need (or have to build) a light tent.   But here, you’ve got such huge windows on north and south, the light is perfect.  Tents are used just to simulate this.”

http://www.pwlstudio.com/

JUSTIN CALHOUN PHOTOGRAPHY

Imageastronaut mailer sofa guy

One of my favorite people, photographers or not, is Justin Calhoun.  Justin brought us a big job one summer, and one could tell how much the crew liked working for him.  The makeup department, the photo assistants, even the kraft service people were obviously inspired to work hard for Justin, with smiles all around.  What you see here in the two photos above is a Polaroid test shot (the client wanted Justin to shoot film, not digital) and one of the direct mail pieces ultimately produced from the images.

http://www.justincalhoun.com/

FELIX SANCHEZ PHOTOGRAPHY

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Another of our busy-busy clients was Felix Sanchez.  Felix was one of the first to shoot in our studio in the early days, and he continued to bring interesting jobs into our space over the next seven years.  (He has his own beautiful new studio now.)  Before becoming a photographer Felix played in a touring Tejano band, so naturally he’s photographed many musicians throughout his career.  Early on with us, Felix was kind enough to help me assimilate the vast expanse that is studio equipment.  He’d report on all of his new experiences experimenting with lighting equipment.  I based many of my equipment acquisitions on Felix’s information.  The job in the photo above was for Walmart, for which Felix transformed our cold, empty space into a warm and cozy living room.  Go check out his handsome new website.

http://www.felixsanchez.com/

Favorite Thing About My First Small Business?

Entrepreneurship

Fotofest gallery empty

I’d be hard-pressed to pick one favorite thing about running old rentals business, Silver Street Studio, LLC. Working with photo crews? Tasty catering? Both, awesome. But our Fotofest Biennial exhibits really stand out for me.

Every two years we’d donate our space for a month to house one of the thirty Fotofest Biennial exhibits. The Fotofest Biennial, according to their website, is “the largest event of its kind in the world”. . . a “platform for ideas and discovery, combining museum-quality art with important social and aesthetic issues.”

In the photo above you can see why I loved temporarily transforming my workaday photo studio into an elegant, clean modern art gallery. There were always anxiety butterflies in that first hour of the gallery opening, when only one person would show up (above).

That one person was of course the advance guard of the army that would follow. Ever have 500 people hanging out in your house? (My photo studio was in my backyard.)
Fotofest gallery crowd

Said army out in the bar in my carport.
fotofest the bar

My wife and I enjoy throwing parties. It’s safe to say our Fotofest gallery openings were our best attended shindigs. And at the end of the night, as the last of the army would be marching out, and our volunteers could take their first much-needed break (below), my wife and I would smile at each another, a bit incredulous we had really pulled off an event of such complexity and magnitude, and had a thrilling fun time doing it.
Fotofest gallery blur