Scaling Your Studio: Insights and Strategies from Ryan Browne's Masterclass

By Kyle Wilson

What does it take to scale your photography business into a studio - or two?  

Wedding photographers Ryan Browne and his wife Heidi started out shooting weddings as a hobby. They quickly expanded into two studios with ten photographers in New York City, where they book 150-200 weddings each year and are one of the most sought-after wedding studios in the world. 

In a Masterclass session, Ryan shared what he has learned about how to scale your photography business, including everything from how to pay your photographers to how to balance the workflow. 

This article is an edited and condensed summary of Ryan’s Masterclass. For the entire session, watch the video on our YouTube channel.

Should You Scale Your Photography Business?

If you’re considering expanding your business, the first thing to consider is why you should - or should not - do it. Jump in carefully to avoid wasting time and energy. Before you begin, step back and think about what you want to do. 

5 Reasons Why You Should Scale Up 

Are you watching potential clients slip through your fingers because you can’t handle the workload? It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. Here are 5 ways you might benefit from scaling up.

  1. To make more money
  2. You have too many inquiries / don’t want to turn away clients
  3. To build a team
  4. To increase your job security and get more inquiries
  5. For “passive” income / increase career longevity

5 Reasons Why You Should Not Scale Up

Growth isn’t always smooth sailing. Consider the flip side:

  1. It opens you up to more liability and risk. You might have studio shooters who don't perform up to your standards or don't hit deadlines, and then you have disappointed clients, all of which reflect poorly on your brand.
  2. It’s a lot of hard work. It is not a way to take a backseat for the long term.
  3. You are, at least in part, responsible for other people. Even if your team are independent contractors, they rely on you to book them enough work in the right kind of jobs that align with their ambitions. They’re leaning on you to get paid.
  4. Your focus shifts more to business vs creative endeavors. 
  5. Client experience can be weakened. As you scale up, you now have so many more clients to deal with that it is difficult to make every one of them feel special. 

When Should You Start Scaling?

“The single most important factor in deciding when you are ready to scale your business is your ability to generate more leads than you can keep up with.” - Ryan Browne 

Put another way: When your supply falls far short of demand.

In 2010, Ryan and Heidi shot their first wedding. By year three, they had enough inquiries that it was time to think about adding other shooters. Four friends came on board, and each had five to ten jobs for a year.

They disbanded this studio because everyone had their own businesses, and it didn’t make sense to compete against each other. They decided it was best to stay friends and step back to think about the long term.

One thing they knew was that they wanted to remove their names from the company name (it was Ryan and Heidi's Studio). They wanted to build a team of people on the same level, not have them regarded as lower-tier shooters. So, they rebranded to Forged in the North in 2015 and added two shooters, Paul and Ben (who are still with the studio today). 

At that stage, they were getting 300-400 inquiries per year. 

By 2019, they were getting 700-800 inquiries. So they would book 70 weddings but get 700 inquiries, leaving a lot on the table. 

The two reasons they couldn’t book more were availability and pricing. So they decided to start another studio to solve both problems: extra shooters and a lower price point. 

The new studio, After It All, described their shooters as up-and-comers whom couples could get while they’re still affordable, which appealed to a wide audience. 

By scaling into their first studio when they were in demand, Ryan and Heidi were prepared to scale again in a new lane with their second studio. 

Two Different Studios

The two studios are run from very different approaches.

Forged in the North

  • Client acquisition is through past clients, planners, Instagram, vendor listings, and recommendations. 
  • Pricing starts at $5,200 on average, and most bookings are $7,000-$8,000. 
  • The shooter is responsible for pre-wedding discussions with the client, shooting the wedding, and editing the wedding. 
  • Each shooter is an individual artist, and the studio handles the logistics like insurance, contracts, and invoicing. 
  • The shooters work full-time and earn a living.
  • The studio takes a $1,200 cut from each wedding, and the shooter gets the rest as they do the bulk of the work. 

After It All

  • In the beginning, clients were funneled from Forged in the North. Now, past clients refer as well as planners. 
  • Packages start at $3,600, average is $4,000-$5,000. 
  • The shooters only do the shooting. Heidi and Ryan do all the editing and client delivery. 
  • It provides supplemental income for the shooters.
  • The studio generates inquiries and is responsible for all marketing, advertising, business development, websites, social media, contracts and payments, and business liability insurance. 
  • The base rate for shooters is about $1,500, and they get roughly 75% of the add-ons. 

Three Paradigms to Start a Studio

Starting a studio is more than just hiring a few photographers. It's about setting the foundation for your business's future. Consider these three paradigms as you plan your expansion.

1. Passive Income

The more passive you want to be, the less money you will make. With Forged in the North, the shooters are more experienced and handle the editing, so the income earned is more passive and therefore the studio earns less money on those jobs, even though the bookings are at a higher price. With After It All, the studio does a tremendous amount of work to finish those jobs and is more involved in the upfront conversations, so it is less passive but a bigger source of income.

2. Paying Shooters

The less you pay your shooter, the higher the chance you’ll have turnover. With Forged in the North, the shooters are making six figures, and it's their full-time job. With After It All, shooters are aware from the beginning that it is supplemental income. The shooters might be doing weddings on the side, or they don't want to run a business, they're in grad school, or just getting their start and benefiting from the studio's lead generation.

3. Short-Term vs Long-Term Goals

To create longevity, Ryan and Heidi reinvested as much as they could back into the business in the beginning. They were less concerned with profitability and more focused on building a company that could be well-established in years to come. With their first studio, Ryan and Heidi Studios, they didn't put any effort into investing; there was no thought to longevity; it was just booking in jobs, and eventually, that studio folded.

Eight ways to reinvest in studios

Ryan candidly shared how they reinvested for longevity. These practical tips can easily be implemented in your own studio.

  1. Hiring a studio manager to do admin
  2. Take no commission (or a low commission)
  3. Pay for styled shoots to build a portfolio
  4. Don’t pitch yourself on jobs - give your shooters opportunities
  5. Buy your shooters gear
  6. Send gifts to planners
  7. End-of-year bonuses for shooters
  8. Ads and vendor listings

Tune In For More Tips

Scaling your photography business can be your key to growth and success. Ryan covered an amazing amount of advice and strategies in his Masterclass. Watch the full video to learn more about finding shooters, organizing workflows (including what tools he uses), and deciding who to hire. In the end, Ryan answers viewers' questions, sharing more vital tips for anyone thinking about growing their photography business.

Watch the video and subscribe to our podcast, “The Photographer’s Problem,” for more enlightening interviews.