Business + Marketing

When a Dream Photo Studio Met Harsh Reality

May 11, 2020

By Brienne Walsh

When she was little, Nicole Mason was the kind of kid who was always selling something she had made—lemonade, bracelets—and in retrospect, it was obvious that she had a mind for business. “I never thought I’d be a business owner, however,” she says. “I just wanted to do something creative.”

For the last three years, on top of working as a freelance editorial and commercial photographer with clients like Allbirds and Work & Co (after having been designated a Rangefinder 30 Rising Star of Wedding Photography in 2016), Mason has run The Portland Studio, a rental space for fellow photographers. The experience merged her talent for business with a desire to be creative—and it gave her some experience wearing many different hats that she can put to use in the current challenging economic climate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[Check out our COVID-19 photography topics, including “9 Ways to Keep Your Photo Business Afloat” and how to help sustain yourself financially.]

Mason began her career as a wedding photographer in 2014 after graduating with a degree in studio art from Houghton College in New York. She quickly found that while she enjoyed some aspects of the work, like taking portraits, she found others to be lonely, including editing. “I had this gut feeling that I wanted to work more with people, to do more collaborative projects,” she says. 

the portland studio interior with models nicole mason
Props, paint, models and a rolling background at The Portland Studio get plenty of natural light.

In 2016, she decided to rent a studio space in the basement of a former industrial building in Portland, Oregon, where she is based. The rent was $300/month. The owners of the building were renovating the floors above her, and occasionally she would sneak upstairs to admire the hardwood floors, high ceilings and natural light.  

At the end of 2016, she gave up her studio and her apartment, and she went on a road trip to clear her head, and shoot a wedding. In January 2017, she returned to Portland, and saw that her landlord was renting one of the newly renovated 700-square-foot spaces for $1,500/month. Rather than keep the studio herself, which would have been a financial burden, Mason decided to create a space that could be rented out to others by the hour. She envisioned that freelance wedding and portrait photographers, as well as small businesses and emerging brands, could use the space for themselves and clients. She named it The Portland Studio. 

inside of the portland studio for photographers to rent
Minimalist design served as a blank canvas for photographers to explore for themselves.
rolling backgrounds for photographers to paint at the portland studio
A variety of rolling backgrounds provided diverse looks in the same vein of simplicity.

Mason had a little bit of money saved, which she invested in the deposit for the space — she estimated that she put down about $5,000. She also spent $1,200 for two custom backdrop walls. To market the space, she started an Instagram account, @theportlandstudio, which she cross-pollinated with posts from her personal Instagram account, @neekmason, a page with more than 92,000 followers to date. She attributes her page’s popularity to being placed on Instagram’s “suggested Instagrammers” list, but it’s easy to see why users are drawn to Mason’s carefully curated vibe, which exudes millennial minimalist chic.  

[Read about “How Wedding Photographer Jennifer Moher Solidified Her Creative Palette”]

In opening the space, Mason was able to draw on a strength she had forgotten she had: business acumen. What set The Portland Studio apart from competitors at the outset was that it could be rented for short periods of time. Many photo studios in Portland require that you rent the space for at least eight hours. The Portland Studio could be rented for two hours for $105, with a declining hourly rate the more time you book. The 14-foot-high ceilings and north-facing windows lent consistent natural light. Props included two moveable walls, two c-stands, two wall tapestries, a white seamless paper stand that could be used for backdrops and various potted plants. “You don’t have to be a professional photographer to take great photographs in the space,” says Mason. 

painting on models clothes in portland studio experimental photography
Artists were given carte blanche to try out their own concepts in the studio.

Very quickly, photographers and potential clients began following The Portland Studio on Instagram, through Mason’s account. Word spread and within a few weeks, she was regularly booking the space. After a few months, The Portland Studio was profitable enough that Mason was able to hire a studio manager to take care of the bookings and manage Instagram. She chose wisely: Annie Barton, who also is a social manager at Mayne Marketing, a digital marketing agency. “My goal was to get it as automated as possible,” says Mason. Besides Barton’s salary, Mason’s overhead was very low. 

Together, Barton and Mason used The Portland Studio’s Instagram page to tell the story of the 700-square-foot space, which forced them to flex their creativity. To date, the account has 24.7k followers, all of which were acquired organically. 

“We actually had rentals every day,” Mason said. The most common appointment was two hours, but occasionally the studio was rented out for days at a time for a shoot. On Saturdays, the studio was generally booked solid. 

Owning The Portland Studio gave Mason financial freedom that allowed her to be more creative. “It’s great as a freelancer to have a bit of stability,” she said earlier this year. “The bookings at The Portland Studio are a lot more constant than the photography work that comes in.” With the added income from the rental studio, Mason was able to experiment with her craft. “I could afford new gear. I could use the space to test or to bring some friends in together.” When she worked on a personal project in the space, she exchanged free studio time for stylists and brands that donated time or products. She also provided free images that collaborators could use in their own marketing.  

By 2020, the business was so successful that Mason had plans to expand. She was in negotiations to rent a new 2,500-square-foot space a few blocks away. The studio was going to have parking and a front entrance, which would have allowed renters to access the space without Mason or Barton needing to be present. She was poised to sign a lease on the new space when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out across the United States.

Mason feels lucky, in retrospect; she had yet to sign the paperwork to rent the new space. Her lease on The Portland Studio’s current space was up on March 31, 2020, and she had just signed an agreement with the landlord to go month to month. By the time the landlord sent the lease for the new space, it was already clear that The Portland Studio would have to close its doors, at least temporarily, to comply with stay-at-home orders. Photography, after all, is considered a nonessential business.  

Rather than stay in the old space for April, Mason packed up her things and moved out. She returned all of the deposits for future shoots and let Barton go, too. “Her job was to manage all the appointments and questions about the space, and curate and market our studio on social media,” she says. Those services were no longer necessary. 

In an Instagram post on April 16, Mason wrote: “This time is difficult, but it’s also a slow-down that I’ve felt many times before, and know well from years of working as a freelancer. If anything, the constant fluctuations of my normal life feel as though they’ve prepared me for this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not been easy, and in many ways, life has not been on pause. But at least, if there’s anything I’ve learned from the highs and lows and in-betweens, the pains, the no’s, the uncertainties, it’s that they all do pass. And something better than you could’ve imagined eventually does take their place if you’re willing to put the work in of wading through the water, no matter how deep it gets, maybe even swimming against the current. You will touch the sweet ground again.” 

editorial and commercial photographer nicole mason personal work
Personal work from photographer Nicole Mason (above) shooting seaside (below).

Today, Mason is unsure whether she will open The Portland Studio in Portland again. An avid surfer, she’s dreaming of moving to California. “It’s a really special place with really amazing experiences for me, and every time I leave, I realize how much of a future with work and life I could have there,” she says.

[Explore these “Ideas for Photographers to Stay Creative, Productive, Connected and Centered” and how one fashion photographer is remaining hopeful for the future.]

To make ends meet right now, Mason has been selling stock photographs on Stocksy. “It’s hard being limited to my apartment because so much of my personal and professional work involves traveling,” she says. She’s making the most of the natural light in her apartment, and while she’s out on her daily walks. She’s posting regularly on her personal Instagram, too. 

When this is all over, it’s easy to see how Mason will land on her feet. A nimble business like The Portland Studio would work anywhere, and even a depressed economy can’t take away Mason’s presence on Instagram. For now, she’s just taking things one day at a time, just like the rest of us.