How the West is Winning: Spotlight on Los Angeles and San Francisco

By Romy Ashby

San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge in the fog. The city is home to Left Space, 4th Street Studios and Blue Sky Rental Studios.

For many photographers, maintaining a personal studio is a thing of the past. The business is evolving, and renting as needed is the new standard. Meanwhile, East Coast image makers are migrating west in a sort of “creative gold rush” to cash in on the booming celebrity-advertised products and services trade. While some California rental studios remain relatively unchanged in what they offer to a more traditional client base, others are embracing a new breed of client with entirely new expectations. 


According to Siren Studios’ VP of Branding, Chris Panizzon, Los Angeles is emerging as the new capital of the creative industries. “It’s no longer just film and music,” he says, “but contemporary art, architecture and lifestyle brands. And celebrity drives the marketing dollar today.”

Founded in 2006, Siren started with one facility—Studio 1—occupying the old West Coast Studebaker showroom. Since opening, Siren has grown from one studio to eight, and today it’s a peerless utopia of image-making possibility. Located directly under the Hollywood sign, the rooftops offer breathtaking 360-degree views. “Siren is like a blank canvas,” says Panizzon. “We can support every manner of production: still, motion picture, visual effects, special events—everything. The diversity is fantastic.” 

In Culver City’s historic Helms Bakery complex is LightSpace Studio, a gorgeous, bright space with a beautiful, full kitchen. Owner Carin Krasner has a passion for photography as well as food, and the two combined is her specialty. For decades, product and catalog shoots made up a large part of her business. But technology—computer tools and affordable high-end digital cameras—caused a huge reduction in work for product photographers. Luckily for Krasner, food photography seems to be an exception. Nevertheless, to cover the costs of running her studio, she rents it out. She hosts a lot of small motion productions, such as exercise and kitchen demonstration videos, but automotive events are regular happenings too. A die-hard photographer by nature with a curious eye, Krasner is fascinated by what people do with the studio, and she loves to watch them make it their own for the day. “People come into the space and feel uplifted because it’s so light,” she says. “So many cool things are being produced, and having the studio has really kept me current.”

© LightSpace Studio
LightSpace Studio’s versatile 3,700-square-foot studio has a full kitchen and client lounge with a modern, polished style and natural wood and brick elements.
Avenue Six Studios, located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, is a versatile boutique facility offering comfort, support and endless possibility. With four beautiful stages and an outdoor back lot, Avenue Six has added a permanent “New York City–style” street set, which has already been used in commercials. In the six years since they first opened their doors, the studio has hosted every kind of production imaginable—and some productions that until recently would have been unimaginable. Webisodes, for example, didn’t exist when they first opened. Owner Paul Reitzin pays close attention to what his clients say and do. “We are constantly updating and improving our stages,” he says, “and all of our changes are based on client needs or requests.” The changes are rapid, but Avenue Six is ahead of the curve.

© Jason Mordoh
Avenue Six hosted Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Cereal commercial with Gifted Youth Productions, shot on the North Stage (top); The Backlot brings New York City to Los Angeles (bottom).

A longtime favorite among commercial advertising and editorial photographers is 5th & Sunset. Since its current management took over the space in 2004, world-class studios have become more plentiful in L.A., but 5th & Sunset has long maintained an exceptional relationship with a solid client base, and is known for creating the perfect marriage of functionality, aesthetics, service and value. Nevertheless, a little competition makes a good tonic. “I think, for the better, it has forced all of us to concentrate on our strengths and provide our clients the best possible value,” Studio Manager John Blakely says. “Everyone here is focused on creating an easy, fun and productive environment.” 

Blakely has been a part of the photography community for 20 years, but is not a photographer himself. “No, trained as a philosopher, actually,” he says when asked. 5th & Sunset team members wear many hats to provide perfect service, so Blakely often calls himself both the COO and the janitor. Clients enjoy one of the best equipment inventories in the city, as well as a personal touch from staff, who become like a second family. “Today you’ll get a super clamp from Brian,” Blakely says, “and tomorrow Brian will pull your equipment order without your having to provide it, because Brian remembers what you like to use.” 

5th & Sunset’s comfortable atmosphere is a big part its appeal, as is its location. “On a cool morning you can smell the ocean,” Blakely says. “You could toss a frisbee and hit Santa Monica.”


“When we opened our doors seven years ago, this was a quiet, mixed-use residential/industrial neighborhood,” says Left Space Studio Manager Dakota Chase. Since then, the area has blossomed with restaurants and cafes, creating a pleasant atmosphere of community.

Founded by a successful photographer with forty years of commercial and fine-art credentials, Left Space doesn’t miss a detail. “With an in-house equipment rental department and a well-designed, spotless facility,” Chase says,” I can confidently say that we set the bar for rental studios in San Francisco.” 

A 23,000-square-foot facility, the four ground-floor studios range in size from 900 to 3,800 square feet and offer every amenity, including a fully appointed kitchen. With four rental studios, Left Space is able to support the constant flow of productions coming in every day.

Chase says the business has seen a healthy upturn in the past few years, and she’s happy that Left Space has been able to support both local and international photographers. “We very clearly saw our industry gain strength as the economy started to bounce back,” she says. “We often call Left Space the litmus test for the health of the local photo business.”

Supremely located off two freeway exits and a block from the train station, 4th Street Studios is owned and operated by award-winning photographer Mel Lindstrom. 4th Street is considerably larger than most studios in San Francisco, with 2,200 square feet of actual shooting space, and because in recent years Lindstrom has found himself renting the space for video shoots more often than still, sound is a particularly important feature. One of his own promotional videos gives a terrific show of what he can accommodate, with a breathtaking mid-air performance by aerial artist Naomi Hummel, who wore a safety harness rigged from the center beam of the main stage. 

© Mel Lindstrom
In production at 4th Street Studios. 4th Street is often sought out for its ability to transform the studio space, with a cove that can be custom painted as a white cyclorama or a green screen up to 26 x 45 feet.

While people come mostly for the cove and large shooting area, he says, Lindstrom has noticed a definite trend of “less is more” among rental clients. “They used to want a fully equipped studio,” he says. “Now it seems like they want nothing but the empty space.” 

“Less is more” is starting to apply to time as well. San Francisco’s Blue Sky LightGrid™ is a facility where studio space is often rented for very short blocks of time, and for some relatively new reasons.

“Blue Sky enables the micro-entrepreneur, student or individual to achieve professional results affordably,” says owner and longtime photographer Bill Delzell. At Blue Sky, which he’s owned for 17 years, he collaborates with his clients in his LightGrid studio. A patented turnkey solution, the LightGrid incorporates touch-screen lighting formulas into a robotically controlled studio where sound, light and capture—for both photography and video production—are seamlessly integrated. 

Courtesy Blue Sky Rental Studios
Claudia Goetzelmann working on set in the Blue Sky LightGrid for designer Camelia Skikos.

With full green screen capabilities, the LightGrid eliminates hours of costly setup and preparation, once taken for granted as a part of any photo shoot. As a result, Delzell now sees a big demand for hourly use of the space. 

Changes in technology have altered not just the photo business, Delzell points out, but the advertising industry itself. 

Adweek’s recent article on ‘The Tween Machine’ summed it up,” he says. “The author says this new powerful consumer does not want to be advertised to, they want to be engaged. The ‘Second Screen Audience,’ which means every screen but TV and cinema, is transforming everything from communications to content to engagement.” With this phenomenon, 60 percent of Delzell’s shoots are video; the rest are a hybrid of video and stills shot simultaneously.

With the understanding that a rental studio must keep pace with evolving client requirements to be successful, Blue Sky hosts a unique residency program called The Work Yard, which serves multiple purposes. In the studio, newly graduated interdisciplinary students gather to collaborate as a creative team, with a goal of refining and empowering brand strategy. The program offers an affordable solution to companies wanting to build their brands through the social media prism while giving new grads an opportunity to enter the work force with hands-on experience. 

“I used to feel accomplished if I made one good image for an advertising client in a day,” Delzell says.” But, as he reminds the residents, everything that happens in front of the camera is still the domain of the creative individual, and that will never change. “It’s an exciting time for image makers of all disciplines,” he says. “Rethinking the path to a meaningful and engaging career is vital to anyone hoping to be seen, heard and recognized by this very elusive 21st-century audience.”



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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