Ask Anything – Employee Wages

- - Ask Anything

Former Art Buyers and current photography consultants Amanda Sosa Stone and Suzanne Sease have agreed to take anonymous questions from photographers and not only give their expert advice but put it out to a wide range of photographers, reps and art buyers to gather a variety of opinions. The goal with this column is to solicit honest questions and answers through anonymity.

QUESTIONS:

I would love to see a post on employee wages. I am looking to hire studio manager and a full time first or possibly a hi-bred and am curious what people get paid for this sort of work. It would need to be broken down by experience I guess – New Grads, 3 yrs working experience, 5 yrs plus or something.

ANSWERS:

PHOTOGRAPHER 1:
I don’t have a studio manager now but I think that when I did I paid something like $130 a day.

As much as anything I think it has to do with where you’re hiring. A qualified person in New York is far more expensive than most places in the rest of the country. The high cost of living is part of it, but it’s also that people don’t move to New York to be studio managers or first assistants, so if you hope to keep them around for long you have to pay them well.

PHOTOGRAPHER 2:
We have only had part timers that work hourly. Most with little or no experience that we train- attitude is the best, not as much experience. We also give perks of using our equipment, us showing stuff in exchange…etc.

PHOTOGRAPHER 3:
Advice on hiring someone that would be beneficial to your company… it is a marriage.. use ones intuition when hiring. Look at experience, desire and sense of humor… then give direction and let the person make decisions, make mistakes, be accountable for all successes and failures and work together from a positive platform of teaching and learning each others strengths and weaknesses… trust, observe and encourage… that’s it.

PHOTOGRAPHER 4:
I personally would not hire someone full time until I could pay them at least $16 an hour or $30,000 a year.

PHOTOGRAPHER 5:

I think it really depends on where you live. We’ve only ever hired recent graduates so I don’t have any data on salaries for people with substantial experience.

Over the past 15 years, we’ve hired 7 people for full-time staff positions. Each time, we set the salary at a point that was pretty similar to an entry level admin assistant position (in our area right now, that would be $28-30,000 plus full benefits (health insurance, disability insurance, vacation, sick leave, etc.). We have not seen a big discrepancy between salary expectations for studio manager/in-house marketing work and full-time assistants, at least not among recent grads in this area.

Over time, we usually increase salaries by 5-7% per year and our employees have been content with that for several years. Employees that have stayed with us for more than a few years are also offered profit sharing.

One other thing that may be worth mentioning, especially since it sounds like your original query is from someone who may not have much experience with employees, is that the atmosphere of the workplace makes a huge difference. I stress, to feel good about their lives, people either have to make a lot of money or get a lot of personal satisfaction from the work they’re doing. So, if you’re not going to pay people at the top of the earning spectrum, you need to make sure you’re creating an environment where they’re able to get enough personal satisfaction out of the work they’re doing to feel good about working for you. Otherwise, you’re either going to have incredibly high turnover rates or a hostile and destructive work environment.

PHOTOGRAPHER 6:
The question asked about a “studio manager” not a “full time assistant.” These are two different positions.

Unless you are shooting more days than not, keeping assistants on staff does not make practical or financial sense. I have not employed full time assistants for over 15 years, however I have two great assistants that work with me on a first option basis.

I have not employed a studio manager for over two years. My last two studio mangers had over 5 years experience each and were paid $60K annually plus health plan, pension benefits and bonuses. (Keep in mind that the actual cost of an employee is approximately 30% higher than their payroll compensation.)

The studio manager’s responsibilities included day-to-day office organization, billing, some client and vendor communications and production coordination. One on the studio managers had great PR experience, which provided considerable added value to her employment. Having someone in the office with good phone and client skills was important when people actually used the telephone, but 95% of all communication is now via email.

I have found that with agents on each coast and a great freelance producer, that a full time studio manager is no longer needed. My staff on a non-shooting day is just me and my retoucher. This means I need to pour my own coffee, straighten up a bit, pick up the phone, and do some office work, but that’s not a big deal given the gross savings from the overhead is nearly $100K annually.

This is the perspective of a busy advertising photographer that keeps a small studio, and typically rents production stages for most shoots. A photographer maintaining a larger and busy commercial space would likely need a full-time studio manager.

PHOTOGRAPHER 7:
I don’t keep a full time person in house, but when I bring someone in for a non shoot day– I pay $200 a day or $15-25 per hour (depending).

We get asked this question in regards to billing clients for employees – so we reached out to an Art Producer to see how she feels about photographers charging for assistants (who are really PAID STAFF) on estimates/invoices:

ART PRODUCER:
I actually want to see these items outlined in estimates. I know ultimately I’m going to be charged for them anyway, rolled into the photographer’s fee or not. However, when they’re outlined I feel like I have more information and I’m able to see/get a feel for how many people will be on set without me having to ask/challenge the photographer on this. It helps me make sure that everything that I know my client is expecting will be covered. Also, when challenging budgets are presented, outlining as many aspects as possible really helps me see where I can cut, if needed.

To Summarize:
Finding the right person to run your studio or work along side you – has a lot to do with their personality. Some of the best assistants and managers have been TRAINED in the studio and were hired because of their personality. Find someone who compliments not only your work habits, but also your personality and the personality of your STUDIO. They have to be able to work well with others and play the role of second in command (but still know how to take charge).

Call To Action:
If you are unsure if you can manage someone in your studio – take on an intern to test the waters (many interns will do it for free just for the experience). Put money aside as if you are paying them (for 3-6 months) and see if you can really swing it. If you can – then you have 3-6 months of salary already put aside.

If you want more insight from Amanda and Suzanne you can contact them directly (here and here) or tune in once a week or so for more of “Ask Anything.”

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. Thanks Rob for posting this question. As a studio manager it seems no one ever talks about us and the huge role we play in a studio. As a studio manager with over 5 years experience I was a bit shocked at the rates that some of the photographers suggested. Even when I first graduated I was still making $15 an hour. I’m sure it depends on your experience and the market of course. I personally had a degree in photography as well as 5 years of admin experience upon graduation so perhaps that was a factor. I think there was some great points made about “it is a marriage.. use ones intuition when hiring. Look at experience, desire and sense of humor… then give direction and let the person make decisions, make mistakes, be accountable for all successes and failures and work together from a positive platform of teaching and learning each others strengths and weaknesses… trust, observe and encourage… that’s it.” It truly is a partnership and if you want to keep a great studio manager you must treat it as such, which is lost on so many photographers. A good studio manager should be more that just an admin because photography is not just another office job. I never just answered the phone and did billing. I managed staff, did retouching, marketing, production, sometimes I was a stylist and a shoot assistant. Sometimes I even did some of the test shooting. A good studio manager knows photography and knows the business of photography not just how to answer the phone and take out the trash. When the economy collapsed and commercial photographers closed their studios their was a big decline in the use and need for studio managers. The need for someone full time just isn’t there for most photographers but without someone there to run the show a lot of photographers are struggling. The photographers I used to work for full time have come back to me still needing my help but on a more limited basis so I decided to start my own niche of freelance virtual studio management. It has been so helpful to still have someone available to them too perform all the essential business functions without the cost of an employee or the overhead. Studio management isn’t dead just reinvented.

  2. I was never a studio manager, but if the job didn’t have serious perks, like travel, use of studio and gear, hob knobbing with celebs and high end clients for a major somebody, I can’t imagine the allure.

    I know of a studio manager who was working for a diva celeb photographer for many years – the guy was more like his personal assistant in many ways. When the studio was closed, it was pick up my laundry time, move my girlfriend or babysit the retouchers. He made ok money, but should have made double based on the hours he worked – roughly 81 a week. There was travel. There were celebs and high end clients but he quit the job several times in screaming matches and even all of that wasn’t enough. Pay + perks + base it on who you are and what you’re asking of the person + personalities. I suppose if you’re not an asshat, pay decent and treat the person right then you can adjust the pay and perks accordingly to that and where you are in the world.

    I’m a little surprised some current studio managers have yet to chime in. On the other hand, I’m not surprised because in NYC they work a lot and hard. They probably don’t have time to go blog reading.

  3. Do you want your studio manager showing up to work in jeans and a t-shirt? Do you want him to still be living at home with his parents? Should he be eating from the dollar menu at Jack-n-the Box every night? If a studio manager is treated in a similar manner as an assistant then he is not going to be able to relate well with clients that are making 100k+ per year just in simple conversations. Unfortunately, the only way to attract someone that is going to represent the photographer well and also handle the culture of a studio must get paid a reasonable administrative type of salary or wage. Photographers are accustomed to working alone or with other freelancers (stylists, retouchers etc) so there can be a learning curve when it comes to hiring someobody like a studio manager. Remember, a studio manager must be able to live and maintain a certain lifestyle just to be able to relate properly with clients and provide a good clean, relaxed personality and image of the studio.

  4. “Do you want your studio manager showing up to work in jeans and a t-shirt?”

    Well if it’s the kind of studio where the owner can’t be bothered to spell “hybrid” correctly then maybe jeans and a t-shirt are acceptable.

  5. I was a studio manager when I first started out and I got screwed over bigtime by my “boss” who refused to put me on a real payroll and pretended I was an independent contractor (so I would get a 1099 instead of a W2)–this way he wouldn’t have to provide health insurance or pay any FICA taxes. I ended up having to pay self-employment tax even though I was most assuredly not working for myself.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_contractor#Independent_contractor_versus_employee

    Make sure you don’t do this to your employees, or that you arent being screwed over yourself.

  6. “Remember, a studio manager must be able to live and maintain a certain lifestyle just to be able to relate properly with clients and provide a good clean, relaxed personality and image of the studio.”

    What the hell kind of douchebag clients do you have?

    • @elizabeth, Your cup runneth over with sour grapes. Surely you had some little part in agreeing to work for that “boss”. Although I don’t agree with some of what Mike said, your embittered retort to him is telling.

      • @Paul, it was called being 23 and needing a job. no sour grapes here. I’m older and out of that world forever. . however, the assumption that one needs to breed employees that dress fancy / have a certain “lifestyle” in order to maintain a level of “client satisfaction” or whatever just sounds totally douchey, sorry!

  7. When I worked on 23rd Street for a very well known photographer, we got $100.00 for a 12-16 hour day. If we went home after 12 hours I remember thinking it was a short day. As Elizabeth had mentioned I too was treated as an independent contractor. There really was not much choice at the time, you either accepted the arrangement or hit the road because they were 1000s of other people willing to do the work for less and that was in a good economy.

  8. I think the comment that Mike made about dress, diet etc. is very relevant to the fact that if you bring someone on full time as your employee you need to provide enough salary for them to exceed their basic needs. Benefits are also a great way to foster loyalty and encourage happy healthy people to collaborate with.

    Just as you wouldn’t put YOUR yearly budgeted salary below what you would need to live off of within your area, neither should you do this for someone in your employ – especially when you wish for them to give you 110% in return, day in and day out.

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