Introducing Dagmar Studios

I decided last year that it was time for me to build a company. It’s been quietly running for a few months now, but today it’s open to the public.

(Logotype by Jessica Hische)

It’s called Dagmar Studios. It’s a full-service creative and production house based in San Francisco, CA, and it’s maaany years in the making.

It’s been almost 25 years since I started making photographs, almost 10 since I started working in Silicon Valley, and almost 5 since I left my tech career to start a photo biz. I’ve been lucky enough to work with companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, Facebook, Fitbit, Google, Instagram, Medium, Pinterest, Square, Stripe, Twitter and Uber, and produce large-scale personal projects like The Techies Project.

I started as a scrappy independent photographer working in Silicon Valley, making my own rules as I went, and eventually became repped by one of the best photo agencies in the country, getting a chance to experience the more traditional, high-end production side of the photo industry.

Every year is a new set of lessons about what I’m capable of and where the market is going. I could write a book about what I’ve learned in the last few years as a full-time photographer and why it inspired me to start a production company. I’ll save most of those words for another time. For now, I’ll just answer the big questions below.

(If you’d like a shorter explainer of what we do and how we do it, just visit the website here.)

What is Dagmar Studios?

We’re a creative/production house based in San Francisco, CA.

What do you guys do?

We produce great content for less than traditional agencies.

We’re here to help companies take care of all of the hard stuff required to make great content — developing the creative, managing the production, and hiring the talent — all at a lower cost than what they’d find elsewhere.

Brand/product shoot for Envoy. San Francisco, October 2016.

What does this mean?

Getting top-quality creative, production and talent is traditionally suuuuuuper expensive. Most agencies, agents and photographers haven’t figured out how to provide adequate services and make great content with the smaller budgets most companies have today.

A little industry background for you—from what I’ve observed over the last few years, the photo industry right now is fragmented into two main camps: the traditional and the new-school.

With the traditional, you get world-class content — what you see in the best advertising, billboards and magazines. But to commission it, you typically need a shitton of money. This is due largely in part to the traditional industry clinging to its traditional models of agencies and agents, full of middle men, extra fees and and unnecessary production costs. If you go this route, you get amazing work, but you’re going to pay a lot for it.

Then you have the new-school. Instead of going through traditional ad agencies, most companies now go directly to photographers to commission content. There are now lots and lots of photographers out there who will make content on the cheap, but they usually have minimal experience and don’t know what goes into producing commercial-grade work. If you go this route, you usually end up with cheap content that’s okaaaaaaay, but not great.

The approaches from these two camps are totally different. One photographer from a traditional background might try to do a photo job for $200,000, and a new-school photographer will try to make the same content for $2,000. Neither of these approaches are working so well today — the big-budget traditional market is shrinking for the first photographer, and the second photographer will never actually make a reliable living charging so little for their work (and is hurting the market in the process).

I’ve been carefully observing for the last few years where money is going in this industry, who is dying and who is thriving. And the money, right now, is going to those who can execute projects that have the same (or close to the same) quality as traditional commercial-grade work, but without relying on astronomical budgets to pull it off.

This means smaller agencies and scrappier (but still seasoned professional) photographers — ones that can make stellar work with $20k, $50k, or $100k—are beginning to win work over the traditional giants who have dominated the industry for decades.

So that’s the kind of studio I decided to build.

Because I’ve worked on both sides of the industry, I know what production costs ultimately matter and what don’t today. This allows me to work with smaller budgets that most traditional agencies would scoff at, and I can stretch them further than most people in my industry ever would.

I do this by eliminating the costs that the traditional industry clings to — all of the middle men, overhead, production items and fees that frankly aren’t necessary to get the job done anymore. With those cuts alone, I can work with smaller budgets but still cover the costs that matter — like paying my crew top rates — and produce top-shelf work in the process.

Photo, video + Production for Facebook. Menlo Park / Tel Aviv / New York / London / Seattle, July-Nov 2017.

So what are the actual services you offer?

We help companies take care of all of the hard stuff required to make great content — developing the creative, managing the production, and hiring the talent — all under one roof, and at a lower cost than what they’d find elsewhere.

You can read more about our services here.

What is creative and why do I need it as a service?

Knowing exactly what content you want—from the campaign idea down to the aesthetic details—is hard.

Say you’re a designer, marketing manager or founder at a company whose team needs some new photos, GIFs, or videos for a product launch. You’ve been put in charge of making those photos happen. You’ve never been given this task before, and you have no idea where to start.

If you’re the person above, you’re totally normal. I’d say 90% of companies who come to me are in this scenario.

It wasn’t always like this though. Traditionally, companies who wanted visual content would first go to ad agencies, who would help with strategy, creative and shot list development before finding a photographer to bring those shots to life. But with more and more companies working directly with photographers, the creative and strategy part is often glossed over, as no one’s quite sure who should be in charge of it.

Not many photographers know what to do in these situations, regardless of their experience. It just wasn’t traditionally a photographer’s job to come up with a campaign — it was either the client’s job or the agency’s job. Period.

I decided early in my career to take a different approach. I’ve ended up leading the creative for most of the shoots I’ve ever done — mostly because there was no one else there to do it, and my past career in branding and communications made it easy for me to take on the role. And later in my career, when agents and agencies began taking creative away from me (because photographers don’t handle creative, remember?), I quickly realized the campaigns were always better when I was in charge, handling the creative directly with the client.

So, I built Dagmar Studios to have creative and content creation under the same roof. Not only are we making the content — we’re helping you develop it from scratch. Sometimes that means coming up with campaign ideas, developing storylines or establishing basic business goals for a shoot. Sometimes that means developing every little detail of every scene on your shot list. Whatever you don’t know, we will figure out for you.

Product/lifestyle shoot for Morton Salt. San Francisco, August 2017.

What about production?

Producing a complicated campaign is hard.

I remember when I was given my first real budget, five years ago. It was from a very large tech company most of you use every day, wanting me to shoot a lifestyle campaign for one of their products. Up until this point I was a scrappy independent photographer, shooting with natural light by myself, with no assistants and no crew. So when they told me the budget was $75,000, I had absolutely no idea what to do with it.

After a few panicked calls to friends in the industry, I quickly learned that I was supposed to work with a producer to figure all of it out. So I did, and I dove head first into the world of shooting with production.

Over the years since then, I’ve learned the ins and outs of production and everything that goes into a commercial photoshoot. There are a million things to coordinate and manage, from scouting and booking locations, to selecting models, to securing permits, to buying and planning props and wardrobe, to feeding crews of dozens of people, to releases and w9s and payroll and insurance and everything in-between.

Traditionally, photographers leave the production work to independent producers, but six months ago I decided to see what would happen if I brought a production team in-house, handling everything in tandem with creative. Almost immediately my shoots became better AND cheaper, because we could make production and creative decisions simultaneously. Everything happens under one roof, so communication between teams is fast and nothing gets lots in translation, saving production time and money. It‘s a game changer.

Long story short, there’s a lot of stuff that goes into a really great shoot, both in terms of creative and production. It can be overwhelming. We handle it.

What about talent?

Finding a great creative team is hard, especially when time and money are finite.

Fortunately, I’ve spent the last several years building strong relationships with some of the best talent in the industry. They’re the top producers, lighting technicians, makeup artists, stylists, models and more. I’ve already built the dream crew so you don’t have to do a lick of work searching for them yourself.

This extends beyond photography as well. If you need a multimedia campaign with video, illustration, animation, you name it — we can bring in the best talent for the project, thanks to years of relationship building in the creative and tech industries.

Oh, and I’m bringing on additional photographers, which allows the studio to work on a wider range of projects, addressing an even broader market. In five years, it wouldn’t be crazy to see Dagmar Studios with photographer rosters in multiple cities. Time will tell.

Production crew on set for Aura Frames. San Francisco, October 2017. (Photo cred: Brittany Sterling)

What makes you think this is something that’ll work?

Because I’ve been testing it, and it’s been working. And by working, I mean really working. I brought my creative and production in-house starting about halfway through 2017, and in the last six months I’ve done almost half a million of production. To a traditional ad agency that’s small peas, but we’ve been able to do a LOT with that money.

Rev from when I was repped by an agent vs. when I started testing Dagmar Studios. (via Quickbooks)

In those six months I’ve created some of the best commercial work I’ve ever done. I’ve done shoots in eight major cities and four countries. I’ve been able to pay top industry rates to a network of local creatives and production crew. I’ve turned a profit that allows me to self-fund the business as we grow.

So, it’s pretty cool — we’re doing top-shelf creative and production work, paying our crew top rates, and making a solid profit, all while charging less than traditional ad agencies and production houses. The model works.

I did all of this pre-launch with no advertising, so it’s exciting to think how much more we can do now that we’re open to the public.

Product/lifestyle shoot for Aura Frames. San Francisco, October 2017.

So what happens now?

Well, now it’s time for me to get to work. As for you…

Please spread the word! Tell your design team, your marketing team, your founders, your friends, whoever might be jonesing for some great content in 2018. If you successfully refer a job to the studio, I’ll personally hunt you down and send you a referral bonus in the mail (and I’ll give you a giant hug next time I see you on the street). Sharing this post or is a great place to start.

If you’d like to read more about the company and what we do, read our FAQ here.

If you’d like to work with us on a project of any size, reach out! You can get in touch here.

If you’re a photographer (or other type of creative/crew) and want to be considered for future work with our crew, reach out here.

If you have a question or need life/industry advice, click here.