Photo Studio Tour: Inside the 57,000 Sq. Ft. JohnsonRauhoff Studio

The JohnsonRauhoff studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan employs 12 staff photographers, several steady freelancers, and six full-time retouchers to produce catalogues and ads for national and regional brands. It operates as a subsidiary of a Benton Harbor ad agency by the same name, which specializes in retail and product advertising. Among the studio’s clients are Sur la Table, for which it produces ten or 11 catalogues annually; Meijer, a regional department store chain; and Newell-Rubbermaid, which owns a dozen or so brands that send work to the studio.

“Those three accounts give us work every day, so it’s not hard to keep seven or eight photographers busy all the time,” says studio manager Rob Regovich. Other steady clients include Whirlpool, KitchenAid, Cabela’s, Amway, and Hatteras Yachts. 

The studio has a total of 57,000 square feet in two separate buildings. JohnsonRauhoff purchased the main building, a former car dealership with just over 35,000 square feet of space, in 1999. That building includes 24,000 square feet of clear span shooting space (i.e., no obstructions) in the old auto showroom, and about 11,000 square feet for storage of props, equipment and client merchandise in what used to be auto repair bays. 

The shooting area features a 75-foot bank of north-facing floor-to-ceiling windows. Staff photographers use the natural light primarily for Sur La Table (SLT) catalogue work, for which product color doesn’t have to be “spot on,” lead photographer Donald Lesko says. 

The shooting bays are not fixed; the space is “totally flexible,” Regovich explains. “If we need rooms that are 20x40 feet, we can set up a number of those. We can have seven daylight bays, and 25 sets [in addition] of a medium size. Or we could have 50 or 60 tabletops.”

The second building, which staff refer to as “The Hangar,” is leased. It contains 22,000 square feet, including 15,000 feet of shooting space. It is used primarily for white seamless work and sets that have to be lit to render accurate color. Some of the sets are quite large, Regovich notes. “Everything is on wheels. When a set has to go up, our full-time carpentry staff pulls walls and windows [out of storage], screws everything together, and the set is ready to go lickety-split.”

Lesko says the staff constantly scouts flea markets, antique malls, and architectural salvage businesses to refresh the studio’s collection of tabletops, walls, surfaces, furniture and other props for sets.

The shooting bays, in a former auto showroom, are flexible and can accomodate sets ranging from a few huge rooms to 50 or 60 tabletops. Image © Ted McDonald.

When it comes to gear, though, the studio is frugal. “We keep things limited and straightforward. As a result, you end up thinking creatively, and make what you have work for you,” Lesko says.

JohnsonRauhoff owns 23 “systems” on roll carts, comprising a Mac computer running Capture One imaging software and a camera. The cameras include Canon 5D, 6D and 70D models, as well as Nikon D800 and D810 models, and two PhaseOne medium-format models. Regovich says the DSLRs provide enough resolution for most client applications, and are less costly than digital medium format cameras. Besides, staff photographers prefer to shoot with DSLRs, he says.

Other essential gear includes older model Cambo and Arkay camera stands and “tons” of old Speedotron lighting gear that the studio is now in the process of replacing with Profoto power packs and heads. The studio also buys 4x8-foot sheets of black/white foamcore by the case, Regovich says, because photographers use it to make their own light modifiers.

“You realize the value of those foundational things: camera stands, C-stands, and good reflector cards. They’re the bedrock of everything we do,” Lesko adds.  

Looking ahead, JohnsonRauhoff will invest this year in video production gear. The studio has already purchased a Sony alpha a7S camera. Regovich says they’ll soon buy HMI lights, which the studio has been renting in Chicago, a 90-minute drive away.

As for studio space, there’s plenty more around town if the studio continues to grow. “One of the big pros of Benton Harbor is cost. Real estate and other amenities are cheaper here than elsewhere,” Regovich says.

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