No modern event or party is complete without a few things: a bar, good food, good people, and a photo booth. Holiday party season is here, which means that photo booth fleets are busier than ever. For those in the business, this time of year is comparable only to wedding season. In recent years, photo booths have become a fixture of corporate and personal events. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is becoming “photo booth or we didn’t party.”
Photo booths aren’t new: In the course of about a century, they evolved from the Photomaton, which printed eight pictures for 25 cents in 1925; to the iconic four-photo-strip machine; to the factory-produced stalls that have become afterthought accessories in malls, bars, and movie theaters. But in recent years, entrepreneurs have dusted off the fun, magical-feeling memorabilia machines and transformed them into a key part of the event scene.
It’s difficult to say exactly how big the industry is, but Sam Eitzen, who co-owns a Seattle-based photo booth business, estimates that it’s now worth at least $100 million. L.A.-based event planner Kristin Banta told me via email that while photo booths have been popular for 15 years, within the last five it’s gone from being requested for 1 in every 5 to “almost 100 percent” of events. Bob Lindquist, press and communications director for Photo Booth Expo, told me that he now sees many people booking photo booths but not DJs for their weddings. I am in fact one of these people, forsaking a DJ for my laptop, speaker system, and djay Pro 2—but I did rent a photo booth. There’s also a rise in all-in-one party providers, businesses that package together a DJ and photo booth operator.
Between 2005 and 2010, the web search for “photo booth rentals” surpassed searches for DJs; Google Trends’ own data paints a similar picture.
Photo booth companies don’t take their namesake so literally, but still like to leverage that SEO weight. Most eschew an actual booth for a propped-up camera or a mounted iPad with a speciality photography app and a backdrop, a designer wall, or even a full set. The modern “photo booth” is known as a “photo experience” or “photo engagement” in the industry. Some experiences offer print photos; some send users digital copies. (Many do both.) Some companies send attendants to events; others offer only user-facing functions.
The photo booth market grew thanks to watchful entrepreneurs with photography experience, but it quickly became far more professional, says Eitzen. He and his brother started the SnapBar as a side business, which is based in Seattle with a presence in Portland, San Francisco, and L.A. Though they now work with a manufacturer, they made their first photo booth out of wood in their garage about five years ago. “We were weekend warriors, making some cash on the side,” says Eitzen, who was working at a camera gear startup at the time. Business was far better than the brothers expected, so they made the SnapBar their full-time jobs a few years ago. The company, which currently has more than 30 employees and a network of contractors, continues to grow, Eitzen says.
In the world of photo booths, the SnapBar leans toward the upscale. Its packages including staff and printing start at $1,099, with further pricing dependent on customer customization. Cheaper options in the market typically run from $300 to $500, and Groupon is full of discounted rentals too, but for the most part, you get what you pay for. Party hosts on a budget can also go the DIY route with equipment of their own.
Though Eitzen turned photo booth rentals into a full-time job, they remain a side gig for others in the industry. “People figured out ‘Oh my goodness, if I spend a little bit more money, I could manufacture these,’ and then manufacturers caught onto that, and now you can get onto any number of websites and buy your own booth for a few thousand bucks—or up to $10,000 if you want—and start your own photo booth business.”
This low barrier to entry is certainly part of its allure. “I would say about 75 to 80 percent of photo booths here in the U.S. are very much mom-and-pop, part-time gigs,” says Ryan Salinas, a Houston-based photo booth entrepreneur. “You can start a photo booth business for as little as five bucks, if you’re smart. Between Amazon and eBay, if you know what you want, you could fashion something rather quickly.”
Photo booth side hustles may be appealing, but they’re not necessarily sustainable for those looking to command a market. “You’ll end up turning down events on New Year’s Eve, even though New Year’s Eve is a big holiday for photo booths,” Eitzen says, speaking from his experience during the SnapBar’s early days. “Why? Well, because you’ve been working photo booth events the entire year and you just want to hang out with your friends.” That’s not to say that his exhaustion wasn’t financially rewarding. Eitzen says that at one point he and his brother made $200,000 a year on top of their full-time jobs. But logistically speaking, it won’t lead to growth; there are only so many events in a weekend that a one-, two-, or even three-person operation can book. A full-time photo booth business can’t restrict itself to working just weddings or holiday parties seasonally anymore, he says, as opposed to doing year-round corporate events. (Eitzen estimated that the SnapBar had 96 people out doing events December 3, the day we spoke.)
There is a small cottage industry surrounding and supported by photo booths—er, experiences—which means businesses that are aiming to grow pivot instead. Photobooth Supply Co. began as a wedding photography business but now sells photo booth equipment to other hopefuls, competing with the likes of Prop Culture and Photo Booth International, both accessory suppliers. Eitzen says his company commonly gets requests to build sets as backdrops, a business that he thinks could take off. While the SnapBar doesn’t create art installations, it does build specialty software for clients. If a customer wants guests to enter badge QR codes to access their photos, for example, the SnapBar, which staffs developers, can build that functionality.
Salinas’s Urbn Events is another business designed to cover the industry’s software niche. He offers two social photo booths: the Ring Light Booth and the Glam Booth. Both allow partygoers to don virtual accessories and include text in photos and GIF; the Glam Booth includes a custom beauty filter (not unlike the photo booth favorite among celebrity circles, Mirmir).
Perhaps another marker of the photo booth’s success (and maybe saturation), like any modern industry’s, is whether it’s inspired a podcast microgenre. Salinas is one half of the Super Boothers podcast, one of several industry-insider-focused shows. Those podcasts are complemented by online forums and incredibly active Facebook groups centered on dissecting the market. Salinas also travels internationally to talk about photo booths and photo experiences at conferences, and the industry is now robust enough to warrant a conference of its own: the Photo Booth Expo in Vegas. It began in 2015 with more than 1,200 attendees and exhibitors, and more than 4,000 attended the 2018 show, according to Lindquist.
On Super Boothers, Salinas often asks his guests why they got into the photo booth biz. One of the most common answers: “They thought it was a fad and that they could make a quick buck,” he says. “I mean, I’ve made a career out of a quick buck, apparently.”