What exactly does the On-Set Photographer do?
The job of an on-set photographer is to shoot photos that help to advertise, promote and to sell a film. It is also to document the film-making process and the working relationships on-set.
We take most of the images that you see in magazines, on-line and on movie posters.
A smaller part of our job is to help with any photographic props that may be needed within the film.
What skills are needed to be a successful On-Set Photographer?
Besides the obvious photographic skills, one needs a few other traits to make it in this position. You need to develop patience and be observant, willing to wait for those “decisive” moments. It helps be be friendly and able to interact with all different types of people.
If you are claustrophobic you may find this job very difficult. I often need to fit into small spaces and sometimes stay there for extended periods of time.
Being well organized is important, as you will be responsible for tens of thousands of images.
You have to be adaptable and ready to change plans at any second. Film crews are always moving quickly and there are many factors that can derail the best laid plans. Pack light and always be ready for change.
How are On-Set photographers hired?
There are many different ways to be hired, but it mostly comes down to word of mouth. From the outside, the film business seems imposing. Don’t get me wrong, it can be very overwhelming but overall it’s a much smaller group of people than there are in most industries.
Sometimes a call will come from a studio photo editor, other times a director or producer will ask for me. On rare occasions an actor is also involved in recommending you for work.
Often, a group of photographers will be presented to a director, and they will look through the photographers’ portfolios. Sometimes they want to have a conversation with their top choice to be sure that you are a good fit. The Coen Brothers heard about me from their long-time producer and I had a face-to-face meeting with them. We talked about my work and my set experience and they took a chance on me. I will always be very thankful to them for helping me to get started in this position.
Is there any discussion with the director and/or the director of photography about what they want aesthetically so that you can match the same style?
It varies with each job but normally the director of photography is easier to talk with about the look of the film because that is their main job and it’s what they are thinking about constantly. The director is usually quite busy with many different issues.
I am often allowed to view the dailies (unedited footage shot the previous day, but with a rough color grade that has been overseen by the DP) in order to see how the look of the film is progressing. I do try to match the feel of the project as everyone involved wants the images to represent their work and to be as true to their vision as possible.
I will often know the shot they’re going for because of the lens choice, and will get some shots that are similar (in framing and lens length) and some that are more advantageous for a still image.
Are you part of the camera department?
Yes, photographers are part of the camera crew. On union films (in the USA) you must be a member of IATSE 600, the camera union.
The photographer is really the only member of the camera crew that doesn't take orders from anyone on-set and works as kind of a lone wolf. They also work closely with the publicist and with the photo editors at the studio to acquire the shots needed.
Do you only shoot when the actors are preforming?
No, some of my best photos are shot between takes.
Behind the scenes shots (BTS) are an important part of the job.
One good example of this is with the GREENBERG movie poster. It was only my second film as a full-time on-set photographer. In the poster, Ben Stiller is looking upwards and the poster designer added a thought bubble above his head. At that time, Ben was briefly looking up to see the shot on the camera’s monitor and I snapped it. The photo by itself isn’t very interesting but in the context of a graphic poster it worked well.
Are you allowed to shoot anything that you want to on the film set?
Yes, but within some limits. You need to be out of the way of the crew, so that they can all do their jobs without interruption, but you also have to be out of way of the actors. This sounds easy but often you want some shots that are close to the film camera, and thus in the actors eye-line. Each actor has a different comfort level with photographers and it sometimes takes a while to figure out that relationship. The photographer can shoot whatever they want (within reason) but they have to remember that respect and kindness always goes a long way. A saying goes.. .the movie can be made without two particular people being on set: the still photographer and the publicist.
Do you only shoot with digital cameras? What cameras do you use?
Most On-Set Photographers shoot only digitally. I love film (B+W especially) and shoot both, the ratio being somewhere around 85% digital and 15% film.
On Inherent Vice I did shoot some old, expired film stocks and more color film than normal, but that was a rare occasion because Paul Thomas Anderson was excited about it. On Carol I tried to shoot in a style appropriate to the time period, also taking into account how the character in the film might see things. A lot of my photos were used as props in the movie so I used film cameras from the time that the story was set. When the actor first saw the images that her character was taking in the story she said, “Oh, I had no idea that I was such a great photographer!”
I have always liked Nikons, but will use whatever it takes gets the job done. Cameras are tools, and digital cameras come and go quickly. Don’t get stuck in spending your time researching gear when you could be shooting.
For film I often have a Hasselblad Xpan (ALWAYS in panoramic framing mode), a Mamiya 7ii, as well whatever else I’m currently playing with at the time or what I feel will be a good match for the film that I’m currently working on.
What happens to all the photos that you take, and how many do you normally shoot?
It greatly depends on the circumstances of that particular shooting day. If it is an outside location I will often shoot more images than if we are shooting in a small interior set. I shoot anywhere from 300 - 1500 photos a day, but edit them heavily at the end of each day. Once or twice a week I will send the lab a hard drive of images from the past few days.
At one point each studio had their own lab, but that is rare now and there are just a few independent facilities that most people use.
The lab’s job is to perform basic color corrections, to label each photo (with help from the publicists), and to organize the photos so that they can be viewed quickly and easily by editors and talent.
Do you have tips for aspiring On-Set Photographers?
You need to build a strong portfolio any way that you can. Work on student films or independent projects, tell people that you will work a day or two for free as long as you can use the photos to promote yourself. Volunteer, take classes, do whatever you can to get experience shooting on sets. This will also help you get more comfortable working around crews and talent. Learning proper on-set etiquette cannot be stressed enough.
Showing people your work and getting feedback is a great tool. It doesn't all have to be set work, but the more experience that you have, the better. Only show your best work. This is where quality over quantity really matters. People don’t want to see five variations on one shot, just the one shot the looks really great.
Let people know that you are looking for work and don't give up. Figure out who hires for the type of job that you want and talk to them, show them your work and follow their suggestions.
Keep learning and educating yourself. Look at as much other work as possible, past and current. American Cinematographer and ICG (International Cinematography Guild) are excellent places to start, as well as many on-line resources. There are hundreds of great books on filmmaking - study as many as possible.
Be open to different artistic influences - it will all help to strengthen your eye and also to shape your own personal style. Find other artists that you like and study their process and their influences. Attend lectures and watch documentaries about film-making and photography.
Learning as much as you can about the motion picture camera, the lenses and also the lighting will also help you. Learning the craft of film-making is of great assistance. Ask questions and be open to learning what other people on set do.
It goes without saying that you should also shoot as much as possible when you are not working on a job. Time is on your side in this respect and digital photos are cheap. Shoot a lot and shoot often. After that, edit without mercy and ONLY show your very best work.
Remember that everyone finds their own path in this career and what works for one person may not work for another. Get in there and figure out your own way.
Best of luck - Wilson Webb