10 steps to be a still photographer in a feature movie production (Part 1)

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It was August 2014 that I came back to Melbourne from two months in Europe where I followed the Tour De France and I went to Greece for some travel photography. I was planning my next projects when I got a call by a friend of mine and film director, Simone Albano. I spent 4 weeks on the road following The Variety Cycle project with him. I was the photographer of this massive 4000km in 26 days event and he was the film maker.

He was starting directing a new feature movie called Experience the knowing and he was looking for a still photographer. Of course my experience in the filming industry was, well……. none. I had a long talk with Simone and I was captured by the project.

I thought I had in front of me a steep learning curve. My photography work never involved actors. I read a lot and watched many video about still photography in a feature movie. I started my work in September and I had 3 months of great fun. Sure, it was hard work, but when you enjoy doing it, that’s the best time of your life.

This is a list of 10 steps that can help anybody wanting to start this career:

Step # 1 : Do your homework

As in any type of photography be sure to have all your gear with you at any time. Do not assume that you may not need a zoom lens or a flash with you. Just take everything. Be sure to have at least a change of batteries and the chargers as well. You will need them.

Watch few YouTube videos that will introduce you to the new working environment. You need to be ready with your producer requests and you need to know the movie story. Once you arrive on set you should know already the scenes and how they will be filmed. Familiarize with environment and with the people you will be working with. You will spend a considerable amount of time with them, sometime in cold and unbearable situations.

Step #2 : Be a ghost in the set

One of the nicest compliment I received was “wow, I haven’t noticed you for the all day”. That is what you should aim. There is a movie production on going and, like it or not, still photography is not the highest priority, it actually falls in the lower part of the scale.

A movie production can live without still photography, however it will have a much better life with it. Photos are extremely important in film festivals, in social environments, in websites and much more. If the producer provides captivating photos, there is a higher probability that people will watch the movie. It is a good marketing “tool”

In saying that you need to be very careful when you move on set. First of all there are the actors. When they get ready for a scene they need to live the scene, especially if it is an intense one, as it could be a suicide. Preparing for the state of mind is very important for the actor and you should not get in the middle of it. There will be time later.

The most important figure is the director, he/she has the view of the scene and he is going to communicate it to everybody, be there to understand it, always as quiet as possible.

Than we have the people on set as the director of photography, camera man, assistants, etc. They need to move constantly to setup the right corner, to check the correct light, change the interior design and much more. Observe what they are doing, make photos but don’t stay in the middle of it.

Basically, be a ghost on the set

Step #3 : Silence please

Worthless to say that silence is paramount when filming. Guess what, even the click of your camera is a noise that cannot be done on set. Therefore, important, do not shoot during the filming. You can still do it in few cases as :

– the scene is without sound (it will be specified). Ask anyway the assistant of the director if you can shoot.

– you are really far away and you are working with a zoom. The background noise will cover your click. Again ask the assistant of the director if you can shoot.

It’s important to have the communication on going with your director. Do not assume you can shoot when filming in any circumstance.

Technically speaking you can still shoot on set, but be sure to use the correct gear for it as explained in this video, although it can be expensive and mostly used in Hollywood productions

Step #4 : Flashing!

Take a flash with you at all time. Possibly one you can remotely control. There is a good number of people on set and you can always find somebody that can help you with the flash in case you do not have an assistant. Sometime the light is just not enough and without a flash you would not achieve good results. You can push the ISO to a real high level nowadays, however there is sometime a limit to it.

If you are not familiar with flash and remote flash, do your homework before going on set. Start making photos with harsh light (middle of the day) as well as in dark places and small environments. Train with high ISO and find the point where flash works better. Be familiar with the light and push your limit.

Sometime you can use the set lights and that works great! Other times you can’t and that’s where the experience comes in. Take a light meter with you and verify the conditions before you have the actors in front of you, that may help of course.

Most important!! Scream FLASHING before you shoot. The DP and light technicians need to be aware you are flashing otherwise they may assume they have problems with the own bulbs. Again be transparent. You will soon understand who is after the light setting, just let him/her know first you are using the flash and again FLASHING before making any photo

Step #5 : Recreate the scene

You cannot take photos when they are filming. So, when is the right time? Just after a scene is completed, which it may be filmed of course from different corners. Stay on set to observe how is the scene. If you arrive too late you will not really know how was the scene. Somebody may show it to you but you need to be lucky, as everybody is way too busy.

You do not need to replicate the film, not from every corner. Just make you judgment on the best photo composition, which may be different from the filming composition

Agree with the assistant of the director to have 5-10 minutes after the scene to re-create the same environment and intensity. It may be difficult sometime as actors have already worked hard for that scene and they need a rest. However that may be the case for the first days. As soon as they see the photos and they love them, sure they will try their best to pose for you. These are the photos that go on the social environments, web, magazines, festivals and being on there it is indeed a great publicity for them, and for you of course. It is really a win-win situation.

…..see Part 2 of this post here and remember to stay connected on FacebookTwitter or subscribe to the monthly email, so you won’t miss any new free tutorial and tips


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Stefano Ferro
Stefano is a cycling, movie and life style photographer with a big love for landscape & travel photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

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