On Set Photography - Tips and Advice
Photography has always been my passion. Throughout my life there were instances of seeing my path laid out for me, but it took years to connect the dots. I didn't realize at the time that I was working towards it through my genre choices. I started out in street photography, real estate, family and newborn portraits and in the evenings, I worked at live venues covering intimate concerts at a Jazz Club I frequented.
I was a self-taught working Photographer for six years learning on the job and I spent hundreds of dollars on film to experiment. I finally had the opportunity to attend the school my High School photography teacher told me I had the potential to get into. Before attending, my mentors were books and they don't answer when you have a question.
After completing my education I went into wedding photography, which is something I recommend to beginners. Weddings are a good way to practice working quickly to prepare for being on set. Consider a wedding planner like a prop stylist. Weddings are typically on a property with a manicured landscape and have the potential to film food photography, documentary, product, fashion, lifestyle, and lots more if you just look around. Take advantage of your creativity options once you have full-filled your obligations to your clients, maybe even show them a few, who knows, they may want to buy extra images.
During that time, event photography lead me to covering hotel and club openings. Then I landed a gig working with a radio station. I always had a soft spot for music, so I was beyond emotions when I was invited to join the team. Some of my first experiences working in the industry were being involved with concerts, film festivals, San Diego Comic Con for a media production company and the idea of working in the industry started to sink in after that and they all helped me to see my path clearly and doors began to open that actually lead somewhere.
When I was finally brave enough to email a producer, I was invited to join an indie feature. I did not know anyone who did set photography, so after doing a lot of research; I decided I had to start somewhere, so I emailed industry people. My education did not cover event and sets as specific classes, but, when you attend a technical photography school, EVERYTHING you learn can be applied to set photography.
When I was on set, I got a rush when I moved through the maze of black electrical cords on the ground in an awkward dance of 'don't bump the lights and stay out of the way, but I still got the shot. I LOVED being on set and I craved more.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect other than what I researched beforehand. I wanted to prepare and I did not want to mess up, so I read about crew jobs on set so I would understand their roles. I wanted to know how a movie was put together by everyone, not just what they expected from me or how I could do my job better. I also looked up set etiquette, something I had never heard of before, but I came across it on a research tangent.
I had to learn on the job quickly and I did not receive any instructions, I was pretty much on my own. As photographers, we have to problem solve, use common sense and consider physics, all in a split second. Those are only a few of the things we have to think about while taking pictures. So, I paid attention to what was being said around me and I learned where I should stand, what certain things meant, for instance repeated instructions like, “Back to one.” Depending on how many times the director wanted to reshoot a scene, I could capture additional angles and expressions. I learned there wasn't always going to be another opportunity, so I made sure I was in and out quickly for closer shots. I approached my work with a commercial mind.
I find it extremely helpful to read scripts and read them quickly. Knowing the story helps to know what is going on, so that I can try and map out coverage.
One important thing to mention at this point is equipment. Most sets require the use of a sound blimp on cameras. The box muffles the sound of the shutter, so that the boom microphone does not pick up the clicking. You can get away with not having a sound blimp, for a while, as long as your camera has a quiet mode (and you are not standing too close to the microphone), this will be fine until you can buy one.
They are not cheap and the tubes you need for lenses that connect to the sound blimp cost extra. Think about the total cost of a lower range professional camera and you're pretty close. The blimp and lens cover also adds weight to your camera, so make sure you're physically able to lug around your own gear from the start.
Look for interesting positions to get your shots, not just at eye level. Throwing distracting backgrounds out of focus is beneficial for poster work, where time on set may be short and you cannot pull actors aside between breaks to set up a quick shoot. Always assume you have to get it all in that moment, because you may think you can pull someone aside, but anything unpredictable can happen, preventing you from having those precious minutes. Script changes can mean your opportunity to shoot one on one is taken away.
Be careful not to distract actors by standing in their eye-line and be respectful of their space, needs, unless your set is on a beach and you are shooting with a zoom lens. In that case, they can't hear you over the sound of the ocean and you can capture a lot of images.
The producer would tell me daily what a great job I was doing and I felt more at ease realizing my instincts were paying off. I never had to be told to move out of the way and over the years I was called a 'photo ninja'.
I always take photos between scene changes. In those moments, the crews' personalities really come out and most can be even playful. A lot of bonding can happen between a photographer and their subject. You have moments to make a good impression and make people feel at ease.
The more professional and respectful a photographer is, the farther they will go and the more help on set they will receive, for instance where to charge batteries and where to store items. Never assume you have access to anything, bring extra supplies, memory cards and batteries, because days are longer than you think. Invest in a comfortable pair of closed toed shoes. I even started adding items to my set kit, such as a lightweight folding camp chair, just because you never know when you'll need one. I also carry a poncho and plastic rain guard for my camera. Everything you add should be light weight. If you need a jacket, bring it, if you need antacids, bring them, whatever you need for comfort, bring it. You WILL use it at some point.
Be polite. Think of being on a set like being in 'adult high school. The set has 'eyes and ears', so if you have an opinion about anything or anyone, keep it to yourself. That's one of those common sense aspects. I usually smile a lot, hear a lot and say nothing, unless I am asking an actor or crew member to pose for me. Naturally, friendships are made on set and there are plenty of times to socialize briefly, but when I am working, I stay focused and alert, because people can and do get hurt on sets. There are even words to describe when someone is moving around with an object that can jab you. Listen for the word, “points", it means what it sounds like. You don't want that metal light stand to hit your face or camera lens.
Capture moments where directors are speaking to the Actors. Sometimes there is laughter; sometimes it is an intense conversation about an upcoming scene. Keep an eye out for anything that stands out, including guests on sets. Often, I am watching actors in rehearsal and I observe body movement and expressions. Get used to waiting if you cannot photograph a scene at that time. I look for a place to stand, photograph someone else or look for a place to shoot through. Not all sets are wide open spaces and if I am lucky, I may have the opportunity to squeeze into a room, while squatting under the camera to get what I need before exiting and that's if you are invited into the room. Other times I cannot shoot due to scenes being shot that are intimate, like nudity.
Anytime there is a break, edit what you can. Sometimes you have to turn in RAW images only, or daily, while other times, they allow sufficient time for you to process your own work and hand it all in after a production has wrapped. You should know all of this in advance. Every set is different and you will naturally figure out how to adapt. Not all sets want the same amount of images. Some will ask you for your rates, while others will tell you what they pay. Some also do not require you on set daily, while others will. Research what the standard rates for your skill level are and what the various budgets are, so you go into a meeting prepared.
There are many personalities to deal with on a set. Not everyone will be happy with having another camera in their face when they are tired or stressed.
I am constantly studying techniques and equipment. Being a set photographer is not for everyone. It is hands down the hardest genre of photography I have done, because of the immense pressure and expectations. There are challenges that books and classrooms don't prepare you for, they just can't, but you have access to some of the best lighting conditions and professionals who can give you a personal insight to their character's depths.
As you gain experience you can join a Union. IATSE 600 has annual dues of $6,000 a year, but that is just one of them. Others do not cost as much.
Never take a photo on set with your cell phone as a guest or crew member, unless you have permission or you are using it for work to create a look. It is unprofessional and producers do not want anything leaked, which is why we sign releases. I've seen too many set selfies and they have no idea how damaging to their career that is, unless it was released for publicity by the producer. Never assume your seemingly innocent cell phone image is okay to take and share on social media sites. Scripts may be left open and plots accidentally given away by people snapping away carelessly. Even if you see others doing it, ask first. It may be okay for them, because some departments take their own photos for continuity purposes.
As the set photographer, the production company owns the images and has final say on what will be used how and where. Often, the Actors will, 'Kill a shot', meaning they will not allow an image to be used. You will notice some photographers have images posted on their websites and in blogs. It all comes down to what the contract states and what was agreed upon. Sometimes, it will be years and you will never see any of your images anywhere. That's just the way it is, but it shouldn't faze you, because you'll be working on more sets in no time.
About the Author
For over 20 years, Manibusan has successfully and creatively captured the essence of her subjects, including: Families and family events, businesses, fine art, events/fundraisers, pets, maternity, newborns, fashion, hotels, weddings and more. Her photographs have been in brochures, magazines (print/...