Tech Talk – General Q & A on Film Stills

James Gamble and Dan Richardson - Here for some answers.

Sam D is studying photography at university in the UK. He got in touch with me to assist him with a professional practice component of his course. In fact it was Sam’s e-mail that prompted me to start my series of Tech Talkarticles, so I owe Sam (and everyone else who takes the time to interact with me) a big thanks! Another e-mail I received recently prompted me to revisit Sam’s interview and I thought it a good one to publish for my other readers.

How have I marketed myself in the past?

Most of my marketing is through my website/blog, word of mouth through doing good work on other projects and also through continuous networking.

How did I start?

The first shoot I did was on an independent hobby project made by a group of film enthusiasts. Sadly, the film was never completed, but it gave me the opportunity to create some great and unique images and got me hooked on working on film sets. My next project was a TV pilot. I have subsequently worked on a several student projects also, and I see them as an excellent way of getting experience, not to mention for the networking opportunities.

How do I price a job?

Production stills sits somewhere between a freelance commercial photographer and a full time studio photographer in terms of stability and working hours. I tend to price my time somewhere between. You are often also able to charge “kit hire” although that seems to be rare at the entry end of the business.

Do employers look for certain qualifications or is it just personal style and or who you know?

I’ve never been asked by a prospective employer about my qualifications, only about the quality of my work and who I’ve worked with and what projects in the past. Predominantly the role of stills photographer is not advertised so you really need lots of strong working relationships with the people who will influence the hiring of the stills photographer (mostly Publicists, Producers and Directors).

Is there anywhere that trains you in production stills photography?

I’ve found no courses that deal directly with shooting production stills. All of my skills in relation to working on set are self taught through trial and error. There are very limited resources on the role of a production stills photographer.

Any key places to show your portfolio in order to move on in your career? Anywhere that will review your work and give feedback?

I think it is imperative for all serious photographers to have a web site that makes their portfolio easily available. There are several employment networking web sites (eg FilmCrewPro, Production Wizard, Shooting People) that offer facilities to host a portfolio of your work, but I tend to use these sites for publishing a list of credits only and then provide a link to my website as the primary source of seeing my portfolio online.

In addition to a web presence I have a print portfolio which I will take to meetings with prospective employers with about 10-15 prints of my work – it rarely gets used, but Its important to have when you do have a sit down meeting.

Finally, i try and make sure that I have a gallery of selected images in my mobile phone. Obviously its not the optimal means of displaying your work, but it is excellent tool when you are networking socially. Prospective employers can quickly see the calibre of your work.

What tips do you have on cramming all the information required into single images?

The simple answer is that you can’t. Advertising photography, which is what production stills are, to me is about conveying simple messages (emotion, drama, concepts) through striking images. You can’t tell the whole story with a single image, and you don’t want to. You just want to stir the interest of the viewer into investing their time and money in watching the film or TV show.

How do I personally “deal with the lighting”?

You just have to. One of the most valuable things that working film sets has taught me is that “correct exposure” as defined by your light meter (either in camera or hand held) is only a guide. If a scene is lit with minimal lighting then that’s how it is envisaged by the director and the cinematographer as the best way of telling the story. I have come to learn that some scenes just won’t make a good production still, and if you think that the moment is important enough then you have to make arrangements to get the shot under different conditions including recreate the shot on your own terms.

Also, its important to note that if you’re shooting with a modern digital SLR that you often have more flexibility with light sensitivity and lenses than the cinematographer. I’m always prepared to set a high ISO or use a faster aperture if it means the difference between getting a shot or not.

Finally, on larger scale projects there is usually better lighting to work with – the lighting team have more equipment at their disposal and more experience in making the most of the equipment that they have.

Is there any advice I would give to any photographers wanting to develop their skills as a production stills photographer?

Use every opportunity you can to get on set. Understand that having strong interpersonal skills is massively important on set and will get you opportunities you might not otherwise get. Make yourself known to the cast and crew and don’t get in the way of what they are doing. Minimise any impact that your work has on the flow of the shoot. Production stills are (in my opinion) hugely important to the marketing of the film, but they cannot and should not interrupt the film making process unless through negotiation and agreement with relevant on set authorities (in the first instance that would be your First AD).

Any useful information I can share about copyright, marketing techniques, ‘what happens next’ once the images are taken, is the stills photographer generally on their own in terms of ‘a team’ as such?

Regarding copyright this is usually negotiated, but in general productions will expect to own copyright or at least have an unrestricted licence to use the photos – I’ve subsequently written in more detail on this topic here TT 04 Copyright and the stills photographer. Even when the photographer retains copyright it is also important to deal responsibly with the images. Often I make agreements with productions only to publish photos in consultation with the production. I would never make images from a project available for publication with out the explicit approval of the production.

Marketing techniques – I’m assuming you mean marketing of myself. I can only reiterate that that a big part of it is developing connections with people who will choose the stills photographer. Read up more at TT 12 How to get a job as a film stills photographer

What happens next with the photos – I usually have at least one contact on the production (either a producer or the publicist) who I deliver the images to. Usually I’ll deliver images on a daily basis and as swiftly after the shoot day as is reasonably possible. Sometimes images are sent back to me for additional retouching. On larger productions there is a marketing department that will handle the images and manage their release. My article TT 07 Delivering production stills to the people who need them covers this issue in lots more detail.

The stills photographer usually work alone (I’ve very rarely been on set with more than one dedicated stills photographer).

Anything else you’d like to fill me in on?

I have found that the stills photographer has varying degrees of acceptance on film sets. The stills photographers who are easy to work with, discreet and undemanding are the ones who will be asked back. You want to be one of those ones.

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