Snapshots of a Set: The Importance of Dedicated Unit Still Photography for Your Production

Throughout my 20 years working in the film and television, I have observed still photography to be among the most invaluable tools utilized by producers and studios to best position their movies.

One might ask why, given advances in technology with HD and Red cameras, a production should spend extra money to shoot still photos for an independent film? It’s the still photographer who captures those special moments in time—in front and behind the camera—which in turn are used for marketing and publicity images. This involves the creation of the one-sheet, online promotion images for social media, and images of you on set helping illustrate your story.

A producer tasked with budgeting must take into account all the traditional costs associated with hiring the very best available in transportation, lighting, grip, costuming, makeup, craft services and, of course, the talent. But they should also consider hiring the very best person who has power to increase their ultimate profits in the long term. Producers often spend more money retouching and fixing bad still photography after their film has wrapped than they would ever have spent hiring a great still photographer in the first place. This is a mistake. It’s far more economical to have the original images of your film look better than the film itself.

Cinema’s Most Iconic Images

If you’re not investing in finding the best talent for your still photographer, you’re missing an opportunity to lengthen the lifespan of your film and increase long-term profits for your movie. Think of some of cinema’s most iconic images: Laurence Fishburne in dark rimless sunglasses seated in a red leather chair in The Matrix (unit photographer Jasin Boland), Jack and Rose perched on the bow of Titanic (unit photographer Merie Wallace), Heath Ledger’s chilling Joker in The Dark Knight (unit photographer Stephen Vaughan). The vast majority of those memorable images you see in magazines and on billboards are actually from the unit still photographer, not pulled from footage. Even major CGI films utilize still photography this way. Many advertising images of the cast from the CGI-heavy Avatar were shots by still photographer Mark Fellman.

Think of those creepy images from John Carpenter’s Halloween (unit photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker), classic black and white images from Casablanca and Dorothy in the Land of Oz (MGM still photographer Clarence Bull). Frozen into your mind is an image that was created by the still photographer. This profession becomes a valuable asset to not only the production but also the studio longterm. A still photographer is the one person on the set thinking about marketing your motion picture from day one.

Unit still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker captures the iconic image of “The Shape” for John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Hiring a Still Photographer vs. In-House BTS Photography

Should you hire a dedicated unit still photographer? Can you get by with someone on set shooting still photos with their iPhone? My response would be, did you hire a professional cinematographer? Did you hire a professional production designer? Why would you overlook your most important marketing and profit tool, your unit still photography? A random production assistant with a smartphone is not an imaging professional. Yes, you hired your producer’s cousin Tommy who has a very expensive digital camera and has watched some YouTube tutorials on portrait photography. But do you really want to trust the creation of precious advertising material to a novice relative? Once you hire a professional photographer for your project, give them the freedom to capture images of your production. Don’t ban them from the set on complicated shooting days, and don’t schedule them only on what you feel are the key production days. Let them capture images that reflect the full breath and experience of your production. You never know when that perfect moment will happen. From past experience I’ve learned that some of the most impactful still images were shot during a simple rehearsal or even a quiet moment between takes.

Images your photographer creates may become the key art that helps to sell your film to a much larger audience than you ever imagined. Remember the real reason you don’t just pull images from the Red Camera or Alexa as frame grabs. It’s no longer an image quality thing; it’s really about a point of view and a vision. Keep in mind you’re making a motion picture. The key word here is “motion.” The image you capture is related to all the images that come before and after.

The images your still photographer captures create a mood and sense of the emotions of your film in a single frame. Keep your shooter involved and show them what scenes you want covered and listen to their thoughts and suggestions. I was told a story of a very famous director who was all set up for a shot. He noticed that the still photographer was off to the side shooting the same scene. From his position beside the camera operator, the director then walked over to where the still photographer was, crouched down and looked at the scene from that point of view.

The director then said to the still photographer with a chuckle, “You’re in my way, Mark,” before calling to his camera crew, “This is the view, guys. Set up over here.” Now that you have hired your professional still photographer, what to shoot? A shot list is a valuable tool to direct what type of coverage you need to market and promote your film. Just like your script and shooting schedule, don’t forget to create a document that addresses the things you expect from your still photographer. Your photographer is never simply a BTS shooter. They are an integral part of your marketing, social media and publicity team creating images that will help you monetize your film.

Rico Torres capturing stills of Danny Trejo on the set of Robert Rodriguez’ Machete Kills.

When to Shot List

Create a basic shot list if you have hired an inexperienced still photographer or your producer‘s cousin and his iPhone. If you hire an experienced unit still photographer, it may not be necessary to give them a basic shot list. Make sure that you inquire about any special needs that the advertising, digital and the international teams may want and write that up in a memo to your still photographer. These items may not be known at the start of production but could arise as filming proceeds. That is why it’s important to keep in contact with your still photographer giving them feedback regarding your changing needs.

A general shot list of the images you should always make sure to capture typically includes

  • Wide shots
  • Medium shots
  • Close-ups
  • Two-shots, multiple characters, wide, medium and close-up (these shots may not even exist in the finished film so it’s only the still photographer who can capture these)
  • Shots of the director and all key crew department heads such as the director of photography, makeup, costume, visual effects supervisor, etc. (you can’t pull these from the Red camera coverage)
  • Sets empty without talent or crew
  • Key props used, especially product placement items with logos clearly visible, such as computers, watches, clothing, eyeglasses, etc.

Keep in contact with the unit publicist to photograph studio executives, writers, and any important visitors to the set. This might seem obvious, but photographers can often miss these opportunities. But there’s help: your unit publicist should be seen as an asset who can help you navigate any rough waters on set so you capture everything asked of you.

Your unit still photographer will be shooting images in the Raw format and also providing you with JPEG versions. Keep all of those Raw files for your final designer. Once I had a great photographer create an awesome JPEG comp using a bit of Photoshop to present to the filmmakers. The image was ultimately chosen for a version of the one-sheet. The image the photographer created was only a JPEG and not up to the quality standards needed for a 27’X 40” one-sheet. We gave the original RAW file to the retoucher who was then able to recreate a high-quality version based on the comp the photographer provided. This vision from the still photographer helped create one of the prime domestic one-sheets for the film. The lesson here is to hire the best photographer that possesses both an attuned eye and knowledge of your film’s marketing strategy.

Stephen Vaughan snaps a chase scene photo on set of the original Blade Runner.

Organizing Digital Files Online

As production proceeds, you need a way collect and organize the hundreds and even thousands of images that will be captured on set. It may be easy to use Google Drive, Dropbox or any number of folder-sharing apps to store your files. But what you really need is an online, cloud-based system designed for talent approvals that also functions as a production archive to store, organize and share your photography. Your principal actors on a project most likely will have specific, contractual approval rights in relation to any advertising photography. The most common contracts allow actors the ability to reject a certain percentage of both single images and group photos. Online image management systems allow you to send out, track and obtain these various contractual actor approvals with the minimal amount of work on your part (always the goal).

Another major advantage of such a system is you now have shared online archive where your photo editor or publicist can organize, tag, caption and rate the images into collections. This well-organized collection of approved images can then be shared with your distributors’ marketing and publicity teams as they work hard to ensure a great opening weekend at the box office for your film. MM

An industry veteran with over 20 years in the motion picture photography industry, Greg Dyro joined DF Studio in 2017 and currently works with both major studios and independent productions.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Luca

    May 3, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    *thumbs up*

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