Unit Stills Photographer

  • Unit Stills Photographer

The unit stills photographer works on a freelance basis and is hired by the producer, studio publicity department, PR firm, or film sales agent. This person is responsible for photographing scenes during production on a film or television show that will be used in publicity materials, the movie poster, or DVD packaging.


Duties

The unit stills photographer has no direct supervisor on set, but is responsible to the unit publicist for delivering several hundred photos for each full day of shooting. The photographer works closely with the director and cinematographer to ensure that each take can be photographed without interference to filming and often depends on the cooperation of the grips, boom operators, camera assistant, and camera operator to allow him or her space to work. It is preferable to capture scene stills during the take, but when necessary (and with the approval of the director), the unit stills photographer can arrange for scenes to be posed with the cast. Most often photographers on set must shoot with whatever lighting (natural or artificial) is determined by the director of photography and gaffer; rarely will the photographer be afforded the luxury of setting his or her own lighting. The use of camera silencers, called blimps, is also necessary to prevent noise from the camera interfering with sound recording. After each day of shooting—or based on the agreed schedule—the unit stills photographer delivers contact sheets (pages with small thumbnails of each shot taken) to the publicist and employer for review. The employer owns the images, and the photographer does not have a say in which shots are used. He or she is not permitted to sell or redistribute photos, except for the purposes of compiling a portfolio.

Skills & Education

A college degree in fine art with a concentration in photography is highly recommended; the unit stills photographer must be a skilled artist with a trained eye for capturing a moment and framing an attractive shot. Education in the techniques of still photography and the use of camera accessories is required. Courses in film and television production are also helpful to understanding the production process. Most important is experience in a variety of shooting conditions and environments; for instance, practice in sports photography can help make you proficient at composing and capturing takes in motion.

What to Expect

In most cases the unit stills photographer has a great deal of autonomy on set, with total creative control over how and what he or she shoots. Cooperation with the show’s crew is especially important; you’ll need to ask nicely to get power from the generator operator to plug in your battery charger and stay on the grips’ good side to have access to apple boxes and ladders. Also crucial is cultivating a positive—but unobtrusive—relationship with the cast. Their “people” have approval over your photographs, and if the leading lady takes a dislike to you, you’ll find it impossible to be on set during rehearsals and blocking notes. Indeed, your job will become infinitely more difficult. Remember that the priority on set is getting the movie or television show locked. Your presence is necessary, but the production won’t stand still for you. You must be able to keep up and remain invisible while still accomplishing your mission.

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