I was inspired to write this post after speaking with a producer I had worked with as a unit photographer a while ago. He was providing feedback and shared some greatly insightful experiences. I am fortunate enough that he is now allowing me to share them with you.
I have to admit, I am in the infancy of what I hope to be a long career as a set stills photographer. Because of this, and because of the ever changing nature of this industry, there will always be things to learn along the way. Whenever these moments arise, I plan to share them with you.
In the case of this production, the producer and I experienced a lot of ‘first times’. These experiences, however, have now taught us how to work better together and ensure everything desired is captured during the day, which has great benefits during the post/publicity stages of a production.
“K” as I will refer to this producer, brought me onto his crew and kindly let me work around my job restrictions - meaning every day I was not working my job I was working with him. During this time, I was still nervous, not wanting to speak up too much or step on anyone’s toes. After all, I was the gal that seemed to just pop in on random days. This led me to taking more behind the scenes images than unit stills - which is not the way it should be. A unit photographer is there to capture the moments on camera, with the behind the scenes shots more like a bonus.
The abundance of behind the scenes shots created difficulty during the marketing phase for this film, which is when I learned this valuable lesson. In my previous productions, I’ve enjoyed working with the director or producer to capture the moments they would envision as their poster or cover art. However, this production had already planned for an illustrated cover, so trying to shoot stills for a poster or cover art was not a priority to either of us. However, this caused K to run into issues later when certain distributors would not stock films with illustrated art. He now had the task of going through the photos I had taken and picking out ones that would make a professional looking design. This is where he ran into problems finding appropriate images due to the number of behind the scenes photos.
This experience confirmed that the most important thing a stills photographer can provide a production is images for poster and cover art. Any festival or distribution source requires high quality images to market your film properly, and the best way to get many of those moments is with a qualified stills photographer focusing on catching those moments during a take - and even staging a scene during shooting just for these purposes. Everything beyond these integral shots becomes a bonus for media coverage or articles about the production. But if there are no images of these 'poster worthy’ shots, you will be missing out on a great opportunity.
K also shared a story with me from a different set, where they failed to take any photos of the films monster - the main attraction of this particular horror piece. The only images they managed to collect were ones of the crew goofing around with the creature. This gave them very little to work with in designing a cover and there was no budget to re-create the monster to take new ones.
No production should be in a bind like this. My advice to you (producers/writers/directors), is to hire or find a volunteer unit photographer for your production (it will be worth it!). Do not just ask your friend with a DSLR who posts decent Instagram pictures, or someone who swears they can do the job with their iPhone. You need someone who knows the etiquette of being on set, and can communicate with the camera operator and AD to make sure important moments are not missed. Read resumes, and get references. Because stills are more important than a production might know, until it is too late.
Below is a direct quote from K. When I read this, my heart swelled with new-found confidence that I can, and will, do whatever it takes to make sure that my position on set doesn’t go ignored or under-appreciated again. Thank you K for helping me bring forth my voice for on-set stills. I look forward to working with you again and taking this learning experience with me.
“This didn’t happen in our case, but I have been told by friends at distribution companies that they have dropped films if they didn’t have the proper stills for artwork. So the interesting thing that I learned from this experience is that your role on a film set is even more critical than I had even realized before.” - “K” - Producer