The Life of a TV Stills Photographer

Working as a TV stills photographer, or Unit Photographer, as they are known at television stations, is one of the most coveted positions within the commercial photography arena.

Whilst you may be able to rub shoulders with the famous every day, the reality is that you will need to relate to actors as individuals in order to complete a brief, usually provided by the TV station marketing and PR teams. You will be part of a larger production unit who ensure the programme is completed on time. Your small part of this will be to produce stills images that can be used in TV magazines and newspapers, on television, and advertising media in order to promote the TV series during a certain period of time. 

From a distance, it could be viewed as a glamorous profession. Being honest, it usually isn't.  It is one thing to take stills during a period drama in a stately home, and another thing entirely photographing a mock post nuclear world, in a field, at night.

TV Stills from BBC 1950's Drama

TV Stills from BBC 1950's Drama

A usual day involves arriving on set for an early start (usually 7am), the location determined by the production team and forwarded to you the night before. Breakfast is then provided to everyone from catering buses. The actors then go for makeup and costume, and the photographer starts looking for locations to shoot, based on the brief they have received.

Selecting shoot locations when on set can be tricky. Things change rapidly during the day - filming can be delayed, the weather changes, the sun moves, actor and producers moods can also deteriorate. Because of this, for a particular shoot, I would plan on having at least three alternative locations (one being indoors).

BBC Drama, The Land Girls

BBC Drama, The Land Girls

Prior to filming, I always found it useful to re-introduce myself to the producers, so they were reminded I was on set, and that I required time with the actors in order to complete the photography. It is worth mentioning that photographers are not on set every day - just a few select days during filming of the most visual appealing scenes.  For this reason, producers will have a lot on their hands, and almost always wish they didn't have to deal with photographers too. In fact, on numerous occasions, I have seen producers yell at their deputy when they were informed a unit photographer was also on site. For me, this was always a difficult conversation. Nobody likes going to work where you are unwanted.

Once filming starts, you are on your own. It is necessary to prepare your locations with any lighting you need in advance, and then leave them there whilst you watch the filming take place.  This means you can literally grab the actors as they come off set for their portrait. As always, time is an issue, and you will generally be allocated less than five minutes per actor. Within that five minutes, the make up department will also want to make sure the actor is looking their best - and this can be a problem when a retouch can take several minutes.

Completing photography during the actual filming can actually be much easier. You will have a front row position next to the camera crew (but away from the sound person), and everything is finely controlled. If you are filming an explosion, you will know where flames will appear, and where actors will start and finish.  To make it even easier, there will often be several 'takes', allowing you to vary exposure and location.  You will, however, need to use the camera within a 'blimp' (a sound proof case designed to be used on TV sets - although can also be used for other photographic activities - such as bird watching).

I tended to find that I shot several thousand images each day on set (finishing around 8pm), and this continued for three or four days.  As with all TV work, the 'editing stage' takes place at the end of filming, so it was rare to provide images to clients on site, or over night.

Max Beesley Portrait for BBC Survivors

Max Beesley Portrait for BBC Survivors

The exception to this is general TV portraits, say of newsreaders, weather presenters, or daily TV shows.  Frequently these images will be provided either directly to clients while on site using your portable editing system (traditionally an Apple MacBook Pro and Adobe Lightroom, or overnight.

From an equipment point of view, I tended to use a variety of SLR equipment and speedlight portable flash systems.  These included:

Canon 5D DSLR (UK, USA)
Canon 70-200 f2.8 lens (UK, USA)
Canon 24-70mm f2.8 lens (UK, USA)
Canon Speedlights (UK, USA)

Nikon DSLR (UK, USA)
Nikon 70-200 f2.8 lens (UK, USA)
Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 lens (UK, USA)
Nikon Speedlights (UK, USA)

Off camera flash modifiers - Lastolite Ezybox (UK, USA)

Editing in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom

 

Working for TV stations is generally different to working with other commercial clients. The atmosphere is much more tense, and there is a definite hierarchy to follow - in that even though you are commissioned by a marketing department, on the day, you will be working under the producer. There is also the issue of copyright. The TV industry is one of those clients that will usually ask you to assign the copyright of the images to them. This is a personal decision. You will need to weigh up the benefits of adding a TV station to your client list, as well as receiving a block of bookings at your day rate (saying that, I found TV rates were generally about 20% lower than my standard commissioned day rates).

Ultimately, you can produce some stunning work for TV. The locations, wardrobe and actors don't come together in many other areas of commercial photography, and for me, it was a move that lifted my portfolio, and ultimately, my client base.