BEING A UNIT STILL PHOTOGRAPHER
Every year I'm contacted by a handful of photographers curious to learn about what a Unit Still Photographer does in the film and television industry, and how to break into the profession.
While the latter involves too many variables to get into here, I thought I would provide a brief overview of the former for those who may be interested. With the permission of yours truly, the below was also recently reproduced on the official ICG 669 website. I hope all those who are curious about this challenging but rewarding genre of photography find it useful.
The responsibilities of a unit still photographer are primarily threefold: marketing and advertising, archiving, and asset creation in support of the art department.
Marketing and advertising means capturing on-camera action and performances, behind-the-scenes moments, and interesting vignettes, all of which typically give the public their first look at a forthcoming motion picture or television property through various media platforms and campaigns. On occasion, a still photographer may also be tasked with shooting gallery images for the promotion of a project. The creation of this various imagery also serves to document the project for the network and/or studio's historical archive. Meanwhile, photography for the art department can itself be multifold: from prop stills, to backdrops, to anything in between that may appear on-camera. A still photographer must be prepared to quickly shift between these various responsibilities as needed, and have the equipment and expertise necessary to do so.
At its heart, being a unit still photographer necessitates that one be an experienced generalist photographer with a strong, practical grasp of photojournalism, portrait photography, and the cinematic style. Crucially, it also requires that one can stealthily navigate a hectic, chaotic environment; capturing requisite imagery while remaining mindful of the space and energy of actors, artisans and technicians on set. An abiding passion for film, television and popular culture is definitely an asset.
What industry professionals say...
"The importance of still photography in films cannot be overstated. Many times it is the first image the audience sees. It has to capture the audience's attention and it has to represent the tone and character of the story we're telling. Sounds simple, right? It's not." — Tom Cruise, Actor/Producer
"Good set photography is a critical and often overlooked art form. Capturing the spirit, movement, tone and emotion of a scene in one still image is not just a monumental task, but an essential extension of the film itself." — J.J. Abrams, Writer/Director/Filmmaker
"He or she works alone; has only the shoot to get what is needed and does so while doing a constant dance of non-obstruction with what everyone else is doing...which is actually filming the movie. So the job is to disappear in a way, while at the same time figuring out how to get not just a shot, but the single frame that will capture the essence of the character, a scene, or even the entire movie...without slowing things down or breaking the mood. To accomplish this takes an incredible talent; balances what a set photographer has to have—brains, heart and technique, all in balance; get great shots and all the while remain invisible—no small feat. Photographers have been on film sets almost from the beginning, originally sent to capture images that can be used solely for publicity. They soon demonstrated that they could let the public see much more: the bonds that form among cast and crew, the human side of the stars, the daring of the stunt people; the tricks of the trade behind movie-making. — Wes Craven, Writer/Director/Producer
"The still photographer on set is one of the most under-appreciated members of a movie crew that captures something no one else does: reality. They document the actor in a private moment, the moment just before the action—the nerves, the preparation; everything the public doesn't see in the movie, the soul of the set." — Billy Bob Thornton, Actor/Filmmaker