Tech Talk – 5 tips for photographers working with actors on set

Brandi Bock - reviews her script over lunch on The Brightest Colours Make Grey

It may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but photographing actors is the single most important task for a stills photographer.

Actors are core talent to the film making process. They contribute significantly to making a good script into a great show and they make your production stills shine. Given their high rank in the film crew pecking order, as a stills photographer you have to earn their trust, respect and most importantly collaboration in producing the images that will market the show and their image to the world. I’ve briefly talked about work with actors once before here, so here’s a useful follow up on the topic.

Here’s a quick 5 tips on getting the most our of actors on film sets.

Introduce yourself. You absolutely need to quickly establish with actors who you are, why you’re there and that you’re going to be a good person for them to work with. Often on film sets no one will make the introduction for you, so its up to the photographer to make the first move. Obviously timing is a key factor – you’ll have to judge the moment yourself, but just remember your manners, and you’ll be fine.

Many actors are inherently aware of the importance of the stills photographer, but often also have had less than positive experiences with photographers so can be wary of new person on set pointing yet another camera at them. The first interactions you have with actors go a long way to establishing the trust required for them to relax in your presence. Make their first interactions with you positive ones – they need to know that you’re one of the good guys/gals!

Eye lines. This is a pretty self explanatory concept – but what’s it all about? Well, some actors dislike crew either in their eye lines or moving around in their eye lines during takes. It can be very distracting for the actor. Distracted actors will require more takes and slow down the production. Not only should you check in with the actors whether your working in their eye line during takes is distracting for them but if they’ve previously given you free reign you should minimise your movements and be prepared to halt them altogether when there is even the slightest sign that the actor is being distracted. It’s equally bad to be perceived to be a distraction to the actors as it is to distract them.

Look for opportunities and communicate them. If you’re anything like me as a stills photographer you get images in your head that you know will be great. On set, I’m often pitching my image ideas to the actors. I know they’re going to be key to the success of the image, and also that most actors know that great still images are just as important to them professionally as they are to the marketing of the film or tv show. Planting the seed with a good actor will often result in them further contributing by injecting more character and additional flavour to the image that you may not have already considered.

Sherona Knight

Sherona Knight as "Zoe" in the Syndicate taking time out to make great publicity portraits.

Let actors see your work. Obviously in some cases you’ll be precluded from sharing your work with the actors, but where you aren’t limited be generous with your work. Actors often become head shot clients and also refer head shot clients which is a great way to keep busy in your downtime between projects (yes, I do head shots click here for information.). But even more important than that, the more that Actors see and like the images you’re capturing the more trust you’ll build and the more inclined they will be to work with you in their limited spare time on set to create the images that will make your producers and the unit publicist proud!

Give Actors space.. This might sound contradictory in the scope of an article about how to work with actors, but in my opinion it is a golden rule. On set, actors are often the life of the party, and the center of attention. As a stills photographer you need to leave actors with the space to interact with the many other crew members that they have to engage with to do their job. Often actors will have to visit dark places in preparation for a scene they often need some personal space to do this you need to be aware of when they are using that space for and leave them to prepare for that. Besides, if you’re doing your job properly as a stills photographer you’ll be too busy to spend your time hanging around the Actors like a bad smell.

Bonus tip! I know I said 5, but here’s one extra because I’m feeling generous and I’m on a roll. When you’re reviewing your stills to provide them to the production always make sure the actors look good. Don’t turn over images that the actors will hate or would affect their career in any negative way. You want actors to remember working with you for the benefit they have given to their career, not the opposite!

Do the right thing by actors and you’ll get lovely words hitting your inbox like these:

That was genuinely one of the most enjoyable photoshoots I’ve had in my acting career so far. Based on the images I’ve seen, you’ve got results that NOBODY has ever achieved with me before.
Sam Benjamin, “Scott” in Ladies and Gentlemen

I’ll probably revisit this topic with some more tips in the future, so you consider adding my RSS feed, or my Twitter to keep up with my latest articles. Please feel free to hit me with any comments or questions, I welcome your input (as well as any web traffic you can send my way!).


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