The Photographer on the Movie Set

Photography: Dan Turkewitz

Photography can be glamorous work. But usually it isn’t. Few photographers spend their time lining up celebrities as they leave nightclubs, persuading the Queen to sit still long enough to strike a pose or hanging out with supermodels as they reveal their Victoria’s Secrets.

For most photographers, work means driving from one event hall to another, getting the light exactly right on a bottle of detergent or trying to hide the retainers during a senior portrait shoot.

There is a middle way though, a type of photography that’s not quite as mundane as shooting a wedding but which doesn’t run the risk of being covered in baked beans by Hugh Grant. Part of creating a movie includes shooting still images that are used in promotional material. It’s a job for the Unit Stills Photographer, someone who hangs around the set taking pictures and trying desperately not to get in the way.

The Second Most Important Photographer on the Set

According to Dan Turkewitz, a screenwriter and editor who was recently asked to shoot stills for short film “Sodom by the Sea,” Unit Stills Photographers have to create two kinds of images. The first documents the making of the movie and includes close-ups of the actors and crew, wide shots of the crew shooting the action, the set and the equipment.

“The second was, for lack of a better term, artsy shots,” Dan told us. “Cool lighting and shadows stuff that might never appear in the film…. [S]ome images, of the set and Coney Island in general (where the film takes place) would be used in the credits, on the DVD box and website, and generally for promotional materials.”

It all sounds like straightforward stuff – and fun too – but shooting on a film set does pose some very special challenges. The biggest of course, is that the photographer’s camera is the least important on the shoot. The best position will always be taken by the movie camera which means that you have to work knowing that you’re missing the composition you’d really want because someone else’s gear is in the way — and theirs is much bigger than yours.

And you might miss the best moments too. Once the director shouts “action” the photographer has to stop working, says Dan, even though that will be when all the drama begins.

“[U]nless you’re far  off with a zoom, don’t snap away while the actual filming is taking  place. You’ll end up pissing off the actors, or the sound man, or the director, or all of the above.”

While much of the crew and actors are standing around and waiting, you’ll be free to shoot as much as you want. But as soon as it looks like the fighting’s about to begin or the lips meet, you’ll have to put your camera away.

Common Sense and Film Sense

Toss in the fact that it’s the cinematographer, not the photographer who sets the light levels – and that often, according to photographer John D’Agostino, the cinematographer will aim to use as little light as possible – and you might think that this kind of photography is a frustration too far.

In fact, says Dan, much of it relies on common sense – and more importantly, film sense. The most important knowledge that a still photographer on a film set can possess isn’t just how to use his own equipment but what everyone else is doing with theirs. Like a photojournalist, the photographer has to document the action without getting in the way of the lighting crew, the grips or the boom. And, even more crucially, without getting in the shot itself as the scene develops.

That means understanding what’s happening around him, and what’s about to happen too.

For Dan, who used to be an architect but has since worked as a movie editor and has seen one of his own scripts optioned, that’s relatively easy. For a photographer with little understanding of the film world though, it might mean that the first job or two could be a little uncomfortable,  however experienced they might be in other forms of photography.

In practice, that might not happen very often simply because without familiarity of the film world it would be difficult to land that first job. Director Johnny Salvatore asked Dan to shoot the stills for “Sodom by the Sea” because Dan had edited his first movie. He also asked Dan to be the second assistant director, edit the credits and prepare the DVD. Dan agreed as a favor, an experience he’s now trying to translate into paid photography work.

“[I]n the movie industry, it’s all about who you know,” he warns. “Nothing means more than connections. You could have the top gear Canon or Nikon sells and have a portfolio that rivals Ansel Adams’, and still get beaten out for a job by a photographer who knows somebody.”

Breaking into movie photography then might mean spending as much time as possible around movie people rather than standing behind the camera. That might not result in a paid job, but at least it will be glamorous and fun – and if you do get to use your camera you’ll be able shoot some stars without getting covered in baked beans.

28 comments for this post.

  1. Kevin Said:

    Hmm, interesting job!

    But this 'promotional pictures' on the link for "Sodom by the Sea" look atrocious...

  2. Tafari Said:

    Very interesting story. I was recently referred to photograph on a movie set here in Detroit but got no call back, which is ok, because of my main 9-5.

    I agree with Kevin, those photos ate pretty bad for that movie are not the best.


  3. Dan Said:

    Keep in mind, the site you're looking at is not the photographers site. It's the filmmaker's site.

    There were two still cameras on set. One was a cheap Olympus digital pocket cam, which was used as a prop in the film. Some of the photos posted on the filmmakers site were shot with that camera during the actual filming of the movie.

  4. Kevin Said:

    Fair point, but then where are the 'good' ones? Would think you would want to put decent images on your official page, maybe I'm just crazy 😉


  5. Virginie Said:

    There is a way you can still shoot while the camera is rolling and that is with the camera blimp. It can be a bit expensive though.

  6. Jay Said:

    Having shot with a blimp I can tell you it's not really a viable solution. Yes, you can shoot while they are shooting but you can't change any of the settings on your camera, can't change your zoom, all you can do his fire off a shoot. There are usually rehearsal or a quick run through that you can shoot and have complete control over your camera.

  7. eric Said:

    i admit shooting in a blimp is a bit difficult, since there is usually rehearsal time, you get a chance to dial in your settings before the main event.

    Also some actors hold their best until they're doing a actual "take" so the best image may be during that time. Pay actually isn't that great on no-budget/low budget films but better on the bigger budgets which means unions. Still photographers fall under the Local 600 (

  8. James Reese Said:


    I have to correct you regarding your statement about not having the ability to zoom when using a sound blimp. It is indeed possible to zoom with a soundblimp such as the jacobson sound blimp which is the standard in the industry.

    Regarding changing camera setting the unit photographer can choose to work in shutter or aperture priority or even manual if the lighting is constant.

    The IA unit photographers have no problems shooting with sound blimps as they have learned to adapt and work with the gear rather than fight it.

    James Reese

  9. John Said:

    Yes, the actors will run through a rehearsal before shooting, but this is generally nothing like what we will see on screen.

    The crew will also go through a rehearsal, soundman, camera operator etc etc...this is generally more like the real thing....but for obvious reasons it may not be appreciated if you start firing off shots.

    Working on a film set you have to be quick and stealthy!
    You need to be able to fire off your shot as soon as the director shouts cut, in order to catch that final pose in a scene.
    You need to be able to make your way through any amount of people and all their equipment in order to get there...

    Its great fun though!

  10. Minouche Wojciechowski Said:

    I would love the venture into this type of photography.

    I've been photographing people, landscapes, architechture and the like for the past 15 years. I've enjoyed selling pieces and exhibiting some too.

    What do I need to do to become a Movie Set Photographer? Any advice?

  11. Mike Said:

    I've been working as a set photographer in Los Angeles for a few years now. I'll say that Jacobson sound blimps are the standard, and when working on a union set, or any professional set for that matter... it is a necessity.

    You fire a couple shots during rehearsal, check it on the LCD to see if you nailed exposure, make any adjustments necessary, then close up the blimp and fire away during the actual take.

  12. Monty Leman Said:

    I am in the middle of my first gig as a movie stills photographer, and I wanted to say that this article is great, and mostly jibes with what I've experienced on set. The one thing I would point out is that working on a movie set is hard work! Long days that start early, and you're on your feet almost the whole time.

    One question I would be curious about is how much gear still photographers bring and how they handle it. I brought two bodies and three lenses along; what's normal? Also, how close do you keep it? Carrying it around all the time is tiring; setting it down is dangerous because some sets are not well controlled and someone could walk off with it; leaving it in a safe place means it's not accessible if you need it...

    One note from personal experience: blimps aren't _always_ necessary. It probably depends on the set. If you're shooting outdoors, and the actors are wearing lav mikes, and there are trucks going by and people playing basketball next to the set and children screaming...everybody tells me they cannot hear my shutter.

  13. owen-b Said:


    Interesting read, as I am myself starting to carve a career in unit stills photography. However I feel it's a bit misinformed in some areas, although there's some good comments from people like Mike and Monty helping to set the record straight. I'm particularly perplexed by those that say you can never shoot during a take.

    You really don't have to stop shooting when the director calls "action!" - in fact, any pro set photographer worth his salt would try to make sure he gets at least something during the actual take, as that's when the performers give their best. The issues of pissing off the sound guys, actors and director are all easily overcome by first getting yourself a Sound Blimp, and secondly communicating with everyone clearly. Introducing yourself to the actors allows them to get familiar with your face, as you're going to spend a lot of time right next to the film camera. It also gives you a chance to ask how they feel about the stills camera, and build up that relationship. Generally they understand only too well that these stills are required but it's tactful to get the shot you need quickly on a tense or emotional scene, then clearing out the way for any re-takes. It's still possible that actors won't want you there for some things, and there's nothing you can do about that. I know of an actor who asked the stills guy to leave during THE key moment of a film about Van Gogh, and the poor chap had no choice but to call his boss (the unit publicist) and say "Sorry, I couldn't get the shot". Nothing you can do about that but shrug your shoulders and move on!

    In terms of noise, the blimp will definitely help with both the actors (as they won't be able to hear it as clearly) and the sound people (for the same reason). The very few times I've been told a sound recordist could hear my shutter were almost always when I either wasn't using the full blimp kit at that point, or when film camera, stills camera, actor and boom were all within a foot of each other for a very quiet close-up scene - I got my shot in the first take and left them alone for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th takes... 😉

    The blimp does indeed inhibit making frequent changes to settings during a take, but it's not often you'd want to make frequent changes. Generally speaking a film set is lit with constant artificial light, even when shooting in daylight, so that a constant level of light is maintained for the film camera. That means you can settle on a good shutter speed/f-stop/ISO combination and pretty much stick to it until the next set-up.

    As regards zooming, it's a bit fiddly at times but if you buy the right blimp tubes for your lenses they are designed to grip the zoom ring and allow you to zoom. Focussing cannot be done manually but the blimp has two buttons to assist with that - the first is used to set the autofocus (I have mine set up to centre-focus) and the second to release the shutter. You hold the first button to focus, reframe, and hit the second to shoot.

    It does get heavy, Monty. I took the strap off my Nikon, attached some big clips to the ends that would work on the camera and on the blimp and now I can quickly reattach the strap to the blimp so I can carry it over my shoulder. I keep my bags near the camera crew's equipment, which is another reason to make friends with them quickly (the other being that you're going to be trying to get as close as possible to them a lot of the time!). I don't have two bodies yet, I just change lenses a lot! I use the D700 with the 24-70 f/2.8 and the 70-200 f/2.8 (both Nikon lenses). I occasionally pop the 50 f/1.8 if I need the extra stop but with the D700 sensor I rarely do these days.

    Hope that helps!

  14. manolo Said:


    You can have a look at this french movie stills photographer, i found her website on crazyleaf, her work is excellent.

  15. Tanya Said:

    Hey, this is something that I'm very curious about. I'm a film-student in Tennessee, but I'm fascinated with photography and it's my passion. My professor said I could get my internship hours with an on-set photographer and to just get out and look around, e-mail about and see what was out there. I was wondering if you or anyone you knew would be looking for an assistant on-set this summer. Or at least how I could find out where to look.


  16. Hollywood_Shooter Said:

    Hi. I'm an IATSE Local 600 Still Photographer in Los Angeles with over 26 years of experience and a list of movie credits that would make your head swim.

    If I were starting over, I would do ANYTHING other than become a photographer. Yes, it's great work if you can get it, but along with the rest of the country, Hollywood's film industry has been flattened by the economic down turn.

    Sure, Avatar set new records...and Hollywood had a record year in terms of box office, but that was based on a small handful of HUGE movies, that only kept a few folks employed. The real problem is how few small to medium budget movies are NOT being made...the ones that kept the town moving and the dream machine alive.

    My suggestion is to go into the Medical field, or possibly food service industries...that's steady at least. Going into the arts in 2010 is setting yourself up for nothing but pain & disappointment.

    Sorry to say.

    That being said, I'm happy to answer any and all technical questions. I've been living with a blimp attached to my head for a long long long time.

  17. Stephanie Cornfield Said:

    I need to get a Blimp for my film Camera I have a D700 camera, it s an emergency, it s for a movie in Asia. Any tips guys??? Where to buy, rent??
    Please help me



  18. tally Said:

    I'm researching the career in still photography, and I'm not finding a lot of information on ways you can "break" into the field. I know being part of a union is important, but I'm not having any luck finding information on HOW you become part of the union.

    Any advice?

  19. Pompo Said:


    How do you get hired if you are not a IATSE Local 600 ? Is it true that it cost like $6000 to join and you can't even join if you dont have 100 hrs working on a set and getting paid for?

  20. Richard Unger Said:


    Having been a photographer for close to 35 years and Although I have only recently moved into stills, it has occurred to me that many directors and producers, who are also new to film, do not appreciate the full value, or contribution, that the stills photographer can make. Often, I have found, they are not aware of the special skills and equipment they can offer and, indeed, the wide experience they can bring. For this reason I have put together a few notes which may be of some value to them.

    Directors and Producers: Why use a Stills Photographer?

    Remember, you are not just making a film for yourself: you are making it for the public to see. How do you persuade them to see it?

    It is most likely that the first the public will see of the film will be from a set of stills. This need to convey to them, convincingly, what you have done and how you have done it. The stills photographer is the first point of contact: your future is now in their hands.

    The stills photographer must capture your intentions, the spirit of the film, the lighting effects, the settings, the characters. This all needs to be dynamic. Static shots, posed and contrived, are not convincing. Most of these stills are taken whilst shooting the film. The stills photographer needs to be unobtrusive and not interfere with the director or the actors; he must have cameras; ‘which can be seen but not heard.’ Silence is golden. These cameras are very expensive. Don’t take the risk of asking someone who happens to have an instamatic, you will regret it. If your stills photographer has a ‘sound blimp’, you know he means business

    Unfortunately, stills taken from a motion picture or digital video are not at all satisfactory. The definition of a motion picture frame is very inferior to a stills camera. This is not noticed in projection because it is replaced with each frame, this is interlacing. The stills camera is specialised to provide sharper contrast and better colour definition.

    Occasionally, it may be necessary to take stills off set. Whilst the director’s lighting is always preferable, there are occasions when they are not available. The stills photographer needs a complete lighting range so that, if called upon, he can, again, capture the spirit of the film and the characters. Sometimes, promotional photographs are required which are not part of the film, such as a group photograph of all the actors against an appropriate background. This requires considerable skill, not only in photography but also in the manipulation of images. Experience in a good commercial studio is invaluable in this respect.

    A good stills photographer must empathise with the director, the characters and the plot.
    He must be involved in the whole process of production and not be just an ancillary.
    Include him in the team building, and meetings, from the start – you may be surprised by what he can contribute.

    The stills must: look natural and un-staged but dynamic; reflect the intentions of the director; capture the character of the parts; tell the story of the film in six simple stills. Further, the photographer will provide a wide range of stills to meet the styles of the different targeted media; different newspapers and magazines have different requirements. The Internet and TV must also be considered – as with cinema publicity.
    Remember, the first the public will see of the film may be on display outside the cinema or on the cover of a DVD. This will, or will not, arouse their interest. Marketing and publicity are key factors to your success; an experienced stills photographer can contribute considerably in this area.

    Those who have had experience in other DYNAMIC areas of photography such as fast action sports, events or the press are the most versatile and useful. They may be more expensive than the local wedding photographer; his equipment is much more expensive, and his experience much wider; he is a specialist with very expensive specialised equipment. As with most things, you get what you pay for. Don’t expect a Rolls Royce if you can only afford an old banger.

    If your thinking about getting into movies, learn how to make movies first, if you don't know what to do on a film set it won't matter how good a tog you are, they will kick you of set. Look up a book by Alex Bailey its a bible of stills photography.

  21. Sascha Said:

    I was asked by a friend to come and shoot stills for a Music Video, It was my first one ever and it was a great experience. I gave my info to someone in charge of the artist and now he wants me to give him the images. But I shot for my friends Production Co. and for them, and top of that I have no clue what to charge the Artist manager who is the asking for them, and my friend who hired me doesn't know either in the dark. If anyone can help in giving me an idea of what I should charge it would be most appreciated. Also they want all the images it's over 700 I shot
    Need some help Thanks in advance

  22. ML Morgan Said:


    Just getting into set photography and need to upgrade my cameras. (I still Love film!!)

    I have great, albeit older now, Nikon F3's a lots of lenses but know I have to up-grade to digdital.I want a Nikon DSLR. I have been contemplating the this considered okay, at least to begin with especially since I am suffering from the recession like everyone else?! I would love to get a D700 but the budget is not what it used to be.

    Thanks for the help!

  23. ML Morgan Said:

    sorry about the typos

  24. Seb K Said:

    I just had my first assignment as set photographer for a music video!

    It was a three day shoot, and I took little under 1500 photographs. I

    used 4 different lenses and many different shooting methods. Had

    many laughs and made new friends.

    The good thing is that when making a music video there doesn't need

    to be complete silence like on a movie set, so I was able to shoot

    anything anytime, just had to watch out not suddenly appear in the


    Later, I went through the photos with the artist himself, and he

    picked some personal favorites to use for promotional reason.

    All the fun aside, it was hard work. Waking up early and moving

    locations the whole day with all the gear. This was 3 days ago now, and my whole body is still sore. 😛

    But it was worth it. Just wanted to share my story.

    - Seb

  25. Tim Jones Said:

    I shoot weddings and sports. I invested in some really cool Nikon gear. I have the D3s and all fast glass from fisheye to telephoto. I was the locations mgr. for Ruben Studdards music video "Flying without Wings." I really enjoyed that. It was my first time ever doing locations. But because I knew the area and could shoot, they hired me. I also did a lot of stills during that video. I used a D100 then.

    That was just a little about me. I'd like to get into shooting more movies or videos. If anyone knows of someone that could use me, please help me out. I'm also looking for a good reason to buy a blimp. My wife said I had to have a good reason.

    I have to continue to feed the family. Maybe now I can feed them on the weekends also...LOL!!

    Thanks y'all


  26. LD Horricks Said:

    as one poster mentioned...if youre interested in starting a career in stills do get Alex Bailey's book...also one of my colleagues Kerry Hayes teaches a course in Unit stills at the Maine workshops...I've been working in the motion picture and Television industry for almost 30 years and what "Hollywood shooter" says is true.. there's much less work to go around and a lot more competition in every position...its a tough business to crack and make a good living at but if its what you want then I say just go for it but its not going to happen over night. I moved from Vancouver to central Europe 20 years ago and it worked out very well for me...I get plenty of work over here on both European and American Indy's and Studio based films that come over here. But to be busy one needs to be on the list of as many LA Studio photo depts and European publicity agencies as possible.

  27. Kbal Said:

    Just wanted to add my two cents as a film producer regarding blimps as there was some confusion about whether they are necessary or not.
    Personally I do not hire without a blimp - it's a standard piece of equipment and the only way to get the shots during an actual take (which is when the actors really perform). Without a blimp I get a pile of photos from rehearsals (when actors are not putting their all in) and of cast&crew between shots (which is useful for making-of but not for promos).
    In short a blimp is a very basic kit item for a set photographer. Owen-b and Mike above are correct. The purpose of the blimp allows you to get shots that represent the movie and what it is about. This can only be captured mid-take and the only way to shoot mid-take is with a blimp.

  28. Scott Said:

    Great info here. Can anyone give me an expected salary range. Just trying to get an idea of what people are getting paid. Thanks

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