How to become a film or unit stills photographer
The question I get asked the most is how to get started in this industry. What does it take? How can I break in?
My simple answer is you need two things – patience and persistence. Actually, you need a few more as well, like a great sense of timing and composition, ideally a calm demeanor and a thick skin. But let’s start with patience and persistence because even if you have the other qualities, you won’t make it unless you stick at it.
I studied photography in Wellington, New Zealand, where I learnt all aspects of photography – portraits, documentary, studio, landscape, commercial. It was a two-year immersion in everything photography, and I loved it all. Especially the documentary and portrait sections, anything to do with people.
After I graduated I took myself off to various places around the world, documenting what I saw. One of the places I went was Cambodia, where I spent a week photographing Khmer Rouge refugees in camps. On the back of that work I was commissioned by various charities to document their work in different countries – child labour in Peru, womens health in Tanzania, the work of aid organisations in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
I also shot weddings. Lots of weddings. There is no better way to hone your skills, whether it’s technical skills or people skills.
In Brazil whilst photographing at a healers retreat, I met a British film producer who introduced me to the idea of film stills. He liked my documentary work, and suggested I give it a try. In London, having moved from NZ, I got myself on short film after short film, for free, and I was hooked. I loved the camaraderie of a film set, the common purpose, the light, the actors, watching directors work, reading the scripts. I started to build a portfolio of images from on set, and after about a year I landed my first low-budget feature film. Very slowly, one job led to another.
So if you are keen to get started, apart from joining any upcoming free Launchpad series that I run on Instagram (link here if you want to sign up for the Waitlist), I suggest you find your way onto a short film, a student film, a music video, and start making images on set. You’ll find out if you enjoy the film scene, build your networks, and get to make some great pictures along the way.
If you are serious about wanting a film stills career you do need to keep one eye firmly on the long game. So you’ve sent out a few emails to producers, but maybe they don’t have anything going just yet, so you need to keep in touch with them until they do. Sometimes they’ll stay loyal to their trusted photographer who they use over and again. That’s okay, you never know when that photographer might be booked for two jobs at once. Plus, when you make your connections with up and coming producers, that’s exactly what you want them to be – loyal to you!