What is a film stills, or unit stills photographer?
Part photographer, part ninja, part psychologist
The irony of being a film stills photographer, is that your images can be some of the most widely published on the planet, but hardly anyone even knows that your job even exists.
The most common response to the question of what I do when I explain it to people, is “I thought those pictures just came from the film?” Nooo! They come from a photographer on set, taking photographs of the action both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. The images are used to market the film, tv show, documentary, short film. They are used in articles and reviews, as a streaming thumbnail, on posters and billboards, and increasingly on social media campaigns. In other words, around the world on multiple platforms.
The key thing about a film stills photographer though, is that you can’t interfere with the filming process. The priority on set is for the cast and crew to get their shots made, ideally on time, so while your images are important to the marketing process further down the line, they don’t take precedence on the day. So that means as a photographer on set, you must work around the crew as harmoniously as you can, cooperating with the crew, sharing often limited space, and creating an understanding with the actors.
I often describe it as part photographer, part ninja, part psychologist. You need to know how to read a room and make yourself scarce if things are getting intense, which they do if time is running out or there are problems on set.
So it sounds glamorous, right? Being on set in exotic locations with famous movie stars, and getting paid!! Occasionally that is true, actually quite often that is true. But there are also days where you are wet from standing under rain spouts or cold from shooting all night during the winter or traipsing through muddy fields to get to lunch. But all of that is worth it to capture an amazing image.
You generally have to pay your dues on low-budget productions before you get to the glamour jobs. But even those are exciting, no two days are the same, and it beats being in an office any day!