Lights, Camera, Action!
Even if a movie has a cast of thousands, there’ll be many more people working behind the scenes, carrying the production from concept to theatre, and beyond. One of those jobs is the unit still photographer, or set photographer.
“My role,” says Chris Raphael, a set photographer veteran of 15 years, “is to get the images that sell the film. They might be used in newspapers, magazines, and even for the posters in cinemas or the artwork for DVDs and Blu-rays.
© Chris Raphael/Sony Pictures Television | Sony α6300 + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/640s @ f/5.0, ISO 1000
The set photographer’s images are vital because they’re shot at greater quality than is being captured on the film or digital movie cameras, and can therefore be used for huge enlargements. It’s not only portraits of the film’s actors that set photographers like Chris need to shoot – he’s mainly on set as filming is taking place, shooting the performances, as well as getting behind-the-scene shots.
It sounds like a dream job, and with a love of film like Chris’, it clearly is one, but it’s also tough work. Days are long, shoots are unpredictable, and you may only have seconds to get the shots you need. A good example of that is the ‘specials’ or ‘gallery’ shoots, which are the more traditional portrait images of a film’s stars.
© Chris Raphael | Sony α7R II + 85mm f/1.8 | 1/125s @ f/5.0, ISO 1250
“The production company will pick a time when most of the actors are working, and we’ll set up a mobile studio so when they finish a scene, they can do their shots. The company don’t want to pay the actors extra days to do this, and they’re also spending on generators, assistants, rented lights… so you need to get something good, fast. It’s pressure, but it’s good pressure!”
So how do things work when shooting on a set? How does he work when everyone else is working, too? “Usually,” says Chris, “I position myself right by the A camera; that’s the place to be. It’s what the cinematographer has primarily lit the set for, so the meat of the action is in front of it. Those are also the main images that you’re trying to capture – the ones that’ll sum up the film. It might be one of the leads delivering a moment, or a reaction, but it’s there you’re going to get it.”
© Chris Raphael | Sony α7R II + 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/125s @ f/3.2, ISO 4000
“Once I’m comfortable that I’ve covered that scene,” Chris explains, “I’ll try to get another shot from a different angle, which is likely to be near the B camera, or I might find a great behind-the-scenes image.”
Behind the scenes shots account for only about 5% of what he does, but there are always opportunities. “If it’s looking good with the cranes and lights I’ll step back and get a big wide shot,” Chris says. “Other times, you might see the cameraman or the boom operator backlit, or it could be the director at the monitors with the producers, concentrating. Shots of directors interacting with actors is something film companies really love, but you have to play that right. It’s a serious time, so you can’t encroach.”
© Chris Raphael | Sony α7S II + 85mm f/1.8 | 1/160s @ f/3.2, ISO 6400
This brings us to one of the most important things that a set photographer needs to do, says Chris, which is to remain unseen and unheard. Along with years of experience, his α7R IIIs help with both.
“Though it’s good to be positioned with the camera operator, the still photographer shouldn’t be in the eye line of an actor. You certainly don’t want to be looking at them down the barrel, as it can be distracting. In those cases, my camera’s flip screen is really useful. I can hide behind the boom operator or the focus puller, while still framing the shot, and be invisible. Or I can even set up to shoot remotely.”
When it comes to going unheard, the α7R III’s Silent Shooting mode comes into its own. “We used to use something called a blimp,” Chris explains, “which is a large soundproof housing for the camera, but they were never ideal because you could only see about 60% the frame, couldn’t adjust exposure or focus, and they were big and heavy. I used them for 10-12 years, but when mirrorless came out with silent shutters, it was literally like lifting a weight of my shoulders.”
© Chris Raphael | Sony α7R II + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/125s @ f/2.8, ISO 800
Is the job of a set photographer entirely one of documenting the production, then? Or can photographers like Chris bring their own creative skills to it? “There’s certainly room for expression,” says Chris, “though it is mostly documentation, up to a point. Once I have the main shots in those first few takes, with a couple of sizes of them for variety, then I can do more of my thing.” Given the restrictions of lighting and composition that set photographers face, the main ways Chris adds his own spin on things is by varying the depth of field or shutter speed, thereby making images stand out from the frames of film.
Take an action sequence for example. “If the actor is throwing a punch, or I’m shooting a car chase, I don’t just want to shoot at 1/500sec or 1/1000sec and freeze it, he says, “I want some energy in there, some blur in the throw, but also to hold their face in focus. So I drop to around 1/60sec. It’s the same with a speeding car - instead of freezing it and making it all static and boring, I’d rather show some movement with a panning shot. It’s just a bit more exciting.”
© Chris Raphael | Sony α7S II + 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/320s @ f/4.0, ISO 6400
Chris’s approach to action subjects in the movies is built on his background in sports photography, while the years he spent as a portrait and fashion photographer also help him with the studio-style portraits of actors. “I joined a big sports agency and then ended up assisting portrait photographers. I’d also done some photography work for a theatre company, so when a friend of a friend was producing a film in London (Love and Other Disasters), I got involved. My film work snowballed after that, and it’s great because you’re literally shooting something different every time, and working with wonderful teams of people.”
That varied experience is instrumental in helping him deal with the different subjects and situations on a film set, he says. “On any job it can be a mix of low-light, action, portraits and landscapes, and experience just lets you adapt faster and avoid missing shots, which is crucial. The film company could be spending millions of dollars, and they can’t just wind things back because you were looking at your camera. You need to know what shutter speed or lens is going to work and be ready. You don’t have enough time to mess it up!”