Photographing a film set has both unique opportunities and boundaries. You’re given total freedom, except when you’ve got none at all!
During a take (recording a performance) the stills photographer is quite rightly on bottom on the list of priorities. Any noise or significant movement is an absolutely terrible offence, taking pictures is a very quick way to make enemies on set.
That is, unless you have a camera blimp!
A what now? A flying camera? How does that help in being quiet and unassuming?
Despite it being a staple piece of equipment for an on-set photographer, many people, even filmmakers don’t know what they are. So, in the vain hope of having to explain myself less often in the future, I’m going to show you what I use to stay quiet on set.
No, it’s not a flying camera.
A blimp is actually a box that’s designed to encase a camera and render it nearly totally silent while taking pictures. This particular one I own is actually a custom-made blimp that I stumbled onto in ebay. It’s a bit ragged from heavy use by it’s previous owner, however I intend to fix it up a bit and give it a sheen of polish.
Made of metal, with a lining of lead and foam, it’s designed to reduce the slapping noise of the mirror and shutters inside the camera. Here, take a listen!
For me, the silencing is the least interesting part using this equipment. It does what it says on the tin, makes the camera quiet. Even though you can here it in the video, a shotgun mic turned away will never pick it up over dialogue or environmental noise.
For me, the things worth spending time to think about is how if affects my shooting style and workflow while on set. There are a lot of small, but important things that will change the way I shoot.
One thing, is that the blimp does not have neck strap loops on it, meaning it can only be handheld. Now I use two cameras on set, because changing lenses is a fantastic way of making sure you miss everything important, a terrible distraction. However that means that at any time there’ll be at least one camera hanging off my body in one way or another.
This now has to change, and now I’m going to be spending time making sure that the blimp is placed somewhere safe when it’s not being used. Film sets are busy, highly dangerous and variable places, even if I plop it between my feet I need to be aware of anyone that might be headed my way in case I need to move it off the ground. The last thing I want is a camera operator or gaffer to trip over my blimp when handling heavy, expensive equipment. A sure fire way of upsetting insurance companies. Additionally, I’ve also had to remove the camera strap from the camera itself to fit it inside the blimp, so even when I’m not using it, I have to worry about a strapless camera.
Another consideration is that I’m forced to change auto-focusing (AF) habits when using the blimp. By default DSLR’s tie AF to the shutter button, which is fine for casual use, however I deliberately use a custom setting to place AF on a different button, disengaging focusing from shutter release / exposure lock. It gives me extra creative freedoms for little extra complication. With the blimp however, I’m forced to reset that back to the default setting, because only the shutter button is accessible. This means that I must automatically re-focus every time I press the shutter button, a rather frustrating time waster.
The other minor frustration is the lack of monitor window at the back. To check exposures or focusing of previous images, I need to crack the blimp open. Another time-waster. Fortunately I’m confident enough to not require checking too frequently, however If I have 10 seconds to spare, I’m now far less likely to double check that everything is cool. It’s a bit of a hassle when I’m also tackling a focusing system I haven’t really used in a long time.
The last issue, is that the blimp is pretty heavy! It easily adds another kilo to an already pretty heavy collection of equipment. This in itself isn’t a huge problem, I could sure do with the exercise. However when you’re outside in a freezing cold winter, or roasting in a small studio that’s filled with cooking hot studio lights, that extra bit of manual labour can seriously detract from my mental sharpness. It means that I’m going to struggle to hold the camera steady for longer, which can be tricky when having to wait for that right moment I need to perfect a picture.
Fortunately it’s not all negative. Despite all these issues and restrictions, it’s easily worth the ability to take photos during a take. There are many situations that won’t occur when the cameras aren’t rolling. I can take photos of actors giving their best performances with the lighting at it’s most dynamic! It also means that people are less aware of when I’m taking pictures even when we’re not rolling. This helps in reducing self awareness in the subject, and enables me to photograph more naturalistic portraits. Interestingly, when I shoot without a blimp, people tend to block out the incessant clicking, however with one camera in a blimp people will now immediately pick up when I’m using my second camera due to the sudden alien noise in the environment.
The blimp can also affect the relationship between photographer and subject, especially when the subject is aware of DSLR’s but not blimps. DSLR’s are so common that the cameras themselves carry no sense of authority to the person using them, however I’ve seen that people will pay attention to someone photographing with such a weird piece of equipment. It seems to be that one must know what they’re doing if they’re capable of working with such an odd looking camera!
On the flip side, because it’s so bulky and awkward, it can slow me down, and block my face from the subjects perspective. It makes a physical barrier when I’d rather be spending time communicating face to face with the subject, instead of being a voice behind a black box. If I have time I’d prefer to take the camera out of the blimp to shoot a portrait where I need to communicate with or direct an actor.
So there you go! Camera Blimp! If you found this post interesting and would like to know more, or if you’re suddenly inspired to work with me, fire me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d be grateful!