Movie Unit Promotional Stills Photography

Many people (if not most) really don’t really know what a unit stills photographer is or does. So I’ve written up this FAQ that covers most of the initial queries I face.

It’ll be going on my site at some point after a bit more tweaking. This isn’t the final article but I figured you guys might want to read it if you wanted a bit of light shed onto what it is i do.

It’s quite extensive and detailed, so apologies for the length. If you see something that needs changing, or if you want to call me out for being a fraud and getting something entirely wrong, let me know!

Cheers, Marc.

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Frequently Asked Questions – Unit Stills Photography

The role of a production unit stills photographer may sound simple; however it’s an in-depth and tasking job with many nuances and unknown facets. A read through here should rid you of most questions regarding unit stills photography. If you’re still unsure of something please feel free to email me at marc@marchankins.com

Q: What does a unit stills photographer actually do?
A: “Take pictures, of course!” is the immediate answer we all know. Although you may think that anyone can take pictures, especially if they have nice and shiny new equipment, it takes experience, preparation and skill to know what it takes to create images that are valuable to a production in the challenging situations seen on a working film set.

As a unit stills photographer I work day and night to create images that are suitable for public relations purposes. From dramatic poses of your main actor/actress in character to a mock-up of an exploding building to the staggering lighting rigs seen at sound-stages, there are an abundance of things that the different types of people in general public are fascinated by. A good unit stills photographer knows how to recreate the magic of film-making into a still image and make it as iconic, fascinating and memorable looking as possible.

Q: Why does my production need a stills photographer?
A: Still images are an absolutely vital part of any marketing campaign for a movie. Still images generate interest in the film where trailers or clips cannot be shown or are inappropriate. A powerful image can immediately convert a potential viewer into a guaranteed watch, and that potential viewer can be anyone, from possible interested investors for future projects to industry journalists and the paying general public.

Distributors also consider stills to be a vital part of the package they receive from production companies. A Feature film without the marketing material to back it up is barely a feature film at all.

Q: I’ve got a crew member who’s offered to take stills when they’re free… What are the advantages of having a dedicated unit stills photographer?
A: It can be tempting to let an enthusiastic crew member who happens to have a nice camera to take pictures for you while they’re working, especially when on a tight budget. However you’re either going to get a sub-standard collection of images which lack consistency of character and polish, or they will likely miss most key moments because they will have a job to do; that and the crew member won’t do their original role as well as they should be due to the distraction of carrying a camera about.

There’s a reason I works all day every day and it’s simply impossible to perform two roles to each of their entireties to the high quality that’s demanded.

With a good, dedicated stills photographer you have someone who has not only invested heavily in specialist equipment, but has considered in advance what the photos that are about to be taken are going to be used for and how to tailor the images for their specific purposes. A good unit stills photographer will also have redundant systems in place for when something goes wrong, back-up hard drives, secondary cameras / lenses, redundant memory cards, water-proof protection. Non-professional snap shooters tremble at the thought of something happening to their “precious” equipment, a professional will have already taken that potential pit-fall into account and made sure that should anything bad happen, shooting can commence again immediately.

Q: What do I do with all these photos when you’re finished?
A: There are thousands of ways you can utilise the stills to promote you, your film, your actors/actresses, your production company as well as your key crew members. Stills are initially used by production companies to create marketing materials to promote interest to sellers and distributors  via the means of posters, booklets, flyers, websites and other traditional means. A complete set of images accompanying your film greatly increases the value of your production as an intellectual property. Sellers and distributors and are far more likely to take on board and invest in a film that has a healthy choice of stills to be used in marketing for it greatly improves impact for very little extra money.

Q: What kind of turnaround time can I expect to see photos after principal photography?
A: This depends on a number of things; however I always endeavour to process all the images as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality. The process also varies depending on how involved sellers and distributors are at the point of principal photography.

There are a few stages of delivery of the images… The first stage is typically that either during or immediately after the shoot your company will be given the entire collection of images as they are taken, including both RAW + JPEG files, typically as a back-up / early proofs.

For the second stage, I cull all the JPEGs that are either technically unsuitable or lack that “magic”. This is a quick selection of unedited images that will help the PR dept. hand out early photos to certain interested parties, like investors who wish to see how filming is going, or sneak previews to magazines / industry related people. Depending on the length of the shoot this may take up to a few weeks.

The third stage is where all the magic happens; I go through the entire collection a second time. I re-cull and edit all the RAW files and polish all the suitable images to a fine sheen. RAW files add much more flexibility for post-processing so you’ll get a different selection of images compared to the second stage. After I edit the RAW files you’ll be given a variety of collections of different JPEGs and TIFFs that are suitable for different purposes including; web use, magazine use, as well as colour / black & white collections. This stage can take a bit of time and can have a turnaround of a few weeks or so for a feature film, however once that stage is completed you’ll have all the images your company will ever need for the entire lifespan of the films availability.

Q: Who owns the copyright?
A: Typically the production company will own the copyright, much like your director of photography, costume designer, make-up artists, and all of the other crew members will give up theirs.

Q: I have a cast member who has told me they don’t like having a photographer on set because it affects their performance.
A: Yikes! Nice to know people want you around huh? Seriously though, if you do have a cast member (especially in leading roles) that don’t like having photographers around, concessions can be made, I’m a flexible guy and it’s not in my interest to negatively affect filming with my mere presence. I really do try to be as discreet, respectful and friendly as possible, and if your talent is still unhappy with general idea of a camera around then I’ll happily hold back, just remember that at some point you’re going to need promotional material for your film from that person.

Q: My budget doesn’t allow to have you around for the entire duration of the shoot, Can I hire you for the key locations / dates?
A: Certainly, while I prefer to cover the entire production and every location with a level of detail that would make a microscope jealous, I do also understand that not every location has to be covered. It’s not an ideal situation, however I will happily discuss with you which key scenes should be covered should the budget not allow for a full time photographer.

Q: Can my actors/actresses expect privacy with a photographer around all the time?
A: Absolutely! I’m no paparazzi! Pictures of people who don’t want their photo taken generally don’t make for good publicity pictures. I am a professional and as such I totally respect my co-workers. Unfavourable or unflattering images will never be taken on purpose and should one crop up by accident (which does happen from time to time) they will never land upon the public’s ever watching eye.

Q: Can a unit stills photographer help the script supervisor / make-up / continuity depts?
A: Definitely, as long as it is discussed prior to shooting I will be prepared to assist any other departments with their photographic needs.

Q: Won’t your camera make noises during filming?
A: SLR’s and cameras in general are indeed traditionally noisy little blighter’s.  However there are ways of quelling the noisy emanations that occur from the little boxes of light capture. Generally I don’t advocate taking pictures during a take anyway, for the last thing I wish to do is distract an actor or actress from their performance by moving around or pointing a big fat lens in their face. Sometimes however there are key scenes which can only happen once and with no rehearsals, when that situation occurs I can use a camera blimp which silences any noises that distracts and upsets the sound team.

Q: I want to produce a day-to-day blog of the production with photos; can you really provide stills that quickly?
A: It’s hard work and there are limitations, but yes it can definitely be done.

Q: I don’t like images of my set being leaked onto the internet…
A: Neither do I. Leaking PR materials is unprofessional at best and is illegal and damaging at worst; it isn’t normally a good idea unless it’s part of a controlled publicity campaign. I keep a tight ship when it comes to access to the stills and only authorised members of staff / crew will be able to get a hold of any pictures, I will never release any photos to the public unless specifically ordered to.

Q: Do you use your own equipment? Do I need to hire anything for you?
A: I use all my own equipment which has been invested in by me over the past number of years. I have equipment capable of covering %99.9 of situations, though if you are indeed after something that bit more exotic then a little renting may be required.

Q: I’m shooting with a Red, why do I need a dedicated stills photographer when I’m shooting at 4k?
A: The Red truly is an awesome piece of cinematic wonder. You certainly can pull still shots from it that are high enough resolution and quality to be printed, however it’s a movie camera, not a stills and there are a number fundamental differences that split them apart entirely…
• The Red is not a small camera by any stretch. A stills camera will be able to cover far more angles in a space of time then you ever could with a Red.
• The Red typically shoots at slower shutter speeds that have amounts of motion blur that is marvellous for movies but is rarely suitable for stills.
• Thirdly, do you really want to distract your main camera away from its primary job? No DP alive would be willing to completely stop what they’re doing for a few minutes for the sake of a still shot that may or may not work.
• Fourthly, stills taken directly from the film are rarely suitable for certain PR purposes, for that is not primarily why they’ve been shot. Magazines use stills to help the reader imagine that they are on the set itself and stills taken from the actual film rarely cause the emotions that strike the imagination in that particular way.

Q: I have a crew member who’s camera-shy.
A: Not a problem! I do not take pictures of anyone who doesn’t want to be in one. I do like to try and build relationships with cast and crew so that they hopefully feel more comfortable about being in front of the camera; however I will not push the agenda to the point of annoyance and frustration.

Q: How many images can I expect to be able to use when you’re done?
A: This depends on the length of the production (naturally) but for a typical 6 week long feature shoot you can expect to see several thousand extremely high quality pictures suitable for a wide range of types of publicity. Normally out of those you’ll expect to see at least a hundred or so “key” images which will be truly striking and memorable.

Q: A magazine has requested something called a CYMK .TIFF file? What the heck is that?
A: From time to time a magazine or publication may ask for a specific file type when it comes to images. Worry not! If you’re not sure what they’re after I will always be happy to provide post-shoot support and ensure that only the highest quality work gets seen by publications.

Q: I’m producing a small Indie film with a small crew, are you prepared to muck in with other jobs?
A: The short answer is, yes absolutely! Marc loves the experience of being on set and is happy to help the crew produce a better film, so long as it doesn’t impede on key-images that have to be shot.

Q: What kind of image files do you deliver when you’ve shot and edited everything?
A: By the end of everything you’ll have at least a collection of web-sized JPEGs, print-sized JPEG’s and print sized TIFFs. Variants on these for even more specific purposes are always available.

Q: We’re shooting outside, are you prepared for bad weather?
A: I’m British. I was born in bad weather.

Q: Do you backup your images?
A: Yes! I backup to several hard drives in various secure locations to make sure that no photos are ever lost permanently.

Q: I’m currently doing the maths for budgeting a feature film, are there any expenses you occur that I need to know about?
A: How awesome of you to ask, why yes indeed I do incur costs outside of travel, accommodation and food. For feature films, I request a pair of hard drives to be purchased that are dedicated to stills. Currently 500gb should be sufficient to cover a 6 week shoot, though that may be different depending on circumstances. Typically I’ll keep one hard drive, so that I can help with any post-shoot support. The other hard drive is a complete copy of my entire work on the project and would be for you to do whatever you wish with it.

I also add a surcharge for camera maintenance. While modern DSLR’s are extremely tough, they’re not indestructible and do wear down after a while. Dependent on model, cameras typically have a life between 100,000 – 500,000 images. While that may sound like an astonishing amount of pictures being taken (and it is) for a 6 week shoot it’s not unusual to achieve 20,000 images. So I do add a small surcharge to ensure that I can keep all my cameras running at full capacity all the time. If you are wondering what the surcharge is, please feel free to contact me and I will provide a quote with a full breakdown and explanation behind the costs.

Q: I love you and your work! How can I get in touch and hire you?!
A: Fantastic! You can reach me via email at marc@marchankins.co.uk . I’d love to hear from you! Also please have a look at http://www.marchankins.co.uk for any further information.

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: https://marchankins.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/16 | High technology information

  2. That’s useful thanks.

    December 16, 2009 at 11:22 am

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