Some throwback stills from my first feature film job in New York city. Starring Jake Choi and James Chen directed by Ray Yeung.
What I love about this is the different ways my unit stills on film ‘Blue Iguana’ have been used to sell the film in different markets. Here we have the Japanese DVD cover with a lot of photoshopped guns!
So if you’ve landed here I can tell you it’s a long road to becoming a unit stills photographer. What better way to spend your days going to a film set, meeting the worlds greatest cinema talent in front and behind the camera and then you get paid to photograph it!!
I receive alot of emails asking for advice. In a nutshell, I am going to share what I have learnt in the last 5 years as a unit stills photographer working in London and the UK. This article is based around the London film industry but I believe you can apply the same principles to where you live. I admit, living in London has helped my ability to connect with a growing film scene as I know alot of productions are shooting here. But if you live elsewhere, the same principles apply.
Just start and build a portfolio showing just your unit stills photography
Start today. Start reaching out to local productions. Local film schools. Send emails to producers and directors who are just starting out and offer to shoot stills for them. I found alot of work through indie film netowrk www.shootingpeople.org - a great resource and worth every penny of the £40 sign up fee.
So I volunteered ALOT of short films shooting in and around London of varying quality. The only way you are going to learn is to do it yourself. And yes, this was all unpaid.
And please, please its imperative to create a website just for your unit stills work. Tailor and target the work you want to shoot.
Foxtrot One, One (2014) - A teaser trailer for a Television Series Pitch - This was a great little shoot. Experienced crew, 1960’s costume design and period cars. A perfect addition to the portfolio and at the time I needed to work on getting more cast group shots into my portfolio. The actors were great and we had time doing some on set portraits. Win, win!
2. Editing, refining and building a solid unit stills portfolio that resembles your competition
So now, you will have been doing short films for a few years. Hurrah. Somehow you are still able to house yourself and eat more than just porridge. From all those headshots and weddings you are doing on the side!!!
You will start to build a body of work that resembles what your competition are shooting and presenting to the networks and publicists. You won’t have those unit stills of a blockbuster explosion or a photo of Brad Pitt, but it is incredible what content you can achieve on a low budget film set.
And honestly, it’s all in the edit. Please, please only showcase YOUR BEST WORK!! I really think, having looked back, you have to keep refining your top images. You have to be super honest with yourself and say, is this image going to get me hired? Is this the type of image that would be printed in Empire magazine? Have you ever seen a budget camera BTS photo printed in a magazine for a big production? No? So don’t put this in your portfolio. It just looks like you’ve been on a student film. The rule to editing your images is deceiving the viewer into thinking you are way more experienced than what you actually are!!! It’s all about perception!
You really have to hustle. For years. I would say it’s taken me 5 years to get to a point where I’m comfortable with my shooting ability. I’ve been on bigger film productions and really you have to go through that and come out the other side. Once you’ve jumped through the hoop of saying working on a household name of a television production or film, you have to use this to land the next one! And it really doesn’t stop. I believe this is even what the big movie stills photographers say is, nothing is guaranteed. It really is about timing and knowing who is booking the job at that time. It maybe that the director works with a particular stills photographer? Or the publicists use the same person over and over again. The trick is to not get upset by this and spin it around, and say ok this is blocking me from getting those jobs…but how can I connect with the next wave of people, so we can grow up and climb the ladder together? Which brings us back to short films and connecting with those directors and producers on the beginning of their journey. Now you can see why it really is the longest road to travel.
I think on a super serious note, you really have to want this career. It is far from easy. I always though I was good at persevering and work so hard. You really have to adjust your mindset to the long term game. And we’re all in it together. Keep reaching out to other filmmakers, there are some talented creative people about.