Who’s Who on a Commercial Photography Set
Table of Contents
Let’s have a look at the many people behind the scenes that help us to create our singular vision.
This is a production week for me. That means a few things. One, I’m not getting a lot of sleep. Two, I’m the happiest man on Earth. And three, rather than regale you with a particularly long story from the front lines or go into excruciating detail on gear, I thought it might be nice to take a moment to simply appreciate some of the team members that make it all possible.
We think of photography as a singular art. And, in many ways, it is. It all starts with a man or a woman with a camera and a vision. You can take pictures of mountains or rolling hills. You can bring products into your studio and meticulously go about lighting every angle. You can even wander the street looking to make art out of strangers. You can do each of these activities all by your lonesome.
But, depending on what type of photography you enjoy, eventually, it’s quite likely that you will need to involve a few more people to bring your vision to life. If you want to shoot portraits or fashion, you’re going to need at least one more person to be your subject. That is assuming that you are not a supermodel and that you might be interested in photographing someone other than the person in the mirror. But, beyond yourself and a model, who are some of the people on the set that help make your dreams a reality?
Now, I should point out that not all shoots will need all of these roles to be filled. Sometimes, just you and a subject are perfectly adequate to create something beautiful. Other times, you’ll need a small army. It might seem like an extravagance, but if you’ve even been on a film set you’ll realize that there’s a reason why the end credits to a movie run as long as the film itself. The same can be said for many photography productions, especially if you work in commercial advertising, as I do. You need support. Here are just a few faces you will see on many of my productions.
Just like on a film set, photography sets have a lot of moving parts. If you are just going into a studio and shooting a single model for half a day, your production needs will likely be limited. But need to shut down part of Downtown Los Angeles for 12 hours on a Tuesday? You’re probably going to want to have someone else dealing with that while you focus on your lighting and composition. It is possible to produce one’s shoots. I do it all the time. But you should know your limits, and oftentimes, it’s best to let someone else sweat the small stuff (or the big stuff, depending on your budget).
You can never have too many assistants. How a photographer uses his or her assistants is a matter of choice. Some photographers bore their assistants to death, having them pretty much on standby most of the day without giving them any real tasks. I am often guilty of this. Others photographers rely on their assistants to prelight their scenes before they even get to set. I’m far too much of a control freak to do that myself, but, for many photographers who have worked with the same assistants for years, this can have a practical advantage. Other assistants find themselves on reflector duty. For others, it’s more like deflector duty as they find themselves serving as something of an unofficial buffer between you and the client. Do with your assistants what best fits your workflow. Just make sure you compensate them accordingly.
Your eyes and ears are on set. If you are shooting commercially, you are almost always going to be shooting tethered. For those who have not yet done this, it means that your camera is connected via a wire to a computer system. Every shot you take pops up instantly in Capture One on a big computer monitor or external screen for everyone to see.
As a beginning photographer, you might consider the prospect of everyone being able to see every shot you take, unedited, warts and all, to be terrifying. But, as production size grows, you learn that having a dedicated area for others to see what you are shooting is a huge upgrade over having a client hovering over your shoulder during a shot or showing images on a rear LCD. Having everyone have immediate access to what you’re doing as you’re doing it ensures that everyone is on the same page and drastically reduces the chances that a client will be surprised by what you deliver at the end of the day.
A professional’s job is to get things as right as possible in-camera, and your digital tech will often be your best friend on the set. As they are dedicated to watching each image come in, they will be the first to see when a series of shots drift a bit out of focus. Or, they may spot that little object in the corner of the frame that is too small to see in your viewfinder but is driving the art director crazy when it pops up on the big screen.
And, if you are a photographer with a very specific look or color grading style, the digital tech is the one who dials that into Capture One during the shoot, so that your client is seen as close to the desired result as possible, with the look being applied to images in real-time. Some digital techs will also double as on-set retouchers, providing basic roughed-in composites to give a client a chance to pre-visualize an image that might require more post-production down the line.
A great digital tech can save your life on set.
You can’t shoot fashion without great fashion. You may be a fashion expert yourself. Or, you may choose to enlist a stylist who pays as much attention to clothes as you do to lighting techniques. As the name implies, this person is in charge of the clothing that will go on your subject.
Have you ever stopped to notice how much of a difference hair makes to someone’s appearance? As an early balder, I have. Having someone to make sure each follicle is in place can make your subject stand out and save you time editing out flyaways in post.
I consider myself a multi-hyphenate, but makeup is one thing I am comfortable in admitting that I know absolutely nothing about. Short of simple requests like “more natural” or “more glam,” I leave this to the professionals.
Those amazing clothes don’t always look so amazing if they don’t fit correctly. On larger productions where wardrobe is key, you will often find a seamstress on standby to tailor garments as necessary to make sure the product and talent look their best.
Similar to a wardrobe stylist, but for the products themselves. If you are a product photographer or working on a project where making an object look its best is even more than the people holding the object, you’ll want to enlist a solid prop stylist to ensure the best image.
Set Designer/Set Builder
Your location can be as important as your wardrobe. Setting the mood of the room will often set the mood of the image. Having a quality set designer can be key in establishing the necessary tone for your photograph. Or, if you are shooting on a stage, having someone handy with a hammer and nails to build a set to your preferences allows you to control every aspect of your image and truly create something special.
If you are shooting in multiple locations throughout the day, you might find yourself needing to figure out the very practical challenge of how you are going to get everyone between the various sets. As someone who lives in Los Angeles, where traffic is a Shakespearean tragedy, I try to do as few companies moves as possible in a day. But, sometimes, it can’t be avoided. This is when you might need to have a driver on standby to shuttle cast and crew where needed.
Happy bellies equal happy crews. Don’t let your crew get hangry. You won’t like them when they’re hangry.
And those are just a few of the people working on set on the production crew. That doesn’t include the client team itself, which is likely to include a creative director, art director, designer, and art producer, to name a few. Nor have we yet talked about how the crew changes and expands when motion is involved with grips, gaffers, best boys, ACs, and many many more. We’ll get to all of them in a future article. But for now, I’m headed back to set to rejoin the team that helps make my dreams a reality.