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To celebrate the Academy Awards, we look at the life of a production still shooter
Who shoots production stills from the movies we see? How Hopper Stone went from a career as a photojournalist to a movie still photographer.
Photo by Hopper Stone/Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Boston-born photographer Hopper Stone began his career as a photojournalist, traveling and living abroad, and covering corporate work. After living and working in Helsinki, Rome and Mexico City, Stone became unhappy with the direction of photojournalism as a profession.
“I was at the movies one night and I was watching the credits go by and I saw a credit that said ‘still photographer’ and I literally plunged at the screen and said ‘I want that job!’” Stone recalls.
Stone enrolled in an intensive set photography workshop taught by Kerry Hayes of Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, Maine before relocating to Los Angeles to follow his dream. After learning the ropes, Stone slowly broke into still photography, a notoriously difficult niche to establish oneself.
Unlike the solitary work style of photojournalism—which stifled Stone’s naturally social nature—the bustling atmosphere of a film set was a refreshing change. Stone was able to maintain the same level of self-sufficiency he was used to, while working in a team environment.
“When I get to lunch, my mouth will not stop moving because I’ve just spent the last six hours on set being incredibly, incredibly quiet and not talking to anybody and I have to get it out,” says Stone. “It’s not like you stand around on set gabbing all day... but still, on your off-time, there are people to hang out with and, especially if you’re on location, that’s kind of nice.”
During his career, Stone has shot stills for a plethora of action film—like Spiderman, Route 666, and Daredevil—as well as TV shows like Monk and The Middle. Today, he regularly shoots stills for the award-winning TV series Modern Family.
“[Modern Family is] as much fun to work on as it is to watch,” says Stone. “I am thee most fortunate TV still photographer in Hollywood that that is my regular gig. Right now it’s my favorite thing that I am shooting.”
Still photography allows room for independence (no one is directing Stone on how to shoot a particular scene), but requires stealth maneuvering and fast reflexes.
“Being the set photographer is a little weird in the sense that [the actors] are there to make a movie—not to be in a photo shoot—and we’re there to document this and help with marketing and publicity. So there’s a very diplomatic line we have to walk about getting our job done, while not getting in the way.
“You have to be kind of stealthy,” says Stone. “Nobody goes, ‘Yay, hooray, there’s someone here to take pictures!’”
Generally, one photographer is assigned to shoot all stills on set; and Stone’s workload is dependent upon the size of production. Television is a smaller production, involving coverage of 75 percent of filming days, while feature length films may require shooting every day.
Here are a few other differences between shooting stills for television vs. shooting stills for feature-length films:
|Eight-hour workdays||Ten to 14-hour workdays|
|Responsibility: Obtaining key scenes||Responsibility: Shooting action sequences|
|Photographers are given a scene summary and are solely responsible for themselves||Photographers receive a copy of the script and are in contact with the studio photo department|
|Tentatively planned with tight deadlines||
More time to shoot, more difficult gig to acquire
Since still photography is a work-for-hire position, the network or production company owns the rights to every image shot on set. Most networks don’t want the photographer to retouch their images or make any changes whatsoever.
“I need permission from the network to use [images I’ve shot] on my website,” says Stone. “There are also pretty strict social media policies as to what you can [and cannot] post on Facebook and twitter... which is why some of my Facebook posts are a little bit cryptic like ‘I’m on an undisclosed location on an unnamed show’.”
In both television and feature films, confidentiality is either implied or required. Still photographers are often asked to sign confidentially agreements to ensure plotlines and spoilers remain unknown.
Stone’s work is used for marketing and publicity materials, which include: ads for magazines, newspapers and websites; the back cover art of the DVD case; the stills gallery found in bonus features on a DVD. Posters are usually shot by a studio photographer, but still photographers are responsible for photo props—any visible ‘outside’ images—like family portraits and crime scene photos.
“The character who had been killed on a cop show I was shooting was the lover/subject of a gay photographer. So I had to shoot this photographer’s work and it had to be black and white, artsy, and sort of homoerotic-but-suitable-for-basic-cable,” Stone says. “It was an photo shoot and they blew these photos up to 3x4 feet. They featured them very prominently [on the show], so that was very satisfying.”
Stone uses a Canon 1D Mark IV and Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L USM and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lenses, each enclosed in a heavy box called a ‘sound blimp’ that muffles the sound of the shutter. Stone also regularly uses tripods and remote shutters to capture multiple angles of a scene.
“Depending on what they are shooting, the still photographer’s set up can be anything—from two cameras, two zooms and two blimps—up to a couple cases of equipment with underwater housings, long lenses, grip equipment, backups and bodies. You have to be prepared for anything that comes your way
“It helps to watch a little bit of television to know what’s going on in different shows,” says Stone.
Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/Universal Pictures.
Building good rapport with the production crew and talent is crucial, since still photographers vie for space and some actors feel wary of their presence. Although still photographers are constantly in the presence of celebrities and witness television as it is being made, Stone insists there is nothing glamorous about being on set.
“There is no glamour behind the job. It can be fun, but there is a lot of waiting around. On set, you are a fairly low priority on the day,” says Stone. “Everybody understands your work is important further down the road, but when they are losing the light and you’ve got a minor on set who has to [leave work] at a certain time, the priority is to get the show produced.”
- AquaTech SBC-5D Sound Blimp for Canon 5D Mark II Digital SLR Camera
- AquaTech SBN-300 Sound Blimp for Nikon D300 and D300S Digital SLR Cameras
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM AutoFocus Telephoto Zoom Lens with Case & Hood - USA
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM AutoFocus Wide Angle Telephoto Zoom Lens with Case & Hood - USA
Learn more at the Adorama Learning Center:
- FAQ #1: One long zoom lens or two shorter zooms?
- The best cameras for Photojournalists
- Celebrity Photographer, Ab Sesay - AdoramaTV
- Celebrity and Commercial Photographer, Christopher Barr—AdoramaTV
More about Hopper Stone:
You can view Stone’s portfolio on his website or read about Stone’s photojournalism work on his Facebook page. In addition to being an Adobe certified instructor in Photoshop, Hopper Stone also teaches classes for Digital Photo Academy which helps new photographers in the Los Angeles area learn how to improve their composition.
Adorama congratulates Hopper Stone for winning the ICG Publicists' Award for Excellence in Unit Still Photography in Television at this year's ceremony!