On Assignment: On-Set Photography for a Commercial Shoot

Location: Los Angeles CA

Client: International Diabetes Pharmaceutical Company

I’m a firm believer that every photo job is an interview for the next one. Partially thanks to this mindset, and a whole lot of on-set “stills” experience, I’ve been able to work with some clients for 10+ years. 

One of these great clients is a pharmaceutical giant in the diabetes sector. For the past 9 years, I have been capturing stills photos for their national ad campaigns while they are filming their TV commercials.  It’s definitely a unique challenge to create a national print ad campaign using just the 30-45 seconds between takes. 

On-set (or “in-situ”) Photography

Brief overview: if a TV commercial has multiple camera angles or scenes involved, it means there is a 30-45 second scene wrap after every single shot. Picture two actors having a conversation. Every time the shot switches from one actor to the other, there has to be a scene wrap to re-position, re-light, and re-rehearse.  It makes for really long days of shooting to produce even a short 30-60 second commercial “spot.”

I think my background in photojournalism, wedding photography until 2011, and years of working under really bad lighting conditions have all helped this to be a great fit for me. 

To successfully not get kicked off one of these intense Hollywood commercial sets, you have to be able to use the existing lighting of the motion crew, not piss off the director or their director of photography, and you definitely can’t slow down an air-tight schedule. I’ve honed my skills over time to be able to accurately predict the movements of the talent and crew. Anticipating their next moves, directions, and breaks for client feedback allows me to take full advantage of the quiet 30-45 seconds when I have the talent’s full attention and nobody else notices me. 

Once a scene is wrapped for the TV crew, if I am in the good graces of the assistant director, they will yell “stills!”, which indicates I have about 30 seconds to get what I need. I pride myself that 95% of the time I can say “all set,” and the crew can move on with much delight. 9 out of 10 people on a Hollywood set detest “the stills guy,” so winning them over is a big part of why I keep getting asked to come back.

“I’ve worked with Casey for about ten years. His work speaks for itself. He is invisible on set; he knows how to work efficiently. He’s the fastest photographer I’ve ever worked with, without sacrificing quality, even 1%. He’s like a mouse; you don’t know he’s there but he is literally catching everything. I never have to worry if he’s going to get the shot.” 

Rob Farber, Rogue Producer

On-Set Studio Photography

Capturing stills “in-situ” is half of the challenge. The other is to create the look of a large controlled studio when we actually have to shoot in a small backyard or 100-degree parking lot.

On my jobs building a studio across the country, I used to travel with as much photography gear as possible because I was most familiar with my own equipment. After nearly blowing the budget and my back on hauling gear, I started renting gear from one of the dozens of production rental houses in Los Angeles and only packing my carry-on-sized camera kit.

Knowing that I might have to set up in a small space, I rent a LOT of gear options but only use what I absolutely need for that day and the lighting shifts that may occur over the following 5-10 hours. 

The cornerstone of any on-location studio setup is a weather-proof cyc wall and a sturdy set of wireless lights. When working outside but needing to provide studio-quality portraits, blocking light is just as important as introducing light into the set. I rent 5-10 4×8’ floppy and usually a 1 or 2 12×12’ flag (black fabric attached to a metal frame supported by 2+ heavy stands) for overhead coverage for the sun. 

Time is still an issue for on-set studio photography. My team has to test, re-test, then re-re-test the lighting before talent comes on set so we can coordinate with the art director, assistant director, and everyone’s sacred lunch hours. Similar to in-situ timing, we often have only 30-90 seconds to nail the shot and move on to the next location. 

In-situ and on-set studio photography both come with unique challenges but are fun as well and helpful to the final result and campaign. If your business or production company is seeking a photographer for on-set stills photography, contact us at Casey Templeton Photography so we can get started working together to capture the stills you need from your production. 

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