Today we’re welcoming back photographer Curtis Baker. He previously wrote an article for us about his experience photographing country music legend Dolly Parton. Today, he’s here to share about another part of his photography career; Shooting still photos for the movies as a “unit stills” or “on set” photographer.

Behind the scenes from Human Supply

About seven years ago is when I first fell in love with the TV/movie industry. I was asked to come help on a Georgia Lottery commercial in Atlanta doing “video assist”. That job is basically to record everything the film cameras see, to be able to provide instant playback of the recorded scene, and to also provide a live image for the director and other crew members to watch at the same time. It was a lot about gear and wires, and sitting at a computer the whole time. I did this for a few years and then during my first full-length movie “The Joneses” (2008) I met the Still Photographer on set and realized that I would rather be doing what he was doing- working with his own gear, taking pictures of the cast and crew during takes and behind the scenes. I wasn’t actually a photographer at the time, so I didn’t even realize what went into that job, it just seemed like something that I would enjoy. I think from that point on, I have had that small goal in my mind to one day be able to be good enough to be on set, shooting the pictures that we see in entertainment magazines and on movie posters.

Unit still from Human Supply
So, I’ve spent the past four years learning everything I possibly could about photography, and what it would take to be a good, well-rounded shooter so that I would be able to handle whatever the movie business threw my way. I started with shooting kids and dogs, and then went on to fashion, weddings, concerts, and just about any other area you can think of. I also shot some commercial work, which is where I learned a ton about lighting.  I wanted to (and still want to) absorb as much as I can about this business, technically, financially, and mentally.

Becoming a Unit Stills Photographer requires that you be a member of the Local 600 Camera Union (in many states), so I knew that would be a hurdle to jump once the time came. It is also a financial commitment to join, so I needed to make sure I really wanted to do this for a while. Along with being in the Union, there is specific camera gear that is needed, including gear to silence my noisy camera while shooting on set, back up cameras in case my main camera body stops working, a laptop for downloading images, and proper software. In a nutshell, this was a big commitment to make. I’ve wanted it long enough so I decided to just make it happen.

Behind the scenes on Human Supply

There are a few different jobs that an on-set photographer does. The main job would be “unit stills”, which are pictures taken during the actual filming of a scene. I sit next to, or as close as I can, to the movie camera and do my best to match the shooting angle and the lens focal length. I want to get a photograph of what the camera sees. Having an image from a stills camera is much easier and faster then trying to grab a still frame from the motion picture camera. That process is hard to do with digital, and much harder to do with a film movie camera. I can shoot a scene and once I get what I think is the best picture for that moment, I can get out of the way and take my pictures to the laptop to see what I have. Every job is a little different but that is basically what happens when taking unit stills.
Unit still from The Following

As for the gear I use on set, I use a Nikon D3S, which performs great at high ISO for darker movie scenes. Usually the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 are the best lenses for the job unless I know I’ll be safe with a prime lens. In which case, I’ll use a 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm. And most importantly, my AquaTech Sound Blimp. It's a large plastic and metal box lined with sound dampening foam that surrounds my Nikon. The sound blimp absorbs about 98% of the shutter clicking sounds from my camera, which allows me to shoot during takes without disrupting the actors or the sound person. This box, along with my camera and lens gets pretty heavy so in some situations I like to use a lightweight monopod to support the weight.

Behind the scenes of The Drop
Behind the scenes of The Drop

Another job is called “principal photography”. This can be any type of pictures used during the movie or it may be pictures in the background. For example, if the main actors were playing a married couple in the movie, we would want pictures of them together to have framed around their movie house. On one of my last jobs I had to spend the day taking photos of an actor to fill up a fake Facebook profile page. The pictures included grilling with friends, hiking, tossing a football, and a candid profile picture. I used my Nikon and my Fujifilm X100 and even some IPhone photos to keep the look amateur and not too professional.

One other common use for a photographer in the movie business is to do a “gallery shoot”. I bring all my studio gear onto set, which includes a white background, four large lights, and soft boxes. I set up a portable studio wherever there is space and a power outlet. I need to take a well-lit picture of the actors for the movie studio to have and use as they like, such as on the movie poster.
Having all these different tasks and knowing that everyday will be different is what draws me to this job. My personality can’t sit in the same place for very long and I enjoy being challenged creatively and technically. And being part of a movie crew is like being part of a close family, which makes going to work even more enjoyable. You form friendships that last a lifetime. And when a movie is complete and all the hard work has been done, it’s nice to know you had a hand in the overall project.

Behind the scenes of The Drop

Bio: When Curtis Baker is not on a movie set, he shoots commercial and portrait work, and spends a lot of time taking care of his daughter when she's not in school. "I always have a camera in my hand and my eyes are always looking for the next shot. I post a lot of daily stuff to Instagram, which is a great creativity tool and good for meeting other photographers. I enjoy teaching photography to whoever wants to learn from me. I don’t know everything, but I love sharing what I do know."
Instagram: curtyphotog

photos © Curtis Baker