Tips for Taking Quality Production Photos

January 11, 2018

Acclaimed Los Angeles and New York production photographer Michael Lamont shares his three decades of experience taking production photos. While this essay is intended for aspiring professional photographers, it contains many useful tips that anyone can use to improve the quality of their production photos.

The production photographer is responsible for documenting the production for marketing, publicity, press kits, flyers, ads, and posters. Far beyond documentation, it is about capturing the moments that make up the dynamics and arc of the production. What separates a snapshot from a production still? The most important element for me is that the emotional life in the photo touches the viewer. The old adage of every picture tells a story could not be more true.

I have been shooting stills for almost 30 years, and shooting production is still as exciting and challenging as it was on my first shoot. It is a dance between the actors and the photographer, and you all have to be in sync with the rhythm of the piece. It is like doing an improvisation with a constantly changing energy from shoot to shoot. Every production is a different entity with very different dynamics and challenges. It is always a first-time experience.

...are shots that tell a story, that have a fully realized emotional life and/or interaction.
1. Would the shots make you want to see the production? 
2. Is the moment captured powerful, thought provoking, funny, intriguing? 
3. Do you have a visceral reaction to the image?
4. Does it make your heart beat faster? 
5. In the end, does it capture the essence of the production? 

Familiarize yourself with the material if you do not know it. Ask questions. What is the storyline? Who are the central characters? What are the relationships? This will give you a more specific focus on what to go for in the context of the shoot.

Never use flash when shooting production. It obliterates the onstage lighting, leaving you with very flat shots that have no depth. If you're working with a point and shoot camera, you'll have no manual control over your F stop/shutter speed, but if you do have control, always set your ISO to at least 3200. That will give you a higher shutter speed to help you stop action and avoid blurs. With the available technology, you are better off starting with an entry level SLR for little more than you would spend for a point and shoot. It affords you the opportunity to build a system, adding and changing lenses as you grow. The camera body is as good as the glass you put on it. The fixed aperture pro lenses are what to aspire to, but can be quite costly. I started with an entry-level Canon SLR and one consumer lens. Once I realized I loved it and started having a career, I began investing in higher end equipment. You don't need to invest in top of the line equipment to start shooting.

Set ups are very important. They give you a fail-safe for press shots and what you might not get during the performance. Before shooting, confer with the director and choose the eight or ten most powerful moments in the production. Then restage and tighten the scene. This will also give you the opportunity to bring up the lights, if needed. The pitfalls of set ups are that they can look posed, indicated and lifeless. To avoid that problem, have the actors start the scene before they get to that magic moment that you and the director have chosen. Have them hold that moment, as you begin shooting several frames—until they start to lose the moment. Go back and start again until you feel you have it. Don't be afraid to tell them if they are looking posed and held. Make sure they are working at performance level, and have a fully realized emotional life.

On new shows, I usually do a pre-production shoot in my studio a month or so before opening. These shots are used for posters, flyers, and any pre-press. The production stills are usually shot at the last tech run-through before previews, giving the design team the time to work out any kinks. I prefer to shoot the performance with set ups after the run. It gives me the opportunity to see where the press moments are and go back to get the coverage. Once the shoot is done, I work with the publicist and producer in selecting the finals, which I then rework in Photoshop for any retouching, cropping, color correction, clean up, sizing, etc. It is important to remember that digital media is so much more fine-tuned and less forgiving than film. The post work is as important as the shoot.

There are so many factors to consider. After doing this for so many years, it has become instinctive for me, and difficult to find the words to describe it, but I will try. Equipment is very important to me. My cameras are like an appendage to my body. You must be comfortable and prepared. I carry three Canon 1D bodies, two working and one back up. My two principal lenses are 24-70 F2.8L and 70-200 F2.8L. My backup is a 24-105 F4L, which given enough light is a great all-purpose lens. I like to be able to move in the context of a shoot, so I don't use a tripod. My short lens is strapped to my shoulder, and my long lens is on a monopod, which gives me the freedom to move. I have found great moments from angles I never would have seen had I been in lockdown on a tripod. Follow the action, not only with your lens, but with your movement as well. You must find your own comfort zone, and work from there.

Listen with your heart, from an emotional point of view, as well as your head from a technical point of view. Learn to find the balance between them. Your instincts will tell you where the moments are, and eventually let you anticipate when they are coming. Sometimes you will find a more interesting, layered moment from the actor who is actively listening, rather than speaking. Don't stay with the obvious. Once you have it, look for choices, and trust your instincts.

The "thrust" and "in the round" stages are the most challenging. How do you shoot actors without showing rows of empty seats behind them? A thrust is less difficult than in the round, in that you can shoot from center without showing seats. I recently shot a play that had an extreme thrust with staging that had the actors playing to the three-sided audience. There was no way around it, so I shot at high and low angles when possible, which is also the way to shoot in the round to avoid the seat background. In the end, with the chosen finals, I had to rework them in Photoshop, basically taking the background to black. When you can't find angles, going to black in post is your only option.

Whenever possible, hire professionals, or at least someone with some experience. Production stills are not easy, and in the technological age of everyone with a camera phone being a still photographer, and everyone with a handy cam being a filmmaker, it doesn't always work. The odds are not in your favor.

As I said earlier, digital media is much more complex than film. Point and shoot looks like what it is called. Not too long ago, I did a seminar for a local photo lab to talk to their "photographers" about film and digital differences. It was attended by over 60 people working as photographers. When I got to the highlight/shadow ratios, which are hugely different than film, a hand went up: "How do you figure that out?"  I answered, "When you meter the highlight/shadow and evaluate your exposure. Show of hands—how many of you work with manual metering?" Not one hand went up. In shock, I told them to take their cameras off auto, switch to manual and learn how to be a photographer and not just a person with a camera. The question is...would you want that person shooting your production? 

I have shot many productions over the years. Not all the productions were well received by the critics, but they managed to get an audience from the ads with powerful stills. That led to word of mouth, which allowed them a successful run. Audience members have told producers that they saw the photo in the ad and had to see the show. One should never underestimate the power and importance of production photography.

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Cora Ford
April 2, 2020
This is a really helpful post! I am gearing up to shoot my first play, so all this advice was extremely helpful. (especially the ISO hint)