Photo Requirements for Indie Films – Guide to Effective Production Stills

Written by adminann on April 15, 2022 in Arts and Entertainment with no comments.

On independent films, production stills are often an after thought and the company allots limited funds and production time to fulfill this requirement. This is most unfortunate, as photos are an integral part of any marketing campaign and the driving force that promotes the film via advertising, print editorials, and on the web. Without vivid and enticing visuals, a good film can falter at the box office because the public is not drawn to its story, the characters, or the players. In addition, without a strong commitment by the producers, the labors of cast and crew go unheralded and the film’s true potential unrealized.

Time and cost are the obvious excuses for neglecting photo requirements, but the real culprit is the lack of knowledge about the needs and the opportunities that exist for quality production stills. By clarifying these needs, a budget and schedule can be compiled that will deliver the essential shots and do so in an economical and effective manner. With this commitment, key shots can be pre-determined, and adequate time can be coordinated for their photography. Through this process, production stills become part of overall budget and more importantly, a part of the shooting schedule.

The need for photos covers a wide spectrum. The primary concern is to create awareness for the film. Another objective is to fulfill the distribution deliverables. Other objectives include promoting the talents of participants be they investors, creative team, cast or crew. Other needs include documenting the production, creating reference photos, and creating goodwill with backers, vendors, and dignitaries. Each of these needs comes into play during different phases of the production.


During pre-production, location photos are most useful in disseminating information to the various department heads. Not everyone on the production team can be involved in scouting process. Location scouts will usually provide photos, but the director may request additional shots with varying perspectives and/or photographed at various times of the day. The production designer may also want reference photos to assess needs in modifying and dressing the location. Early look-see photos help with equipment staging and logistics. Each department head uses these location photos to create their part of the story and a set of prints or a CD can help eliminate costly delays and problems due to miscommunications.

Test photos of special make-up or intricate costumes may also be required. Here again, the production team uses these images to exchange information and ideas. Such photos help solicit articles relating to fashion trends and makeup. Miniatures and special props may also be required for coordination and approval. Reference photos are useful in this respect and intricate lighting and perspectives may require a skilled photographer. These photos are also helpful in generating stories about behind-the-scenes techniques for the industry’s numerous tech magazines.

During the development and pre-production phase, new elements come into the mix. People signing investment and distribution deals are good photo ops as are photos of new people added to the creative team. Almost all these newsworthy events involve people and a photo attached to the press release adds strength the news item. These news items may include start of production notices, additions of featured cast members, or an addition to the production team. Being picked up by the trades or by the entertainment-media is greatly improve with a good photo These photos, normally head shots or portraits, should be in color, clear of distracting background, (gray background is preferred) and if digital, provided in a high-resolution (300 dpi or more) jpg format. Poses should reinforce status of position, or role portrayed in the production. Photo identification and captions are an important part of these submittals and include referenced to the title of the news release, and/or the date and writer assigned to the article.

News stories break with little warning so it is imperative to have photos meeting the above criteria on file and ready for quick dissemination. Such news stories have a narrow window of opportunity and if news outlets have to wait for proper photos, it is likely they will go with somebody else’s story. Obtaining or shooting these photos after the fact usually interrupts company operation when time is at a premium. Likewise, most company principles see little value in such photos until it is too late and their moment to shine has left them in the dust. Therefore, by scheduling these photo sessions early on, there is little intrusion into their work schedule. In addition, if they are scheduled on the same day, setup time can be reduced and if need be, a makeup artist can be hired.


The bulk of the still photographer’s work will come during the shoot itself. Photos in this phase fall into the following categories: scenes, behind-the-scenes, marketing shots, editorial, and goodwill. The primary objective of production stills is to promote the film, its stars, and key production people. The methods and target venues will vary depending on the different categories. Here again, planning will reduce costs.

Most of the stills taken during the shoot will be of actors performing various scenes, shots taken during rehearsals or during actual takes. When using a SRL camera, a “blimp” housing is use to silence the sound of the shutter. This housing silences the sound of the mechanical shutter and the advance motor on film cameras. On point & shot digital cameras, there is neither of these devices and thus a blimp is not required. On the more expensive SLR cameras, the mechanical shutter/mirror mechanism, through quiet, still is objectionable and requires a blimp. This is not necessary with digital cameras if the indicator beeps are silenced. These blimps, manufactured by Jacobson Camera in North Hollywood, are the accepted silencing device and can cost as much as professional cameras when including lens housings.

Unit still photographers require reliable camera and equipment to withstand the heavy workload. On an average independent production, let us say twenty days, a still photographer may take 2000 to 3500 pictures of the movie. That is about 100-170 a day or 5-10 per setup. That is lots of wear and tear on a camera.

Scene Stills. The best stills are those that show the actors in dramatic or action oriented shots. Each photo should tell part of the story in such a way that a series of photos would depict key relationships, story elements, as well as plot points. They should sell the film by creating little vignettes that intrigue viewers and pull them into learning more about the film. They tell the story of the film.

However, there is a problem in documenting only the director’s vision. Film and video use numerous images, motion, and juxtaposition of cuts to relate the story. A photo must do the same with only one image. The director’s blocking and composition do not always bring out the true essence of the scene when relegated to a single frame. In these situations, reposition the actors for true story-telling photos. This requires rearranging the expressions, blocking, and even timing for optimum affect. Thus, a good production still can sometimes be a compilation of a scene rather than an extracted frame from the film. When there is a publicist assigned to the film, he or she can help select and set up these shots. However, such re-staging can often obstruct the flow of the production, both creatively and logistically. Thus, diligently plan and implement these shots with considerable economy. One must always remember that the highest priority for the production phase is to film the director’s vision in the most creative and economical way.

In framing and composing these shots, one must consider the end usage. Newspaper and magazine photos of movie action tend to lean more toward the smaller frame sizes. Frame sizes of approximately 1.5 x 2.2, or 3.0 x 4.6 are common, and photos cluttered with too much information will not meet publication standards. Choice photos are those that show motion, emotion, relationships, and clearly depict a vital element of the story. Thus, the majority of photos will be medium or close shots and lesser amount long shots. A mixture of vertical and horizontal framing is advisable to give flexibility to story layouts.

On the set, the still photographer’s best vantage point is usually next to the camera. However, this is the nesting area for many production people who include the camera operator, focus puller, director, and script supervisor. The lighting director (gaffer) may also want to see the results of his work. As such, it’s a struggle to get a good position, especially if you have to use a tripod. If one gets too far away from the camera, this distorts sight lines and blocking. Wiggling between people, especially those who have no vested role in the scene becomes a constant hassle. The best way to handle this arrangement is to work out an arrangement with the assistant director so that you are assured of a prime spot as close to the camera as possible. Work out this arrangement early in the production and coordinate with the production manager, director and script supervisor. In this way, other cast and crew members know not to encroach on these areas.

Another consideration on the set is adequate and properly balanced lighting. Lighting for print photography differs from motion picture photography in that in print, the lighting ratios are lower and illumination fill lights make the subjects more appealing. Some still photographers use a bounce flash for fill while others position a light with diffusion. Such a light and stand should be on stand by for such uses along with electrical cable and power. By doing so, this minimizes intrusions and delays.

If possible, avoid cluttered or distracting backgrounds. If you cannot, separate the subjects from the background using depth of field. Subjects within the depth of field would be in focus while blurring those outside that range. Use the device where you have scenic backgrounds or a background made up of atmospheric characters. When the entire landscape has to be in sharp focus, a small aperture and longer exposure times may require use of a tripod.

Behind-the-scenes shots are those that tell the story of the production itself. This is the crew in action, the cast preparing, or the logistics of the shoot. It could also include set construction, location dressing, or the mechanics behind a difficult stunt. Photos help illustrate these stories and bring the reader inside the world of filmmaking. These photos are also useful in depicting particularly large set pieces or intricate action sequences.

Film magazines prefer these kinds of shots as they help illustrate the filmmaking process and bring the reader into this magical world. These photos also help feed the curiosity of movie fans wanting to know more about their favorite celebrities or rising newcomers. A named actor relaxing and being himself has considerable promotional capital and by encouraging such coverage, these small investments will pay off later during the film’s release cycle.

Another use of behind the scene’s photography is to share technical knowledge about the filmmaking process. There are numerous publications devoted to this objective and with photos; such stories have a good chance of reaching the reading public. Web sites and newspapers also fall into this category as possible outlets.

Marketing Stills. To market a film properly, visuals are required and photos are the primary source. Advertising, posters, promotional literature and DVD box covers are the primary uses for these visuals. On low-budget films, photos are the most economical way to create these visuals. Computer graphic programs such as Photo Shop manipulate the photos to fit the needs of the marketing campaign. One problem in this phase of still photography is that at the time when the actors are readily available for such a session, no definitive concept or marketing strategy will be in place. The film may be in post-production or distribution pick-up before marketing strategies are set. By then it would be a prohibited expense to resurrect needed elements.

Usually by then, actors, costumes, locations, and sets will not be available. Thus, it is important to project various strategies that might work for said film and shoot images fulfilling those ideas. The producers, director, and writer, as well as the publicist should have input into what options require coverage. If a distributor has already picked up the film, then their marketing department should also have input.

For easily manipulation, these photos should be shot against a plain background and done in poses and lighting style indicative of the genre of the movie. To enlarge to poster size or if a billboard campaign is planned, a large format film camera or an 10mp or higher digital camera should be used. These photo sessions could be done on the set however; greater control will be possible if done away from the production shoot. One should try for a consensus as to which concepts and strategies to attempt. This will help reduce multiple directives thrown at the actors. Poster photos should represent the project’s single most promotable element. They should be photos that quickly tell the story of the film. Single images work best as a cluster or grouping of images is confusing and distracts attention from any one theme. If the movie has major stars, then key art might consist of a “floating-head” design to capitalize on the audience’s attraction to the film’s leading actor.

Editorials about participates in the film also require photos. Editorials focus more on someone’s personal life and the film is only a minor topic. Larger publications normally furnish their own photographer but local magazines and weekly newspapers may not have the budget to hire one. Thus, the unit still photographer supplies the photos for such articles, which will likely be part interview and part expos. The style is similar to fashion and glamour; however, it will depend on the thrust of the piece. Catching the personality of the subject in natural settings lends considerable flavor to such layouts.

Goodwill Photos. In almost every production, companies offer services and products free or well below the going rate. Others grease the wheels and help facilitate the production in some way. Merchants and homeowners inconvenienced, vendors providing cost reducing deals, or local dignitaries opening doors. All these people have helped in some way to make the production move more smoothly. Photos of these people with the stars or crew members are an effective ways of expressing gratitude. Even autographed headshots of the stars can be a nice goodwill gesture.

Unique locations and product placement situations may also require photos. Product manufacturers and the distributor may incorporate these photos into mutual marketing campaigns. Likewise, visiting family members of cast and crew may ask for a few pictures. There will also be a call for “souvenir” and “portfolio” shots by the cast and crew as well as the crew group photo. Normally all photo requests are generally serviced free of charge. However, on low-budget features this expense can easily get out of hand. Thus, establish restrictions or minimums early on such as a two shot minimum.

Goodwill photos can provide considerable PR advantage and while the expense may seem extravagant, it scores points far beyond its cost. By placing this expense in the budget and reproduction limits clearly communicated, then it should not become an issue later on.

Part II, of this article covers items such things as record keeping, photographer rates and expense categories.

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