So What does a Stills Photographer do in TV?

Angus Young, Freelance Photographer

Angus Young is a freelance photographer who started his career in Australia and is now based in London. He specialises in taking film and television publicity still images. I stumbled upon him on Twitter – as you do – and having had a few requests about photography in television  asked if would talk about what he does. He agreed and here he is:

What a stills photographer does in TV

The stills photographer shoots the all important publicity photos for marketing the show.  In TV these fall into a three categories:

Episodic (images that relate to a particular episode).  These photos will convey an interesting angle on an individual episode or story thread.  Episodic images are often used online and in print along side TV guides or on the TV show or Broadcaster’s web sites.

Press Shots are the images that will be used for posters, web sites and advertising of the whole show or series.  Often they’re rather simple and can be shot separate to the filming of the show on a “specials shoot” which is a dedicated publicity shoot with the key cast of the show.

Behind the scenes photos are cast and crew at work.  These images can be very useful for alternative publicity angles, like articles on key cast and crew.  They are less common in TV than in film but do come in handy to producers, particularly for providing additional web content to fans and for use in DVD special features.

The images created by the stills photographer have to be quite striking and fit in with the style of the show, as ultimately they’ll be competing for publication alongside the photos for other shows.

Just as important as the images that a stills photographer produces, is the way in which the stills photographer works.  As you are probably aware, time is expensive when you’ve got artists, the film crew and all the equipment and location expenses racking up costs every minute of the shoot.

The stills photographer’s job is to ensure that great images are captured with minimal impact on the flow of the shoot.  Because of the audible slap created by the shutter of SLR cameras, you also have to be able to work without your shutter sound being picked up by the sound recordist’s very sensitive microphones.  This means either shooting with a sound blimp (a special sound proof enclosure) or having an intimate understanding of when you can safely have your shutter fire.

It’s a tough, but very rewarding job, and I’m deeply passionate about it.

Why you think stills photography is important for a TV programme or broadcaster

 Any producer or publicist who’s found themselves without a solid selection of stills from a show – whether a pilot, or already commissioned show – will tell you how much more challenging it is to attract their audience without striking production stills to use.

Stills photography is absolutely crucial to any TV production whether it is factual, drama, light entertainment or observational documentary.  Look around when you are out and about: you’re continuously being exposed to publicity shots for all forms of entertainment, whether it be films, television or even stage shows.

These images are often the first impressions that audiences will get of the upcoming shows. They act as a constant reminder, telling you where you need to be and what channel you need to be tuned to at 8pm on a Tuesday, or what you should next schedule to watch on your TV on demand service.

Stills photography will be used not only for promoting an individual show, but a broadcaster’s portfolio of entertainment. So there are always going to be material generated by broadcasters and production companies to show off the calibre of entertainment they produce.

Even when a show has not yet been commissioned, stills will form an important part of a TV pilot as the images will be used as part of the producer’s pitch to commissioning bodies.

Photography by Angus Young Image Courtesy of Systir Productions

The challenges of finding a TV job

This is the hardest part.  Budgets are very tight all around these days and for many TV productions there simply isn’t a budget for a full time on set stills photographer.  Unfortunately, it is quite common to have a stills photographer on set for only a couple of days per episode.  In some cases it can be only a couple of episodes per season.

In addition to this, aspiring photographers are up against the fact that like many other production roles the job is usually given to a trusted and proven professional, commonly one that has a history of working with the producers.

So, the biggest challenge is that there is very rarely an advert for a stills photographer, so we have to form relationships with prospective employers proactively.

How you have found work

 What has worked for me is to actively pursue low and unpaid projects to establish a relevant portfolio, as well as to develop a very thorough understanding of how to effectively work on a film crew.  The relationships that you form will gradually generate work for you.

My first break came through working on a TV pilot “I Rock” in Australia in 2007.  The producers of that show were very happy with my work and we established a strong professional relationship. I worked on their corporate jobs for the next couple of years, until they managed to get the show commissioned for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (The Aussie equivalent of the BBC).  I was very fortunate that the producers worked hard to convince the ABC that they needed me on their show.

Since being in the UK (just under 2 years at time of writing) I’ve worked very hard on every low budget and independent show I can find and I’m starting to make some good headway through having a strong portfolio, an increasing reputation among my colleagues and also a strong web presence.

The part that I hate, but I know that I have to do more of, is cold calling.  Lots of people talk about wanting their “lucky break in TV” but in my experience, you can sit around waiting for that break or you can make your own luck.

Your advice to those starting out and wanting to do photography in film & TV.

 I hate to say it, and many people might disagree, but you have to get experience working on set.  Student projects, and entrepreneurial film makers are often producing content and most of it is unpaid.

This is where you’ll learn good on set etiquette, develop your portfolio and most importantly, develop a network of contacts.

With enough of this work under your belt (and the odd lucky break that you’ve created for yourself) you’ll be in a position to market yourself to prospective employers.

About Angus

Angus Young is a stills photographer who specialises in working in film and television.  You can follow Angus’s regular technical articles on his website at or on twitter @PSbyAY

1 comment

  • The Highs and Lows of being a TV Press Officer | So You Want to Work in TV says:

    […] Thank you, Nuala and some good advice there for those photographers who’ve been asking advice on who to approach for work. Get your portfolio together and find the name of the press officer at the broadcasters and major independants. If you are keen on offering your professional photographic services within TV you might want to read this article: So What Does a TV Photographer Do […]

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