I did quite a lot of behind-the-scenes (BTS) shoots in 2018, and I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. This kind of photography job is very unique and I’m aware that this post is aimed at a very niche audience. However, there are a lot of helpful tips here that can definitely be transferred to other kinds of photography jobs. So if you’re a beginner in photography, or are just interested to find out a little bit more about photographing film/music video sets, keep reading!
One major obstacle with still photography is just how invisible you have to be. When the crew is filming there are so many limitations as to where you can be so that you’re not in shot, or blocking light, or just plain in the way. On set your job is pretty much the least important thing going on, and not interrupting the filming process is imperative. Now this doesn’t make shooting impossible, it just means you have to get creative.
I always use zoom lenses on these kinds of shoots as you will be running around A LOT trying to dodge out of people’s way while still getting some great photos, and time you have to spend swapping lenses is time in which you’re missing shots.
I also always use long lenses. Wide lenses are great to get pictures of the whole cast and crew, but getting more intimate shots would require you to be a lot closer to the action, thus getting in the way. Also, when you’re close you’re more noticeable, and people tend to get weird and tense when they sense someone is taking a picture of them.
Using long lenses means you can be further away from the action but still get some of those crisp close-ups. Also, when no-one’s paying attention to you, you can get beautiful candid shots of the cast and crew in their element.
Utilising rehearsals and practice takes
That being said, being far away isn’t always an option in some locations. In this scenario, you can take advantage of rehearsals and practice takes. It’s still important here to be aware of your surroundings, but you’ll have a little more wiggle room to shoot when the cameras aren’t actually rolling.
An extension of this would be to keep an eye on what everyone is doing, the blocking of the scene, the movement of the camera and crew, the placing of the lighting. This way, when they do start shooting, you can move with the crew in a path that keeps you out of shot and again allows you to get some in-action shots.
When working on the set of a music video, oftentimes you don’t need to worry too much about making a little bit of noise as the video will just have the music over it later anyway. However, in films, and even in some music videos, there will be on-set sound recorded and this adds a whole other level to your goal of being as invisible as possible.
You would be surprised by just how much sound a microphone will pick up, and you do not want to be the person who ruins a shot because you made a noise. Now if you have the money this can be easily avoided by getting some high-tech gear that shoots silently. However, this may not be an option for you.
When I first started out I did not have the luxury of silent-shooting. Instead I would pick and choose from some of the methods I’ve already mentioned, depending on the situation. When the location was big enough I used a long lens, so I was far enough away from the sound recording equipment that it wouldn’t pick up the sounds of me or my camera. In smaller locations where this wasn’t possible, I used the rehearsal time to my advantage so I wouldn’t have to shoot while the cameras were rolling.
Then there are night shoots.
Ahh night shoots. I was lucky in that during my first BTS gig I was thrown straight in the deep-end. The thing is, when you’re on set you can’t set up your own lights or use any kind of flash while filming is happening. So once again, you have to get creative. You can use flash while the crew isn’t filming, but a bright light completely takes away from your anonymity, and people get weird when they know their photo’s being taken so I wouldn’t recommend it.
It’s in this scenario that better equipment will make your life infinitely easier. A camera body that has good night-time capabilities, and a lens with a low f-stop will be lifesavers. However, once again, I know not everyone can afford this kind of equipment. If you have the option, the most important thing is a lens with a low f-stop. Something that goes down to at least F2.8, without this your images are just going to be too dark and/or too grainy.
The next thing you’re going to want to do is use the lighting around you to your advantage. Be ready and waiting for when a crew member steps into one of the lights they’ve set up for the scene, or a streetlight, the light of a shop window etc. This situation requires fast reflexes, because as soon as they leave that light you’ve lost your shot.
What’s also going to be really important for you here is editing. There are ways you can make your images lighter, reduce the amount of noise, and generally improve them in post. However, this is limited and the better the quality you can make your RAW images, the further you can stretch them in post.
Also though, depending on the shoot, you may be able to use the quality to your advantage. For example, if the shots are pretty noisy, consider editing them in a vintage style and using the noise as a stylistic element of the final images.
The last thing I can suggest for this kind of photography is just taking a tonne of images. Take hundreds, even thousands of photos (preferably thousands). Just shoot constantly. Sets are incredibly fast moving. The more you shoot, the more unique moments you can make sure you capture.
Also the more you shoot, the more quickly you become part of the scenery. For the first hour on set, the everyone is going to be very aware of your presence. However, the more constantly you shoot, the more quickly they are going to get used to you. Once they’re comfortable they’ll – for the most part – forget you’re there, allowing you to get more relaxed and candid images.
Taking a lot of photos also gives you more options in post. A problem with candid photos is you are going to have a lot of photos that would be great if the person in them wasn’t pulling an awkward face or pose, or if the camera didn’t quite focus quick enough. If you take 100 photos, and half of them turn out to be good then you’re either extremely lucky or extremely talented in which case please teach me your ways. But if you take 1000 photos, you’re likely to get AT LEAST 100 good ones, a percentage of which will be absolute gems.
And that’s it, that’s all I have for you today. I hope these tips were helpful for you. If you want to see some of my photos you can take a look at my portfolio. If you have any questions about BTS/stills photography be sure to leave them in the comments. I am by no means an expert but I can still share my limited experience with you!