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10 Lessons from Street Photography That I Apply to Set Stills Photography


One of the questions I am asked most frequently is “how do you make money from street photography?” So far, aside from print sales and teaching courses, the answer has been that I approach street photography as a form of “practice” — a space in which I can experiment with new techniques, work on my style, and rehearse different fast-paced scenarios.

This practice can then be applied to any number of “real-world” and, maybe more importantly, paid situations; including wedding photography, corporate conferences, backstage journalism, seminars, portraiture, and, the setting I’d like to talk about here, on set for movie and commercial productions.

I’ve always wanted to be involved in the active production of media, and incorporating my photography has allowed me to build up the start of something resembling a career as a set unit photographer. This involves documenting the journey of a production, from set building to lighting to the actual filming itself – at which point I’ll also jump in and take production stills from the DOP’s shots for use on posters, for promotion and so on.

No set is the same as another, and lighting/activity conditions may change moment to moment. A “Street Photography Mindset” has been invaluable in helping me to create some of my best images while working on set. I’d like to share some of the key methods I use in my set photography which are a result of lessons I learned while shooting street.

1. Seek out the Light

Every photographer understands the importance of the strength, color, type, and direction of light, and Street Photography is one of the best ways to train your eye to recognize the potential of different kinds of light you may see. I never use a flash in any of my work, which means I rely on being able to identify light that can help isolate a subject or enhance a mood.

2. No “Redos”

There is often no chance in going back to a character on the street to ask that they replay a moment or expression. Not only would this cease to be candid street photography but the answer would most likely be a puzzled expression. Unless you intend to turn the situation into a portrait then there are no “do-overs.” Working on Set no one has time to cater to the needs of the Set Photographer. If I fail to capture a moment then it is my responsibility to do better next time, not to hold up the production for the sake of a single image.

However, once it has become a “portrait session” ie that I have been given the nod to grab some specific images from the production shot list then I will absolutely take my time to ensure the best results.

3. Figure to Ground for Composition

One of the easiest ways to compose an image in street photography is to make sure that every element “owns” its own space within the frame. This can often mean subframing against clear elements or waiting for the right moment of contrast of color.

I can also usually move my perspective either a little lower or a little higher depending on where people are working, in order to reduce the background into the ceiling or floor.

4. Patience

One of the producers of a feature was once chatting to me about my work, and she commented how she’d noticed that I “always wait for the right moment.” This always sounded odd to me, because by definition if you are not waiting for the right moment then what is it you are waiting for? The wrong moment?
Patience, knowing how to read a scene, the light and the way people move, is essential in capturing an intricate photograph.

5. Expression

I have gotten into the habit of studying people’s faces as they pass by, for any hint of something I can work with. Similarly on Set is it very useful to be in tune with everyone’s mood, as being able to anticipate a joke being told, or an actor about to reach a certain emotional scene can lead to some beautiful moments, and I have to be ready to capture them!

6. Permission

Of course when I work on set it will be one that I have been invited onto, but I can also take steps to make sure that I “belong” in a space so that the crew isn’t uncomfortable with my activities. I’ll usually introduce myself at the start of the day, and just mention that I’ll be around taking candid pictures.

I’ll then walk around without my camera just to get a sense of the space, but this also helps those around me to get used to me being around. Then when I start to take photos it is a natural continuation of just being there. I do something similar for street photography. For example, in a busy marketplace I’ll often do a circuit without taking pictures, and just becoming part of the scenery myself. That way I have the confidence to move around a space I am familiar with and am not bothered by people who are now used to seeing me around.

7. Experimentation

I like to think that my images benefit from being “different” to a lot of set photography I see (although a lot of that today is just photography from the crew’s phones). I will always look for a way to experiment compositionally – using reflections, silhouettes, and focus creatively for example.

I will also look for technical ways to experiment, most recently with long exposures on black and white film (yet to be developed!) I have also tried using my XPan for certain sets, although this is mostly reserved for my long-term Fashion BTS project.

8. Embrace Your Limitations

I have very little control over the set environment, which is why light needs to be sought out rather than created. This is not always possible, which means that in order to expose the way I want to I often need to compromise – and that normally takes the form of a slower shutter speed. However, I can apply this creatively to pan across action and capture a more energetic frame. I have produced some handheld exposures down to half a second and am normally pleased with the way they come out. Looking at where your camera is likely to fail – whether that means shooting wide open, or slowing the shutter, or embracing grain when pushing film, can be used creatively, and is not something to worry about as long as you learn techniques to use in different limiting situations.

9. Smile

I am not usually a “social person” and will often need to put on a less grumpy charm when on set dealing with actors and the production team. A smile will always help to put people at ease with my presence, and will also help generate positivity in an oftentimes-stressful environment.

10. Don’t Over-Invest in an Image

Sometimes there will be a fantastic composition right in front of me, but due to some time factor or my own mistiming I won’t achieve a shot – and then the scenes change, props are packed away, and people come and go. Similarly to being patient for an image you think might happen it is also important to be able to let go when conditions change and a concept is lost.

There will always be something new, some new area of light, or a different moment that is just as good as the one you missed. Keep on working the scene, every scene, and the images you keep will reflect the amount of work you put into them.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts on applying street photography to set stills! I’d also like to thank Five Fifty Five Productions, who continue to offer me the best access to their projects. If you are interested in more information about the productions pictured above then don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Instagram to discuss them!

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.