Tips for Observational Photography

Recently, I have been doing lots of stills for film sets. As part of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts, I have actually spent most of my time at college on film sets! However, this past year I have been taking more and more “set photos”. There is something magical about capturing the moments between different members of the crew and cast. Film sets can often be a mad rush while trying to go for as many takes as you can, but there’s often an element of focus, teamwork, and quick levity that accompany such an efficient atmosphere. As a set photographer, it’s important to have the right mindset and eye when approaching these sort of “observational” events. You don’t want to be in the way, but you want to get as many of those great moments as possible. Here are some things that usually run through my mind when approaching observational photography. 

1. Conveying the Mood

Wherever you may find yourself taking images, it’s always important to remember the larger context of the event. (i.e. what’s the mood?) A wedding has a totally different atmosphere than a concert, so why would you take/process photos in the same way? Recently, I have been working as a crewmember for a short film about a serial killer in the Florida Panhandle, so I wanted to take and process an image in more bleak and rural tones:

Crew-members talking about lighting

However, this totally varies from a medieval-genre horror film, where I composed and edited the photo very differently: 

Camera team waiting for the next set-up

The horror film has much more clarity and contrast than the previous photo and contains a more exciting, less brooding image. Therefore, thinking about the tone of the event helps to enhance your overall event coverage.

2. Composing thoughtfully

I once heard that there is always a difference between a “snapshot” and a “photo”. A snapshot could be an image than anyone takes, simply to showcase what’s going on in a given moment. However, a photo is something that the photographer considers what’s in the frame, their composition, and their relative position and scale. There’s a sense of storytelling that’s infused into a photo, and the image guides the viewer into not only a depiction of what is happening but the tone as well. Here is an example of a photo I took recently on a film set:

Our Director of Photography frames the shot.

This photo at first has some fun colors, the subject is framed in relativity to the RED camera size, and it’s overall a nice image. Many of the lines within the frame point directly toward our subject, which works well to laser in the viewer’s eye toward what I want them to see.

Now, did I think of all of this while taking the image? Of course not! This is just one of hundreds of images I shot that day. However, culling through your photos, picking the good ones out, and continually doing photography are great way to build those muscles that help you get these types of shots more naturally. 

3. Know your surroundings

While this may seem obvious at first, knowing your surroundings is an integral part of observational photography. Not only knowing what’s happening when but even just going to a sizable amount of the same style event helps to build your repertoire of great photos. Being on so many film sets this past year has helped me to gain a very solid understanding of how the event operates, so I can best position myself for good photos. With this, finding those smaller, golden moments becomes a lot easier. Moreover, at the end of the day, you end up with a lot more favorites than you usually would! Nothing beats getting better than practice. Here’s a few I took recently that I love:

 I loved these circle windows, they made for lots of fun photos!
Chatting about blocking with the actors.
A children’s film noir cast talks with the director.
Our 2nd Assistant director in a cacophony of production design.

Overall, there are many many more aspects I could talk about with observational photography, but I hope this helps the next time you find yourself working an event taking photos!

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