Robert Falconer Finds the Decisive Frame as a Film and Television Set Photographer
Movie and television sets are hectic, chaotic environments, with hundreds of artisans, craftsman, and technicians working towards the goal of creating fictional stories for the public to enjoy. It’s a busy, often challenging environment for an on-set (or “unit stills”) photographer to ply their craft, but the images these photographers produce often give us our first look at a forthcoming film, or television episode.
For several years, Robert Falconer has worked on several major television and film properties, among them the DCTV universe series such as Supergirl, Arrow and The Flash; FOX TV’s The X-Files; and feature films such as The Predator. And while Robert didn’t begin his career as a unit stills photographer, photography at large has been a part of his DNA from an early age. Here he talks about what it’s like being a unit stills photographer, and why he now relies on Fujifilm X Series cameras for the majority of his work.
For those who might not know, what does a unit stills photographer do?
Basically, our job is to document the creation of the project through behind-the-scenes imagery, while simultaneously getting production stills of the on-camera action that’s used for the promotion and marketing of the film or television series. Sometimes we are assigned to shoot galleries. And we also often do photography for the art department, from portraits for prop stills, to translights (the giant backgrounds or vinyl “drapes” with panoramic scenic images printed on them that hang outside set windows)—and pretty much anything in-between.
It sounds as though there’s a lot of variety.
There can be, yes. Being a stills photographer for film or television really means being a good generalist, something which runs counter to what is recommended to aspiring new photographers in this day and age, who are so often told to specialize. At its core, however, being a unit stills photographer combines elements of being a cinematographer and having a cinematic eye (though in our case we tell the story one frame at a time instead of at 24fps), with elements of photojournalism (except that the on-camera events are scripted instead of randomly unfolding).
How did you first become interested in photography?
I’ve been shooting and absorbing everything photography-related voraciously from childhood in the mid to late 1970s. Like many of us who grew up in that era, my interest was piqued by products like the Kodak Instamatic camera, which for me became a kind of “gateway drug” to visual storytelling. My dad also had a Leica III, circa 1938 that he had purchased in the late ‘50s that he coveted. After a lot of pleading on my part, and my promise to never drop or damage it (on pain of death), he finally indulged me and I began making some of my earliest real photographs with it, though truth be told it was a pain to work with, with twin viewing “portholes”, one for composing and another for focusing. By the time you got your shot lined up and focused, your subject had already moved into next week [laughs]. But it was a great learning experience; analogue and manual everything. Shortly afterwards, my parents were kind enough to buy me a lightly used Canon SLR for Christmas, and then things just sort of mushroomed after that; lots and lots of personal experimentation, staff photographer for the university newspaper, travel photography, shooting weddings and portraits for friends, friends of friends, and then occasional clients here and there. All of it was training for when I started doing much more serious client work years later.
You came to unit stills work relatively recently. How did you get into the field?
I think landing there was a natural culmination of interrelated activities I’d been exploring for a very long time. Early in my professional life, following university, I was actually pursuing a career as a screenwriter in the entertainment industry, beginning with the Star Trek franchise (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager) and several other series. And though I was receiving accolades for my story development and scriptwriting, and multiple invites to pitch ideas, after nearly a decade it ultimately hadn’t evolved into a valid career path, and it was time to move on. It was heartbreaking at the time, as it was something I’d really wanted to do, but at a certain point accolades don’t pay bills and one has to pivot and move in a new direction. So I took my writing skills and transitioned them into the world of communications/journalism for business, media, and non-profits.
At the same time all this was going on, I was continuing to pursue my interest in photography. Then, several years ago, my passion for making photographs ignited in a sort of critical mass, and I realized that I actually wanted to do it as a full-time, or near full-time, career. So I made a fully intentional decision to explore what that would look like. And it was at that moment that the entertainment industry re-entered the picture for me. I realized that as a set photographer I could harness my knowledge and experience developed over years of telling visual stories as a screenwriter, and apply that to telling stories visually on set through the lens of a camera. One informed the other, and in a sense brought me full circle. And here we are.
What’s the most challenging thing about working on a film or television set?
Keeping out of the way and being as invisible as possible [laughs]. It’s truly an alchemy of the technical, the artistic…and the social. And by that I mean one needs to mindful of the space and energy of others, particularly performers, and keep out of the way of working crew. One is forever stepping on cables and set paraphernalia, while simultaneously hunting for a vantage point that offers a great shot, avoids actor eye-lines, and is clear of camera angles, reflections, and so forth. So in addition to being a good photographer, you also have to be a bit of a ninja.
When did you first begin working with Fujifilm X Series cameras?
My first exposure to the X Series began back in 2011. I was traveling to Africa to work in a lion conservation program, and wanted a backup camera to supplement my DSLR kit. Obviously, you never want to go on an important trip with a single camera body, in case one of them dies. However, I didn’t want to lug a second DSLR, as I was trying to minimize weight. So I started looking around for premium compact cameras and remembered an interview I’d read somewhere with David Hobby, who had raved about the [original] X100. I had a look at one in a store, shot some images to it via an SD card, and was really impressed with the image quality when I got home. So I returned to the camera shop the next day and bought one. It was wonderful using it in Africa, and while the autofocus was a bit, shall we say, “leisurely” in those early days, the images it produced offered a color accuracy and rendering which was just beautiful; I actually preferred it to my DSLR. Plus, the camera invited conversation, and never, ever forced people back on their heels—I could get intimate shots with that X100 where a DSLR might have invited mistrust. After returning from Africa, I sold my X100 and bought the X-Pro1. Things just sort of grew from there, as each new camera got better and better, and the lens ecosystem expanded with some truly outstanding glass. Shortly thereafter, I added the X-T1 as well.
As a set photographer, how has mirrorless benefitted your work?
Well, it was that X-T1 that really turned the tide, I think. Not only was I increasingly impressed with the image quality I was getting from the X-Trans sensor and the Fujinon optics, but the X-T1 was the first X Series camera to introduce a completely silent shutter. That was a game-changer for those of us who work as stills photographers, because the most important thing on a set is that our gear be silent. Not quiet, but actually silent. Beyond that, low light performance is paramount. Fuji has been able to evolve its X Series cameras to the point now where I can get shots that would have been impossible without a sound blimp and a DSLR. So not only do I have silence and good high ISO performance, but mirrorless means I can preview my exposure in the future, as opposed to chimping after the fact. This improves my keeper rate. The tilting screen on the back of the X-T1/X-T2/X-H1—coupled with the cameras’ relatively small size—means that I can get into angles and shoot perspectives that simply couldn’t even have attempted before with the physical restrictions of the blimp. That expands and improves the variety of deliverables I can provide to a client. And perhaps best of all, I can just use the camera as it was intended, with full access to all the controls, something that was also restricted with a blimp.
What’s your favorite thing about shooting with the FUJIFILM X System?
I’m a camera buff, and also a camera history buff, and have been for decades. I follow the industry as religiously as time will allow. Over the years I’ve shot with nearly all the brands at one point or another, Canon, Nikon, Leica, Pentax, Olympus. If you’re at all familiar with astrophysics, then you’ve doubtless heard of the “Goldilocks Zone” principle. It basically explains how our Earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life. A little closer and the Earth would be too hot, a little further away, and it would be too cold. I liken that concept to the X Series cameras, because they provide the best overall blend of usability, performance, and image quality…at least for the type of work that I do. Plus, I’ve exposed my X-T2 and X-Pro2 cameras to harsh dusty environments, used them in drenching rain in a rock quarry, and they’ve been banged about plenty on set, and still they keep soldiering on for me. It’s increasingly rare now that I’ll find a situation where my Fujifilm are not the optimal tool, and for me they do the best job at the widest array of things. Factor in GFX, and that list of things is growing every year. That puts the Fujifilm system in the Goldilocks Zone for me.
Which lenses do you use most commonly in your work?
I use several lenses, but typically my go-to is the XF16-55mmF2.8 and the XF50-140mmF2.8 zooms, as they provide excellent image quality and maximum versatility if I’m stuck in a particular space and need to quickly reframe a shot. That said, several of the productions that I work on shoot in very low light conditions due to the nature of the stories they tell. Plus, today’s cinema cameras such as the ARRI Alexa have sensors that are very sensitive and can shoot in extremely low light, where ISO 6400 and up becomes commonplace for a stills photographer. In those situations I’ll frequently use the XF56mmF1.2 and the XF35mmF1.4 wide open. The other advantage of using those two lenses is that they both render in a lovely, cinematic way, which can lend additional character to an image.
What inspires you?
A variety of things. The work of other talented photographers through the decades, certainly, from Sebastião Salgado and Henri Cartier-Bresson, to Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. The art of Piet Mondrian or the design of Le Corbusier. Perhaps not surprisingly, film and television. In fact, just about all popular culture is inspirational in one form or another, be it art, music, fashion, or books. Someone once asked me, “How can a book inspire you to make a photograph?” And I say it’s easy. A descriptive paragraph of a scene or situation can be visually stimulating and thus inspirational (in the same way as reading a script). Even a word can inspire. They say a picture is worth a thousand words? But how many times have each of us looked at a photograph and instantly thought of a single word, like “tragic”, or “ironic”, or “beautiful”. That picture is “________”. The same works in reverse. Set yourself an exercise in your photography to go out for one afternoon and look for everything that strikes you as ironic, and then try to capture it visually. Try to capture “irony”. So inspiration is really everywhere, no matter what sort of photography you do.
What other sorts of photography do you enjoy and practice?
Fashion, beauty, portraiture, and the myriad varieties of travel photography are passions for me. And I’m particularly fond of applying the cinematic style to those genres, and finding new ways to approach each. It keeps me energized creatively.
You use the X-T2 and X-Pro2 regularly for your work, but you’ve also begun using the new X-H1. What do you like best about that camera so far?
Two main things. First, I think it would have to be the camera’s overall shooting “feel”. The performance—from the quieter, softer actuation of the shutter release, to the blackout-free shooting experience at 6fps—just feels additionally responsive. When combined with the quieter [mechanical] shutter sound, everything feels a little more “direct”, a little more “dialed-in”, if you will. The second thing is definitely the IBIS. I want to point out straight away that I’m well aware of the technical pitfalls and limitations of in-body image stabilization systems, but for me, the trick is knowing how to use it, when to use it…but also when to turn it off. I’ll always opt to have a piece of technology available to me, if possible. So, for example, with landscape work on a tripod, you don’t need it. When shooting fast sports in the daytime where your shutter speed is 1/500 sec or faster, you don’t need it. But if you’re working on a quiet set, and you’re perched in a precarious spot using the XF56mmF1.2 R lens, in very low light, shooting two actors slowly dialoguing with one another, and you need a shutter speed of 1/30th sec just to shoot at ISO 6400…trust me, IBIS can keep you steady enough to make the difference between a sharp photo and a blurry one.
Beyond this, all the other little benefits of the X-H1 are deeply appreciated during long shooting days: the improved AF algorithm for more accurate focusing in lower light, the deeper handgrip, the 3.69M dot EVF, the electronic first curtain shutter mode; they all work in concert to give a photographer just that little bit of extra capability when trying to nail shots under varying conditions.
Do you have any photographic tips you’ve learned from working in the film industry that might be transferable to everyday photographers out there?
That’s a great question. What I will say is that so much of photography is people skills, and nowhere is this more evident than on a working set, where you have a lot of often highly-charged creative talent working in close proximity to one another. Learning to make people feel at ease, respect your ability, and give you the time you need to make a worthwhile photograph, under very short time constraints, is a skill that one could apply to a number of different types of photography, I think—be it portraiture, wedding, or even travel. Remember to be a human being first, and a photographer second.
You can find Robert’s work at: falconer.photo