Photography Technique

What does a scene photographer do? In chat with Graziano Panfili

In the most important night for the world of Cinema, that’s to say the Oscar Night, we dedicate our column to the still photographer job, a fascinating job that puts the photographer in contact with actors, directors, set designers and machinists, but that also presents many pitfalls and requires considerable skills of adaptation and proactivity.

We talked about it with Graziano Panfili, a eclectic artist, who came to photography after drawing, painting and comics and who has held this role for several years in film productions, connoting all his artistic research in this direction.

Graziano Panfili | Collater.al

Let’s start from the roots: many people think that the still photographer simply takes photos during the shooting of a film, but actually he does much more (for example  posed and backstage shots) and above all  he must follow the choices of timing, spaces, lights and scenes defined by the rest of the crew. What is the greatest difficulty in these different shooting modes? 

Indeed, the work of the still photographer is not only limited to taking photographs during the shooting of a film, but it involves many other activities such as the realization of posed shots, backstage photos and more. In addition, the scene photographer must work closely with the director, cinematographer, and other team members to accommodate the timing, space, lighting, and scene choices defined by the rest of the crew.

One of the biggest difficulties in these different shooting modes is the need to always be ready to act quickly and decisively to catch the right moments during the shooting. When shooting during filming a movie, for example, the still photographer must be able to understand exactly what moments are important for the director and the story of the film, and to catch them quickly without disturbing the actors or other figures engaged on set. In addition, in posed or backstage photos, the scene photographer must be able to work with the available light and to create interesting and eye-catching images dealing with the limitations of space and time. It requires a lot of creativity, readiness, foresight skills and, of course, a thorough knowledge of light and photographic techniques.

The scene photographer is an invisible storyteller on the set. With discretion and sagacity he must tell the film, turning a moving image into a static one. I think it is something extremely complex and that it takes specific preparation (from a theoretical to a practical point of view) in managing unpredictable situations. How do you prepare to shoot for the movie? Do you read the script in advance and define scenes that might be interesting and that you already see in your mind? How do other people on set live your presence?

To prepare myself to shoot for a film it is important to read the script first of all to get an idea of the type of story that is being told and to find the scenes that may require special attention from a photographic, visual and narrative point of view. Sometimes, the director and the cinematographer can also give me a detailed briefing on the scenes in which we are involved. When I’m on set I try to be as discreet as possible not to disturb the other crew members and actors, but at the same time I also have to be careful and ready to act quickly to capture the highlights during the shooting.

Many times, there are unpredictable moments that require you to be ready at all times, such as a sudden change of light, a very dynamic scene or intense emotion from the actor. Hence, theoretical and practical preparation is crucial to have complete control over camera settings and to be able to quickly make the necessary adjustments to capture the most effective images. There is always good communication between me, the director, the cinematographer and the other professionals on set to ensure that everyone is aligned with the shooting goals and to avoid disturbing the actors during the most challenging scenes. We are a team that becomes one.

Graziano Panfili | Collater.al

Let’s say that the scene photographer is already an interpreter of a film: by shooting, he gives his vision, preferring shots, details, precise moments. Can you reach a compromise between documented and creative photography? How much did this type of photography influence your overall research?

Yes, the scene photographer, in a way, can be considered an interpreter of the film he is photographing. Through his choices of shots, details and precise moments, the scene photographer gives his vision of the story that is being represented.
Finding the right balance between documented and creative photography is one of the main challenges of the photographer’s work. On the one hand, it is important to accurately document the footage and to create an accurate visual record of the work done on set, for promotional and archival purposes. On the other hand, the scene photographer must also try to be creative and capture unique and exciting moments that can give the essence of the film and its personal vision.

To achieve this balance, it is important to have a thorough knowledge of the film and its themes, as well as a good understanding of photographic techniques. In addition, communication with the director, cinematographer and other team members is essential to understanding their visions and meeting their needs.
As for the influence of my work as a scene photographer on my general research, I must say that it certainly made me appreciate the importance of capturing unique moments and finding the right frame to tell a story. It also made me understand the importance of collaboration and communication in creating a complex visual project.

Graziano Panfili | Collater.al

Do you have any curious episodes to tell us about some movies?

More than a few episodes, I remember some funny images during lunch breaks on set, in which the actors ate informally still wearing makeup and often especially dressed for their scenes, These images made me appreciate the more human and fun side of the people involved in the production of the film, and they often became pleasant moments of pause and ended up laughing.

Do you have any advice  you would like to give to a young scene photographer who takes the set for the first time?

Study the script and pay attention to the requests of the director and other crew members.
Be discreet and respectful of others’ work.
Make the most of natural and artificial light to create visually striking images. Experiment with different photographic techniques and try to find your own personal style.

Graziano Panfili | Collater.al

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