The DP/Actor relationship

"Lighting actors is all chemistry. If the chemistry's right between the cameraman and the actor, the lighting will work. If it's not, it won't, and you usually have a bad scene on your hands. There doesn't seem to really be any explanation for this."
 -Oliver Wood (American Cinematographer, Aug. 1990)

I shoot a lot of portraits and headshots in addition to doing cinematography. It is the one genre of still photography I've truly fallen in love with. Mostly because people are my favorite subjects. But I am not very journalistic— I get the most from shooting when I really get to collaborate with the person.

Out of all the more composed shots from this session,
this one of Kyle is my favorite. A moment in-between poses.

I think the best thing for me that has come from learning portrait photography is the art of establishing a relationship with my subject. When your attention is wholly in the viewfinder, it's easy to get carried away with framing, depth of field and colors, forgetting that the nervous person in front of you is actually more than a compositional element that blinks at inconvenient times. All the energy you put towards the magical image-capturing-box makes your subject hyper aware of the camera, but totally distant from the person wielding it. And suddenly the camera is more like a gun than anything else.

Elly is one of my most common subjects.
We practice together, a model and photographer team.

A relationship must be made, whether it be first-time acquaintance type of casual, or familiar and intimate. (I think this is why I've seen several brides go with the wedding photographer they have the best chemistry with, even if another photographer's portfolio is better.)

Couples photos do have a different dynamic, but connection with the individuals is still vital.
David and Elly are really fun to work with.

The photographer is not the only contributor to the artwork here. You must have both the subject and the photographer fully engaged with each other and working toward a shared goal, or your photo is going to look lifeless, disconnected. Get your subject out of their own head— the place where they are wondering if they look ok, is the angle their face is at all wrong, and whether or not they're making crazy eyes— and into a creative connection with their co-artist. It's teamwork.

These exercises with portraiture have been incredibly helpful to me as a cinematographer. I've learned firsthand how this connection can completely make a scene, or totally deaden it, and portrait photography allows me to practice honing that skill of creating that spark between me and my subject.

As a DP, the majority of my subjects are obviously actors. And outside of filming, when I photograph actors, it's usually to take their headshots. I started out thinking headshots were just a straightforward, super-flattering portrait. No. Headshots are probably the best example in photography that requires clear, trusting dialogue between the photographer and the model.

Headshots are an art, and also a science. The idea is to capture the range, personality and look of a person in one fantastic photo. You have to make it honest and unassuming while at the same time bold, confident and attention-grabbing. It has to encompass them. A bad headshot could cost an actor a role. Headshots are SERIOUZ BIZNESS. There are also a lot of technical details to worry about. It has to be vertical. Eyelight is required. Some of the body needs to be shown, but not too much. When shrunk down, the photo needs to look good in a thumbnail. Etc etc. I loved learning all these technical things that I had NO idea about until I started talking with actors from a co-creator standpoint.


Some early headshots I took when I was just starting out.
Elly doesn't have any eyelight, and Ben has way too much headroom at the top of the frame.

But what has been the best part of taking headshots (and getting feedback on them) is getting insight into the actor's actual thinking process, the art of being on the other side of the camera. What they're looking for in a headshot, how they perceive themselves and want to be perceived, what they're concerned about regarding the camera... What they worry about, what they are thinking when the lens points in their direction. But most of all, this practice with headshots is helping me, as the photographer, learn how to instill in them a sense of trust. Showing them that I respect and understand their artistic process, and depend on them as a collaborator, really makes a difference. A camaraderie is built— and suddenly I have the best subjects in the world that are totally easy to work with.


Took these headshots after a few months of practice and work. Not perfect, but getting there.

The actor-cinematographer relationship is often overlooked, and that is how bad dynamics are born: actors only wanting the DP's to make sure they look like James Bond, DP's only wanting the actors to "hit their damn marks."

DP's, an actor has to be able to trust and collaborate with you, or else the chemistry between you both (and therefore the chemistry with camera, the shot, the entire look of the scene) just fizzles. Cultivating that connection between two artists can make everything so much more fun— and so much more photogenic.

Rock on.

More photos can be found on my Flickr.


Will Campos said...

Great post, Lore! I've read alot about the director/actor relationship and the writer/actor relationship, but the dp/actor relationship is a thought that's never even crossed my mind. As you very smartly point out, it's a big one (and now I have another thing to stress over when I'm on set. This is why production work always makes me want to go lie down).

Some great stuff on the art of head shots too-- it's interesting to see how that bleeds over into cinematography work.

How do you translate those rapport-building skills from doing portrait work, which seems very intimate and one-on-one, to shooting on a busy set? Is there a trick to establishing that connection without eating up time or stepping on the director's toes?

LH said...

Hey thanks Will!

And that's actually a perfect question, as I was writing this I realized a part-two might be needed to talk about all the practicalities. I will definitely focus on that, thanks!!

xanchristopherson said...

ah, so many cute photos. I'm jealous. I Love the photos you take. They make me smile.

Ben Hopkin said...

Excellent post! Great photography, but I LOVE that you were confident enough to post & explain some of your earlier "mistakes" with headshots. You've got a great eye!