Hollywood Still Photography
Lights, Camera, Action

Patrick Ecclesine is a 29-year-old freelance photographer who was born and raised in Los Angeles. He is currently working on his first book titled "Faces of Sunset" which features a series of portraits taken along Sunset Boulevard. You can see his work at: www.ecclesine.com.

I'm a shooter, a gun for hire in Hollywood. In many respects, it's a cowboy's life. A typical scenario goes like this: the studio hires me because they need pictures for their publicity department. So I ride into a new town--a television show or film set--where I quickly size up the situation. I'm an outsider and the townsfolk are wary, especially the actors and the director. Others, like the cinematographer and his crew, accept me as soon as they see that I'm hard working and capable. Once I'm into position and the moment is right I pull out my Nikon D1X and shoot the place up. I've got eight hours to do the job. After I've taken the shots I need, I ride off into the sunset, Sunset Boulevard, that is.

When I first considered shooting stills for film and television shows, I was warned that still photographers are routinely humiliated and fired by hypersensitive, prickly actors, often on a whim. Well-meaning show business veterans painted a discouraging picture of a field that is so competitive and political that it is nearly impossible to find work. So far I've not found this to be true. Not only am I working steadily, but I've yet to have an unpleasant on-set experience. I assume that unhappy day will come, but so far I've been able to dodge the bullets that have taken out many still photographers before me.

A Bit Of Perspective
Historically, the still photographer was the most despised person on the set. In the early days of sound movies, when the actors were finished with a scene they would have to re-create it for the photographer. This extra work made the photographer a never-ending source of frustration and resentment. In the mid-1960s, when Irving Jacobsen designed and built the first sound blimp, life improved for the lowly set photographer. The sound blimp effectively silenced the camera's shutter, which allowed the set photographer to shoot the actors while they were in the middle of a scene.

The Gear
One of the first questions a prospective employer will ask is: "Do you shoot film or digital?" If you're shooting film, chances are you won't get the job. In the past four years the industry has gone almost completely digital. For speed of delivery, 35mm just can't touch digital, so grab yourself a professional digital camera and a couple of fast lenses. I use a Nikon D1X and have a Nikon D100 as backup. For lenses I use two telephotos to cover the focal spectrum: a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 and a Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8. I also use a 50mm f/1.4 and an 85mm f/1.8 for situations where more light is needed.

In addition, I use a sound blimp. There's only one place that manufactures the sound blimp and that's Jacobsen Instruments of North Hollywood, California. The sound blimp looks like a turn of the century box camera. You plug your camera into the belly of the sound blimp, latch it shut, and with two buttons on the exterior of the blimp you can effectively focus and fire your camera. Specialized acoustic foam inside the blimp renders the camera silent, and you can fire away knowing that the actors and the microphones won't hear any shutter noise.

Union Issues
In order to work as a photographer on a film or television show, you have to get into the union. The I.A.T.S.E. (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 600 Cinematographers guild is reputed to be one of the top unions in the country. Local 600 does a lot to help their members, and the benefits they offer working members are outstanding.

The bad news is that not only does it cost $6000 to join, but it's very difficult to get in. There are three ways to qualify: (1) work and get paid for 100 days on a non-union show where you earn at least $50 a day; (2) work on a non-union show that happens to go union; (3) be "grandfathered in" by a producer or director who insists upon working with you, and you only.

If you don't have personal relationships with producers who can open the magic curtain and usher you into Oz, you're not alone. I pity the photographer who tries to get into the union by schmoozing producers over cocktails at the Sky Bar. This is the fool's way. The only surefire way to join the union is to do the legwork, take non-union jobs, and build a portfolio. If you're truly motivated to shoot for the film and television industry, you will find a way to get the workdays you need to be eligible for the union.

How I Started
My break came when I heard about a new sport called SlamBall. SlamBall is America's first extreme team sport, a four on four full contact basketball game with trampolines built into a raised floor. I started documenting the games with my 35mm camera back in 2001. A year later, SlamBall got a national television contract, and by its second season, I was promoted to official league photographer. It was a dream job--not only was I paid to learn how to use high-end digital equipment and strobes, but I had total creative freedom to create the stylized "look" of the show. I did two seasons with SlamBall and realized, after the fact, that I'd worked 100 non-union days. I decided to play my hand in the film industry and joined the Local 600 this past October.

The pay isn't staggering. It's just under $50 an hour. However, it's very good if you're working long hours on a feature film. After eight hours you get paid time and a half; over 12 hours and you get double time. Considering that most feature films are pulling 12- to 14-hour days for a two- to six-month period, you can do the math and see that it adds up. Television is less lucrative because they put you on an eight-hour day. The upside to this is that, while the crew continues to slave away, you get to go home early.

You have to get to know the people who work in the studios' photo publicity departments. The best way to do this is through a recommendation from someone else who works at the same studio. Yes, the game is political, and you do have to know people, but if you're proactive, and personable and talented, you will find a way to work. As you're paying your dues in the non-union arena, you'll make valuable connections that will help you to score jobs when, down the road, you get into the Local 600.

Jennifer Iaccobucci's picture

I really like Patrick's work. Some of his recent work with is Faces of Sunset Boulevard which was a coffee table book about the lives of people who have come to Los Angeles. Its an amazing book and a must see. Patrick Ecclesine won the award with Annie Leibovitz for the Top Photography Book in 2009. Check out the review done by Popmatters on Patrick Ecclesine. You will find it interesting.

I hear he's in the works of a new photography art form called a cinematic novel. Looking forward to seeing what he has!