What’s it like to be a still photographer on blockbuster movies like The Matrix and Mad Max? Jasin Boland, who’s also a Nikon ambassador, shares shares his colourful story, and some tips for better action shots.
How did you progress from being a press photographer to being a movie stills photographer, which is a much more specialist role?
I was working in the UK on newspapers and decided it was time to come back to Australia. I had press contacts here but started a business with a friend of mine and started doing PR and photo agency work. One of our clients also produced TV drama: they had a production that was shooting in my area and needed someone to cover it
We understand you didn’t exactly get off to a great start…
After the second day I had to meet the publicist to go through my shots. He flicked through the pages of transparencies and then closed the folder and sat in silence. Eventually he ripped into me pretty heavily but I promised I would get what he wanted.
It was my first time on a film set and I had covered it as I would if I was a press photographer: shots of crew working, actors with clapperboards, and just general behind the scenes images. But the one image he did like was of the two main actors – I’d only taken it because the light looked nice. They used that to publicise the entire 20 week shoot! So my career nearly ended before it began, but success only comes from failure.
So you are based in Australia, but you ended up working on a lot of Hollywood movies – how did that happen?
In the beginning I started on television and small movies and it was a great arena to learn the American-studio style. My first big film that came to Australia was Dark City. It was such a difficult film to work on but I ended up getting great images and that led to me getting the three Matrix films. These put me into the spotlight with many film makers and studios that I still work for today.
The first film I shot after Matrix was Peter Pan, which was one of the first to use entirely digital cameras for stills, and from that I got to shoot The Bourne Supremacy in Berlin. It was also the beginning of my relationship with Matt Damon and the director, Paul Greengrass. From that point on I was on the road, working mainly in Europe and Asia.
What were the biggest lessons you had to learn in the early days?
Actually apart from my obvious first mistakes, the transition from press to movie still photographer was pretty similar. My style was that of a storyteller; I did that with my press photography and took it into still photography. The motion picture still photographer is pretty anonymous to the general public. Our names don’t get bandied around, yet we are probably the most published photographers on the planet.
Instagram has changed this a little though and you find photographers from different productions or genres get quite a large following like Clay Enos for his DC superhero work, Helen Sloan for her work on Game of Thrones, Robert Viglasky for Peaky Blinders, etc. I think the UK produces probably the finest photographers on the planet.
The job sounds glamorous but also really tough and physically demanding.
It is glamorous… but yes there are always some rough waters to navigate. There’s a lot of satisfaction fighting for something and producing great work in the face of adversity, so yeah I thrive on it.
Even if I have something crappy happen during the day I try to let it pass and get back to being me. Being rattled takes your mind out of the creative process and puts you in a different head space. It’s important to let the bad energy go. I think I hide behind my camera a little, so it’s my shield in a way.
Which was the toughest movie you worked on?
You know they all have tough moments. For Everest we were shooting at 5154 metres – working at that altitude is brutal. Dark City was mentally tough and Mad Max Fury Road was both a physical and mental challenge but as I said before, the challenges give birth to some of the most wonderful images. You haver to funnel the emotion and exhaustion into your photography.
Do you actually shoot the action as it unfolds or do the actors and crew set up special photo opportunities for you?
Yeah, I’m not a big fan of doing setups, I feel they suck the life out of an image. My style hasn’t really changed since my press days shooting news, and a film set is the same for me.
I treat a set like a real environment and I photograph it like I’m a photojournalist actually there in the moment. The actor is never going to give a better performance than they do for the director, so it’s important for the still photographer to capture that as its happening. When cut is called an actor’s energy immediately goes down. The photograph I want is when the actor is at the peak of their energy and performance and that only happens for the director.
The other time I get great images is just before action is called. An actor will be waiting to perform, so they are pumped and inside the character.
Most of our readers don’t shoot movie stills. What are your biggest tips you can give readers to help them get better portraits, including sports or action shots?
Well first up, shoot in Manual mode. You have way more control over a camera in manual than you ever will on any auto or semi-auto setting. I can’t take the risk of auto picking up the muzzle flash of a gun, an explosion or a flare from a mirror or window, I need the camera to do what I tell the camera to do. On the Nikon Z mirrorless system you have a beautiful electronic viewfinder that will give you accurate exposure just as if you are looking at the scene in real life.
With portraits, the right lens choice is essential. I like to use a 58mm or 85mm. Some faces suit these two different focal lengths better than others, and remember you don’t have to throw a ton of light at a subject. Keep things a simple as you can and take a good look around at creases on the skin, and bad shadows on eyes or the face. I like a little back light and mostly just use a couple of lume cubes to give me a little highlight edge.
Action wise, guess the easiest way to start is children’s sports. My son plays ice hockey so I always have the parents asking me how to shoot it. Indoor sports are tough; you are in a low light environment so you do need a camera with good low light capability. Most of the cameras from the last couple of years should suffice, especially Nikons, those babies can see int he dark like a cat full of carrots!
Your camera needs to be capable of clean 3200-6400 ISO shots, so you can use the fastest shutter speed you can. There’s nothing worse than a bunch of images ruined because of unwanted movement.
Next up is the lens and you need the fastest lens you can get. For most sports, a 70-200mm should be fine but you really need f/2.8 across the range. Most people economise and get a super long lens that slides through two or three stops. Not only does it mess with your exposure as you zoom in and out but it also lowers your available shutter speed. Another good tip for action and sports is to follow the ball (or puck), don’t follow the player.
Also hold your ground – don’t bother about running up and down the pitch, be patient and wait for the action to come to you.The key to shooting action is the movement of the camera: follow the action and when you feel it hit a critical point, get your finger on the trigger and follow it until it’s over.
We can generally pick the beginning point of where the action starts, like in a stunt on a film set, but after it has started we don’t know what is going to happen. The best way to describe it is like a tennis shot or golf swing, you need to follow through.
Which of your movie stills are you the proudest of and why
You know I look at images I took 20 years ago that I hated at the time and now find something I love about them. My style is always evolving.
The image of Neo and Smith fighting in the rain from The Matrix has always been one of my favourites. Its probably the first of my images to define me as a photographer, and certainly my style.
I also like the Aston Martin DB9 jump from the James Bond Spectre movie. I shot this on one of my remote rigs because it just wasn’t physically possible to be there. I had one of my buddies from the stunt department pull me into a doorway as the car came flying past!
Then there is Furiosa screaming in the desert from Mad Max Fury Road. I love the ferocity and vulnerability of this image and the layering through the sand. It seems to resonate with many people and is a great example of an actor delivering their ‘director’s performance.’ You would never get this with a setup.
Another shot I like is Mulan in the midst of battle. I love the poetry to this image and our actress Liu Yifei gave me so many amazing images. She’s another fierce female and the images from all the action look like a beautiful dance.
Finally can you let us know what Nikon gear you are using (camera bodies and lenses) and why, plus any relevant accessories
How much room do you have! Here are some of the highlights.
I travel with about 100kg of gear. This consists of my onset kit which is two Nikon Z6s and two D5s along with 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8. The D5s are in sound blimps to take away most of the noise as I shoot. I use the Z 6s for 90-95% of my work now and haver been on the Z system since the first Z7 production models.
With the Z6 I have this big beautiful viewfinder and can check exposure in real time. I can change all my settings in the middle of a take through the I menu without moving or making noise.
I still use the D5s and now my D6 for heavy action. The way I throw the camera around, I need something a little beefy to give me some purchase and the 3D focus best suits my style. If you have a Nikon DSLR and don’t use the 3D try it out on action – its incredible. I also travel with a range of other lenses I use for different purposes like poster shoots (58mm, 85mm), and action where I need long fast lenses (200mm f/2 400mm f2.8, 200-400mm f/4).
Finally I have a bag of wet and cold weather clothing and I also travel with a variety of safety equipment like harnesses, webbing, eye and ear protection, helmets, that sort of thing. Everything I need to get home to my family safely!
To learn more about Jasin and his work click here. He is also on Instagram at @jasinboland.