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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Features - Careers In Photography - Unit Photographer - Helen Sloan. Posted: Tue 24 Mar 2015.

Helen Sloan

What does your job entail day to day in a normal week?

The job of Unit photographer (on Thrones specifically) spans several different areas. The first, and most important is scene coverage. Then there are the 'specials' - portraits of individual cast members in my photo studio, used for posters or merchandising. Although the job isn’t just "shoot-the-takes-technical" - I do get to be creative and interpret the show in my own way. And then there's behind the scenes documentary. So basically, it's my job to shoot everything. Ha! The quantity of material is huge. Then there's the editing, retouching and colouring (grading), meta tagging the cast and crew before the pictures go off to NYC. This gig is all encompassing for me – and right from the first day of shooting on the pilot, I was completely hooked. I was given the opportunity to shape a style for the show photography. That's an amazing gift for any photographer.

The days are long and tough, with multiple units (four at one point), and that can be gruelling, but it works well. It means there's always a lot going on. There is so much of everything on this show: sets, props, costumes, armour, people. It's like 360 degrees of cool. There is a photo waiting everywhere. Although, seemingly cavernous film sets can become veritable sardine tins once we get all the crew and equipment in there. It can be tricky to "get your shot" when shooting on a multiple camera drama. You sometimes have to do a bit of human origami with the other crew around the camera. Everyone has a job to do on set, and respect is paramount. You must become a champion negotiator.

I love what I do, and set high standards for myself - so honestly, for me, it’s worth every late night and horse-poo sodden rain filled quarry-destroyed pair of leather work boots, (of which there have been two pairs) There is no such thing as a "normal week" - "So what are we doing today guys?" "Oh, we’re just going to set someone on fire and push them over the edge of the boat..." anything can happen - and you MUST be prepared for it. The days are incredibly long and can be exhausting. Film work is not for the feint hearted, or those seeking glamour! Commitment is key in this game.

Can you tell me about the roles of the other people you work with?

I wouldn't know where to start listing the jobs of my colleagues on set! Working on a film set is art on an industrial scale - there are so many different skill sets and knowledgable people around me. It's amazing and can make your head spin. In my own department specifically, the people I work with most directly are my photo editor based in New York, and my set assistant. Beyond that triangle - there are a myriad of people over in the USA. In the film industry, everything branches out and we all become connected in some way.

What was your first photography job and how did you get it?

My career path was straight out of college, shooting landscapes in Iceland (where I was living) for a wall Art company. Then back to Belfast, and almost literally joined the circus shooting performers from all over the world, then tumbled into short films, and eventually feature films and Television work. Someone important saw some of my work one day, and I was asked to submit a portfolio. They thought I had something in my style that complimented their vision for that film project. In this industry, it's all about hard graft, and networking. There is no hard and fast formula for obtaining work - and people can get quite rattled by that. It can be a rollercoaster. One minute you’re furiously busy, and the next you're desperately seeking another project. Breaks come in different forms - some can be monetary, others can be getting praise from someone you respect - making them happy, and being asked back for future projects.

How do you decide what makes a good photograph or which photograph to use?

That's a difficult question to answer. I think there's a part of photography you just can't really learn. Knowing you've got "the shot" just happens for me. There's no real formula. That's how I work, but this particular subject varies from one photographer to the next. think you can just feel it, but that comes with experience too. Technically nailing something is easy with practice,- but catching something real creates a little spark in the air.

Did you study photography or something else and how was it useful?

I'm not sure how useful formal education was for me (but stay in school kids! You need to stay sharp for this job) as I studied Fine Art, and not photography specifically. I would like to have studied photography, but that wasn't an option back then. Any education is fantastic - and for something as technical as photography training helps. The more you know, the more options there are available to you. Learn as much as you can about your craft. You can teach yourself, and I did with many aspects , but classes and lectures are so important. You never stop learning - and expanding your own possibilities. The more important thing for me was meeting people. Over my years at school, college and beyond, I met so many wonderful mentors and fellow photographers and artists, and learned so much practical knowledge from those people. Obviously an Art College environment is fantastic because you meet so many creative types - and you learn to pick and choose inspiration from those artists in their many forms.

What's the most interesting piece of work you have produced recently and why?

The film and television work has definitely taken over for me - and while I don't get to shoot any "personal" projects, it's not a problem. I love shooting behind the scenes on films, documenting not just the material you see on TV, but the amazing locations, extreme conditions, and all those interesting details and behind the scenes tableaus: the whole ballet of making a film - and although I can't legally share my work with the world, sometimes that is ok. It can be just for me. Maybe I will make a book of behind the scenes work one day. It's a secret world - and it's very exciting and beautiful at times.

What advice would you have for someone at school (16-18 ) interested in working in your area of photography?

My central philosophy is work hard try to keep learning. It's simple, but easily forgotten. Also - try not to be too hard on yourself if something isn't working. Being able to adapt is key in any artistic career. I cant stress enough - keep learning, looking, and experimenting. Also - show people your photography often, but don't take criticism too harshly. Use it to grow. Most of what I know I learned by asking for demonstrations. Reading books is fine - but shadowing someone in the field, or video tutorials and attending classes and clubs is a much better way to learn for a lot of people. And if you do want to work in film - don't get stressed by the "knock backs" - there will be many. Keep knocking doors. Most are locked - but just try another corridor!

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