Photographing Actors, From A Photographer’s Perspective

Throughout my life and career I have met, known and photographed many actors. This has led me to divide them into a number of different categories. The first divide is between stage, and film/television, the second between those who understand that being photographed is part of their profession, and those who do not. The third divide is between those who work with you, and those who have no intention of collaborating what so ever.

This may seem harsh, but if you have ever photographed an actor I will guarantee that you will be able to find one that will fit into at least one of these categories. My experience has been that stage actors are the most difficult, film actors are aware of the responsibility, but are not always happy to collaborate, and that television actors are the easiest to work with, but think they know what you want even if it they do not.

Moving past the TV smile, and predictable poses of the regularly photographed actor requires cunning and nuance.

However, it is the actor that refuses to cooperate that presents the biggest obstacle. I once art directed a session with a highly respected British actor who at the time was primarily theatre based, but who now appears in Hollywood blockbusters. The portraits were for a magazine, and required the actor to do more than just glower into the lens with extreme intensity. However, that was all he was willing to do, other than spend time talking with the young fashion assistant.

The actor’s attitude disrespected the photographer’s challenge to supply the magazine with the images they needed, and prevented him from doing his job. However, after a few minutes chatting with the fashion assistant, and her agreement to go for dinner with the actor, we saw him wearing a red leather suit, and no shirt jumping around the studio like a man possessed. I have no idea if they did go for dinner, but we got the pictures we needed, although neither the photographer or I were happy with the shoot or the over enthusiastic images.

Another photographer told me of a shoot with Jack Nicholson. Three frames and no word from Jack, just a message from his eyes that he was done and so was the shoot.

In contrast I once spent two days with Janet Jackson to get three images, and a day with a Hollywood actor in Los Angeles who was so informed by narcotics that none of the images of her could be used.

The best actors work with you. Demi Moore would have a full length mirror next to the photographer to ensure she knew how she looked in every frame – Vivienne Westwood did the same on a shoot I did with her – both were professional and easy to work with. I could say the same of many other actors I have had the privilege of photographing.

Of course with every rule an exception is needed to prove its validity. A one day shoot with photographer David Eustace photographing the greats of British stage acting proved to be a delight, as each actor supported the other as a constant stream of acting royalty appeared at the studio.

This experience points to the biggest issue when photographing actors, that of expectation. Stage actors inhabit the character they are playing every night they perform, as part of a collective of actors, without an opportunity to step out of that character during their performance. It is not who they are, but who they want us to believe they are. When being photographed they either need a character to play, or be happy to reveal aspects of their personality to the photographer. The process of revelation can be difficult for someone whose life involves adopting the role of another. It can be a lonely an intimidating place.

Film and television actors also adopt a character, but it is required of them in short bursts as filming progresses, and in front of a camera’s lens. An environment much closer to being photographed. Their expectation of a shoot is based on confidence in front of the camera, and even if they are unwilling to cooperate they know the score.

The expectation of the photographer also has to be realistic. You are not photographing the character or a costume, you are attempting to photograph the person behind the artifice. Cooperation is nice, collaboration is even better, but to expect a performance is unrealistic.

Some of my favourite shoots have been with actors, Michael Caine, Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Eddie Redmayne were all professional and interesting people to meet, and work with. I have always seen such shoots as meetings with people no different from me, or anyone else I am asked to photograph despite their celebrity status. I hope that our conversation will be the starting point for the photographs, and that the resultant images are proof of our conversation.

Photographing actors requires an understanding from the photographer that you are just one of a long list of photographers that an actor will have met, and will meet. The experience with you will be inherited by the next photographer, just as you will have inherited the practice adopted by the photographer before you. Just as the actor moves from production to production so the photographer moves from shoot to shoot. In many ways our roles are not that different. The photographic shoot can be an act of performance, we are all actors creating a moment that can disappear for ever unless captured as a physical artefact, nothing more than “a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Hopefully not.

*If you want to hear more tales of photographing celebrities I recommend checking out

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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