New Production Protocols for Photo and Video Production During COVID-19

New Production Protocols for Photo and Video Production During COVID-19

Production safety might not be the most exciting aspect of your photography career, but these days, like it or not, it’s one of the most important.

Depending on where you live, there’s a good chance that the recent pandemic has either severely curtailed your photography business over the last several months, or, for some, hit what seems like a permanent pause button. Where I live, here in Los Angeles, we have felt the effect of the pandemic more acutely than many, as a large part of the local economy is based on film and television (and photography) production. It’s similar to if Detroit auto workers were to suddenly wake up in a world where cars no longer existed. Except, in our case, rather than the structure of an automobile factory, most creatives here in Los Angeles are instead a loose-knit group of freelancers who operate with little guidance during ideal times and have very few formal structures around which to gain support during a sudden pandemic. We were one of the first places in the United States to shut down and have stayed close to production for more days than I can remember.  

I won’t claim that Los Angeles is suffering more than other communities around the world. That’s not my intention. Rather, I give you that context so that you have some semblance of how exciting it was to hear that our state governor, Gavin Newsom, finally reopened the state for production at the end of last week. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that everyone will be going back to work immediately. And there is a lot to figure out in terms of logistics. But, with the announcement, the state also released a set of reopening protocols aimed specifically at the music, television, and film production industries. As commercial photography often follows similar practices to film productions, many of the guidelines apply equally to photographers. So, I thought it might be useful for us to go through some of these guidelines together.

Some of the guidelines will be more applicable to you than others. For instance, if you’re a local headshot photographer who always works one on one with clients, then some of these steps might not be as relevant. Or, if you are a wedding or event photographer and aren’t responsible for the overall production of the event, then you may also be able to pick and choose between these suggestions. But, if you are doing commercial photography with larger crews, casts, and client calls, many of these protocols are ones you will want to incorporate into your shoots, paid or otherwise, going forward.

As an advertising photographer, my job is only half fulfilled by being able to take a photograph. I am hired as much for my organization and ability to produce as shoot as I am to press a shutter button. This means that being in touch with best practices for maintaining safety on set is not only a way to be a good neighbor, but also a requirement for the bottom line.

With that in mind, I thought I would highlight some of the suggestions from the governor’s protocols and open a discussion on how we might be able to incorporate them going forward to help ensure the safety of our crew, cast, and client. Obviously, with our knowledge of the pandemic growing day by day, it would be inaccurate to classify any of these guidelines as foolproof. But they are a start. And, even if you don’t live in California or work on large-scale productions, it is a good starting point for you to consider how you can do your part in making your own shoots safer.

The protocols themselves are rather lengthy. So, I won’t repeat them all line by line. You can read the complete set of protocols here. This discussion might not be sexy, but it is necessary. Below, you’ll find the guidelines (or a paraphrase of the guidelines for brevity). Many are straightforward and don’t require a comment. For others, I have offered additional thoughts.  

So, let’s dive into some of the guidelines.

Pre pandemic behind the scenes. Now picture the same scene adding masks, gloves, and social distancing.

Workplace Practices and Policies to Protect Employee Health

1. Any employee who can carry out their work duties from home has been directed to do so.

2. All productions should include the presence of a COVID-19 Compliance Officer. This officer would be responsible for: 

  • Employee, vendor, and visitor health check processes upon arrival at the workplace. Records must be kept private and secure at all times.
  • Management of complaints and suggestions for improving COVID-19 related procedures.
  • Protocol and workflow assessment for all work to assure physical distancing, infection control, and disinfection.
  • Procedures for an employee with signs comparable with COVID-19 and/or an employee who tests positive for COVID-19.

If you are doing any higher-level productions for the foreseeable future, I would expect the presence of a compliance officer to become as regular as the presence of a makeup artist or a stylist. If your production is small enough, you or an assistant may be able to do some of the tasks suggested by the role. But, really, with all that you have going on with a shoot, are you really going to have enough bandwidth to also make sure everyone is standing six feet apart around the set? Probably not. 

The inclusion of additional personnel will likely inflate your already slim budget as you submit your bids to clients. But, part of your job as a professional photographer is to protect your crew and your client. The altruistic version of that being that you are taking care of the health of those around you. The cynical business version is that you are putting all the guide rails in place you can to protect yourself and the client who has hired you from being opened up to a potential lawsuit should an outbreak occur. Either way, it makes sense. Adding a compliance officer will add to the budget, but can you really afford to mount a commercial shoot without one?

3. The workplace provides all personal protective equipment (PPE) and infection prevention supplies needed on the job, including face coverings, hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and (when needed) gloves, mobile handwashing stations, and other equipment and supplies.

I’ve already made room in my grip bag for all the additional disposable PPE I want to have on me at all times just in case cast and crew forget to bring their own.

4. All employees and visitors are required to wear cloth face coverings whenever they are in contact with others unless the production activity does not allow for the wearing of a face covering. These instances should be of short duration and with as much physical distancing as possible.

This one should really be pretty obvious at this point. If you don’t want to wear a mask, get over it. Just put on the darn mask. True, you will not look as cool as you used to. And, yes, it will require you to use your words, as many of your non-verbal facial expressions will quickly be deemed moot. But you’re not wearing the mask to protect yourself, you are wearing it to protect others. And if looking like cartoon bandit is the price we have to pay to go back to work, it is more than worth it.

5. Vulnerable staff (those above age 65, those with chronic health conditions) are assigned work that can be done from home whenever possible.

6. Prior to the shoot, all employees are told to stay home if exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and asked to follow health guidelines for quarantine as applicable.

7. Work processes are reconfigured to the extent possible to increase opportunities for employees to work from home.

8. For television and film production, there is regular, periodic testing of the cast and crew on a given production to mitigate the risk of the spread of COVID-19, especially for that cast and crew that are involved in high-risk scenes requiring close contact without face coverings for extended periods of time. Where testing may not be feasible for one-time productions operating under a very short filming schedule (e.g., many commercials/photoshoots) or smaller music recording sessions, all work should be planned to eliminate close physical contact between cast, crew, and performers as much as possible. Any and all testing programs are the responsibility of the employer and should benefit from the guidance of a medical professional.

This one applies in a number of cases for our photoshoots. For instance, if you are doing a lifestyle shoot with multiple models portraying a group of friends hanging out, how do you maintain six feet between subjects? What if your brief calls for a group portrait? Might shooting subjects separately and compositing them into a shot later be an option? In many cases, avoiding contact (especially between on-screen talent) might be impossible, but what ways might you go about limiting the duration of that contact in a way that can lessen the risk of transmission?

Even larger still or commercial film productions are likely to last days instead of weeks, so some of the regulations for periodic checks of employees may not apply to you. But the guidelines also suggest having a procedure in place for what happens if someone does exhibit symptoms consisting of COVID-19, such as trouble breathing, pressure or pain in the chest, bluish lips, or appearing confused.

The guidelines suggest for cases such as that, production should call 911 immediately and instruct the employee to discuss with their physician how best to proceed. Some suggestions include:

  1. The employee is not allowed to return until their fever has resolved for at least three (3) full days and their respiratory symptoms are improving, with a minimum absence of ten (10) days from the start of their symptoms.
  2. An employee that tests positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus but is not showing any symptoms is not allowed to return until 10 days have passed starting from the date that the testing sample was collected.
  3. Consider alternative work options like teleworking or other arrangements to work remotely if the employee can do so.
  4. Perform cleaning and disinfection of all areas touched by the ill or infected employee.
  5. Maintain a list of all cast and crew members on set with contact information. You are probably already doing this. But, if there is an outbreak discovered after the shoot, this information can be helpful for local health officials in contact-tracing the spread of the virus and hopefully preventing further infection.
  6. If the producer, director, showrunner, owner, manager, or operator knows of three (3) or more cases of COVID-19 within the workplace within a span of 14 days, the employer must report this cluster to the Department of Public Health.

9. Symptom checks are conducted before employees may enter the workspace. Checks must include a check-in concerning cough, shortness of breath or fever and any other symptoms compatible with COVID-19 that the employee may be experiencing. These checks can be done remotely or in person upon the employees’ arrival. A temperature check should also be done at the worksite if feasible. The information must be kept private and stored in a safe and secure manner.

We are all going to need to get used to longer check-in procedures when arriving on set in the future. Temperature checks on set will become as regular as baggage checks at the airport. From a production perspective, it’s important to keep this in mind when scheduling arrivals and your production schedule, as added time will be required to get the production team through the necessary check-in steps before production can begin. This will lead to longer and possibly less efficient working days, so you will need to plan accordingly.

10. Breaks are staggered to ensure that six (6) feet between employees can be maintained in break rooms or other common areas such as background cast members’ waiting rooms at all times.

11. Employees are prohibited from eating or drinking anywhere other than in designated areas to ensure that masks are worn consistently and correctly. Cast and crew must eat and drink at designated set areas with staggered schedules.

12. Make sure you have easily located stations for hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning supplies accessible to cast and crew members. Attendees should also be afforded frequent breaks for hand washing and other sanitary measures.

13. Each worker is assigned their own tools, equipment, and defined workspace as much as possible. Sharing held items is minimized or eliminated.

14. All shared equipment, microphones, and tools must be disinfected after each use.

These last two are considerations you will need to keep in mind even on smaller productions. Do you really need your assistant to hand you the camera, or can you hold onto your own gear? I’ve done a number of video shoots since social distancing, and one of the biggest obstacles is always audio. How do you place a lavaliere when you can’t come within six feet of the subject? Do you have alcohol wipes or other disinfectant to make sure that if you have to use a lavaliere that it has been disinfected for the subject? Have you remembered to disinfect it after taking it back? Is a boom mic a better option to prevent physical contact at all?

15. All shared clothing must be cleaned after each use. All wigs or other shared prosthetics must be disinfected after each use.

These are especially important if you are doing a fashion shoot where the models might be sharing a product between them. How do you disinfect the garment between use? Can you have duplicates of the garment on set to limit the need for sharing of wardrobe or props?


1. All new or restarting productions and group recording sessions must have a written protocol before work begins to ensure physical distancing of six (6) feet or more between people throughout the production.

2. Only essential cast and crew should be on or near the set at any time.

3. Production or editing meetings should be limited to essential staff only and should be held in areas where physical distancing can be maintained.

4. Strategies may include breaking production participants into teams of the smallest size feasible that access set or studio areas at different times with minimum overlap or intermingling.

5. For subjects who can’t wear face coverings on camera, try to maintain a distance of at least eight feet between subjects.

6. Where feasible, all workspaces shall have one-directional traffic (separate entrances and exits) to prevent contact or crowding near doorways. Stairwells, too, should be marked to control the flow of foot traffic if possible.

7. Elevator capacity is limited to the number of people that can be accommodated while maintaining a six (6)-foot physical distance between riders; during peak building entry and exit times, this number can be adjusted to four (4) individuals or fewer at a time for an elevator that does not allow for six (6)-foot physical distance between riders. All riders are required to wear cloth face coverings. Consider elevator sizes, number of building floors, and daily number of employees and visitors to establish physical distancing guidelines appropriate for elevator riders.

8. Furniture in lobbies and in employee break rooms, green rooms and trailers, and other common areas is separated by at least six (6) feet to support physical distancing.

9. All shop (props, costume, design, electrical equipment, etc.) and manufacturing locations on a lot of work with clients on an appointment-only basis to prevent the formation of lines or groups. Shopping is performed virtually as much as possible or is limited to one shopper at a time. Any printed catalog of offerings should be single-use and assigned to the one client and not reused. If a client must wait for an item, they should wait outside as much as possible.

This is especially important if you have a wardrobe or prop stylist who regularly shops for the items for your shoots.  How much of their work can be done virtually? For those who have done a practice of acquiring clothes from stores to be returned following the shoot, is that still feasible? Or might this also be an area you will need to consider when budgeting as we transition to more single-use products in front of the camera and behind it?

10. Sets, production spaces, and the entire facility are cleaned at least daily, with restrooms and frequently touched areas/objects cleaned more frequently.

This is especially important for those of you who have your own physical studio space. Maintaining cleanliness is of paramount importance as you don’t want your space to become a breeding ground for the virus.

11. Where feasible, the cast will bring their own props (e.g., cell phone) and costumes to avoid sharing.

12. Auditioning or casting should be performed remotely, through tools such as videoconferencing as much as possible. If in-person casting is required, all attendees with the exception of on-screen talent, if necessary, should wear masks. Appointments for castings should also be staggered to limit the number of persons present at any given time.

Craft Services

1. All cast and crew shall wash or sanitize hands before handling any food.

2. No buffets. No communal drink services.

3. Single-serve food and drink only.

4. Sit-down meals: either require eating in shifts or seating areas large enough to allow for the physical distancing of six (6) feet or more.

Again, if you are budgeting a production, you have several things to keep in mind. From a timing standpoint, can you stagger your team’s lunches in a way that everyone isn’t sitting down to eat at the same time? How can you maintain six feet between people as they do eat? If you’ve ever purchased the buffet dinner at a local restaurant, you can probably guess that providing a buffet is cheaper than having to have individually wrapped meals for everyone on set. What does this new requirement mean for your catering line item?

Hair and Makeup

1. Hands-on assistance with these services should be limited only to cast that require it and cannot do it themselves.

2. Actors, models, and crew must wash or sanitize their hands before any hands-on styling or costume session and wear cloth face coverings during sessions as much as possible. During the application of makeup, since a cloth face covering cannot be worn, the actor should stay as silent as possible to avoid spreading droplets through talking.

3. The date, time, and crew in the session should be recorded for later reference in case either the cast member or wardrobe/hair crew become ill with COVID-19.

Location Scouting

1. Scouting should be performed virtually or rely on existing site photographs where possible.

2. Locations must be completely secure to prevent access by the public. Locations should be remote, fenced, or otherwise well secured from public access.

3. Locations must have enough space to allow for physical distancing for all cast and crew holding and common areas, the video village, craft services/dining, and all other work areas. Outdoor or large open indoor spaces are inherently safer by virtue of the greater capacity to achieve physical distancing and/or ventilation. Small closed indoor spaces without proper ventilation should not be used.

4. If transportation is needed between filming sites, use a higher-capacity vehicle as much as possible to allow for six (6) feet of physical distancing as much as is feasible. Establish a passenger capacity number and post it on the side of the vehicle. If needed, provide more vehicle trips with fewer passengers per trip. Require facial coverings for all passengers (including cast) and driver and leave windows open, if possible, during the ride.

Transportation is something you need to consider depending on the scope of your shoot. While working on socially distant productions, I’ve done my best to limit the productions to places where driving was not required. When needing to travel, I’ve resorted to having everyone drive their own vehicles separately to maintain social distance. This has worked for me when not having to travel great distances. But, if your locations are spread far apart, you will need to consider ways to transport cast and crew without creating a human jigsaw puzzle in the back of your Prius.

5. All cast and crew should stay on location during the workday, including all breaks.

Okay, if you read through that entire list of guidelines, you are already on the right path towards trying to make your set as safe as possible. While no steps are 100% foolproof, every effort you make to stop the spread of the virus and protect your productions (and specifically your clients) will help to both save lives and enhance your business.

Note: the information in this article is advice only and does not constitute professional information. Consult a healthcare provider or government source for the latest official guidelines.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

Log in or register to post comments

This is a great article that directly affects my life. It will be interesting to see if I come across these same protocols in my city and state. I've been chatting with a few producers in LA about work, and this mirrors what we've discussed.

That being said, a couple of them are scared for their lives about the liability of it all if someone comes down with the C-19

I think liability is the biggest hurdle. Right now, insurance isn't covering a Covid outbreak. And independent photographers aren't likely to be able to shoulder the responsibility associated with a lawsuit should someone get sick. The What if question is one that still needs to be answered.

An informative guide to getting back to work. I have had minimal work through the pandemic and have been putting a lot of thought into how I will proceed ahead. Ironically, I was approached about a rebranding project for a Large Food Group back in January but there were multiple delays as the latest menu was being finalized. Then we had a major tornado go through the area and then the virus.

As the Ad Agency wrote, they have been talking a lot about production but haven't pulled the trigger yet. I specialize in Food images so I'm mainly concerned with the Food Stylist, the Assistants and Clients. I think that we all know about maintaining a safe distance but human interaction is a big part of what we do.

Definitely. You might be well positioned shooting food in terms of social distancing. But, yes, figuring out how to keep lines of communication open throughout the shoot with the client is also a major part of the process.

Great Article as always. I actually read through the paper before reading your article. On the budget side of things I'm hearing that for Stills we are looking at a 7-11% increase to cover all of the new protocols. The addition of a safety officer along with a cleaning crew is just one factor along with all the hand-washing and PPE disposables. One item that I noticed which will have to be figured out is that Cast/Crew that come down with symptoms will still be paid for the duration of the project. That adds another layer of complexity in having additional crew on standby and enough budget to cover if another person comes in to fill a position vacated by a symptomatic person. As one Producer I talked to stated, Covid related expenses is going to be the biggest line item on future productions.

I think you hit it on the head. Assistant especially will be needed in triplicate for each gig. I just shot an editorial last week and my assistant cancelled last second due to illness. Wasn't Covid related hopefully, but he stayed home as a precaution. But with everyone struggling for work, the question is whether there is incentive for assistants to turn down work and self quarantine. And, like you said, if they do the right thing and stay home, do they still get paid? It's a really tricky situation right now.

Thanks Chris! Yeah theres been talk about having essentially a double budget and reserving multiple people for crew. I've even heard about having secondary photographers on hold in case the primary gets sick. Sorry to hear about your assistant hope they're ok.

Calls I've been on have mentioned personal responsibility in leaving set if protocols aren't being followed. I've heard of a couple productions where various people haven't seen the need to follow CDC guidelines. I worry about the potential for being blacklisted for leaving a production due to safety. Theres been some talk about unionizing but I believe this runs into Antitrust issues.

I think Hollywood is going to be the standard for how this gets ironed out. I've read through the released document and it appears that if Crew/Talent/Creative gets sick they will get paid through the end of the project.

At this point I know of one producer that is waiting on a couple of pending court cases where crew got sick earlier in the pandemic; once rulings come out this will most likely set the precedent for how all these issues get handled in a court of law in regards to Liability.

I feel like this also creates a huge oppurnty for Professionals to show their Business Acumen apart from the creative side of things. Over the short term a lot of people are shooting but once lawsuits start happening the Professionals will be able to overcome and the playing field may shrink as people drop out.

Again great talking with you and wish you the best! Congrats on your image being selected recently!


I think I am just going to give up on doing any photography at all.