Who Takes the Photos Hanging in the Backgrounds of Movies?

Who Takes the Photos Hanging in the Backgrounds of Movies?

A lot of us think we know what set photography is, but Ron Jaffe is here to tell us about his incredible career and what’s going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about.

Let’s take an example, like "Jane the Virgin." In every episode, there’s bound to be a photograph in the background, from a mother’s dresser to a poster hanging on the wall. Who takes these photos? Ron Jaffe does. You might think this isn’t needed all the time, but as Ron puts it, they need to set the scene and create a realistic-looking set:

The camera may not zoom in on any of these shots, but in any particular scene in a house, you’d expect a young mother to have photos of her young child. It’s very rare that people are even aware of how much still photos are used in TV and film production

An example of images that you can find in "Jane the Virgin" that need to be shot by a photographer.

That hasn’t been his only job, not by a long shot. Ron has experience shooting 21 years of corporate portraits, 6 US presidents, 11 foreign heads of state, numerous senators and congressmen, and 23 percent of the LA County Bar Association. No mean feat, but it doesn’t stop there. With his other shows: "Cold Case," "Mad Men," "The West Wing," "How I Met Your Mother," "CSI," "NCIS," "Friends," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," "Dr.Phil," "Hit the Floor," and "Castle" under his belt (to name a few), he’s certainly the man to talk to about set photography.

Ron explained to me that there are three genres of set photography: promotional, prop shoots (photos that sit in the background), and behind the scenes. He sits between all three and is known for his uncanny ability to capture action. It seems like a job we'd all dream of.

It can be anywhere from baby photos to forensic autopsies, fingerprints, photos of evidence at a crime scene: most of that would be for 'CSI,' 'NCIS: LA', and things. In "Castle," we had magazine covers to family photos and sometimes a lot of blood and gore.

I could talk about the ins and outs of set photography for days; hell, I could talk to Ron for days too. However, in the interest of condensing such a huge field of photography into the most interesting pieces, here is just that.

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Dr.Phil, Hit the Floor (x2), How I Met Your Mother

Day to Day

When running a behind the scenes shoot, Ron doesn’t stand by the edge and try to get a few distant shots. He gets right in there and sits beside the camera operator. This can cause inexperienced actors to lose concentration. As such, keeping quiet is key. Ron uses a blimp around his camera and sometimes goes so far as to cover himself in black duvetyne.

Sometimes they’ll point it out that a few feet away from them there’s a black blob. ‘Do you think you’re really hiding under that?,’ they’ll say, but I’m really just trying to silence the camera.

When an actor finishes filming on one set, they will occasionally visit Ron’s nearby set afterwards. There, a team will be ready to get the prop photos needed for the episode. Often, they will shoot on a green screen and Ron will make sure that the lighting matches the stock photo selected by the art department. A graphic artist will make sure the technical details are taken care of.

Jaimi Camil as Rogelio in Jane the Virgin.

The Pains

Just because an actor is scheduled to shoot with Ron doesn’t mean that they’ll always make it. Sometimes, they’ll be delayed filming the episode, and Ron can be left waiting there for hours.

I’ve waited six hours or more on a set, because the actor couldn’t be released from filming on another stage or set. Sometimes, we only have them for five or ten minutes.

A set photographer can’t control the lighting on set when gathering behind the scenes shots either. They need to be able to work with anything they’re given. Sometimes, Ron can find himself shooting at ISO 12,000, although he’s totally comfortable with his Nikon D4S setup handling this.

Speaking of things that are out of his control, shooting explosions can understandably be a dangerous undertaking. Aside from needing to have perfect timing and exposure, there's potential to get hurt. He describes an explosion on the set of Hot Pursuit when it was larger than expected:

When the pyrotechnics overdo it with their explosive material and in this case, they did that day. They destroyed three cars completely, and they were only supposed to destroy one car. So that will really eat into the budget of the film, plus we had apartment loft buildings in downtown LA that blew windows and doors out.

The explosion in Hot Pursuit, causing more damage than expected. Photo by Ron Jaffe.

Another example of Ron's action shooting.

The Joys

There's the obvious, that no day is the same, and a person in this position can brush up against some of the top sets in the world. However, aside from that, Ron can end up taking the mundane and turning that into a magical image. I’d suspect it’s an exciting field to work in, even when things aren’t always filled with explosions and chase scenes. 

Sometimes, I’ll go out into a grungy area, a warehouse or something, and we’re actually shooting as if they’re in a castle. They’re dressed in regal garb, and we take that photo and make into a pretty elegant image; yet, it was actually photographed in a dirty, grungy warehouse in downtown LA.

It might not be all glam all the time, but there's something to be said for achieving a respectable result no matter what. And then, when things are even less exciting, Ron always has the art of portraiture to dive into.
Striving for something between George Hurrell and Rembrandt in what I can wholeheartedly describe as masterful. He’s no slouch on his own sets, and I’m sure it’s a welcome reprieve from the faster-paced television sets.

James Woods and Nathan Fillion, photographed by Ron Jaffe.

Ron and James Woods

So Ron is the man who takes the photos we see in the background of our favorite TV shows and movies, but he’s also a whole lot more. Does this mean you can’t get into this genre of photography without a lifetime’s experience? Certainly not, as we’ve talked about three years ago. However, you can’t deny that the caliber of Ron’s extensive work is difficult to compete with and rightly so. Here’s to wishing him every success, and hoping that he gave a clearer perspective for us all. Be sure to check out his website and IMDB.

Material used with the permission of Ron Jaffe. 

Stephen Kampff's picture

Working in broadcasting and digital media, Stephen Kampff brings key advice to shoots and works hard to stay on top of what's going to be important to the industry.

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That's quite interesting

I did this job on a small indie film starring Kevin Sorbo and Ernie Hudson... it's a lot of really long hours and as said here, a lot of hurry up and wait. It was really rewarding, though