Opening Up During COVID-19: Fstoppers Interviews Ken Yu

Ken Yu is a photo assistant and digital technician who has been on countless sets, so when states slowly started to reopen for business amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, he became concerned about how the photographers could move forward safely. When he reached out to me to have a discussion about reopening practices, I said yes, because the waters are murky and it's a discussion worth having.

First, it’s important to note that neither Ken Yu nor myself are medical experts, and this interview was for discussion and brainstorming ideas only. Nothing we said should be taken as medical advice, but we hoped that having an open dialogue around safety and sharing the professional resources available would be beneficial to photographers trying to figure out whether and how to get back to work.

For advice and the most up-to-date medical information, check out the CDC website. OSHA and The Association of Media Photographers also have valuable guidance for COVID-19 related work issues. 

Ken Yu has worked on photography sets internationally as a photography assistant and digital tech, so he has practical knowledge of how photo shoots and crews function as a whole. During isolation he kept in contact with community members and began compiling a list of concerns and protective measures that could be implemented as photographers get back to work. What follows is a summary of the discussion points and best practice ideas from the interview that photographers can consider when planning to go back to work. It goes without saying that everyone should obey the directives and laws for their own areas, such as mandatory mask wearing, etc.

Waivers and Symptom Checks

As business owners, photographers are responsible for the people on their set, and it makes sense to put as many measures in place as possible and practical to keep people safe. Yu expects more photographers to begin implementing things like verbal symptom checks, temperature checks, and liability waivers before anyone steps foot on set. Liability is a real issue for business owners, so be certain to have your insurance up to date and talk with a lawyer about waivers and other other business related issues.

Limit Crew Size

The smaller the crew, the less potential viral spread. Consider what jobs can be done off set, which positions are absolutely necessary, and whether certain tasks can be performed by someone already on set.

Shorten Work Days

An important part of the spread of COVID-19 is viral load over time. The less time people spend in physical company, the less likely they are to contract or spread the virus in a large enough amount to result in infection.

Include Medics and Janitors for Safety and Sanitization

Having a medic on set and hiring a janitor to sanitize everything after the shoot is over aren’t make-it-or-break-it recommendations, but including safety crew in the budget for the shoot is worth considering. 

No More on Set Craft Services

As a safety precaution, it may be worth it to have crew members bring their own lunches, or to have local restaurants deliver and drop off food that can be eaten in single serving containers and with physical distance, rather than buffet style. Although the CDC and WHO currently believe COVID-19 is not spread through food, keeping food packaging separate and away from respiratory droplets is a simple measure to consider. Food vouchers, pre-arrangements with local restaurants, compensation or per diem, and frequent breaks are opinions that may help get around the issue.

Include Disinfection and PPE in the Budget

PPE, or personal protective equipment like masks and face shields, are commonly used by medical personnel to guard against infectious disease. With many places now requiring masks in public, the question of PPE should be addressed in the budget for the shoot and a discussion had about who should be responsible for providing crew members with at least a minimum of protection if they cannot supply their own. 

Maintaining Physical Distance

Six feet is the recommended minimum distance for social interaction, and Yu said photography studios may find it helpful to mark off work areas on the ground with painters tape, similar to what can now be seen in many grocery stores. It is believed that maintaining this distance is a key in stopping spread, and guides on the floor may help reinforce that mandate. Yu suspects the days of squeezing a large crew into a small spaces like Air B&Bs are gone, at least for the near future.

Image shared with permission of Ken Yu.

Extra Keyboard, Mouse, and Monitor

Photographers and digitechs work very closely under normal circumstances, so to combat that need for space, Yu suggests having a second mirrored monitor with a keyboard and mouse so the photographer can drive when needed to make adjustments without compromising safe physical distance. Maintaining this distance may mean acquiring wireless gear that makes clients, photographers, and tech assistants more mobile.

Safety Training

The World Health Organization has free online safety training that covers things like waste management, hygiene, PPE precautions, and infection prevention and control. It’s not a requirement, but something photographers can certainly consider making a requirement for crew.

Hand Washing

Likely the most helpful precaution aside from social distancing, hand washing is critical and should be accessible on any photography set if at all possible. Crew members should wash their hands often.

Hand Sanitizing Stations

As in many stores and other public places, a photography set would benefit from hand sanitizing stations that would cut down the amount of cross contamination.

Change of Clothes

Carrying a change of clothes for use on set only may be a bit extreme, but was suggested as a potential step for those who live in dense metropolitan areas, such as New York, where walking and public transportation are more common, and for those who are very safety conscious or have more anxiety about exposure.

No Culling or Selection on Set

Culling and selection can be time intensive and keep people in company longer that necessary. Culling and making selections off set reduces the amount of potential exposure.

Use Long Lenses

Long lenses allow for greater distance between photographer and model. 

Open Sets in Larger Spaces

As mentioned earlier, maintaining physical distance is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19, and this could mean photographers need to select spaces that are larger and more open, not only for the physical space they provide but also for the airflow. Moving air disperses viral concentration, making it less likely for someone to encounter enough of the virus to become infected. If it’s possible to open doors and windows to allow outside airflow in, or to work in an open air space, those steps could add extra protection. 

Photo shared with permission of Ken Yu

Sanitize Before and After Every Shoot

Cross contamination can be significantly diminished by sanitizing surfaces regularly and with approved methods. Check out the CDC for guidance.

Working in the age of COVID-19 will require us to take precautions we aren’t used to, and that can be stressful. It would be very easy to feel like taking safety measures is an imposition, but it’s important to remember that we are all struggling through this process making the best decisions we can, and learning as we go. We must each take common sense measures to keep ourselves, our crew, and our clients safe, and have a little grace for one another as we find our way forward. In time, we will get used to the new normal.

If you’d like more information on COVID-19 recommendations and guidelines for business practices, be sure to check out the CDC, WHO, OSHA, and the ASMP. If you’ve already opened up or are planning to in the near future, share your methods in the comments section and let us know what has worked for you! The more information we have, the more capable of making good decisions we become. 

If you’d like to learn more about Ken Yu, check out his website or follow him on Instagram.

Lead photo shared with permission of Ken Yu

Nicole York's picture

Nicole York is a professional photographer and educator based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. When she's not shooting extraordinary people or mentoring growing photographers, she's out climbing in the New Mexico back country or writing and reading novels.

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All very good points, we're living in a time where there's a lot of misinformation. I think it's better to be cautious rather than cavalier about your own and others health. I've had a few small shoots that don't require others, a few where only one or two others are in the area but larger projects are on hold till the Client is comfortable proceeding.

Great article. I have my first wedding coming up and the word "anxious" is an understatement. I like the comprehensive list that many might not think about. Things like an extra change of clothes are a good idea.

I've been working in interiors the last 6 weeks, at the start I was only going into empty places/offices. As its gone on residentials have opened up more. Have had to sign Covid19 instructions on most, hand sanitiser, not to touch anything, mask all the time, shoe coverings or shoes off-wash hands on arrival and on exit. Also been carrying extra clothes just in case. The occupiers have either been leaving if they are in, or gone into a garden/another room and have been advised to clean prior/open windows before we arrive. Its been an interesting time to be working in....