Become the industry’s top Unit Stills Photographer: tips from ‘Hidden Figures’ photographer Hopper Stone

An open-hearted and a “kill ‘em with kindness” kind of guy, Hopper Stone sat down for a chat with Nicola Dove from the Unit Stills Directory to talk about his career journey and offer some wisdom for the younger emerging generation of stills photographers on how to be the best stills photographer you can be.

Hopper began his photography career in 1988, working as a photojournalist covering social and political events worldwide. By 1997, however, he took the leap into unit stills. Since then he’s been awarded the prestigious Publicists Guild Award for Achievement in Television Unit Still Photography in 2012 and nominated for the same award for Motion Picture Still Photography in 2019 and 2020. Hopper worked on a plethora of TV shows and films including Modern Family, Hidden Figures, The Boss, Ghostbusters and Captain Phillips. He was also the recent president of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers (SMPSP).

Best Stills Photographer
Hopper on set in Saudi Arabia

“Photojournalism, in a way, is the same as on-set photography,” says Hopper. “With print media, the first thing people read is the headline. Then the next thing they look at is the pictures … And then if all of those have their attention, then they read the article. Film stills are really basically the same thing. There’s a headline of the movie or TV show, and then people look at the photographs and decide whether they want to watch it.”

Starting off strong, Hopper talks about working on an unfamiliar set for the first time and the importance of building relationships quickly with crew to get the access you need. “Your first week on a typical movie, your time is divided between getting the images that need to be gotten and laying the groundwork of trust for everyone to know you’re not gonna mess things up.”

Still from Ghostbusters (credit: Hopper Stone)

”You have to be ready – in the right place, at the right time, always anticipating things that might happen.”

To become the best stills photographer you can be, remember these two things Hopper says are vital for a stills photographer to have:

1. The Ability to Tell a Story in a Single Frame

The story within the frame needs to be specific. If it’s a film you’re shooting on location, show where it’s set. Back in his photojournalism days, a picture editor once said to Hopper, “If you’re shooting in Paris, I want to see the Eiffel Tower. If you’re shooting in New York, I want to see the statue of Liberty.” Be clear about what or who you’re photographing and in what circumstances. You want to tell a story for the people who haven’t yet watched the film. Hopper sees stills photography as ‘diet journalism’. “I’m more of a storyteller than an artist. My job is to lay low, be quiet and just be amongst all the chaos … Through all of that I need to filter out what isn’t necessary and include what is necessary to tell a story of what’s going on.”

2. Situational Awareness

The best stills photographers have the ability to pivot quickly when situations change. You have to be ready – in the right place, at the right time, always anticipating things that might happen. From his years of working in TV, Hopper sums up how crucial it is to have “this skill of being able to go into an environment that you are completely unfamiliar with and size it up really quickly, without interrupting the flow of things, and then get the shots and move on.”

Still from Captain Philips (credit: Hopper Stone)

“Through all of that [on-set chaos] I need to filter out what isn’t necessary and include what is necessary to tell a story of what’s going on.”

Hopper shares an interesting analogy he tells a lot of up-and-coming photographers. “In a world where photographers are cars, the professional photographer has to be a ferrari. These days there’s so many legitimately good photographers out there. For a publicist or producer, why would they hire you over someone else? What do you bring to the table that’s different? Sometimes it’s literally just your photos, if they’re just so much better than everyone else’s. But if it isn’ t that, then what is it? It might be a nuance, or the fact that you’re known to be easy to work with, or a project might be shot in a cold climate and you enjoy being in cold places.”

Still from Kandahar (credit: Hopper Stone)

One of the things that got Hopper to getting hired on Kandahar – starring Gerard Butler and shot in a desert in Saudi Arabia – was his photojournalism experience, because he’d run around in those kinds of areas of the world, and the director wanted a lot of documentation. It was also important for the production to have a crew member who was used to working in the harsh desert climate in Saudi Arabia and who was just gonna roll with the punches when not everything works the way you expect things to work. 

Watch the full Soiree with Hopper

There were a variety of topics and tips Hopper shared during his conversation with Nicola, but all of it would be impossible to fit into a single blog post. To hear about the etiquette of job-sharing or filling in for another photographer on a project, how to get the 1st AD on your side when you need a reset, the tricks to shooting stills for comedy and how to deal with being uncredited on IMDb, watch the full Stills Soiree with Hopper Stone (available for Unit Stills Directory Members).

To check out more of Hopper’s extraordinary work, visit his directory profile or Instagram

The monthly Stills Soirees are part of the Unit Stills Directory  – an online search platform that specialises in showcasing set photographers’ work. Each month an expert from the film industry is invited as a guest speaker.

For filmmakers, it’s a great place to discover new talent and find unit stills photographers based in various locations around the world.

For unit photographers it’s a fantastic way to expose your work to a wider audience, become part of a supportive community, and hear from some of the best stills photographers and other professionals in the industry.

Content written by Anastasia Arsentyeva

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