Tom Dymond: Capturing unit stills for the nation's favourite TV shows

Tom Dymond: Capturing unit stills for the nation's favourite TV shows

08 February, 2019

Written by: Ailish Cook

Tom Dymond is a London-based photographer best known for his work for newspapers, magazines and PR clients. From capturing famous faces at large charity events to shooting unit stills for some of the nation's favourite TV shows including The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, Tom is renowned for getting the perfect shot for promotional materials. We spoke to Tom about his experience with shooting unit stills and how to get the shot in continuously evolving environments.

Working in TV: Reactive environments

Working in stills photography for TV can be challenging due to the multiple stimuli in the environment, which is why Tom has to ensure he is flexible and able to adapt to the reactive environments presented to him as a photographer. You may also wonder what ignites a spark and passion for unit stills photography, but for Tom, the answer is easy - through motorsports - something surprisingly similar.

"I got into photography through motorsports. I really love motorsports photography but didn't know much else, so I went to university where I studied press and editorial photography down in Falmouth.

This introduced me to loads of different genres of photography, but I quickly found out I really loved working in the studios and shooting portraiture. So, under two amazing tutors, Mal Stone and Gered Mankowitz, I continued down the portraiture path for the rest of my time at university, before graduating and coming to London.

Stills for me was quite a natural path as it combines working in a very fast and reactive environment, whilst having to work with what is infront of you, which is why I loved shooting sports. Also, the other side of having to light something perfectly very quickly and in very little time suited my style of working."

Building relationships

When it comes to working quickly in a busy studio environment, two things are for certain: noise and general presence need to be minimal, and relationships are vital.

"Aside from being as quiet as a mouse, a good understanding of what is happening in the show is crucial so you can always be in the right place. Seeing the dress runs and rehersals is a big advantage and you have to remember that the TV filming will always come first. 

Stills are right down the pecking order in what needs to get done, so having a great relationship with the crew, cast and directions really helps, as it means you can just jump in very quickly and get your lights in place and get what you need in the odd breaks and stops. Scheduled time is also very rare, and when it is on the running orders, it is the first thing to be binned if running behind. So, having these relationships is crucial to getting what you need."

Outdoors: Shooting in the South African sun

As part of The X Factor, Tom joined the crew, Nicole Sherzinger and her guest Stormzy at the judges' houses round for the show's contestants. His aim was to capture shots that reflected the essence of the location - South Africa, inspired by the warmth provided by the setting sun.

"These shots were done in about 30 seconds each, with about two minutes before the sun set. This meant that the ambient light was quite low, so the Profoto B2 was the perfect choice to match the setting as you can dial the power in as a lovely soft key."

Due to the time restrictions of a sunset, Tom had to be quick, needing a simple set up and agility from his lighting and equipment. Firstly to shoot Nicole, Tom used one B2 head over the camera with an OCF Octa, to provide a soft and subtle light. For Stormzy, Tom then decided to remove the OCF Octa and use the B2 head on its own, creating powerful images all in under a minute.

On location: Bright lights and the French Riviera

With similar time restrictions to shooting in the African sunset, Tom was requested to capture shots of head judge Simon Cowell and guest judge Louis Tomlinson in under five minutes, whilst dealing with multiple lighting challenges. This included finding a solution to the low ambient light conditions whilst overcoming the harsh artificial light present from the filming crew's equipment.

Deciding to take advantage of a large HMI outside used by the filming crew giving a slightly harsh side light, Tom used one B2 head as a key light over the top of the camera to fill harsh shadows, and another B2 head aimed to bounce off of a white wall to act as a fill light for the portraits. 

Overall, using the B2 helped minimise the appearane of harsh shadows in the image and provide balanced light despite external influences.

Indoors: Balancing shadows in unbalanced ambient conditions

The lighting challenges often experienced outdoors on-location can also appear within indoor sets. When photographing Sharon Osborne for The X Factor, bright LED lights in her dressing room were preventing an evenly lighted image.

"The photo of Mrs O was shot with a B2 on very low power as the front of her house was already lit by the film team with LED panels, so I had to balance the light between those."

Utilising the Profoto B2 enabled Tom to create a soft and evenly lit portrait perfect for promotional materials.

Tom's essential kit

In order to prepare for all image eventualities, Tom's informed us of his essential kit to create the perfect portraits:

- Canon 5D IV

- Canon 1DxII

- Leica Q

- Profoto B2s

- OCF Beauty Dish

- OCF Octa

Tom's top tips for stills photography

- You need to be good at waiting a long time and keep your concentration up to ensure you do not miss anything.

- You need to know your kit inside out, as you do not get two seconds to think about what needs to be done, so it needs to be second nature.

- Always introduce yourself to all the crew. It is a little gesutre but will help you if you ever need anything, especially on the short runs when you might only be on set for one or two days.

A big thank you to Tom for featuring in Profoto stories and for telling us about his lighting set ups for TV stills! To see more of his work, visit his website or Instagram.

Written by: Ailish Cook

Products used in this story

OCF Beauty Dish White

A portable beauty dish for off-camera flashes

OCF Softbox Rectangular

A popular, versatile softbox for off-camera flashes

OCF Softbox Octa

Ideal for flattering portraits, used with off-camera flashes