Did you realise that the portrait of Harry and Meghan announcing their latest pregnancy was shot remotely using Facetime? The photographer, their friend Misan Harriman was 5500 miles away in London when he captured the happy couple relaxing under a tree via an iPad. Remote photography started with the pandemic, it was borne out of necessity. We still needed visual imagery but the entire planet was in lockdown. Quite rapidly, photographers and videographers started to look at the tools that were available to them and figured out how they could still keep creating.
The History of Facetime
Over the weekend, I was watching the US TV show This Is Us. The interesting thing about this series is that it has caught up to current times and the family that we’ve been following through the last few decades of their lives are portrayed living in a Covid world. When two of the main characters both give birth with all the social distancing restrictions in place, a side story starts (if you’ve watched this show you will know this is its modus operandi) in New Mexico in the 1970s with the real life Nasir Ahmed. He is the electrical engineer and computer scientist who invented Discrete Cosine Transform (DCT), the technology that enables digital video conferencing to be possible. In the show, the characters FaceTime to introduce the new babies to their family and it ends with a tribute to Nasir and his team.
It is because of this technology that we are able to shoot whilst not being in the same room or even the same country as our subjects. We have the Pandemic to thank for this practice being accelerated as at times, it was the only shooting that could happen. It might be remotely directing someone to use their own DSLR, shooting from computer to computer using a video conferencing app or like Harry and Meghan’s photographer, via IOS or Android video chat facilities.
One of the earliest pioneers of this remote way of capturing images was UK photographer Tim Dunk. Lisa recently hosted a Clubhouse room with Tim on this topic. When the first lockdown came into effect, Tim was a wedding photographer with a packed calendar to look forward to. Like many of us, his entire business was decimated overnight, as was the majority of his predicted income. When the boredom set in, Tim was missing his friends and human interaction. The idea of taking photos of them via FaceTime came to him when his 8 year old daughter kept taking pictures of her daddy as they chatted on the app. Tim thought this would also be a fun thing to do with his friends as a way of connecting with them again and so he offered to take portraits using phones.
Paving the Way
As many of his pals are also photographers, the technique gathered a certain amount of momentum but Tim is the first to admit that the quality of the images was a frustration. He was in essence taking stills from short video clips and resolution was dependent on the subject’s phone capabilities plus the connection of their wifi. The maximum he could start the editing process with was 1200 pixels on the widest edge of a shot. But undeterred, Tim embraced the lo-fi look to the files and edited them with a vintage film look. As his diary started to fill with shoots, he realised that he should probably start charging people so he could generate some much needed income. Like many of us, Tim had been advised to register as a Limited Company and so has been excluded from any government financial support. It was around this time that he also started to get some press in both the UK and internationally for these shoots. As restrictions continued, brands started coming to him with requests for commercial photography work shot remotely. To date, he has done over 800 sessions, his work has been used in magazines, appeared on billboards and he has just shot a campaign for a major sportswear label. He has shot subjects all over the world and describes one day that involved 17 sessions where he chased the sun from one side of the world to the other. At this point he realised that it might be a good idea to limit his availability.
Tips for Remote Portrait Photography
This may have started out as a lockdown project that involved his friends but it has escalated into world recognition. Tim has been busier than ever, so much so that he’s now represented by an agent and has a website dedicated solely to this work. Tim thinks that this way of shooting is going nowhere, even as lockdowns ease. The key to this might be that there is no intimidating DSLR in the room, that barrier is down and subjects are that bit more relaxed. It could also be that after trying many varying methods, Tim has decided that nothing beats strapping the subject’s phone to a tin of beans with an elastic band. He says that everyone from his Mum to CEOs of major companies cannot help but find the process funny and so getting natural smiles isn’t difficult. Tim feels that he couldn’t get the shots that he does if he was in the room with his regular kit. He believes remote photography is often not a substandard necessity but in many instances it’s a better solution. For instance, over a two day shoot for a jewellery brand, he was able to shoot models in New York, New Zealand, Paris and London.
Luckily for Tim, the technology is now catching up with his idea and there are two apps currently available that facilitate remote shooting. One is called Shutter and the other, which is currently Tim’s favourite is called Clos. You can read an in-depth comparison over on Tim’s blog. Neither relies on transferring images over the internet live, instead they utilise the subject’s phone to create files at the highest resolution possible. In some cases that might be 7000 px on the widest edge, the images can all be transferred either via the app or a zip file. You can type the url of the file into the browser on your desktop and download them straight into your preferred editing software. This means the game has changed in remote shoots and suddenly the results are looking a lot more sophisticated.
The Future of Portrait Photography?
Going forward, I can see many advantages for remote photography. Forward thinking brands can get a lot more bang for their buck in terms of what is possible. Glamorous destinations become possible without the transport costs and I can see this really opening up creatively. Weddings are being shot this way in circumstances where numbers are strictly limited. Couples don’t want to give up a precious place to a supplier when they could have a close loved one there instead. Birth photography can be done this way with no need to have the photographer in the delivery suite. Also newborn portraits can be done using this method so you don’t need to allow anyone into your home to carry out the shoot.
I’m excited for Tim to be at the forefront of developing the techniques and getting the recognition that he deserves. It’s funny to think that it all came about from his kid snapping away on his phone. Yes, this last twelve months have been tough in so many ways but also it has pushed us into creative spaces that might never have existed otherwise and it’s fascinating to think of the possibilities afforded by the technology that we have access to.