JoJo Whilden contracts as a freelance photographer for film and television—where her role is to create marketing and promotional imagery for television, motion picture and broadcast clients. Long and short term assignments have come from names such as HBO, Showtime, CBS, Killer Films, The Weinstein Company, GREY advertising and others. Her eye has produced iconic imagery for The Normal Heart, Olive Kitteridge, Silver Linings Playbook, GIRLS and more. She often works with more than one client at a time.
Her current project is on the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black (OITNB). Episodic work places her on set an average two to three days each week, while film projects usually require being embedded on a daily basis for 6-8 weeks. On a recent project for HBO, Olive Kitteridge, Whilden was on location in Glouchester, MA for 12 weeks.
The profession offers ample variety, yet the labor can be demanding. A 12-hour day is the norm, and 14-hour days are not uncommon. Typical shoot days can yield 800 to 1,000 photo captures. She produces both RAW and JPEG to give clients maximum options, especially if the set has minimal lighting. “Cinematographers often prefer wide open apertures for interior and night scenes, making focus more critical, which is why I always prefer the accuracy and precision of my NIKKOR lenses.” After a full day of capture, her evenings can run late into the night with photo edits. Whilden says she’ll generally cut out 20 to 25 percent of her files (eyes were blinking, shot is soft), leaving 500 to 600 photos to prep and finally send to clients.
Shooting from Behind the Scenes
Work behind the scenes is challenging—starting with a few rules of set etiquette. First, she’s required to box up her camera into what’s called a sound blimp, which helps muffle the sound of the shutter release on DSLR cameras. Doing so limits her ability to adjust exposure settings on-the-fly; her only options are to hit the shutter and adjust Auto Focus (AF). To record a stream of accurately exposed shots, before the director’s calls for action, Whilden does a fast prep: she finds an angle, focuses on a stand-in actor, then creates a reference shot. She does a quick review on the LCD, then makes required adjustments to settings to the aperture and shutter speed. The camera is then relocked into the blimp. As an aside, the sound blimp is a heavy metal box that adds between 8 to 9 pounds to her handheld photography gear.
Realize too that she’s tasked to create clean photographs of actors and actresses who have been lit for film or video production needs, not necessarily her needs. “On most film and TV sets the motion capture gear and lenses cost tens of thousands of dollars and upwards. The cameras are larger and heavier, the rigs are more complex—and most notably, the lens glass is faster and the camera sensors are much more sensitive to light,” she points out.
“The wonderful thing is that, despite a set’s low level of light and its specific signature tonal value, I can pair NIKKOR glass with a Nikon sensor and walk away with optimal shots.” Whilden predominantly photographs between f/1.4 and f/4 at 1/125 of a second on the Nikon D810 (she sometimes uses the Nikon D700 or Df). She favors the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. For very dark sets her lens picks include the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D and AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D.
Actors at NIKKOR f/1.4 and f/4
“The NIKKOR glass is superb. I can capture at these wide aperture settings in very low light scenarios and create wonderfully sharp portraits.” She adds, “Because of the low lighting and handheld aspects to my work, I regularly shoot at a high ISO like 2500. This gives me a little extra aperture and depth of field without a lot of noise. Nikon NEF/RAW files render very little back-end noise on the final image at that high ISO.”
Continuing to outline her set scenario, know that Whilden has zero input when it comes to position of actors and actresses and of course where staff and production equipment reside. It’s her job to navigate it all smoothly, silently and without drawing the attention of talent. “I must watch their line of sight so I do not cause a distraction. Plus, I’ve got to anticipate where production equipment may need to move, or if staff will have to shift into a spot where I happen to be.”
Tasked to create excellent portraits and strong narrative photographs, she’s also charged with producing looks that can sell the show. In other words, her imagery has to capture something that contains a strong call to action such as ‘tune in and watch this.’ Her directive is to work behind the scenes and not alter the flow of events. “I must always be on my toes looking for good angles and shots—ready to shoot quickly. It’s an extremely rare moment when I can, or will, ask the actors to pause for a photo.”
Nikon Yellow Has Kept Her in the Black
Over the years, Whilden’s choice of DSLR camera and lens has been a progression—starting with Nikon film cameras, a 2003 move to digital with the D100, five years with the Nikon D700, a recent step to the Nikon Df, D800 and now work using the D810. Aside from an opinion that Nikon cameras just feel better in her hands, she says there’s something about the sensors that make these DSLRs her companions. “For my work it’s that warmer overall tone with its cinematic richness that I love.”
While earning a strong toehold in a very challenging, and very small, professional circle of photographers, she has had the opportunity to rub elbows with film and television’s top writers, producers, directors and talent. Her photographs fill advertisements that appear in magazines, on billboards and on the web. Some shots land as DVD cover art, others become the base for movie posters, and still more are sent to editors, writers, film and television critics.
“I love the collaborative aspect of filmmaking, but I also enjoy the privilege of working independently on a film/TV set.” Whilden is based in New York City, and is a member of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers and the International Cinematographers Guild. She has taught courses in photography at NYU and video at the School of Visual Arts.
- Nikon Df
- AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G
- AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
- AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G
- AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D