Articles - 4th September 2020

How photographers and videographers can work safely during the coronavirus pandemic

Words by Eve Watling
Illustration by Jon McCormack

As coronavirus lockdown measures ease, photo and film shoots have slowly begun to resume. And although every aspect of production comes with its own set of logistical problems, photographers and videographers face their own set of challenges in a post-COVID world. They often work with the public or in groups, increasing potential transmission risk. Some may work indoors, where the virus can linger in the air. Some may have control over their set or work environment, but freelancers may find themselves at a shoot where they have little say about the safety measures in place – or the lack of them.

On a shoot, as with anywhere else, the minimum government guidelines should always be adhered to: a two-meter distance should be kept between people as much as possible, hands should be washed frequently for at least 20 seconds, and anyone with coronavirus symptoms should stay at home. However, there a number of ways photographers and videographers can go above and beyond these basic recommendations, in order to ensure your safety and that of those around you.

 

Preparation and equipment

Coronavirus can stay on surfaces for up to 72 hours, so even equipment carries a possible transmission risk. In their handy guide to mitigating risks on shoots, The Association of Photographers (AOP) recommend that, on big shoots, equipment should be “correctly sanitised, bagged-up and labelled with crew names before distribution – do not share equipment.”

Hired equipment comes with its own risks – be sure to use a supplier with a clear process for COVID safety, and consider quarantining equipment for 72 hours if possible. For hired or shared cameras, make sure you know how to sanitise them properly without damaging them.

Aaron Crowley is a freelance video producer at news website metro.co.uk. He resumed filming during the Black Lives Matter protests in June, although he still hasn’t been back in the studio yet. He advises bringing a lot of sanitiser – “I’ve found that a lot of people don’t have it on them. Having it to hand means not only can I use it on equipment, but also pour it out for other people.”

Crowley has also found his audio recording options have become more limited. “I try to keep as much distance as possible during any shoot which is doable. The biggest issue is getting good audio, but with a boom pole it’s not too much of an issue.” Since the pandemic, he hasn’t used a clip-on mic at all, other than rigging them to boom poles as a workaround.

Lens choice can be crucial too. Freelance photographer Jerry Syder resumed work in early June and recently did a photo shoot for a London restaurant. “Pictures of the kitchen and staff were needed. I took a long zoom lens so I didn’t have to get too close,” he says.

As coronavirus is airborne, outdoor locations should be used whenever possible. If this isn’t possible, there are ways to lower risk indoors. Prioritise well-ventilated spaces, and the AOP suggests “bringing additional equipment to change (not recycle) the air regularly.” They point out that vapours and steams like dry ice might look great, but are likely to trap any potential virus in the air for longer. Bigger locations are better, so that people can keep a two-meter distance where they can.

All locations should be thoroughly cleaned before and after the shoot. Involve as few people as possible in the set-up, and use space markers where possible to remind crew to keep distance.

 

During the shoot

On a large shoot, the AOP suggests that “a person within the team must be allocated on set to be responsible for monitoring COVID-related matters, whether that is a health and safety officer hired by production or a nominated crew member.”

The minimum number of crew members should be allowed on set – in their safety guidelines, The British Fashion Council recommend a maximum of four crew members for fashion shoots. All crew should wear masks where possible, and spare personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitiser should be available on set. Inevitably, shoots are likely to take longer due to the extra measures, so factor in the extra time during the planning stages.

According to the AOP, videographers should “consider a video-conferencing facility relaying video remotely” to the client, and “increasing video monitoring on set to avoid clusters of people.” Crew who have to break the two-meter distance should consider wearing more PPE such as visors and gloves.

When it comes to filming members of the public, there is an inherent awkwardness to negotiating the new social distancing rules. Syder, who enjoys taking street photography portraits as a creative outlet, abandoned this pastime at the start of the pandemic. “I got into a creativity rut,” he says. “It started with the pandemic withdrawing me from the thing I love. Now its eased a bit, I am a bit weary of approaching people. When you walk to someone, they walk the other way. I also feel like we’ve seen enough pictures of people in masks.”

Aaron Crowley has also found it harder to find members of the public willing to be on camera, although he’s not sure if that’s just because there are less people about on the streets. “The biggest issue is social interaction. People are really unsure of how things are supposed to work anymore,” he says. “Personally, I have found things work so much better if you just straight up address all these problems at the start and explain exactly how everything will work, mentioning things like staying away from handshakes, keeping a distance at all times, using sanitiser. When addressing all of it from the start people are a lot more relaxed.”

 

What you can control – and what you can’t

Some ideas simply will not be feasible during a pandemic, but artists can thrive under limitations. Some filmmakers and photographers in London have already taken advantage of the empty streets, getting a creepy sci-fi vibe on the cheap while ensuring the crew stay safe. Daily Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin recently told the BBC that “there will be fewer enormously expensive blockbusters being produced… people will pivot to these smaller, nimbler, more creative movies.”

Yet this only applies to people with full creative control. Freelancers may end up working places where transmission prevention seems less strict than they would like, and fear speaking out in case it upsets the client. On one shoot, Jerry Syder said that “people were coming up really close to me and talking, without wearing a face covering, or touching me. While I can be strict about my own protective measures, I kind of feel like I have to play it by their rules, to keep things sweet. I just smile and reciprocate with handshakes. But I do sneak off and wash my hands in those instances!”

But freelancers do have a legal right to safe work. “If someone else is leading the production, it’s fair to ask what guidelines and procedures are being put in place before any work starts,” says Nick Dunmur, a photographer and member of the AOPs Business & Legal team. “Any concerns about safe working should be raised and discussed.” He points to the Health Protections (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No.2) (England) Regulations 2020, the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 as legislation protecting health and safety, so that freelancers can know their rights.

What should people do if they feel like work is simply too risky? “It rather depends on that person’s financial circumstances as to how able they are whether any ensuing financial storm,” Dunmur says. “The government has made available a range of support packages, targeting groups of workers, but leaving some out, such as directors of personal service companies who take their salary mostly through dividends as opposed to through PAYE.” He says that government support schemes such as the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS), the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) may be useful.

A return to work can be feasible for those behind a camera, if you can rely on your own and others commitment to safety. “No activity can ever be completely risk-free, whether that’s in relation to Covid-19, or anything else for that matter, so it’s about minimising the risks to all involved in a production and making people feel safe,” says Dunbar.

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