Winter Is Coming - An Interview With Game Of Thrones Photographer Helen Sloan

From Ned Stark's gruesome death to the infamous Red Wedding and Jon Snow's resurrection, stills photographer Helen Sloan has documented every moment of HBO's massively popular TV show. The best job ever? Certainly sounds like it...

Interview with Game of Thrones photographer Helen Sloan

Interview with Game of Thrones photographer Helen Sloan

How did you land the job on Game of Thrones? 
Landing the job on GoT was part graft and part fluke. I’d been working in the circus, which isn’t dissimilar to the film world, as it involves working with nomadic, creative people. And what I learned there meant my eventual transition to film wasn’t too difficult. It’s all about understanding the acts and not getting in the way of the performers or audience. I got to see the hard work involved, and how emotionally draining it can be for performers, and likewise actors, which helps you learn how to pick your shooting moments.
Then a friend asked me to take some shots for a short film, and thought they were quite good. From there a film producer saw one of my circus shots and asked me to do a shoot for them, and that’s when I realised that working on film was what I wanted to do. It’s the strangest feeling – although it’s very hard work, it doesn’t feel like a job, it’s just what I do.
When I landed my first job on a film set, and a producer picked me up to work on some horror films in Ireland, he suggested that I put my portfolio in to HBO for consideration to photograph a ‘new project’ that was rolling into Belfast.
They saw something in my images that matched their vision for the show, so I was there from day one. There was no Game of Thrones ‘style’ when I started; we’ve all developed the style and the look between ourselves. And the rest is history!

Sounds like an amazing job, but what does a set photographer actually do?
When you see a picture in a magazine or on a website, or a poster of the characters from the show, a stills photographer will have taken it. I’ll shoot what the camera operator shoots, what the director of photography has envisioned for the tone of the show. I’m the third (sometimes fourth) camera, and sometimes that means folding myself into weird shapes to get the shot, as there may be no place for me to shoot from. We have to go unnoticed as well, a bit of photo-ninjitsu! There’s no typical day ‘in the office’ – one morning we’re setting fire to people, the next we’re in a cosy studio, and then we could be in a boat on a choppy lake trying not to tip into the water. There’s scope to get creative with other elements of the job too, as I can be responsible for the ‘specials,’ which are specially lit portraits of individual cast members in my impromptu photo studio. I also take all the behind-the-scenes shots. Often this means interpreting things in my own style. So basically, it’s my job to shoot everything. No pressure! But on Thrones, it’s literally 360 degrees of cool stuff. It’s art on an industrial scale and I never run out of material.

Do you literally just document events as they happen or are you able to choreograph events too?
I tend not to choreograph shots, or ask for setups. Generally the first assistant director running the floor doesn’t have time for that. Obviously there are times when it must happen that way, but it’s rare. I like to get the shot when it’s really happening, when everyone is ‘in the zone’ – that’s when you get the real nitty gritty performances. It’s unfair to ask the actor to ‘go again’ just for me. In order to work this way, a photographer must be very respectful, and able to work quietly, and be almost undetectable, a fly on the wall, if you will.

How closely do you work with the production crew and actors?
Very closely. My job is great because I get to float around everywhere. I’m not contained to one area like a lot of the crew - one day I can be shooting the sculptors in their workshop, or off on an adventure through the plaster workshop. Next day I’ll be in the middle of set shooting my main photography, then at the weekend I could be hanging out in the production office editing or going over ideas on a conference call to New York. I get to meet almost everyone involved on the production, and that’s so wonderful. The crew are genuinely amazing. You can forge some wonderful friendships on a film set - we go through something very intense and stressful together, and come out the other side having made something great. There’s a lovely feeling that goes along with that mix of pressure to pride in the crew family.

How much time do you spend on set shooting?
From the first take to the last take of the day. It’s all too good to miss a thing!

Do you use any specialist kit on set?
Yes, alongside my Nikon kit, I have to use special sound blimps that muffle the camera shutter sound. This way I can snap to my heart’s content without being distracting. And I also have a specially modified dog trolley to cart my equipment around all the crazy terrain where we film.

Do you shoot at the same time as the cameras roll? 
Yes, always! Unless it’s a closed set (nudity) – that’s the only time I’ll not be on set shooting.

What techniques do you tend to use the most?
On Game of Thrones my greatest strength on set lies in Nikon’s low light capabilities, and the amazing glass that I use. The 85mm f/1.4 is stunning, and I couldn’t manage without it. I always shoot in manual. My style is quite different from a lot of other stills photographers - I like the frame to be busy, and tend to underexpose a lot. I’ll have the ISO up high usually - it suits my work. I never use flash unless I’m in the studio – there wouldn’t be a reason for me to use flash on set – and I always handhold. Some photographers use monopods, but I find they get in the way. You can be a bit more guerrilla with the blimp, although using it is like trying to do crochet with gardening gloves. It’s a necessary evil.

Do you shoot in short bursts or single shots?
Depends on the scene. I tend not to use CL or CH settings very often, as I like to be in control of choosing the moment. Sometimes I’ll burst for a big stunt like a car crash or explosion, but for stunts I like to learn the choreography by watching the rehearsal and know when to catch ‘the moment’.

When and where are your photos used?
All over the world - billboards, magazines, on products… it can be a little strange and overwhelming to see your images everywhere, especially for a show like this. I never stop feeling that little sparkle about it! I’m very lucky.

Helen Sloan is the principle stills photographer for popular TV show Game of Thrones. She’s worked on the series since day one, when HBO producers based production in Northern Ireland, and captures character stills from the set and behind the scenes action.

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.