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  • KINGS, DRAGONS & DIREWOLVES: Helen Sloan as GoT Principal Stills Photographer

  • It’s only a matter of weeks until we’re, once again, gripped by the drama of Westeros. Before the sixth season of Game of Thrones has us glued to our screens, we take a look back at the work of Helen Sloan, Principal Stills Photographer for the show and a Nikon user.

    Although we couldn’t persuade her to give us the scoop on any of the upcoming storylines, she did give us exclusive insight into her kit bag and what it’s like to be the set still photographer of such a larger-than-life TV series as Game of Thrones.

    Game of Thrones, Photographer, Stills, Helen Sloan, Nikon
    Game of Thrones Principal Stills Photographer, Helen Sloan. Helen is also known for her work on Cherrybomb (2009) and Miss Julie (2014).

    ‘Think you could lug all this equipment from set to set on your back? You know nothing!’
    – Helen Sloan

    Creative process: How creative can you be?

    Fans of the show can only dream about the decisions Helen has to make. Being involved since the beginning meant that she was able to apply her own style to the stills.

    ‘When we shot the pilot I just did it in my own style and the photo editor loved it,’ she says. ‘The way the style of the photography developed was pretty organic. We came up with this great look by combining stills photography and the footage, I feel very lucky that I have been given the opportunity to shape this look. I don’t have any favourite or standard settings because the stage and the light changes every day so they are different for every shoot, but obviously for dark scenes I have to open the lens up as I’m shooting action and can’t have the luxury of a slow shutter. As a rule, I like to keep my focus quite deep.’

    Apart from this, Helen also controls the editing and post-production of her stills, often working into the night to grade the images and adjust the touch, colour and contrast to achieve the iconic Game of Thrones feel.


    Outdoor shooting: Working with the kit from set to set

    When it comes to exercising her creativity, Helen has to adhere to the Game of Thrones look as seen on the screen, but it’s a different matter when shooting outdoors. ‘When we shoot the studio scenes I try to stick quite closely to the look of what the film cameras are capturing, but if we have an exterior shot I get to be more creative. I can interpret the scenes in my own way – I can choose my own angles and shoot between takes.’ explains Helen.

    It’s not all glitz and glamour though. As the unit photographer, Helen has to document every scene for HBO’s guides to the show. Each day she checks the detailed schedules then chooses whether to follow the Dragon or the Wolf unit, getting stills of each scene as they are filmed. The rough terrain of the locations can make carrying her kit with her very difficult. Helen has even had to specially adapt a dog trailer to wheel her equipment with her as she runs around the set, searching for the best angles.

    Jon Snow, Ygritte, Game of Thrones,
    Ygritte and Jon Snow hug in a dramatic scene. Nikon D3 and a NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, @ f/3.5 | 116.0 mm | 1/125sec | ISO 5000 © Helen Sloan/HBO


    ‘I quite often find myself running between units, it’s crazy busy,’ she says. ‘I also have to find the time to grab the actors to shoot portraits in a makeshift studio for publicity stills – and then there’s the behind-the-scene stuff.’

    Often working in stunning landscapes, Helen has shot in the snowy mountains of Iceland, beside the beautiful Viti crater, and also in Morocco, Malta, and Northern Ireland. For shoots on location, she carries the Nikon D3S and Nikon D3 with her, mostly using the AF-S NIKKOR 24-700mm f/2.8G ED, which she described to us as her ‘workhorse’ lens. Also in her kit bag are her Aquatech soundblimps. These cases are essential for still photographers and are Helen’s secret weapons when shooting, cancelling out the camera’s shutter sounds so they’re not picked up on the film roll. The cameras face a tough job: forget the often extreme weather conditions; it’s the constant use that pushes Helen’s equipment to the limit. Having worked on Game of Thrones since the pilot, Helen’s cameras have survived half a million shutter activations so far, and counting!


    Ned Eddard Stark Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North Game of Thrones Helen Sloan Tree
    Actor Sean Bean as Eddard Stark Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, popularly known as Ned, contemplates under a tree. Nikon D3 and a NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II @ f/5.6 | 82.0 mm | 1/100 sec | ISO 1000 © Helen Sloan/HBO


    Indoor shooting: Working in makeshift studios

    If she’s not shooting outdoors, Helen is on darkly lit sets, or in a makeshift studio taking portraits of the actors to be used for posters, publicity, DVD covers, and for HBO’s online episode guides. For the poster and studio work, Helen chooses a Nikon D800 for its high resolution. She usually pairs it with the AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF: her favourite lens. Ideal for portraits, she loves that it’s so fast and produces such crisp images.

    Portrait of Gwendoline Christie playing warrior Brienne of Tarth in the TV adaptation of the Song of Fire and Ice novels. Nikon D800 and an AF-NIKKOR 24-70mm f2.8G ED, @ f/8 | 70.0 mm| 1/125 sec | ISO 200 © Helen Sloan/HBO
    Portrait of Gwendoline Christie playing warrior Brienne of Tarth in the TV adaptation of the Song of Fire and Ice novels. Nikon D800 and an AF-NIKKOR 24-70mm f2.8G ED, @ f/8 | 70.0 mm| 1/125 sec | ISO 200 © Helen Sloan/HBO


    As Helen explains, ‘The biggest technical challenge is lighting. The scenes are beautifully lit – but often in quite low light because HD film cameras don’t need as much. Luckily, Nikon cameras are great for this. I don’t think I could do Game of Thrones with any other camera’.


    Joffrey Baratheon, Jack Gleeson, Game of Thrones, portrait, portrait photography Nikon
    Irish actor, Jack Gleeson portraying the King Joffrey Baratheon. Photographed on set, this image has been widely used by fans of the show on social media. Nikon D800 and an AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G @ f/10 | 50.0 mm | 1/125sec | ISO 100 © Helen Sloan/HBO


    What’s in Helen’s kit bag for Game of Thrones?





    Lord Beric Dondarrion, Richard Dormer
    Richard Dormer, playing Lord Beric Dondarrion. There were a couple of lamps set up but this dark scene was mainly lit up by the fire. Nikon D3 and an AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF@ f/3.5 | 85.0 mm | 1/400 sec | ISO 2500 © Helen Sloan/HBO


    Nikon Pro The original article appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of the Nikon Pro magazine. Interested in similar articles? Get the mag here or download the Nikon Pro app, available from the App Store here and through Google Play here