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Top of the Lake

12 August 2014


Auckland-based photographer Parisa Taghizadeh tells The Photographer’s Mail about shooting stills on the set of Jane Campion’s recent television miniseries, Top of the Lake

The Photographer’s Mail: Can you briefly tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Parisa Taghizadeh: I am a freelance photographer and film-maker with my own art practice. I was born in Iran, raised in London, and lived in LA for six years before moving to New Zealand. I make work based around issues of cultural and personal identity, and I work commercially to make ends meet. I keep my own art practice alive with a bit of self-motivation, and support from organizations like Tangent, a lens-based collective here in Auckland of which I was a co-founder. 

How did you come to be the stills photographer on Top of the Lake?

I had worked on a few films back in London, and when I moved to New Zealand, I knew that was the area I wanted to pursue, not just because of my love of films, but also because it took a specialized skill that I knew I had. I heard Jane Campion was shooting her next work here, and found out who the producer was. She and Jane saw my website, liked my work, and off I went to the South Island.


What was a typical day on set like for you?

I would be on set throughout an 11-hour shooting day. I would often look at the angle used by the director of photography [DoP], as he would select the best shot, and light it accordingly. I would then get as close to his camera as possible, and I’d shoot from his angle. Sometimes, I would find an angle that worked better for me and would take my place on set. This doesn’t always work, as there are often people or gear in the background. You can’t ask for changes to be made for your needs while filming is taking place. Sometimes you can if there is extra time, but that is rare on a film shoot. Sometimes I would need to take the actors off-set for more ‘posed’ shots.

What do you shoot with? Is there specialist equipment required?

I shoot on a Nikon D7000. I use a ‘sound blimp’, which is a case that houses your camera and silences the sound of the shutter so that it’s not picked up by the sound recordist. It’s a big black case that has to be custom-made for your camera and lens. 

Do you have much freedom when it comes to what and how you shoot?

Nobody monitors what I shoot, but I do have a lot to consider. Your selected edited shots have to go through an approval process. Publicists often have very specific requirements, like capturing certain scenes. Your creative thinking can go a long way if you trust your own eye and instinct. It helps to sometimes work outside those parameters, and shoot what may be a bit abstract, just to deliver a different perspective without going too far off the mark. You always have to remember that it’s someone else’s vision. You’re brought in to interpret that, not create your own take on things, as tempting as it can be sometimes.


What were you trying to achieve in the stills produced for Top of the Lake?

I was trying to produce the best shots for a director as well-accomplished and talented as Jane Campion! It helped working with people who were all at the top of their game, because it sets the stakes high. I was trying to capture the mood of the film. When I read the script, the image of a young, pregnant girl walking into a lake seemed visually powerful, and I knew that had to be the iconic shot. I wasn’t able to capture it well during that particular scene, so I asked if we could stage it again. Jane was very supportive, and it’s evident in the result that we can achieve much more when given the time, backing, and assistance. 

What would you say are the biggest challenges in shooting production stills?

Making sure everyone’s happy. You have many people to please for different reasons, so you have to make sure everyone’s needs are met. One challenge during Top of the Lake was that the DoP, Adam Arkapaw, had a dark and natural approach to his lighting. This made interior set-ups hard to shoot. They would look stunning through his monitor, but were too dark for the settings in my camera. Often I shoot to the same settings as the main camera, so my stills look as close to the look of the film as possible, but the high-end cameras used are capable of much more than our DSLRs. 


What do you enjoy most about working on a production as stills photographer?

I love working with teams of people. You feel like a family when you’re together for so long. As a stills photographer, you’re in your own unit, so other departments take you under their wing. You learn so much about other people’s skills. The best part is when you’ve done something that you’re proud of, and can’t wait to show it to people.

Any advice for someone looking to get into the field?

You need a tough skin because you’re exposed to criticism. The trick is to not take things personally. If your favourite shot doesn’t make it through the approval process, it could mean anything, not that your shot was crap. 

The first thing to do is to find out which films are being made, and then get in touch with the producers. It’s always worth keeping your ear to the ground. I got my first job in London because they were shooting part of their film in Iran, and needed someone who understood both cultures and languages. I didn’t want to go as a fixer or translator, so I suggested I take photos for them. That was my first big break. 

To see more of Parisa’s photography, including personal work and commissions, visit