Leading international film stills, portrait and editorial photographer, Aidan Monaghan, tells us why he loves shooting stars of the celebrity and astronomical kind . . .
It’s not every day you’re asked to fly to the Middle East at a moment’s notice to work on a film set with A-list stars, but capturing scenes on camera is all in a day’s work for Belfast and London-based photographer, Aidan Monaghan.
His futuristic images of film star Matt Damon in the 2015 science fiction movie, The Martian, along with mesmerising shots of actor Tom Hiddleston in 2015’s thriller High Rise, and dramatic stills of Dame Judi Dench in 2013’s BAFTA award-winning Philomena, have catapulted him into the limelight. And the softly-spoken Northern Irishman admits he has to pinch himself to believe it’s true sometimes.
“The nature and variety of the work I do means I get to travel widely. I can quite honestly say I’d never have had stamps on my passport for places like Iceland, South America and the Middle East if I hadn’t become a photographer.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I go from the Columbian rainforest to a wadi and realise I’m being paid to document it. Plus being surrounded by really highly motivated people on a film set, where every one of the crew gives 110 per cent, is incredibly motivating.”
Architect turn photographer
Yet Aidan, 36, who grew up just outside Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, originally became an architect.
“I was deciding between fine art and architecture and my dad said ‘well, you’ll always have a career as an architect’.”
He studied part 1 of his degree course for three years at Queens University in Belfast, then worked for two years at London architectural firm, Norman Foster + Partners.
“It was really interesting and I was working on quite a high profile building, the Boston Museum of Fine Art in America, which was a huge project. It was a great grounding, working with big scale, international buildings, and taught me about the importance of attention to detail and the whole light process.”
Aidan had always had an interest in photography from his A-level art days at school. His first camera, a Cosina SLR, was used to photograph his art work and during his work experience on Belfast-based The Irish News, where award-winning photographer, Ann McManus, was his inspiration.
“It was around the end of the troubles in Belfast and I was sent out to cover Mo Mowlam’s visit to the city. I found myself in the middle of the kind of press scrum that existed then, but doesn’t nowadays, and found myself being chucked out of it. So I walked up to a community centre at the end of the road and saw Mo Mowlam in the middle of this scene with a huge arc of photographers and reporters around her. It made a great shot.”
His interest in photography developed during the part 2 stage of his architecture degree, which he completed at Glasgow School of Art.
“I was around a lot of fine art students and felt part of a wider creative industry. I used photography to explain my architectural projects.”
After graduating, Aidan returned to Belfast and became an architect . . . until the recession hit.
“Business had been booming and then suddenly, around 2009 to 2010, the recession hit. At that point I was already moonlighting as a photographer at Belfast Theatre and Arts Centre, because I’d already seen the young practice I was in starting to cancel work.
“Most of the young architects I worked with have all ended up in different careers. It’s funny really when I think of what my dad had told me about architecture being a job for life!”
Aidan decided it was time to see if he could turn his passion for photography into a living and as well as interesting architecture, he also captured landscapes and the changing seasons.
“It was a funny time; things were gathering momentum for me and I just thought let’s see if I can make this work. I had nothing to lose and I have no regrets; becoming a photographer is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
He says he has transferred the skills he learnt as an architect to photography.
“I’d say the thought process is the same, along with concept and ideas, and trying to formulate them, as well as lighting, space and texture. Both are about compositions and those years as an architect of drawing very precisely, understanding space and light, help me when I am on a film set.”
The attic in his terraced home was converted into a makeshift studio because, he says, the light and space were perfect to shoot the actors he was working with. Then came his first commission on a short film, The Shore, directed by Terry George. It went on to win the 2012 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.
“It was shot entirely in Count Donegal on a tidal estuary and revolves around a guy who left Ireland years before and returns. I got the job because of the landscape stuff I’d been photographing.”
Dramatic landscapes and the shifting seasons were a key feature of the stills Aidan produced for award-winning movie Philomena.
So how does he work on the film set and avoid being in the way of the director’s shooting?
“Most movies require some kind of collating in the scene, so you can capture the moment as it happens. So I will be shooting within the scene, having hustled for a good position, to get the actor within their performance. I’ll shoot a few different angles within the scene and end up with a photo-essay aspect, documenting a bank of scenes.
“Then, I’ll request to shoot the actor separately for poster shots in order to capture a special side of their character – it’s a bit of both really and it depends on the pace. Sometimes you don’t get the luxury to be able to do that with someone.”
Being on set already means Aidan has usually built up a rapport with the actors he is photographing.
“You are familiar to them and not shooting them out of the blue. I always like to be embedded in the film unit so you can build up a rapport with an actor, who learns to trust and interact with you, on an ordinary level.
“With High Rise, Tom Hiddleston and I are the same age and had a good rapport together. He is one of those actors who gives everything.”
Film work can come at a moment’s notice, like the phone call he received asking if he could fly out to Jordan the next day to work on The Martian.
“After a long flight followed by a four-hour journey from the airport to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep, I was out on set for the first day’s shots of Matt Damon. You learn to click into place quickly. In an ideal world, you would have time to acclimatise to Jordan, but it’s not possible in the time frame.”
He admits he and his trusted Canon 5DS camera find it easier to adjust to desert temperatures than jungle heat and humidity.
“For Lost City of Z, I went to the Columbian rainforest for the shooting and a lot of stuff was accessed by river, so we had to travel by boat to the set. I had to open my camera bag for 45 minutes to an hour before we reached the set to allow the lenses to acclimatise.
“Adjusting to the humidity is really tough and saps your energy too, so you have to keep hydrated. I lost a stone and a half in weight while out there. And you have to deal with mosquitoes and the fact that every inch of the forest floor crawls with things like fire ants, venomous spiders and snakes.”
Different kind of stars
Aidan’s latest venture is shooting stars of a different kind, as he explores the world of astro- photography.
“I use my Canon cameras and it’s time-lapse control. Sometimes you get a static shot, or a panning shot using a Syrp Genie dolly when you want a left to right movement for something like The Milky Way.”
Canon has been the camera of choice for Aidan for years and he builds his kit around it.
“It’s the camera I always work with,” he says. “I don’t discriminate against Nikon and, if I had the luxury, I would have both. I have that many lenses I need to check my insurance documents to list them and I have both a Lowepro backpack and proper travel bag.”
He uses USM lenses 24-70mm and 70-200mm L series, with a 50mm prime lens, as well as a classic portrait lens, 85mm F1.2L USM, along with 17mm F4L, 45mm and 24mm tilt shift L series. He also has a Profoto set D1 500 TTL location kit with a flash head, a whole series of Profoto soft boxes, along with two Manfrotto 055 tripods.
“I know Calumet well and go to its Belfast shop and know Angus, the sales manager, there pretty well. It’s like going in for a therapy session, chatting about stuff and having a look at lenses.”
Aidan’s in the process of ordering sliding robes, at his wife’s behest, to store his ever-growing kit, which he says is all over the kitchen at present.
His camera bag never leaves his side when he is flying off anywhere to join a set: “There’s no way it would ever go in the hold; there’s no risk of that ever happening.”
While he has all the right photographic gear for a job, sometimes the same can’t be said for Aidan’s wardrobe. Hence why he found himself baking on the desert set for The Martian.
“With 12 hours notice the night before, I had no time to get desert gear so turned up on the set in my Mourne Mountains clothes…a big black suit with a ski hood. It wasn’t so bad at 5am when it was cool in the desert, but by noon, I was baking and the script supervisor said she felt really sorry looking at me!”
For more information about Aidan’s work, visit aidanmonaghanphotography.com or call 07887 563057
All photographs from the Martian film taken by Aidan Monaghan for 20th Century Fox.
All photographs from the High Rise film taken by Aidan Monaghan for Hanway Films.