Sarah Lee was given exclusive backstage access at the BAFTA awards 2015, where she captured classic, candid images documenting the behind the scenes action.
I chatted with the Guardian freelancer at the private view of the resulting exhibition at Mayfair’s Leica Studio.
Sarah Lee: “I got the job after being recommended by a colleague to BAFTA’s director of photography, Janette Dalley. Unusually for a new client, she said I could do what I liked and shoot it in black and white.
“I didn’t sleep the night before the awards. I was really terrified that I’d mess it up. It’s been my dream job for about 10 years.
“I started the evening on the red carpet. Most of the press are penned behind barriers. I was one of three photographers on the other side of the barrier at the end of the long carpet.
“The awards are in February. The male photographers are in black tie. I was in a dress. I thought I would be absolutely freezing and put thermal underwear on, but I was so excited I didn’t feel the cold.
“At first I was shooting loads of frames of anyone walking up the red carpet – 10 shots of the BAFTA publicity lady just because she was in a dress. But soon a tsunami of celebrities was arriving.
“It felt like a rather genteel prison riot”
“It was easy to miss someone famous if you were photographing someone else. The noise was unbelievable. People had camped out overnight to get a place and were banging on the metal barriers shouting out the names of their favourite stars. It felt like a rather genteel prison riot.
“Most of the big names – David Beckham, Tom Cruise, Eddie Redmayne, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Julianne Moore – were the last to arrive.
“I didn’t need flash as there was so much light. I shot in colour but converted to black and white so I could tone down all the background clutter – the press and branding – which was too distracting.”
Sarah and the other two photographers commissioned by BAFTA were then allowed 20 minutes in the auditorium before the ceremony.
Sarah Lee: “It was essentially a celebrity lockdown. My only brief was not to stand in the wings, where there wasn’t much room and not to double up on celebrities.
“It was like a wedding. The celebrities hadn’t seen each other since their last films, so they were greeting each other and taking pictures of each other with their phones.
“They were aware of me as a photographer, but were quite relaxed as I had a BAFTA armband on.
“I also find that shooting with a Leica M 240 and a 50mm lens is less threatening than having a DSLR with a big telephoto. It’s small enough for you to be able to see the photographer’s face, so you establish more human contact with the subject.
“As far as possible I took candid shots. I’d sometimes make eye contact and hold up my camera to ask if it was ok to take a picture and sometimes they would see my Leica and say, ‘Ah, I was thinking about getting one of those…’
“There was no flash allowed and it was quite dark, so I shot with a 50mm F 1.4 most of the time, or a 35mm F2 if there was enough light.
“Leica lent me a Noctilux-M 50mm F0.95, which costs about £7,000. I was incredibly excited to finally get a chance to use it, but I couldn’t get the focus right as it has such a narrow depth of field. Especially with people moving, so I mainly stuck to the F 1.4, which I’m used to.
“I shoot in manual, again because it’s what I’m used to. I’ve always shot with Leica M rangefinders. I love the glass – lenses are more important than the camera you use.
“To cope with the darkness, I bumped the ISO up to 2000 or 3200 as needed. I don’t spot meter – I use the setting that takes in the overall level of light.”
“I realised I was sitting on Julianne Moore’s feet”
Among her shots used for the exhibition are Ethan Hawke taking a selfie with Patricia Arquette (you would have thought they’d had enough of each other after filming Boyhood for 12 years), and one of Tom Cruise looking like a waxwork as he prepares to stand before the mass ranks of the paparazzi (wearing what appear to be four-inch lifts on his shoes.)
Sarah Lee: “At one stage, right at the front of the auditorium, I realised I was sitting on Julianne Moore’s feet. I raised my camera and she seemed to hold a pose for about a second with those great cheekbones, as if to say “come on, this is your chance,” and I managed to get a couple of good shots.
I took a couple of shots of each actor, because I have a tremor in my hand – not a great thing for a photographer – and when I’m shooting at 1/60 sec I always have to take a couple to make sure one is steady.”
After the ceremony Lee was the only photographer at the glamorous BAFTA dinner at Grosvenor House.
Sarah Lee: “It was unbelievably “old Hollywood” and as I was taking pictures at the tables, I realised that was actually the look I wanted.
“There was a kind of glitter ball which periodically lit part of Keira Knightley’s face, so I waited for about a minute by her table as she chatted to Harvey Weinstein for it to fall on her again and managed to get the shot I wanted in the end.
“At half past one in the morning I went home. I had about 800 shots and knew I needed to get them over to BAFTA and the Guardian for eight a.m.
“I worked throughout the night, selecting 100 of the best and converting them from colour to black and white. I use a programme called Silver Efex Pro. I adjust the tones and shadow by eye. I knew I wanted the blacks to look solid, punchy black.
“I don’t do much in the way of Photoshop, but have no compunction about removing something distracting, like an exit sign in lights.
“I took one picture of the dinner from a balcony with the 50mm 1.4. The tables were far enough away for me not to have to worry about depth of field. The image looked a bit muddy and flat, but on this file I played with the sliders and got some detail out of the shadows and pushed up the clarity, which is not something I normally do, but I feel it worked for this shot, even if it might border on being a bit ‘overcooked’.”
Sarah Lee’s exhibition Exposure: BAFTA Reportage is at the Leica Studio, 27 Bruton Place Mayfair London W1J 6NQ Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 10am – 6pm, until 20 October.