Theatre Photography

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September 27, 2008

Since this was part of what I did for a living prior to retiring, I thought it might be useful to make some suggestions for photographing performances.  Although most of you will probably not photograph plays, the techniques are useful for sports, concerts, dance shows, and many other types of presentations.

For me, the most important part of photographing any presentation is capturing the essence of the performance.  This may be the most difficult part of making images of most performances because they are designed for an audience, not a camera. The lighting, the positions of the performers, the scenery or backgrounds, and the overall stage image is very different from what you would set up in a studio.

The first step is to try to view the entire performance prior to shooting it.  Of course this is not always possible, but if there are multiple rehearsals, try to sit through at least one before shooting the final dress rehearsal. If it is a sporting event, try to catch a game the day or week before the one you wish to shoot. The reasons?

  1. You need to determine the moments that capture the essence of the performance.  Unless you have viewed the action, you will find yourself taking pictures at the wrong time, missing the best shots. Even events such as sports have repeating actions – watching a game with photography in mind will help you plan your shots.
  2. You need to determine where to position yourself & the camera for each picture you plan to take.  It is rare that sitting in one place presents the perfect position for every photograph.  This is also why it is best to take the photographs at the last dress rehearsal.  It is difficult & rude to move around during a performance with an audience, and the final dress rehearsal will have the most complete costumes, scenery & lighting. Again, in the case of sporting events, watching a previous game will help you choose camera locations for the best shots.
  3. You need to check the lighting levels to determine if it is possible to take the photographs without flash.  Using flash during a theatrical performance is generally a bad idea.  It ruins the work of the lighting, set & costume designers, annoys the actors & director, distorts colors, and, in most cases, unless you are using studio strobes, your flash won’t be powerful enough to fill the stage anyway. If the show is so dark that your shutter speeds are slower than you can hold the camera steady, there are not a lot of choices.  A better camera with a faster lens is a possibility, but fast lenses & DSLR cameras are expensive.  A tripod might help, but they are difficult to position in theatre seating, and even with a good ball head, difficult to follow moving performers.
  4. Even with bright lighting, one of the difficult parts of shooting performances is avoiding blurred images due to movement.  The easiest to prevent is camera movement.  It is difficult to hold a camera steady during long exposures, but with practice, most photographers can do better than the basic rule for hand holding cameras – “your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of the lens focal length”. For a 100mm focal length lens, that would mean shooting at a minimum shutter speed of 1/100th of a second.  With practice most photographers can get that down to a 30th or even a 15th of a second.
    Even better – use a camera with either built in image stabilization (VR or IS) or a VR lens. The bigger problem is with the performers.  You can’t ask them to stand still – they are performing! Again, the solution is to watch a rehearsal.  All performers stop for short periods of time.  Even a jumping dancer hits a peak where they “hang” for an instant.  That is when you need to take the photograph.  It does take practice, particularly if your camera has a built in shutter delay, but it can be done.

Although I’d much rather use a good DSLR with fast lenses to shoot shows, I have used point & shoot cameras for many years when they were all that was available without spending $10,000.00 for a digital SLR. Some examples of theatre shots taken with a point & shoot camera are shown below.  Click on the image for a larger version. If you know ahead of time when the performers will freeze the action, you can work with long exposures & shutter delays. Of course, if you have a choice, you will probably get better results with a DSLR combined with fast VR lenses.  I currently shoot with f: 2.8 zoom lenses – I described them in a previous post.  Slow variable aperture consumer lenses may work under bright lighting conditions, but if they are too slow or the lighting levels too low, they may not autofocus.  It would be good to practice focusing the lens manually since almost any lens will fail to focus when the light is too low. If your camera has a shutter delay between the time you push the shutter release & taking the picture, first try shutting off as many automatic functions as possible.  Most of them slow down the camera.  Once you have done that, practice working with the delay, and push the shutter that much ahead of the “freeze” moment. If you have a choice, position your camera so that you are panning across the action rather than it coming directly at you.  It is easier to swing a camera through an arc following the action than to try to continue to refocus on a subject moving directly at or away from you.

One important point: Don’t buy or borrow a “better” camera just for the performance unless you can spend a couple of weeks learning how to use the new piece of equipment before the event.  The worst time to learn how to use a new camera is when you are shooting a one time performance. Some other tips:

  1. For theatre, dance, and other indoor performances under stage lighting you will end up with the best color renditions if you set your camera for incandescent white balance.  If you are shooting in a gym or other venue that uses mercury lighting, try the fluorescent lighting white balance.  Although auto white balance may work, it will be fooled by colored lighting, and often erase or dull the lighting effects.
  2. If your camera gives you a choice of ISOs, choose the highest that still provides good images.  If you set an ISO too high, the images will be grainy or noisy. Some cameras have “Auto ISO“.  When set, the camera will increase ISO as needed, lowering it when there is more light.
  3. Many cameras have lots of settings that can be used to improve your images. Be sure you understand them & set them on your camera prior to the show. If you expect to shoot more than one show, write down the settings you used so that you can reuse or change them for the next show, depending on how they worked.
  4. Make sure you have spare and fully charged batteries, extra storage cards, etc. and have practiced changing them blindfolded. If you plan to change lenses on a DSLR, be able to do it in the dark. The audience area is often completely dark during scene changes, the time you will likely use to make changes.
  5. Check to find out the “rules” for photographers prior to the event.  There are venues or authorities that do not allow any photography, some that only allow point & shoot cameras, some that don’t allow flash, and some that set aside specific areas for photographers.
  6. If possible, shoot RAW. Although not all cameras save RAW files, they contain more data than JPGs or TIFs – Fixing exposure, white balance, etc in an editor is much easier when working with RAW files. Since they are larger than other file types, make sure you have enough storage to make it through the show.
  7. When shooting action sports, auto racing, and other fast moving sports, always pre-plan an excape route for yourself when you are about to become “part of the action.” We all have seen a photographer taking a hit at a football game on TV – I garentee the player made out far better than the photographer!
  8. Lastly, it you are going to share your images with the performers, other parents, etc. plan ahead as to how you are going to do it.  Many photo web sites such as Flickr, Fotki, or Shutterfly provide methods of sharing image files and prints.

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  477. Donn

    What is an average pay scale for shooting theatre professionally?

  478. To my knowledge, there is no university that provides a major in Theatre photography; at least in the United States. You have two directions to look at – a photography school or a theatre program.

    I favor the technical theatre program in that I worked in many different aspects of technical theatre, however if your primary interest is in photography, look at schools that offer the major & talk with the local theatre department about taking photos of their shows. Most will be willing to let you shoot a rehearsal providing you give them copies of your work.

    Your first attempt(s) may be a bit rough, but with practice you will improve.

  479. mahtab

    im from shiraz
    i want to find a maijor of university ‘tearte photography’ yet now i couldnt find it
    i am very interested inthis maijor so i want to countiniu by studing
    can you give me a list of university wich have teatre photography maijor