Photography is all about light. So how do you cope when you’re asked to photograph in almost total darkness, when you have to freeze moving subjects, where flash is banned and you've only get one chance to bag the best photos? Welcome to the world of theatre photography.
I’ve been lucky enough to be the official photographer on many drama and dance productions. Over the past few years I’ve learned the hard way exactly what works and what doesn’t. So here are my top seven theatre photography tips.
Before you leave home you need to be prepared for the task ahead. First there’s the obvious stuff. Pack lots of empty memory cards, a couple of extra batteries and a back up camera, just in case. The next thing to get ready is you. Wearing black will help to blend into the shadows, comfortable and quiet shoes are also a must. Finally pack food and drink; you may be in for a long day.
2) Theatre etiquette
Weeks or months of rehersals and planning will have been put into the preparation for the show, so be under no illusion that you, as a photographer, are not going to get any special attention. In fact you might well be the cause of problems. So, find the director or stage manager and introduce yourself. Ask about the “house rules” e.g. can you move around during the performance? If you can, always photograph the dress rehearsal (know as a technical rehearsal) rather then the actual performance.
3) Flash or no flash.
The light levels are going to be very low, so it's very tempting to use flash. But the golden rule is, during the performance, absolutely no flash… ever!
Two reasons for that. One, it’s very off putting to the actors and two, you’ll end up with really horrible pictures. The lighting crew have spent time and money creating atmosphere with their lights and it’s your job to capture that atmosphere.
4) Lens choice
Fast glass is the name of the game. Fast glass is lenses that have a wide aperture. f4 is OK but f2.8 is better. Image stabilising lenses can help with camera shake, but motion blur is the biggest problem. When you get shutter speeds of 1/100th second or below you can expect to get motion blur on the hands and feet of the actors. Predicting when the actors are going to move is a skill you'll learn very quickly.
5) Camera settings
I always shoot in Aperture Priority mode and open the aperture as wide as possible. I’ll keep an eye on the shutter speed and will stop down whenever I get the chance. ISO is often on max (1600 iso on my Canons) and I record in RAW of course. Theatre lighting can be a mixed bag, so RAW allows me to correct the white balance back home.
6) Shooting position.
I always shoot with two or three cameras. The first camera is set on a tripod in the centre of the theatre just higher then the stage and is opperated by my assistant, Sam. She takes small group shots, whilst I move around close to the stage to take the close ups. I also have a third camera fitted with a wide angle lens to cover the whole stage. This is connected to a time-lapse trigger and takes a picture every 15 seconds. You can see the results below .
7) And finally…
Over shoot. Expect one in five shots to be sharp and perhaps only half of those to be good photographs. You may well do better then that, but it’s far better to have two many pictures then to few.
Have a "comfort break" before you start. Dress rehearsals can go on and on and you don’t want to be nipping off to the loo half way through!
Back up your images as soon as possible, the unthinkable can strike at any time!
Lastly, have fun. Theatre photography is fantastic fun and a real challenge to even the most seasoned professional. Embrace that challenge and you’ll come away with some amazing images.