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Photographing theater is a challenge. You'll face low light, prohibitions against flash, moving actors and unevenly lit stages. Here are some tips for you to get the best photos under such challenging conditions.
1. Use Manual Mode to Deal with Tricky Exposures
There are two important things to remember when shooting on a stage. The first only applies to stages with very dark or black backgrounds. Many stage situations, be it amateur or professional will use this setup. In these cases, your camera's automatic functions will be fooled. Switch your camera to manual, and use your camera's spot meter function to get a solid reading off one of the actors' faces. If you don't have a spot meter function, you'll need to guess the exposure through trial and error.
The other thing to remember is that the lighting will differ depend on where people are standing on stage. The obvious situation is one in which a spot light is being used. Anyone not in it will be in a darker area. The less obvious problem is when a stage seems to all be lit up at the same time. In these cases, the lighting may look even, but most of the time, the edges of the stage will be much darker than the middle. Sometimes this difference can be as much as a full stop. In these cases, I still use manual to quickly switch back and forth once the correct exposures have been established.
2. Use a 70-200mm Lens for Its Reach
A good lens for theater photography depends on how far from the stage you are. Anything from a wide angle to a 50mm can be used if you are near the stage, but in most cases this isn't an option. I consider a zoom will be the more logic option. I've used zoom lenses like a 28-135mm and a 100-400mm, but I would consider a 70-200mm to be the best choice. And it does not have to be a f/2.8, one of the new 70-200mm f/4 will be enough.
I understand many will crave the f/2.8 for its light gathering capabilities, but with modern DSLR cameras, you can use a higher ISO and live happily with an aperture of f/4. Having a constant aperture lens is very important however. If you're maximum aperture changes when you zoom in and out, then using manual exposure becomes very tricky.
3. Use RAW and Picture Styles to Help with Mixed White Balance
For white balance, leave it on automatic, as stage lighting is a mixed bag. This is a time to consider shooting RAW, so you can adjust white balance at the editing stage. You need to expect to compromise, as there is no way to get all different lights to look right. In many cases, each different image will need correcting, as there is no batch magic function.
Red lights are especially troublesome. In cases when these are used, I change the Picture Style on my camera from Standard, which is the typical default, to Neutral. If you're comfortable making a customized picture style, all you need to do is lower the contrast and saturation to your liking.
4. Know the Play
The best way to photograph a performance is to understand what it's all about. If you want to give it a try, approach a local group or theater ask for permission to see the rehearsals, plan to share some images with the crew. Ask everyone as much as you can, the director, the lighting crew, the actors.
Most importantly, if the play or performance is a classic, that's means you should be able to find a copy of it. Read the play! If it's in a different language, at least find some good summaries of it. When you're doing this, pay close attention to the attitude and motivations of each character. This will inform what moments are most vital to the story.
5. Vary Your Composition by Creating Tight Shots
Facial expressions did not matter much in Greek theater, as actors were far from the audience, due to the dimensions of some large open-air theatres. Masks were used with intensely exaggerated facial features and expressions to convey the message.
In modern day representations, faces are equally important to convey feelings, so you should always follow the action and try to get the best images of facial expressions. In fact, much of the theater, even from the Medieval period, is based on the expressions and grimaces of the actors.
Always watch for those unique moments of tension that help to showcase the beauty of theater!
6. Know When to Capture Wide Shots
Some theater plays go beyond the conventional stage and move within an area. When the environment is important be sure to capture it. In the previous image, the pater familias welcomes the guests and invites them to join the matronae of his domus in a ritual visit to the tombs of the ancestors and the altars of the gods.
To photograph a production like this you have to understand how actors will move within the rooms and be prepared to change plans at any moment. This also means, though, that you can shoot from different positions, even from behind some of the actors for some unique perspectives.
Keep an eye out of performances like these as they are really fun to shoot. Including the environment in your images is important when document street performances or any time the theater itself has an important history. These encompassing images are always in high demand and often forgotten about when you're concentrating on the action of a play.
7. Understanding Theater
If after reading this tutorial, you feel that this is something that interests you, take the time to explore more about the craft. Blocking, for instance, would be a good place to start. Simply put, blocking is how characters move around the stage. Having some basic knowledge of this will help you anticipate what will happen next.
Stage lighting is another thing that can aid you in your shooting. The color and the direction of the light is meant to convey meaning, and it usually works very well. Remember, stage lighting is older than photography lighting. Knowing how to capture the light is important both while shooting, perhaps using a wide lens to emphasize the isolation of the spotlight, and in post-production, perhaps when deciding whether to correct for or embrace a color cast.
All that being said, shooting theater is the best way to get better at shooting theater. The more you shoot the easier it will be to understand how light works and how action flows onstage. Try it!
8. Be Aware of the Etiquette
Avoid shooting at the most quiet moments, as even the noise of the shutter can distract the actors. As a photographer you should be invisible. Use a camera bag that lets you change lenses quickly and without noise.
Take lots of pictures because many of them will not turn out as you intended. Lots of things go wrong like getting out of focus shots because of your shallow depth of field, actors waving hands in front of their faces when you least expect it, light changing abruptly. These are reasons why being able to follow rehearsals to understand how everything works is important.
9. Remember They're Performing for You
Photographing theater should be easy. Remember that! The actors are trying to exact what you want. They are trying to show emotion in their faces. They are trying to position themselves onstage in interesting ways. They're doing exactly what we want all our subjects to do. So don't get so caught up the details that you forget what it is you're capturing.
Unfortunately, those details are what make theatrical performances hard to shoot. So when you start, work hard to make those details second nature. Master them and get them out of the way of the real shooting. It can be frustrating, but if you love what you shoot and understand it, then the task will be easier.