So, I’ve gotten some questions about taking stage photography, and while I’m definitely no expert, I’ll share with you what has worked for me over the past few years that I’ve been doing this.
First off, I have to say that there isn’t a magic number for everyone. I wish there was. It’s just that there are so many variables involved that you have to adjust according to those. For example, when the big fall play occurs, there is an orchestra pit and around the pit is a ‘runway’ of sorts–they call it a thrust–so the actors can come out in front of the pit and sing there, closer to the audience. That means I have to stand farther back. Although, when I shot Children of Eden, I did one standing back and one day sitting on the steps between the orchestra and the stage. That helped, but I couldn’t get the wide shots. I also took my son’s camera with his wide angle lens as well as my own with a normal lens and would just pick up whichever camera I needed at the moment. That’s a luxury of having a photographic family though. ;)
Take Photos During Dress Rehearsals
This is my number one tip. It is by far the best choice. You may get a couple people that aren’t in full costume, but you have the liberty of moving around–getting close–and not getting in the way of the audience. And if you can go more than once, do it. If you know the play, then you’ll know when to get ‘that one’ shot. It’s worth it. Trust me. Even if you go to a run-through vs. a dress rehearsal it’ll get you familiar with the play and what the actors are going to do. You can even practice with your settings.
Also, by attending the dress rehearsal, you can get close. And the closer you can be, the better because of how the light goes into the camera. If you’re standing 150 feet away with good settings, it’s not going to make as much of a difference as when you’re standing just 20 feet away.
Be Above Stage Level
You don’t want your photos to have to be competing with a black wall. If you can get your eye level above the floor by standing on something? Do it. That’s what I do when the orchestra is there. The drama department has acting blocks and I stand on that with my camera on a monopod.
This is the tricky one. Of course the better the stuff you have, the easier it’s going to be to get the shot and have it turn out. This is what I recommend, if possible:
- A camera that can shoot an ISO of at least 800-1600 without getting grainy.
- A fixed aperture lens, preferably a 2.8. This allows you to take a shot and let more light in quickly, causing a brighter photo and less blur.
- A monopod, particularly if you’re having to stand farther back. I don’t like a tripod in this situation because it’s not as flexible. Also I’m usually between like rows three and four and a tripod gets in the way.
- NO FLASH. At all possible costs, avoid this. I’m not saying don’t ever use it–there may be a couple times you might like to try it, but generally, I’m a no-flash kind-a gal.
Again, this all depends on your situation. But this is what works for me.
- Aperture: 2.8
- ISO: 1600-3200, or 800 if you feel like 1600 gets too grainy.
- Shutter Speed: Depends on if there’s a spotlight or not. Lights are dim, etc. This is my variable that changes all the time. Constantly keep your eye on the view finder and the information that’s provided in there. This last shoot I knew that if my shutter speed for ‘no spotlight’ was set to 1/30-1/40 that I could get a decent shot. When the spotlight came on? It was around 1/100. I was able to be right in front of the stage for this shoot.
- Remember to check your photos in your view finder from time to time to make sure they are turning out.
- RAW+JPG: Shoot in this mode if you can. But please note that you need to have photo editing software that can work with RAW, like Photoshop. Shooting in RAW is one of the best things you can do.
Basically, if you shoot in JPG, your camera looks at all the information that it takes to make a photo, assesses what it deems best, and saves or compresses it all into one lump sum. If you shoot in RAW, you camera takes all the information and keeps the information and saves it individually within that file, so to speak. It just means that all the information it takes to make the photo is saved ‘as is’ and you can make changes to it easier and lose less quality. The more changes you make to a JPG, the more quality you’ll lose.
The downside to shooting in RAW+JPG is that you are saving two file formats and therefore it takes longer to save and such.
Here’s a couple of examples of how quickly you can make a change using the Camera RAW program.
This is a screen shot the original photo in Camera RAW. As you can see, Dallyn Bayless (our Broadway star—seriously) looks a little blown out, the background is a little dark, and it looks on the blue-ish side.
But now, in this screen shot, I’ve changed the Temperature a little, I took the Exposure down, and I added a little Fill light to brighten up the background. All done with a few little slides of the buttons there on the right. And because it was saved in RAW, I’m changing those individual components of the photo shot as is and not changing the set setting that the JPG would have been saved at. I hope I’m making sense with that. :)
Okay, so Dallyn still may not be the ‘sharpest’ looking at this stage–partially because I’ve zoomed in to show you it closer, but there’s other things you can do in PS to help there. This was just the first photo I could find out of the 1000+ photos that I took over three days that could get close to what I’m trying to explain. :) This was him standing at the back of the stage and me standing out in front of the orchestra pit . . . so lots of distance between us.
When I shot Children of Eden, it was a BIG production. There was a lot of darkness and itty bitty lights and low-lit scenes–and many times changing within a few seconds of each other. I think that by far it was one of the most difficult ones to shoot. Luckily, my dear sweet friend Loni Stevens let me use her Canon 5D with that 3200 ISO and her Canon F/2.8 L series lens ! I don’t know what I would have done without it. Even with all that fancy stuff though, it was still a hard one to shoot.
Because a photo with no spotlight looks so much different than one that does, if you want them to look more alike, you have to do some editing. Here is the before and after of the photos I showed of Jordan yesterday:
As you can tell, there’s a difference. :) You can always change your White Balance to something like Tungsten and it will remove yellow and add blue, BUT, when the spotlight is on, then you’ll have a blue photo and it often seems to get more blown out. So I just prefer to keep the White Balance set to Auto and make changes to it later. I will have to save what I do to edit stage photos for another post. This one’s getting long as it is. :)
Okay, so I think that’s all I can think of at the moment. If I think of more to add about stage photography, I will add it here in this post. And like I said, I am not a photo expert, this is just what I’ve found to work for me. If anyone would like to add their two cents, it would be most welcome!