Theatre photography tips! What are the best theatre photography camera settings? What’s the best method to capture the performance? How do you avoid overexposing your subjects under stage lighting? Welcome to my post on theatre photography tips!
The stage is set. The actors have finished rehearsing their lines. The stagehands are busy with last minute checks of the stage lighting and adjusting the sound, and there you are – the photographer. Standing quietly in a dark corner of the room with a sense of anticipation. Your camera resting in your hands, your thumb reassuringly rolling over the aperture dial while you wait for the theatre to come alive. The calm before the storm.
Once the audience begins to file in, you know it’s game time. From here on in, you need to be silent. Invisible.
1. Theatre Photography Tips: Take The Black
- Wearing dark clothing or “blacks” as they are known in theatre is a very simple way to blend in and reduce the risk of distracting the audience, and the artists. Black shoes or trainers, black trousers, and a plain black tshirt. Simple!
Excuse the Game Of Thrones reference but “taking the black” is something that’s often overlooked as a theatre photographer because what you are wearing may affect your performance!
During my first few experiences of working as a theatre photographer I made the obvious choice and wear “smart casual” to suit the tone of the performances. You want to make a good impression after all! However after some time spent getting down to work and taking pictures, I would sometimes notice “catching the eye” of the audience? Even the actors themselves!?
Perhaps my shirt was a little too brightly coloured? Or my Converse trainers were too distracting? You see, “being invisible” not only to the actors, but also the audience is paramount as a theatre photographer. You need to blend in with the surroundings and work from the shadows.
The last thing you want is to be walking through a seated audience snapping pictures of the stage whilst wearing a loudly coloured Hawaiian shirt and squeaky fluorescent sneakers! You will soon have “heads turning” looking at you, and you really don’t want that. From my own experience, you need to exist silently in the shadows, and draw absolutely no attention to yourself. Make your life easier by wearing dark, discrete coloured clothing.
2. Theatre Photography Tips: Silent Feet
- Wear quiet shoes. Trying to move discretely around the theatre in hard-soled shoes or steel capped heels will draw every eye, and also annoy everyone.
Often overlooked, but some theatres may not boast thick carpets to absorb your footfalls as you move around taking pictures.
Wear comfortable quiet shoes that let you glide through the shadows like a photographic ninja.
3. Theatre Photography Tips: Focus Light
- Turn that focus light off! The last thing the actors want to see every time you take a photo is the focus light in their faces!
Learnt from my own mistake! After a short time taking pictures of a performance, I quickly realised why the actors were “noticing” my photos being taken – the damn focus “auto-assist” light was shining each time! Turn it off to avoid distracting the subjects.
4. Theatre Photography Tips: Noisy Shutters
- Try and use the onstage sounds to mask your shutter sounds.
Following on from blending into the shadows, it quickly becomes apparent that during a very quiet moment of the performance, the only sound you can hear in the theatre is your camera shutter “opening and closing” as you take a shot. Eek!
Unfortunately DSLR cameras do make a noises when you press the shutter button. Now any other time, the shutter button is a very satisfying sound.
The shutter sound is something we photographers love to go all “nerdy” over and it’s one of the things we look forward to when we buy a new camera! “What kind of sound does it make!?”
But alas, you’re in a theatre! The actors are performing a very dramatic scene which really needs to be captured, but there are long moments of silence between lines!? Usually during a performance, you may have music or enough “sound” coming from the stage, to mask the sound of your camera shutter doing it’s thing. However, during these very dramatic scenes, you have be clever and “time” your photos.
It’s always a great shot when one actor is shouting or talking to another during a heated scene. These are the moments I look out for and try to photograph. The sound “on-stage” will usually mask the sound of your camera, and you’ll also get those powerful “heated argument” shots! Be clever and time your photos so not to detract from the power of the performance taking place.
5. Theatre Photography Tips: The Right Lens
- I usually stick to using prime lenses during theatre photography as they are super sharp, affordable, and usually come with a decent wide aperture to let in as much light as possible.
Using the right lens for the right job is Photography 101. Working under stage lighting usually means there’s very little light to work in your favour, so you’ll need a decent quality camera fronted by a fast lens!
My preferred eyes at the moment are the Nikkor 50mm f1.8 D, and my Nikkor 85mm F1.8G. The 50mm lens is my trusty companion but often now relegated behind the newer, better quality 85mm.
Why prime lenses?
I stick to primes because they’re so easy to use, and the quality and clarity of images you get with a prime is unrivalled compared to zooms of a similar price. A prime lens simply has less mechanics inside so it’s cheaper to make, however this lower price does not translate to a reduction of image quality!
The general understanding is that prime lenses produce super sharp images, and have the benefit of wide “usable” apertures.
Does it cause issues not having a zoom when shooting theatre photography?
I was nervous at first about not having a zoom lens to shoot theatre. I can see the advantages of being able to “get closer” to your subjects without moving, and not risk making noise or bringing attention to yourself.
However now, I like to move around the room! I like having to silently “get into position” for the shot, and it’s very satisfying when your efforts pay off with that one perfect image.
Recently I photographed a dress rehearsal, and was sitting on the floor with my legs crossed in amongst the side stage curtains, only a few feet away from the actors. Because of a lack of zoom I had to really “lean back” and after a while, I started to get cramp, and yeah it hurt! However I managed to wait long enough to capture the following shot:
Could I have achieved the same shot any easier with a zoom lens? Possibly! However I think zoom lenses can make you too dependant on the tech, and you begin to “rely” on the zoom rather than get down onto the floor and get your hands dirty for a better shot.
I also think using primes teaches you better framing, as you’re more conscious of “moving into position” rather than “zooming in” and taking the content for granted.
Another big factor to why I like primes is the price. Prime lenses offer affordable superior image quality. A zoom lens of similar image capability could cost up to 3 times more.
Now I am presently on the market for a new lens which just so happens to be a zoom. It’s the Nikkor 24mm-75mm F2.8G, which is rated as one of the best “all round” lenses you can buy, with crystal clear picture quality to rival any prime lens.
Would using this lens change my shooting behaviour when shooting in a theatre? I hope not! Using prime lenses has taught me the benefit of moving around the room to achieve the best viewpoints. Think of using primes as learning to play guitar with an acoustic first, before jumping onto a flashy electric guitar!
6. Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed
- Before the audience files in, there’s usually time to take a few test shots of the stage area to find a decent benchmark setting to shoot with. I tend to shoot in Manual Mode.
Working in Manual mode is better I feel, compared to letting the camera to decide exposure. If you accidentally focus off a subjects face to a dark area, the image exposure will be very bright and drown out the subject!
Set your aperture low to let enough light in, and your ISO “as low as possible” to avoid image noise. Finding a good balance between Aperture and ISO will allow your shutter to work fast enough to capture the action without blur. Did you get that!? Lets break it down for you!
7. Theatre Photography Tips: Aperture
- Assuming your lens is capable, try and hover around F2.8.
Most lenses have a wide aperture “focus sweet spot” where the image is at its sharpest. Even though the aperture on my 50mm opens up to F1.8, I wouldn’t feel confident of the image sharpness as the lens tends produce crisper images at F2.8.
If the lighting on stage is favourable, then try closing up the aperture to F3.5 or higher! This will allow you to get even more detail in your photos, and be very useful when you have a group of people in one scene and want as much in focus as possible.
There is a danger that closing your aperture will darken the exposure, but you can control this by adjusting your shutter speed. I’ll talk more about this in a moment!
At F1.8 on most lenses, the edges can be a bit “fuzzy”. Plus you’re also giving yourself a very narrow plane of focus to capture the detail of the onstage, as trying to focus onto a moving subjects eyes with F1.8 is quite tricky! I often leave those “experimental shots” right to the end when I’ve already got enough keepers.
8. Theatre Photography Tips: ISO
- Use “Auto ISO” and set a maximum of 1600.
ISO is something you don’t really have to think about. I simply set it to “Auto ISO” with a maximum setting of 1600, and then let the camera decide which is best for each shot.
9. Theatre Photography Tips: Shutter Speed
- Constantly check and adjust your shutter speed to suit the lighting on stage.
Get your thumb used to that shutter speed dial! This is the one exposure control setting I’m always adjusting. With a base aperture set, and the ISO doing it’s thing, the Shutter Speed will need to change as the actors move around the stage, and are exposed to the different intensities of stage lighting.
In order to keep the action crisp and sharp, you want to be using a shutter speed around 1/125sc or above. Anything lower and you’ll risk getting image blur!
If you take a photo and the subjects face is a little bright on review, then simply slide your shutter speed a little higher say from 1/125sc to 1/160sc and take another shot. The quicker exposure will let less light in, and hopefully put a more controlled amount of light on the subject. If you think you can go a little higher on the shutter speed then try it! This will only ensure you get a sharp image by freezing the action.
10. Theatre Photography Tips: Use The Stage
- Use the stage environment and lighting in your images.
Finally! With your attention focussed on the subjects, make sure you incorporate the stage itself into the shot. Even when working a minimalistic script reading, I try to bring the stage chairs and lighting in to provide a “setting”.
Thank you for reading this post on theatre photography tips! Please feel free to comment and share! The photos on this page were taken at the LPAC Theatre in Lincoln, during several Script This Lincoln events.