Robin’s tips for photographing theatre

I have shared some tips on Concert Photography quite recently (which can be found here) but I have also recently dipped my toes into theater photography. Live plays and theaters share many similarities with musicals and concerts and they are often presented in a mixed genre for increased dramatic and production quality. However, I have also been to a few theater shows that are almost entirely different and require a different set of shooting rules and photography considerations in comparison to traditional concert photography. In this article I explore the importance of playing by the house rules and at the same time finding ways to optimize camera settings to get the best out of a given situation. Special thanks to Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Center (KLPAC) for the opportunity to shoot the dress rehearsal for their recent theater play titled “The Ring of Nibelung”.

In most theater plays that I have been to, the audio level from the loudspeakers were a lot lower in volume in comparison to music concerts that blast deafening tones and rumbling bass notes. There were also exceptions when no microphones or loudspeakers were used and the actors had to use their voice in an acoustically optimized stage to deliver their lines. In such environments, pin-drop silence from the audience is extremely crucial. Using a traditional mirror thumping DLSR that “clacks” loudly is a huge deterrent in this situation and has become the main reason why sometimes photography is banned completely from theaters. Therefore, it is always prudent to seek permission from the organizers to shoot their show to prevent any possible issues. A better idea would be to ask for a special pass to shoot the dress rehearsal instead, and not interrupting the actual performances.

In order to shoot as unobstructively as possible, I enable certain features and settings on the camera to help me with my shooting. I have turned off the autofocus confirmation “beeps” which are not typically loud but can turn heads in a dead silent hall. I also use the electronic shutter option to allow the camera to operate in complete silence. If you are using a DSLR, there are options in newer generation cameras to shoot using silent shutter that negates the movement of mirrors and shutters. If you are shooting with a mirrorless camera, bear in mind that the shutter is a mechanical device which can still cause slight audible sound. Turn the camera completely silent if possible, and if you do not have a complete electronic shutter option, try borrowing a camera from a friend that has one. Respecting house rules is paramount in maintaining a good working relationship with the production organizers.

Another possible source of sound is motorized lenses. Older lenses have louder, clunkier and very loud motors to drive the glass elements in the lens. Avoid using such lenses – rent or borrow newer, more silent lenses.

Besides sound, lights are completely turned off at the seating areas. Using live view in this setting can cause nuisance to other patrons. For most mirrorless cameras with built in electronic viewfinders, you have the option to compose and fully review your shots in EVF, without ever switching on the LCD screen. If you absolutely must use the LCD screen, have the courtesy to dim the brightness to minimize annoyance to those sitting around you. Furthermore, if your camera has the autofocus assist light that helps focusing in dim situations, you must turn it off. In fact, I turn off the AF assist light by default as I find most cameras these days can autofocus at very low light with no issues.

If you are the official photographer, or the only photographer around during the dress rehearsal (which is unlikely), you have the freedom and authority to move around with next to no restrictions. That is not the case if you are shooting as a guest. Therefore, it is imperative to mind your movements and avoid blocking the line of sight of other videographers or the house photographers. Always be aware of your surroundings and not try not to move too much. If you absolutely must change positions, stay as low as possible while you move around and find the least obtrusive pathways to get to where you want to go. There is no point butting heads with the other photographers or videographers, they need to do their jobs.

While these restrictions and rules may seem troublesome and irritating, they are necessary for a smooth and successful theater performance. Always be respectful to people no matter where you are and what you shoot, and doors will open for you.

In terms of technical execution, I generally like to use prime lenses for my Micro Four Thirds setup. I primarily used the M.Zuiko 45mm F1.8 on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II for all the shots shown in this article. Since it was a dress rehearsal I was allowed to move freely and for wider shots all I needed to do was to step backwards. Having a wide open aperture of F1.8 helped greatly in keeping the ISO numbers as low as possible, ensuring cleaner outputs. The colors seen on these shots were straight out of the camera with only minor white balance adjustments to produce better looking skin tones. The color balance was maintained and due to good stage lighting and there was not much work required in post-processing. I did however needed to bump the ISO up to 3200 and in some cases 6400 to achieve sufficient shutter speed to freeze motion. I would rather have a shot that is slightly grainy but sharp than a blurry mess with no noise. The moment matters more than noise in photography, always.

Here are some more quick tips which I used in shooting this particular play. I completely disabled the image playback preview to maximize the camera operational speed. This allowed me to continuously shoot without chimping. I still do review my shots whenever I can (when there’s nothing important happening on stage). I always kept my eyes glued to the main action on stage and was ready to jump on the shutter button once I anticipated that something was going to happen. I was prepared with abundant storage (I had 4 x 64GB SD cards with me) though I was only shooting with a 20MP camera. If you shoot with higher MP cameras make sure your shooting capabilities are not limited by your storage capacity. If you do change lenses a lot, I suggest that you find a way to differentiate them easily. Changing lenses can be cumbersome in total darkness, but mark them with something visible and you will thank me later.

I hope you found something useful to integrate into your own shooting when it comes to theater performances. With an open mind, there are countless photography opportunities and it can be extremely fun to shoot something so dramatic, colorful and sometimes emotionally impactful at the same time. If you have more tips or tricks to share, feel free to add it in the comments below. After all, we are all here to shoot and grow in photography!

The Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2, 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8 lenses are available from B&H
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is available from B&H

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Arefuddin Ahmed says:

    Dear Robin Wong I am overwhelmed by your excellent write up and brilliant images. You are very right that the shutter sound of DSLRs can be very awkward and even some instances very annoying depending on the ambient sound in the hall. Thus I fully agree with you that the mirrorless cameras with electronic shutter and EVF is the way to go to capture images in theater or any other cultural or professional programmes. I started this kind endeavor with Canon DSLR with 70–200 f2.8 initially, but completely switched to Olympus MFT bodies using electronic shutter for last few years for this purpose.
    The MZuiko 45mm f1.8 is really a precious gem. I also use it for capturing images in cultural performances. However I feel EM1 MkII paired with MZuiko 40-150mm f2.8 can be of great advantage in avoiding excessive movement that can also cause annoyance in certain high profile situation. Recently I used this zoom to cover dance performance of Datuk Ramli Ibrahim (with his kind permission) and his troupe at our university auditorium from the audience sit without disturbing anybody. I also had a great experience with MZuiko 75mm f1.8 lens and some very interesting experience with MZuiko 300mm f4 for portraits delegates during their talks in a medical conference using higher ISO.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Arefuddin. And whoah, I think your collection of Micro Four Thirds lenses is complete! With 40-150mm F2.8, 300mm F4 and 75mm F1.8, you can almost do anything for stage performance shooting! I agree that the 40-150mm is a great lens to have, and the tele converter helps a lot too in adding reach without sacrificing weight and camera space.

      • Arefuddin Ahmed says:

        You are most welcome Robin. Yes I used the 1.4x converter with 40-150 f2.8 for a couple of time for stage performance. But mostly I use it in shooting nature and macro and nowadays it is constantly fitted with 300mm f4 for bird photography.

  2. Carlos PAturzo says:

    Dear Robin:
    Thank you very much for your work. The reading is very pleasant and enjoyable.
    I have worked in theater photography for many years and I agree almost in all the points that you exposed.
    Let me tell you a little anecdote. I was taking photographs for a work that would be released a few days later and was a time of general rehearsals. In a talk between the general director and the director of lights, they discussed the convenience of putting this or that gelatin (colored papers that precede the light reflectors) to accentuate the dramatic tone of the scene. I kept listening, and there I discovered that the tonalities that are sought (sometimes obsessively) have a reason. And from that moment, I never touched the white balance of the camera again. What took me the most work was precisely the white balance. And it was the least I had to alter! All right. I hope I did not bother. A great greeting from Argentina. Thanks again for your teachings.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Carlos for sharing that maintaining the original colors is important as the light and color coordination were as intended by the theater production! Very good point indeed to keep in mind.

  3. Great work!
    I shoot some theater but not as much as I used to and note that an EVF would have been a Godsend for me.
    A regular DSLR leaves you guessing a fair degree even though one has tested and checks to see what changes are happening.
    As for higher ISO, I have found that good exposure looks great and the mid to highlight ranges show almost no noise. The real problem is when you underexpose high ISO images and have to push them even a small amount, noise will be much more apparent.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Mark. My thoughts are similar, I will never underexpose my shots if there are dominant dark regions in the frame. To keep the shadow area clean and manage high ISO noise, it is always better to slightly overexpose the image.

  4. Hi Robin, your exposures are dead on. Very good work!
    I don’t know about the EM1, but the photos of my Pen F are not tolerant of overexposure. Do you try to err on the underexposure side in this situations?

    • Robin Wong says:

      A little over exposure is ok, keeping ISO numbers down (below 1600) you can still get good highlight recovery from your RAW files during post processing. Of course do not overexpose over 2 stops (instead try not to overexpose over 1 stop for Micro Four Thirds shooting). I still keep my images slightly overexposed to minimize noise in the shadow regions.

  5. Helpful outline of a good approach. I concur with the comments on exposing for the highlights – which often means dropping exposure compensation. One potential issue with new generation LED lighting – using electronic shutter can result in banding on images. Have you noticed this?

    • Robin Wong says:

      Hey Vic, I only encounter the banding issues shooting using electronic shutter on E-M1 Mark II when dealing with extremely fast shutter speeds. Most of the time, keeping shutter speeds around 1/100-1/200 sec zone, the banding almost never appeared.

  6. Gary W Wilson says:

    Superb images and looks like a new take on a classic opera

  7. Terriffic images btw !!!!

  8. I alweys find it difficult to get the exposure right in such situations. Are there any recomendations you can give? Obviously lighting can vary considerably and the required dynamic range is tremendous.

    • Hi Knut. I think there are three ways to cope with the difficult lighting situation.
      First if the light is constant and not changing too much, just set everything manual and just correct a little when needed.
      Second way to cope with it is setting your aperture and shutter while using Auto-Iso. Than just use the exposure Compensation wheel. It is not overly precise but can react very quick when the light is changing fast.
      Third you can use the Spot Metering combined with the AF Point on the faces combined with a litte compensation on the plus side.
      Always use RAW of course.
      The dynamic range of modern cameras is quite impressive. But more important is to care for the brightest spots.
      Remember it is Theater so the light is mostly dramatic with deep shadows. So use this for your pictures and don’t try to bring up every detail in the shadows.
      Like Robin did just expose for the important parts of the scene, the faces, and understand that there is always more contrast on the stage than you camera can handle.

      • Robin Wong says:

        Hey Ingo,
        There are many ways to get the results as long as you are comfortable with your own approach and that can get you the images that you intended, then it should be okay.
        I am not comfortable using spot metering as I have to constantly be aware of the exposure at particular “spots”, which was troublesome for me, as I needed to be more focused on the actions and moments happening on stage. Nonetheless, if spot metering works for anyone else, then by all means use it.
        You are right about the last bit, I only care about certain regions within a frame, it is not wise to take care of too many things in such fast paced shooting.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Knut, I took advantage of the “what you see if what you get” live preview on the EVF. I can actually see the final image on the EVF before the image was shot, so if the image was underexposed or overexposed I will dial the exposure compensation until I get the exposure that I wanted. I was shooting mostly in Aperture Priority mode for this session. I generally made sure my images were well exposed, minimizing exposure tweaks during post processing. The lighting did change often enough so shooting Aperture Priority was a good solution.

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