I've decided to write down a few tips for theatre photography. I remember googling 'theatre photography guide' or 'photographing performances' and so on when I first started doing it, and having worked at it for a while I realise that what little advice I had found out there was not all helpful. This article aims to address some of the very basic stuff I've worked out as I've been going along - and I've got a lot of bad material to use as examples. I'm sure there's plenty I still have to learn, but I hope what I know will turn out to be useful to people just starting out taking photos of performances - or for performers who want to document their work and have access to the equipment, but aren't quite sure what to do with it.
Theatre lighting is often not very bright, and this is one of the main challenges - especially working with low budget equipment. You will need to be able to take the ISO on your camera up quite high, and this is often either impossible or results in a lot of noise on point and shoot cameras, and even low end dslrs. There are things you can do in post to improve things, which we'll discuss later, but the better sensor you've got, the easier things are going to be.
I generally use prime lenses for photographing theatre. This can be restrictive in some ways - you have to move about a lot more to frame things well - and you have to fiddle about in the dark changing lenses unless you've got a second camera body. This is fine if you're shooting the dress rehearsal, but might be impossible in a show. I would always shoot a dress rehearsal if possible. Primes give you the ability to shoot at a much wider aperture than you could, even on the most expensive zoom, meaning you can afford not to take your ISO so high, or your shutter speed so fast.
This photo (of me) was taken by a friend using a 550D and a kit lens at 18mm. ISO 3200, wide open at f3.5 and shutter speed 1/80. I'm showing this because even with the best will in the world, using a basic dslr and good manual settings, trying to photograph someone moving about quickly in extremely low light from a restricted position is very difficult! Taking the ISO higher on the 550D would look horrible, the aperture doesn't go any wider on that lens. The shutter speed could be slower as the subject is still at that moment, but in a performance with a lot of movement you wouldn't want to go much slower.
This photo (of me again) is taken on a 60D at ISO 1600, with the cheap 50mm at f1.8 (widest) - and the shutter speed at 1/4 of a second. The equipment is up to the job, but the camera is on aperture priority mode and auto ISO - it's guessing shutter speeds and ISO to expose the whole scene properly. It's actually turned out to be exposed quite well, and it's a shame the performers won't stay still for longer. This is by far the most common thing I see in theatre photography. A camera left to its own devices in low light will almost always choose a shutter speed too slow to capture moving subjects. In this case it's also too slow to hand hold a dslr with a mirror moving around.
This photo (Simonetta Alessandri and Robert Anderson) was taken at ISO 100, f5 with a 1 second exposure, with the camera balanced on something (you could use a monopod or a tripod - I think I'm just using the seating.) It gives a very particular feeling of movement to the image - the subjects are blurry where they're moving and the background is solid. It allows you to get a nice non-grainy exposure of the stage, and to show the movement of the performers. Anywhere slower than around 1/30 will get you something like this. It is one way of getting round the limitations of your ISO and aperture. However, I have seen photo sets of performances where every single image is like this.
At around 1/30 you can try shooting when the performers pause, and you might get lucky and catch something sharp. This one is taken on a 28mm at f1.8, ISO 2000 with a shutter speed of 1/25 (a friend using my camera on P mode I think) performers are Mao-kang Chen and Riham Isaac. This is in the middle of a burst of about 10 frames - this is the only one where their faces are not motion blurred. You still need a steady hand or a monopod at that speed. It can work, but it's not very efficient. If you want to catch a particular moment, the likelihood of it being sharp is very small.
Most of the time, you'll get something like this (on the right). In my experience the biggest problem seems to be an acceptance of motion blurred faces as normal. Some of the photographers doing fringe and graduate shows seem to work a lot at slow shutter speeds, and just hope for a few frames where the performers are either still enough to be sharp-ish, or fast and dynamic enough for it to look intentionally 'artistic'. Often the shutter speed is a compromise and neither quite works.
Modes vs. Manual
When I was just starting out, I nearly always shot in shutter priority or aperture priority. Both of them resulted in overexposed performers - at least in shutter priority they weren't blurry, but aperture priority would give me blurry and overexposed people. Of course, if you just put your camera in shutter priority you then only have to worry about adjusting the speed to the type of performance/type of shot you want, right? But cameras are not necessarily good at evaluating exposure for theatrical lighting. A lot of the time you will have a brightly lit performer on a dark background. They could even be pale and blonde and wearing a white dress in a spotlight in a black box studio. And then the lights will change to something more general and any compensation you might have dialed in will completely underexpose everything. You can try spot metering, assuming you can set that, focus and recompose before they move - or that you're happy to have the performer dead center in every shot.
But actually it's much easier to shoot in manual. I mean this for everyone - even if you're just an amateur performer or director borrowing a camera to take photos of your show - don't be afraid to use it in fully manual mode. This is because the variation in the brightness of lights in one show is not as big as it might seem. Once you have your exposure set for a lighting state you can be sure of getting consistent results. Take a moment, perhaps during the tech, to set the camera for the lights - shoot a frame and check how it turned out. Adjust and check it again. Put the aperture as wide as it will go - that's the smallest number (assuming light is low enough to be a problem). Depending on the type of show you'll want to put the shutter between about 1/60 (for static, talking heads reciting the works of dead Russians) and 1/200 (Dance, physical theatre etc.). Pick whatever ISO gives you a good exposure - probably at least 800. If you're having to go to your camera's highest ISO setting, even at 1/60 and your widest aperture, then it might be worth considering requesting the lights be turned up for you (yes, it might be possible!). Otherwise it's a choice between whether you want grainy or blurry. If you're still badly underexposed I'd always go for grainy - at least you can do something about it in image editing software. This image of Anita Ratnam is taken at ISO 5000 with a 50mm 1.8 on a 60D at 1/160 of a second. It's a bit grainy with the ISO that high on the 60D, but some basic noise reduction in lightroom means it's just about acceptable. A very easy 'fix' for horribly grainy images is simply to turn them black and white. It looks more like an intentional film grain effect - you can even play this up with other effects (not necessarily condoning this! But you might get away with it)
When the lighting changes, shoot a frame and check the RGB histogram on the back of your camera if you can (sometimes even highlight alert won't show a clipped red channel for example). Make sure you're not overexposing any channels. If you are, take the ISO down first. If people are blurring too much, speed up the shutter.
I hardly ever shoot a grey card or worry about white balance on the day (I leave it set to daylight). I shoot RAW and adjust it after the fact. Theatre will involve a lot of coloured light. That's an integral part of it and someone was paid to do it and might be offended if you attempt to neutralise it. You want your images to record the light so that your photos look like what you saw with your eyes. White balancing so that white costumes look white will not necessarily be the right thing to reflect this. Daylight usually comes close. I would select all images from one show and adjust the white balance by eye afterwards in lightroom, syncing it to all images from the show to that balance - looking at various different images from different lighting states to make sure they all look like what I saw.
This would solve all our problems, right? I once photographed a show, Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, alongside another photographer. We were shooting the dress rehearsal. He used the pop up flash on his dslr for every shot. Not only is this the most incredibly distracting thing to have going off for your whole dress rehearsal as an actor, it makes every shot look like it was taken in a nightclub at 2am. Even forgetting that it's the most flat and ugly angle for the light, you are completely messing up the lighting designer's work by doing it. I'm afraid I wasn't able to get any of his shots for a direct comparison, but I have a shot someone took of a performance I was in using an onboard flash. This was taken in a very dark atmospheric church with a blue watery light created by an old style OHP going through a big water cooler bottle. The two dancers pictured were in near darkness wearing blue LED torches on the arms and legs. The flash creates a completely different picture that looks nothing like the performance did.
I have nothing against the use of flash in general - in fact I do all my best work outside the theatre with flashes. I would love to go round and strap a gelled speedlight with a radio trigger to each theatre light so I could boost the power while retaining the lighting design. I've never found an occasion where it's been technically feasible, never mind convincing the performers to put up with it.
That's all I can think of for now - I'm sure I'll be coming back to this to make more sense of it soon.