For the past several years, I’ve had the honor of working with the New Vintage Theater ensemble, beginning with “Pride & Prejudice” and continuing through several smaller shows until, most recently, their second mainstage production of “Hamlet,” for which I did two promotional photo sessions.
Last Thursday night I covered their final dress rehearsal before opening night, in order to capture images that could be used both for last-minute promotion, as well as shared with the actors and retained as part of the ensemble’s visual history (more on the importance of that another time!).
Photographing theater performances is really a mixed bag. On the one hand it’s a lot of fun, and I find that viewing it through the lens really focuses me, and helps me enjoy it as a more immersive experience.
On the other hand, it’s hard work. The very things that make performances visually interesting – action, dramatic lighting, changing effects – can also make it challenging to capture.
Most of all it comes down to lighting. (In photography, doesn’t it always?) Let’s start by agreeing that nobody does lighting better than theater, because that’s where it all started. Before Hollywood, before photography, it was theater who brought lighting to an art form and wrote the book on how to use it to convey drama, emotion, and setting.
Unfortunately what looks great to the eye doesn’t always translate well to the camera, and that was especially true for “Hamlet,” where the stage lighting is both dim and strongly colored. The stage lighting is gelled to a deep yellow/gold color, accented with purple/magenta. If you remember your grade school art classes, you may remember that purple and yellow are opposite each other on the color wheel, and are therefore great contrasting colors that look awesome against each other.
The problem is with our perception – our brains are wired to adapt to lighting conditions, and filter down the intensity of the color to establish a new “normal” color temperature. So to us, the gold still looks warm and golden, but it’s been tempered by our brains. The camera doesn’t have this ability, and as a result photos taken in that golden light come out GOLD. They’re too saturated and too far from “normal,” to look good.
As I was setting up before the rehearsal, I tried several white balance settings on the camera before settling on the incandescent setting, which downplayed the warm tones a little, but not enough. The biggest thing, to me, was consistency – auto white balance would have varied the color temperature from shot to shot and I’d rather have all my shots start at the same baseline with a fixed white balance.
The other big issue is the strength of the light. As a photographer I’m used to throwing up some speedlights and tuning the lighting to the camera. It’s no surprise that the camera sees things a LOT different than the human eye.
Our eyes are really amazing, with better optics and light-gathering ability than any camera/lens combination in existence. To us, the stage lighting looks properly dark and moody, but when the actors hit their marks under the light they’re in pools where we can easily see them. For “Hamlet,” the theatrical lighting that worked for the audience translated to 3 stops underexposed at my ideal settings.
The solution? Use less-than-ideal settings. I cranked the ISO to 1600, which is as high as I like to take it. I was using the Lumix 35-100mm wide-open at f/2.8, and my shutter speed was most often at 1/60, although for some scenes with bright lighting it crept up to 1/100. And really, in post I ended up bumping up the exposure on most of the shots. But with the telephoto lens, even with the IBIS, 1/60 is about the slowest I can go and still get consistently sharp hand-held photos – nevermind that the actors themselves are often in motion, and motion will blur at 1/60.
Which brings me to my final point, metering. It’s a crapshoot. For a dark, moody show like “Hamlet,” using evaluative metering will read all that darkness and try to correct for it. Center-weighted doesn’t do much better, and at least for my camera, spot metering doesn’t follow the active AF point so is of limited use. But what the hell, you don’t really need it anyway. I find it works better to take some educated guesses and then use the histogram to chimp you way to the right exposure settings.
My final settings gave me a fairly consistent exposure reading of -1.7. When that would start to move closer to 0, I knew that the scene was brighter and I’d speed up the shutter a bit. Now, could I have put the camera in Av mode and dialed in the exposure compensation for -1.7 and let it make adjustments from there? Sure. And some photographers might prefer that method. I like shooting in manual, and I didn’t want my shutter speed falling any lower than the already-troublesome 1/60th.
So shooting theater performances can be difficult. But there’s a flip side, and that’s the awesome part that makes it all worthwhile.
There are GREAT shots to be had. If you remain alert and keep locked onto the action as the story develops, you can get some moments that make absolutely killer shots. And the best way to do this, hands down no-question, is to get access to a dress rehearsal.
I’m not saying you can’t shoot during a live performance – I’ve done it a number of times – but a dress rehearsal is definitely ideal. The New Vintage Ensemble has done several smaller, interactive shows over the years, where I’m able to move freely about the performance space and shoot from wherever I like. That makes it easier, although you still have to be aware and courteous of the paying audience. For a regular, mainstage performance you lose that freedom and are usually stuffed into some tight spot off to a side or in the back, shooting with a telephoto and unable to move at all.
Dress rehearsals equal freedom. Sometimes there may be other folks there as well, friends or family, or the odd VIP. But in general I’m able to move wherever I want, whenever I want, without restriction. During “Hamlet,” I spent the entire night moving back and forth across the center aisles, up into the wings, right to the edge of the stage, whatever it took to get the shot I wanted. And that’s where the ability to make the best photos comes from.
You can cover a show from a tripod in a fixed spot in the nosebleed section, and maybe even get some good stuff. But you’re going to get much, much better photos if you can be moving around within spitting distance of the actors themselves.
I want to leave you with one final thought. Photography is more than just capturing moments or clicking snapshots. It’s a window into other worlds, and has an amazing ability to draw you in, as an artist, while exposing you to situations you’d probably never experience otherwise. I’m really not the biggest fan of theater – I don’t have any desire to sit through a Broadway show. By the same token, I’ve never liked sports. But getting to sit under the net and shoot a basketball game, or rush between empty rows to capture the action during a dress rehearsal – both are a hell of a lot of fun! The camera lets you in, and I’ve always find that I leave with much more than just photos.