written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom•updated: 6/28/2011
Theater is a difficult location to get great photos because of your lack of control, but the colorful nature and great energy makes the images priceless. Here is a look at how to take photos of live theater with an idea to the unique presentation and the need to avoid interference.
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Pull the Curtain
Live theater continues to be a staple of the entertainment world. It is a form that has lasted through the years of technological advances because of the energy of working live, the ability for the audience to be in the same room as the actors, and the depth that theater allows all those involved. Theater is meant to be seen live, so it is important to get great still photos so that you can promote, give a record of, and capture moments from a great stage production. Here is a look at how to do great theater photography that takes advantage of this unique situation.
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One of the primary difficulties of working with still images in the theater is stage photography needs lighting that may or may not be supported by the production itself. It should go without saying that the primary element of live theater photography is to ensure that you are not interfering with the production in any way, and any kind of photographer controlled light or flash is out of the question. Instead, you have to conform to the actual theater’s stage lights for your photography. There are worse situations a photographer could be in as stage lighting tends to be sharp, dramatic, and designed to illuminate the actors at important moments.
The way that the photographer needs to approach this is by knowing the play well ahead of time. This does not just mean the storyline and progression for the actors, but really the stage choreography. What this does is allows you to know what actor will be where and at what time, so that you can prepare yourself to take photos at pristine moments when the theater stage lighting happens to be perfect on an actor. This is almost always the case with the best stage lighting that you find, as it is caught in the middle of the production, and at a time when the light is intended to hit the actor perfectly. This actually means that your timing has to be superb, so it is important that the photographer is there for all of the rehearsals that include the technical part of the production. This will also be important since the first promotional stills will likely be from the dress rehearsals and not from a production since they will need photos to go out before an actual live performance has taken place.
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Movement and Shutter Speed
Just as you have to approach the theater’s stage photography for lighting, you will need to approach the movement of the actors. You cannot interfere at any point, so you will need to really enhance your ability by making yourself completely mobile at all times. This means that you need to bring up the shutter speed a little bit, but not so much that it darkens the image dramatically. The assumption is that you would be starting at a 1/60 shutter speed so that you could remain mobile, but you may want to actually go double that. You are going to have to try this out, but you may want to go upward of 1/180 just to ensure that you are not going to get any motion blur. Do not go much above that unless there is overwhelming light as they are usually saved for outdoor photography of fast moving objects.
Though there should be sufficient light on the actors, you do not have any control over it so you need to make sure that you do not set your shutter speed so high that you have to alter your aperture and change from an optimum depth of field. The best way to do this is to decide what shutter speed you will need at different light points when you are rehearsing.
You will also only have a couple different locations that you will be able to work from. You will be primarily relegated to the sides of the stage, which is going to definitely limit your options. If you want close up images and other angles you will only be able to do this in rehearsal and never during a live production.
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Lens and Position
The lens choice is going to be important depending on exactly what you are working with. If you are able to interfere during rehearsals, you can treat the situation in a similar way to fashion photography - especially since studio lighting will be present and stage makeup will already be applied. When you are shooting the live theater you are going to need work with a long, possibly even telephoto, lens. In general, you will have to work as far away as you possibly can, and with your zoom you will end up costing your image stability.
The real answer to this is the ability to switch lenses based on your best theater photography points, which are dictated by the moments of perfect theater stage lighting. If you have a situation where you want to capture an image that is close to your starting position and then far away without the ability to change locations you will want to be able to alternate between shorter and telephoto lenses. When you are working on the telephoto lens you will want to bring up your shutter speed even higher, though this may render your image too dark to be usable. The best option will simply be to stick to photography positions that are close to you, then switch positions and again just take photos of the actors at close points.