Shooting for Theatre

So, we have talked through some of the basic concepts in photography as well as the gear that you will need. Now we will get on to what everyone probably really wants to know about which is how to get good shots of your productions. One of the best things that you can do for yourself is see the show before you have to shoot it. This way you will have an idea of what the show entails.

Please note: If you are shooting photos in a theatre that uses actors who are members of the Actors Equity Association (AEA) then you need to make sure that you follow any guidelines set out by the union for when you take photos and how they are used.


Photo Calls

By far the best way to get good shot photographs is to schedule a photo call. A photo call is a time outside of performances and rehearsals where to stage scenes on the set in costume and the cast just holds their positions. This allows the photographer to set up ideal settings for a shot which may include slow shutter speeds. It also give the photographer a chance to actually have the time to find those ideal settings. Ideally, before a photo call the director, stage manager, photographer and designers collaborate on what scenes or setups need to be documented. A shot list is created that generally runs backwards, from the end of the show to the beginning to make costume and scene changes easier.

As a photo call is generally a lower pressure situation for the photographer it gives you time to adjust settings like white balance and light metering without missing the moment. When you are setting up a shot you can take a bunch of test exposures to find the ideal setup. While you do this, make sure that you communicate with the cast and the stage manager so that they know what you are doing. There is no reason to make the cast hold a pose while you set up your shot. If you need people to be in a certain position while you set up your shot, ask. Also, there is no reason why you can’t move actors around from where they would normally be in the scene. If compositionally it makes more sense to shuffle the actors around a little, you can ask them to do that, especially if it help you see everyone that is supposed to be in the shot.

A scheduled photo call also gives you the opportunity to shoot from different locations and find interesting angles. You can shoot from the middle of the house or the front of the loge. If you find a cool angle from one of the wings, this is a time that you can get that shot as well. During a scheduled call you can also ask to adjust the lighting to balance the dynamic range for your photos. This way you won’t “blow out” the actress in the spotlight when trying to capture an entire scene.

One thing to keep in mind during a scheduled photo call is that you have the opportunity and time to get both close up shots of the performers and wide shots that depict the general stage picture. If you are shooting only for yourself, you may know what shots you need for your portfolio, but if you are shooting photos that are going to be distributed or used for archival purposes then you will want to make sure that you get a selection of both types of shots.

When shooting a scheduled photo call I always use a tripod (unless I can’t get the shot with one). Since I have the time to compose every shot, using a tripod helps to guarantee nice, sharp, usable photos. The more movement that you can minimize for each image the more likely you are to get nice sharp shots. I do my best to work with the original lighting, but I will always balance followspots and other lighting situations that create extremes. I also try to get a couple shots in before balancing the lights, but generally a balanced shot is more representative of the original looks like to the eye.

Rehearsals and Performances

If you don’t have the luxury to be able to schedule a photo call then you are probably left with the options of shooting during a performance or rehearsal. If you have the choice, I would recommend that you shoot during a rehearsal as you won’t be distracting the audience. Also, shooting a rehearsal will usually allow you to find a shooting position (or multiple) that is not from the extreme back of the house or off to one side. If you can, I would recommend that you make your primary shooting location on the centerline of the stage. This will give all of your shots a “normal” feeling perspective.

Shooting a show during a run is one of the cases that I feel it is imperative that you see the show before you have to shoot it. Seeing the show before lets you gauge the pace of the show, plan out the shots that you might want, and see what kind of lighting the show has. Checking out the lighting may be one of the most important things that you do.

The first thing that I do when shooting during a run is pick an ISO. Normally I shoot at a fixed ISO, but this is a case where using your camera’s auto ISO feature (if available) may be beneficial to you. Setting a base ISO, a max ISO and then using auto ISO allows you to always get a shutter speed that you can work with. it won’t plunge you into super slow speeds unless it gets amazingly dark. When using this feature you probably don’t want to set your max ISO at the highest that your camera supports because above ISO 1600 you will generally start to see more noise in your images. If you have a camera or lens that has an OIS system, use it!

In general, the shots I take during runs I hand-hold my camera. This gives me the ultimate flexibility for getting the shots that I need. I also tend to set my camera’s light meter to center-weighted or spot metering. I find that this tends to yield the best exposures. I lean more towards spot metering and setting the spot right on the actors face. On my camera I have 51 focus and metering points so moving around them can be tedious, but you get used to it!

One thing to keep in mind when shooting during a run is to keep your head up. If you go home with hundreds of photos, that is fine, but if you miss a shot because you were looking at/reviewing the photos you had already taken you will kick yourself. This is not to say that you shouldn’t review your shots to make sure that you are getting usable ones, just make sure that you are always ready to grab a shot.

Shooting during a run, especially fast paced shows may not allow you the opportunity to change lenses. This is why having a good lens that covers a large focal range is very useful. Depending on the lenses you have at hand, you may need to choose if you want generally wider shots or close ups. When I can I try to get a selection of both as some people want the shots for their portfolio as a scene designer, but the actors want the shots of them.

Publicity Photos

If you are tasked with shooting publicity photos of your production, the first thing that you should do is talk to your marketing people and find out what they really need. For me, I know that the publicity photos that I shoot are made available to local media outlets and some go into the program with advertisements. If your photos are going to be used in any media you need to make sure that appropriate credit is given. This may be the job of your marketing people or it may fall on you.

If, like us you are lucky enough to be able to shoot your publicity photos on stage, in costume, the best thing to do is get as much light as you can. Use the light and neutral colored stage lights and keep the worklights on. In general, publicity photos are all about being up close and personal with the cast. Get close and find interesting angles.

If you have the time and the means to find local locations that work well with the themes of your shows it can be interesting to do “on location” shoots. This is something that is often easier to do in educational theatre as AEA rules and schedules can make it hard to find the time to do it. If you go this route make sure that your costume shop is ok with it. You may need to provide dressing facilities for the actors. Also make sure that you contact any owners or people in charge of the location to make sure that using if for this purpose is OK.


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