Theater Photography Tips

Theater photography is a rewarding experience if the photographer be prepared for and aware of his/her mission in advance. Usually very dim and dramatic lighting of the scene, limiting rules and regulations and also movements of the performers make it challenging to end up with good usable photos.

In this regard it would be helpful to note some tips in advance in order to increase the chance of achieving satisfactory results out of the hard effort.

-          Build rapport with the performance cast and crews especially the director and the scene manager.

-          Make sure to be totally aware of the rules and regulations.

-          If possible review (watch with your photography goals in mind) the whole performance and if necessary take notes (no actual photo shooting yet!).

-          Wear comfortable (preferably black to blend more into the usually dark surrounding) outfit and especially (quiet) shoes.

-          Have some food and drinks accessible as the session may take several hours.

-          At the day of shooting pack some extra batteries, memory cards and (if possible) back up camera.

-          If possible use fast lenses (2.8 and faster) as mostly the scenes are lighten in very dim and dramatic way. Stabilized ones (IS, VR, VC, whatever they call it) are definitely helpful to diminish photographers hand movements but totally handicapped in dealing with the photography objects movements.

-          Use cameras with proper high ISO performance. Usually the camera has to shoot in ISO 1600 or higher where lower end consumer ones tend to produce very noisy and soft images.

-          Preferably use fast camera bodies with lots of available image buffer which makes you able to shoot multiple RAWs just in a second. More autofocus point will be also helpful to avoid loss of focus or inaccurate focus when shooting fast moving performers.

-          Use quality fast zooms as this will allow changing composition very fast and convenient compared to primes. Although having some fast and descent primes in your bag would be a good idea for more static low pace performances.

-          Shoot RAW when possible. It is really important when considering the usually tricky lighting condition of performances composed of many different light sources, modifiers and colors.

-          Be bold enough to change your perspective and composition. Shoot at different angles, extremely wide and dramatically narrow, from overhead, sides and even laying down on the scene.

-          Usually it would be far more convenient (produces better results) to shoot the technical rehearsal (the final rehearsal with all the dresses and make ups) instead of shooting the actual performance in presence of the whole audience.

-          Be prepared to shoot hundreds of photos as like other action photography assignments many dozens of the shots will be revealed as useless at the end of the day.

Just as a hint I name some proper (mostly back-breaking expensive) gears of Canon which can be used for theater photography:

-          Canon 1Ds bodies (1D bodies are also good with higher frame rates but lower ISO performance)

-          Canon 5D mk II

-          Canon 7D

-          Canon 40D (good performance considering the price)

-          Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L

-          Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L

-          Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS

-          Canon fast Primes (14, 24, 50, 85 and even 135mm) are all descent.

As stated the experience is challenging but the results will be unexpectedly satisfying and the skills will be really helpful in other eras from portraiture to fashion or even sport photography.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 5
By mardalamedia (8 months ago)

@Rosinate - I prefer raw myself and you can shoot in the smaller raw file sizes if space is an issue.RAW there is more flexibility in post to balance skin tones (stage lighting is harsh) I find jpg's are too restrictive and I don't trust the camera to make the correct settings.

Of all those lenses, the 70-200 f2.8 is the best. You don't need IS if you can keep your speed up - I shoot a lot of dance and can easily be in the 400 - 640 range which is fast enough to handle any minor shakes at 200.

Instead of the 24-70, Go with the 35 f1.4. The 24-70 is a crap lens in low theater light. Try shooting with the 35. Its awesome in theaters. If you A/B these there is no comparison.

As rosinate said, shoot in Manual. I shoot with the Canon 5D series (mk II at the moment) and it doesn't understand what to do with the white balance and exposure. You have two extremes. I also only use the camera's exposure meter as a reference and keep it well below if there is decent lighting.

By afsheenaziz (Jul 18, 2012)

that great i must say :)
nice article.

By rosinate (May 3, 2012)

I have been shooting in theatre for over 30 years. All over the country. Not to bad an article.
A couple of notes though. Fast 2.8 zooms are better than primes in this situation. Nothing slower. Depending on the type of production my slowest night is between 1,200 to 1,500 images. There is usually lots going on. I don't agree about shooting raw though. You need to be aware of what the lighting designer has done and go with the flow of the production and the design. This makes all the difference in your shooting. I do not think in 30 plus years I have use any setting other than manual and adjusted on the fly as the production evolves. There is a flow and a symetry to each production. If you have not watched a run through before shooting get a feel for the show, the flow of it. This will help you be successful in your shooting. If you would like more info just send me an email. Good shooting.

1 upvote
Payam Ghafoori
By Payam Ghafoori (Jun 10, 2012)

Many thanks for your valuable comments. Regarding the lenses I do prefer the fast and quality zooms over primes in such situations. But for RAW please note that Canon and Nikon (even in their most recent models) are suffering from rendering what we normally see under artificial lighting conditions. So by shooting RAW alongside of having the precious latitude in exposure correction, you will have the option to post process the colors to get them as close as you have seen the real play.
Good Luck.

By snappy34 (Nov 9, 2011)

re. last selection of suitable lenses for theatre phography:- 'Canon fast primes (14, 24, 50, 85, and even 136mm) are all DECENT' !!! not descent? Otherwise v.helpful. Thanks. Sorry! Snappy.

Total comments: 5