Seeking shooting tips for the theater environment

Started Mar 16, 2014 | Discussions thread
Stu 5 Veteran Member • Posts: 3,277
Re: Seeking shooting tips for the theater environment

Rich Gibson wrote:

Chad Hardy wrote:

Rich Gibson wrote:

I've owned Nikon DSLR gear from the D100 through the D3 & D700 then switched to the Nex-5n, 7 and now the 6. I still own the 6 & 7. Up till now I've shot a lot of outdoor kid stuff and a ton of travel photography. Travel and posed group shooting is leisurely and one-off work and I've enjoyed it immensely and learned how to use my gear. I have been fairly successful and am pleased with my work. Now my grandkids are teen agers and are involved in concerts and theatrical work and this is proving to be a real challenge.

Yesterday I shot a musical which had minimal sets with lots of black curtains. I started with the Nex-7 and the 55-210 Aperture mode, ISO 6400, Multi-metering mode and auto focus wide open (f/7.0). It was an unmitigated disaster. Focusing was so slow I missed shot after shot and those which were in focus had blown out highlights. In desperation I popped the 55-210 on the 6 used A mode, auto ISO , wide open, and things went much better. Turning down the EV I was able to pull back the blow out.

Yes, I've read the friendly manual, a couple of times. First of all, the 7 is going on the block; I've ordered the A6000 based on the focus of the NEX-6 alone. Would any of you care to throw me a few tips for shooting successfully in a theatrical environment?

Thanks, Rich

Hi Rich,

Anytime you have major differences in the contrast in a scene (such as black background and theatre flood lights) your multi metering mode will not perform well. What you want to do is change to spot metering, then meter for the skin tones of the actors.

To do this easily you will want to program your camera to AEL Hold. So you target grandkids beautiful face, then hit the button to lock metering. Then you can continue to shoot at that meter without issue. Practice this at home, and be sure you can do it quickly. You don't want the Shutter button to re-meter when you press it. It should lock in and stay there unless you turn the camera off or hit the AEL hold button again.

In the real world of theatre production photography this is far too slow a method. I shoot theatre productions for a living. Lighting can change very quickly with this type of photography. Shoot Raw for a start. Can you not set up the camera so can see how much you are clipping the highlights?

Second was the slow focusing, which is a different animal. At the long end the 55210 is at f6.3, which is pretty slow by indoor shooting standards. I shoot my son's choir now and then in the theater, and it is tough. Truthfully at ISO 6400 you are beyond the limits of the sensor in terms of getting a noise free picture. I would try your best to ratchet this down to 3200 or even 1600 if possible.

You can try a few different things:

1. Easiest is to try and decrease shutter speed a bit to gain some stops (light) back. You probably don't want to go below 1/125 or your risk motion blur. You can of course try. Go an hour before the performance starts and take shots of people to test. If you can get the shutter speed low enough it might get you the light your camera needs to AF well.

Waste of time. You cannot test before the performance like this as the lights will not even be on full power and they will be fixed on one lighting state. Usually they will not even be switched on at this point. The lighting states will change throughout the production. Get the camera set up properly and you showed be able to walk into any production and start taking photos. With i.s the slowest speed I went down to recently was 1/20 but that was only on the slower parts of the production. 1/125 is a good guide but you should be able to use 1/60 as well if there is not too much movement.

2. Next gets a bit more expensive You may ultimately need a faster lens. By faster I mean wider aperture. Bigger opening = more light in. Think f2.8 range, maybe f4 if you are lucky. The lower the better. Of course this is where things can get expensive; larger aperture = larger glass=$$$. From here you need to decide what focal lengths (55mm, 200mm, etc) you need. Most of the E mount telephoto zooms are going to have smaller apertures due the the nature of the system. Sony wanted compact lenses i.e. smaller glass. There is a Zeiss 16-70 f4 that might work, but you are limited to 70mm and it is $1000.

You need fast lenses for sure. What about hire?

3. Flash could help, but you would need to be closer and probably have a stronger than on-camera flash with a diffuser. However, in my experience you would be limited to only the times the MC allows you to take photos. During the performance it would be forbidden

Never ever use flash on a production... ever!

Best of luck, looking forward to hearing how things go!

Thanks Chad and Miki. This is very helpful; both of your comments prompted me to think more about the session. The metering info is just what I was looking for but f/2.8 is out, period. At various times I owned: 17-35 f/2.8 120-300 f/2.8 28-70 f/2.8 the D3, D700, D7000, D100, D200, D300, D2X and an arsenal full of other lenses and Coolpixes going back to the 900, all for travel shooting. I must have spent $25,000 on bodies and lenses; I switched to NEX when I got tired of lugging around so many, and heavy pieces of equipment. In 2010 I traveled to Paris with a Lowepro roll aboard weighing 45#.

You had a great theatre production camera in the D700.

I know that APS-C gear won't really equal full frame, but in 2011, after a trip to Bavaria I was post processing images and found that I couldn't tell the difference between my D700 and D7000 images unless I zoomed in 400%. I decided for my needs I needed 'good enough' and tried the NEX-5N based on my understanding of digital photography and was hooked. In 2012 took the 5N and the 18-200 and shot over 3500 images across France with it and folks raved about my images. I sold all my Nikon gear in one year and replaced the 5N with the 7 and didn't look back....not until I found a soft spot in that body's performance. I'm afraid I'm going to have to live with f/4 at the best and shoot for higher ISO shots. When I used the NEX bodies in museums I found that the noise reduction features were a great for low light levels. Yes, I know that low light levels coupled with actors moving about the stage creates a new challenging environment. I do have the 16-50 f/2.8 and 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 but when coupled with the LA-EA2 adapter I'm nudging my full frame kit weight. The 70-300 without stabilization was disappointing; with the 7 it was hunting all the time.

The problem with the 7 was the speed of the CDAF; the 6 was easily usable. With the 24 mp of the A6000 and even better PDAF/CGAF hybrid I think I can squeeze out as much as I can expect; your suggestions will help me to optimize.

I actually did shoot at the rehearsal' that's where I was shocked by the disappointing performance of the NEX-7 in this environment. I wish I'd asked for help here earlier.

See if you can go to the tech run as well. This is when they set the light up. It can go on for hours though. See if you can talk to the person doing the lighting and asked which parts of a production might be tricky.

Again, thanks. Rich

Always shoot Raw. Shoot just to the right and keep checking for clipping all the way through. Just a bit of clipping is good as you can bring it back afterwards in what ever software you use.

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