Seeking shooting tips for the theater environment

Started Mar 16, 2014 | Discussions thread
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GaryW Veteran Member • Posts: 8,372
Re: Seeking shooting tips for the theater environment

I've done a bunch of theater shooting, and all of it with modest equipment, at least by the standards of many here.  APS-C cameras, f4 lenses, etc.  You don't need f2.8.  There are times where I've used my 50/1.7 at f2 or 2.8, and it does help if it's really dark.

Stu 5 wrote:

Rich Gibson wrote:

Chad Hardy wrote:

Rich Gibson wrote:...

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.

The camera will meter towards an average grey.  If most of the scene is a black curtain, it'll happily try to make that look grey, blowing out the subjects.  You can use manual mode, but it'll keep changing anyway.  Might as well just use the EV control and change as needed.

By the way, the 55-210 works much better on my Nex-6 than on the Nex-5.  Much better in low light too.  Kind of surprising!  And the OSS allows for a slow shutter, which is OK if there's not much movement.

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. ....

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?

I agree -- lighting changes all the time in some productions.  You can only preset the white balance if the lighting never changes, which may be the case in some events.  For a typical big production with real pro lighting, forget it.  Just use RAW (or RAW+JPEG), and for your favorite photos, process from RAW and custom set the WB as needed.  You might be surprised at what the camera comes up with -- sometimes good, sometimes not, but you can get it however you want if you start with RAW.  Also, if the brightness changes too much, you'll have more leeway with RAW in adjusting for that too, although you really need to adjust the EV.

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.

I've been able to use the 55-210 at ISO 3200 with good results.  Focus was faster on the Nex-6, but you can half-press to pre-focus if focus-lag seems to be a problem.

As for noise, here again, you can use RAW which may allow you to get a bit better results (processing noise reduction on the computer).  Printed at typical sizes and with that processing, it's hard to see any degradation.  Obviously, how successful using ISO 3200 is depends upon the venue.  I was able to rely on slow movements (you can shoot when people are at the peak of their movement, not in the middle of a turn or an abrupt movement).

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.

I agree.  You won't know what the lighting is like until it's in progress.  And then it'll change at certain scenes.  Unless it's an event where they have some sort of fixed lighting and can't (or don't) change it, which I've also done.  Obviously, that's easier to set and leave it.

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?

I've used f4-f5 in the past, and with the 55-210, it starts at f4.5, so you might be able to be at f4.5 or at least no more than f5.6 if you can be reasonably close.  Now f5.6 is 2 stops from f2.8, so that is not ideal, but it may be possible to use higher ISO and make it work.  For better results, sure, if you have an f2.8 zoom handy, that would be ideal, but that's going to be huge and expensive.  Yeah, rental could be an option for some, but that has a cost, so it's just not reasonable for me.

My other thought was to get an f2.8 135mm manual lens.  So I got one offa flea-bay, and it's way too soft at f2.8!  What a mess.  It's pretty good at f4, but then I could use one of my other lenses that have smaller apertures.  So, that idea was a bust.

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!

Yeah, for one thing, you're going to ruin the lighting that is present, so I doubt it would look that great (or at least not as it should), but it's going to annoy the actors and the audience.  I never bother with flash for events.  It just isn't necessary.  I do sometimes use flash for party and closer-indoor situations.

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

...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.

Yeah, even a cheap f4 zoom with a DSLR works great.  I used a cheap Tamron 55-200 with my DSLR, and it was great, except for the loud shutter and the horrible noise level when you went over ISO 800 (and 800 wasn't too good anyway).  But the results were pretty good overall.

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.

I think that's the trick -- you only have to be good enough in the situations in which you most likely need the higher quality.  The more extreme the conditions -- lower light in particular -- the more a more expensive and larger sensor camera will matter.

....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.

Since you're talking about CDAF, I assume you are talking about the e-mount lenses, not the EA2/a-mount lenses.  Some people keep trying to claim that the PDAF doesn't make a difference or that it doesn't work in low light, but as you've seen, it really does.

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.

Sometimes I would get better results in rehersal.  Few people in the audience (usually) so you can get much closer, maybe even better lighting.

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.

Definitely -- RAW.

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Gary W.

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