Theater Performance Lighting

Started 3 months ago | Discussions
Myer Senior Member • Posts: 2,888
Theater Performance Lighting

As a favor, I photograph dress rehearsals for a theater group.

I use my Canon 70D and a Canon 70-300L lens. A few photos are taken using a Canon 15-85 lens. I have an old but fairly powerful Canon 550EX flash.

I used to use the following setting in general: 1/320 sec, ISO6400 and wide open. In really dim conditions I would slow down to 1/250 , 1/200 or even 1/160 sec.

When lucky I could somtimes lower ISO to 5000 or even 4000 and shorten the shutter speed.

About a year ago the dramatic lighting used played havoc with the photos. So I decided to start using bounce flash off the ceiling of the theater.

About a month ago I shot the rehearsal for Chicago. This was my first attempt using bounce flash on a show of theirs. The good thing about bounce flash is that you have quite a bit of leeway of acceptability.

I used manual flash figuring using bounce flash with that reasonably high ceiling would almost never be too over-exposed. That's fine.

The advantages to this are that since I am using the flash at maximum power I was able to reduce the ISO to between 2400 and 3200 instead of 6400.

The disadvantages are that the fastest shutter speed I could use was 1/250 sec and in no time the batteries took quite a few seconds to to recharge the flash.

So this month I photographed Annie.

I decided to use High Speed Synch and shoot at 1/320 sec.

The advantages were faster shutter speed, the recharge time was quite a bit faster and the  the batteries lasted quite a bit longer until I had to change them. I suspected that the flash wasn't fully discharging which is good and bad.

During pre-show testing I quickly realized there was a cost to the advantages. I was getting less than half the flashes full power so i had to increase the ISO to 4000, 5000 and sometimes 6400.

In about a month or so they do their annual dance show. With all of the dance action I definitely want to shoot at 1/320 sec or maybe even some numbers at 1/400 sec.

Then I remembered that my daughter also has the same Canon 550EX flash which I borrowed to try.

I set both flash units to Manual Mode and High Speed Synch. I set the flash on my camera to Master and the one sitting on a table several feet from me to Slave and 1/2 power. The main reason I did this was to get the benefits of using an additional flash but I wanted to reduce the number of times I would have to change batteries. I set the bounce to a slightly forward angle of both flash units.

I used a shutter speed of 1/320 sec. When I took a picture both flash units fired.

Does anybody have any experience doing this type of thing, any comments on what I'm trying to do or any comments on what else I might try that would work better.

Thanks.

.

Canon EOS 70D
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(unknown member) Contributing Member • Posts: 873
Re: Theater Performance Lighting
1

Myer wrote:

As a favor, I photograph dress rehearsals for a theater group.

I use my Canon 70D and a Canon 70-300L lens. A few photos are taken using a Canon 15-85 lens. I have an old but fairly powerful Canon 550EX flash.

About a year ago the dramatic lighting used played havoc with the photos. So I decided to start using bounce flash off the ceiling of the theater.

I used a shutter speed of 1/320 sec. When I took a picture both flash units fired.

Does anybody have any experience doing this type of thing, any comments on what I'm trying to do or any comments on what else I might try that would work better.

Thanks.

.

I have some experience photographing dance in theater, both rehearsal and performance.  I can't even imagine using flash.

Here are examples for Ballet:  Spring  Nutcracker

Here are examples of a Ballet Professional Training Program

Here are examples for Jazz: Spring & Fall

Current camera bodies are Pentax K3II's.  Previously pairs of K5IIs and K5 bodies. Lenses used for rehearsal are 12-24/4 and either 28-75/2,8 or 17-70/4.  During performance from rear of theater, lenses are 50-135/2.8 and 100-300/4.

All manual exposure.  I get DNGs out of camera and do global adjust in ACR per lighting scene.  The blue and purple channels are always over saturated so just reduce saturation in ACR.  You need to PP these, at least for global adjustmets.

henrya41 Regular Member • Posts: 210
Re: Theater Performance Lighting

Typically using HSS will run your power down more quickly and you'll lose at least a stop of light.  I suspect that's why so many were underexposed when you started using it.

Are they running the stage lights at full power during the rehearsal? If the stage lights are on full power, you will probably have better luck putting your external flash on a stand and shooting it directly at the performers. Ideally, you'd gel it to match the tungsten stage lights.

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Nionyn Senior Member • Posts: 2,028
Flash? For live theatre? Seriously?
7

I shan't address all of your points but here are some thoughts in response to your post...

My 'day job' for the past 40 years has been professional theatre lighting.
For the past 15 years or so I have also photographed dress rehearsals of theatre shows for dance and drama (also paid).

There is no way that I would ever use flash to photograph theatre.
My job when I do this is to photograph the performers in the lighting as it has been designed for the performances. I am not there to screw up the Lighting Designers' work by adding flash to it.

I cannot think of a single theatre in which I have ever worked that has a ceiling low enough or light enough to use bounce flash.
Are you working in actual theatres or in some other performance spaces?

You need equipment that works well in what is, effectively, low light.
This means large aperture lenses, often kept at F2.8 or so, in addition to high ISO and often lower shutter speeds than you would ideally want. I often find myself using shutter speeds of 1/60s and having to deal with it.

A wider angle lens (and if a zoom lens, not zoomed in too much) will afford you more depth of field (if you want it). Get in closer with a wide angle lens and you can sometimes use a wider aperture for equivalent DOF, or trade this for faster shutter speed (I hope that makes sense!).

Also you need to have really good hand-holding camera technique (think breathing, think stance).
Oh, and timing. You need to anticipate the shot, ensuring that you are in the right place at the right time, with camera settings locked in appropriately before you hit the shutter.

Depending on the show and the lighting you might need to move around a lot to put yourself in a position that makes the most of the lighting angles and states that are being used by the lighting designer at any particular moment (I walk around a *lot* when photographing some theatre shows).

As a result of the above, you could find that you take hundreds if not thousands of photographs and dump the vast majority of them, leaving only the best, sharpest, most atmospheric for the final edit.

As I said, just some thoughts.

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tugwilson Senior Member • Posts: 1,212
Re: Theater Performance Lighting
1

I have done quite a bit of performance photography both in rehearsal and in actual performances. The only time I've ever used my own lighting is shooting rehearsals of immersive productions in a Tudor merchant's house in Hackney in London. The reason I used my lighting there was that there was no theatrical lighting used and the house was naturally dark and it was a very gloomy day.

If a lighting designer has lit a scene it's the job of the photographer to portray the scene as it's lit. It's often a very difficult job because theatrical lighting is always quite low and sometimes seems deliberately designed to make the job difficult (lights pointing at the camera, several stops drop in illumination if the actor moves a few feet).

I've worked with professional theatrical photographers with decades of experience and never seen anybody use flash.

I've moved from using Canon DSLRs to Fuji cameras as they are lighter, quieter and seem a more cost effective way to get good low light performance and use only fast prime lenses. Even with this it takes quite a bit of time in post production to get decent photographs.

The caveat is that I'm shooting professional performances. Amateur productions may well be more forgiving.

(unknown member) Contributing Member • Posts: 873
Re: Flash? For live theatre? Seriously?

Nionyn wrote:

I shan't address all of your points but here are some thoughts in response to your post...

There is no way that I would ever use flash to photograph theatre.
My job when I do this is to photograph the performers in the lighting as it has been designed for the performances. I am not there to screw up the Lighting Designers' work by adding flash to it.

I cannot think of a single theatre in which I have ever worked that has a ceiling low enough or light enough to use bounce flash.

Exactly!

Michael Fryd
Michael Fryd Forum Pro • Posts: 11,079
Re: Theater Performance Lighting

While I agree with those who suggest avoiding flash, if you are going to use a flash, you can use an external battery pack to get faster recharge and longer battery life.

Take a look at The Canon CP-E4N Compact Battery Pack, or a third party knock-off.

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tugwilson Senior Member • Posts: 1,212
Re: Theater Performance Lighting

Michael Fryd wrote:

While I agree with those who suggest avoiding flash, if you are going to use a flash, you can use an external battery pack to get faster recharge and longer battery life.

Take a look at The Canon CP-E4N Compact Battery Pack, or a third party knock-off.

It's $199! It would be cheaper, easier and you'd get more full power flashes of you bought a LI-Ion flash https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1341868-REG/godox_v860ii_f_canon_kit_v860ii_for_canon_kit.html

Michael Fryd
Michael Fryd Forum Pro • Posts: 11,079
Re: Theater Performance Lighting

tugwilson wrote:

Michael Fryd wrote:

While I agree with those who suggest avoiding flash, if you are going to use a flash, you can use an external battery pack to get faster recharge and longer battery life.

Take a look at The Canon CP-E4N Compact Battery Pack, or a third party knock-off.

It's $199! It would be cheaper, easier and you'd get more full power flashes of you bought a LI-Ion flash https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1341868-REG/godox_v860ii_f_canon_kit_v860ii_for_canon_kit.html

Yes, the Canon CP-E4N seems overpriced to me.

However there are a number of third party alternatives.

The Bolt P12 is about $60

The Bolt CBP-C1 is about $70

If you search on Amazon for "Canon CP-E4N" you should see additional alternatives.

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OP Myer Senior Member • Posts: 2,888
Re: Theater Performance Lighting

I've been to other performances of other productions where I was merely a guest. I paid attention to the lighting.

One highlight spot, a couple of front fills, a couple of side fills from both sides and a couple of fills for the background and to provide some separation. The result of this is nice smooth lighting with the highlight for emphasis and not the sole source of lighting.

However, the lighting this group uses (and believes dramatic is good) is one highlight spot. I've mentioned it several times to no avail. Without a flash the result will be a blown out upper body and a very under exposed lower body and a pitch black background. I know by experience unfortunately.

I very seldom use a flash for any photos I take. It's just for this group. So I have to consider cost as well.

I've been considering picking up an external battery pack. That will help recharge time and spread out battery changes. Since it's not the actual live show I have time between numbers when I do have to change batteries. It's a matter of keeping in the back of my mind that battery changes will take place.

At this point some decisions are flash is needed unless I see a sudden, unexpected change in their lighting approach. Due to the fact it's dance High Speed Synch is needed as I don't believe 1/250 sec will be fast enough to freeze the action. There's a big difference between 1/250 and 1/320. Maybe I could throw in some 1/400 if I'm lucky but not counting on it.

By adding an external battery pack I could probably manage with one flash unit bounced off the ceiling but with the HSS caused power reduction I would probably have to use ISO6400. I've used that ISO before with no flash and the noise wasn't an issue. However, I would really like to lower the ISO somewhat. The second flash might very well take care of that issue. My concern is that I might have too many things on my mind.

I've only had a chance to quickly scan the comments and I definitely have to read them in detail later today.

Also, thank you very much for the sample shots for me to view. I took a quick look at them and notice a very big difference in the lighting from one set to another. They're excellent.

Thanks.

OP Myer Senior Member • Posts: 2,888
A Sampling of What I've Done

This is a sample of some of the shots I've taken. However, last year they went to the lighting I described above. So I would like to be prepared and assume they'll do this again.

Michael Fryd
Michael Fryd Forum Pro • Posts: 11,079
Re: A Sampling of What I've Done

You might want to consider getting a faster lens and/or a full frame camera.

An f/2.8 lens on your current camera would give you another stop or two of light.  Yes you would get shallower Depth of Field, but it looks like that wouldn't be a problem for these images.

A full frame body with your current lens would give you about a stop or two less noise (along with shallower depth of field).

Combine an f/2.8 lens with a full frame body and you'll get 2 to 4 stops less noise, at the same shutter speed and subject lighting.

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OP Myer Senior Member • Posts: 2,888
Re: A Sampling of What I've Done

Michael Fryd wrote:

You might want to consider getting a faster lens and/or a full frame camera.

An f/2.8 lens on your current camera would give you another stop or two of light. Yes you would get shallower Depth of Field, but it looks like that wouldn't be a problem for these images.

A full frame body with your current lens would give you about a stop or two less noise (along with shallower depth of field).

Combine an f/2.8 lens with a full frame body and you'll get 2 to 4 stops less noise, at the same shutter speed and subject lighting.

Thoughts that I would consider if this was how I make a living.

I'm retired and photography is a hobby. I shoot everything from butterflies, horse jumping, kite boarding, motocross to birds in flight.

I shoot these dress rehearsals as a favor for one specific theater group. That's two or three broadway shows and one of dance.

My equipment was purchased to cater to the type of photography I do throughout the year. I don't mind making a small investment (such as an external power pack for my flash) but not things I will not use again until the following year or never again.

In addition, I go hiking in National Parks and shoot wildlife there. So the weight of equipment and specifically lenses is an issue.

And being 75 is also starting to be an issue.

So, I'm trying to improve what I'm doing through tweaking and possibly a few ideas that may have been mentioned above.

Thanks for taking the time to give me your ideas.

Michael Fryd
Michael Fryd Forum Pro • Posts: 11,079
Re: A Sampling of What I've Done

Myer wrote:

....

So, I'm trying to improve what I'm doing through tweaking and possibly a few ideas that may have been mentioned above.

...

You have a challenge, as the your gear is not ideal for this task.  But here are a few low cost ideas to think about:

  • Don't use high speed sync.   Yes, the shutter speed will be too slow to stop the action, however the flash duration will likely be short enough to stop action.   If you're getting full power out of your flash, it may overpower the ambient light for exposing your subject.  If you use second curtain sync, then any motion blur will be behind the subject, and might add to the image.
  • You might also try buying a few inexpensive manual flash units.  At $30 to $50 each they may not break your budget, but they can help you get more light on your subject.   If the distance between the flash and the dancers stays relatively constant, you can shoot in manual mode without TTL metering.
  • If you can, position yourself so you can use the shorter end of your 70-300 zoom.  At the shorter end, the lens opens up a full stop wider than at the long end.

Good luck, and have fun shooting.

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OP Myer Senior Member • Posts: 2,888
Re: A Sampling of What I've Done

Michael Fryd wrote:

Myer wrote:

....

So, I'm trying to improve what I'm doing through tweaking and possibly a few ideas that may have been mentioned above.

...

You have a challenge, as the your gear is not ideal for this task. But here are a few low cost ideas to think about:

  • Don't use high speed sync. Yes, the shutter speed will be too slow to stop the action, however the flash duration will likely be short enough to stop action. If you're getting full power out of your flash, it may overpower the ambient light for exposing your subject. If you use second curtain sync, then any motion blur will be behind the subject, and might add to the image.
  • You might also try buying a few inexpensive manual flash units. At $30 to $50 each they may not break your budget, but they can help you get more light on your subject. If the distance between the flash and the dancers stays relatively constant, you can shoot in manual mode without TTL metering.
  • If you can, position yourself so you can use the shorter end of your 70-300 zoom. At the shorter end, the lens opens up a full stop wider than at the long end.

Good luck, and have fun shooting.

Michael,

These are all excellent ideas.

In the first I thought about all of this except the part about second curtain synch. Could you explain that?

I did find (by looking at the color) that at full power the flash was stronger than the ambient light. However, I'm still concerned that the ambient light will still be there enough to cause a shadow blur.

About extra flashes. My daughter has an identical 500EX flash that I borrowed yesterday and I did try (at home so not really a good test) using them as on board master and remote slave and it worked fine. That may give enough light to be almost the equivalent to full power.

I have been using the flash units in manual mode (no TTL, etc). I did this because I found that unless I'm really close to the stage using bounce off the ceiling worked fine.

Percentage wise the distance stays pretty constant even though I'm moving around.  I'm between 8 and 12 rows from the front unless I have a full stage in which I go farther back and up.

I realized that the shorter end gives me a larger aperture (lower number). I try to do that when possible. However, things happen faster when you're closer and I also want the shooting angle to be a little above floor level. Move closer puts me lower down.

Thanks.

A lot of good ideas. Some I thought of and a few I didn't that may really help.

OP Myer Senior Member • Posts: 2,888
Re: Theater Performance Lighting

Just out of interest.

That first photo is a dancer waiting her turn to dance. She's actually behind the curtain and I'm on the other side of the stage so I can see behind the curtain.

The photo of the hand stand is a gymnast being photographed outside the entrance to the Louvre in Paris. I happened to walk by early in the morning when this was taking place and asked if I could take a few. I'd rather be lucky . . . .

Michael Fryd
Michael Fryd Forum Pro • Posts: 11,079
Re: A Sampling of What I've Done

Myer wrote:

Michael Fryd wrote:

...

Michael,

These are all excellent ideas.

In the first I thought about all of this except the part about second curtain synch. Could you explain that?

Here's what happens when you are not using High Speed Sync.

  1. The first shutter curtain opens
  2. The flash fires
  3. The second shutter curtain closes

If you shutter speed is 1/60, and the flash duration is 1/500th, there's some wiggle room as to when the flash fires.

Normally, you use "first curtain sync". This means the flash fires as soon as first curtain is fully open. With second curtain sync, the flash waits, and doesn't fire until just before the second curtain closes.

It turns out that second curtain sync can make a noticeable visual difference in the image.

Consider a dancer jumping through the air. Most of the captured image is due to the flash (which is short enough to freeze motion), but if there is enough ambient light you get a blurred "ghost" image as the dancer moves while the shutter is open.

With first curtain sync (the usual default), You get a clear image of a dancer frozen in midair, with a ghost trail in front of her as she continued to move.

With second curtain sync, you the frozen image of the dancer, with the ghost trail behind her.

With first curtain the "ghost trail" shows where she is going, and with second curtain it shows where she has been.

Some people find the results of second curtain sync to be more visually pleasing.

The advantage of first curtain sync (and why it is the usual default) is that it minimizes the delay between pressing the shutter button and the flash firing.   If you absolutely need to capture a particular, and unexpected, moment, it's easier with first curtain sync.

I did find (by looking at the color) that at full power the flash was stronger than the ambient light. However, I'm still concerned that the ambient light will still be there enough to cause a shadow blur.

See above.  With second curtain sync, the blur may not be objectionable.

Obviously, whether or not it's objectionable or pleasing is an artistic judgement call for you to make.

About extra flashes. My daughter has an identical 500EX flash that I borrowed yesterday and I did try (at home so not really a good test) using them as on board master and remote slave and it worked fine. That may give enough light to be almost the equivalent to full power.

An extra flash that's about as strong as yours, should give you an extra stop of light.

...

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BAK Forum Pro • Posts: 24,607
Re: Theater Performance Lighting

Are you sure the flash unit bouncing off the ceiling is adding any light to the dancers?

I'm having trouble seeing additional illumination in addition to what I imagine the stage lights are like.

BAK

flatpicknut
flatpicknut Contributing Member • Posts: 690
Re: Theater Performance Lighting

Myer wrote:

Then I remembered that my daughter also has the same Canon 550EX flash which I borrowed to try.

I set both flash units to Manual Mode and High Speed Synch. I set the flash on my camera to Master and the one sitting on a table several feet from me to Slave and 1/2 power. The main reason I did this was to get the benefits of using an additional flash but I wanted to reduce the number of times I would have to change batteries. I set the bounce to a slightly forward angle of both flash units.

I used a shutter speed of 1/320 sec. When I took a picture both flash units fired.

Does anybody have any experience doing this type of thing, any comments on what I'm trying to do or any comments on what else I might try that would work better.

Thanks.

.

Really, if you can get two flashes to give you the pics you want, then good for you. Different theatres might require different solutions . You just to have to experiment and be flexible. If you're determined to use flash, then something like the Godox AD360II-C might be worth considering. About $499, significantly stronger than two 550EX's, and can be shot (although a bit awkwardly) from your hot shoe. (A camera flash frame to hold the Godox might be a better solution, if nothing else to reduce the chance of damaging your camera with the relatively heavy light.)

I've been shooting high school theatre for about ten years for my local high school as well as for the Kansas City Cappies organization (has an annual awards show and a summer musical, involving about 13 or 14 area high schools). I never shoot with flash during performances, but I do occasionally resort to a flash for extra-dark scenes (typically bounced flash - yes, the ceilings are very high, but it still works with my 600EX-RT to give a helpful bit of extra light) - the lighting designers are thinking "MOOD," lol, not about what the photographer might need. Even when I use the flash, I also take pics without flash, just to give myself a choice for each scene.

I shoot with a full frame bodies (5DIV and a 5DIII) with 70-200 f/2.8 IS and 24-70 f/2.8 II lenses. I do shoot at higher shutters than you do. I typically have the 24-70 on 1/400 and the 70-200 at 1/400 to 1/640. ISO typically ranges from about 1/1600 to 1/12,800.

If I were starting out and had limited funds, I'd probably buy something like the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/1.8. Relatively cheap, but lot of good light gathering capability and would let you shoot at better ISSO/shutter combinations, and reduce your need for flash.

Good luck!

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Doug Brock

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OP Myer Senior Member • Posts: 2,888
Re: A Sampling of What I've Done

Michael Fryd wrote:

Myer wrote:

Michael Fryd wrote:

...

Michael,

These are all excellent ideas.

In the first I thought about all of this except the part about second curtain synch. Could you explain that?

Here's what happens when you are not using High Speed Sync.

  1. The first shutter curtain opens
  2. The flash fires
  3. The second shutter curtain closes

If you shutter speed is 1/60, and the flash duration is 1/500th, there's some wiggle room as to when the flash fires.

Normally, you use "first curtain sync". This means the flash fires as soon as first curtain is fully open. With second curtain sync, the flash waits, and doesn't fire until just before the second curtain closes.

It turns out that second curtain sync can make a noticeable visual difference in the image.

Consider a dancer jumping through the air. Most of the captured image is due to the flash (which is short enough to freeze motion), but if there is enough ambient light you get a blurred "ghost" image as the dancer moves while the shutter is open.

With first curtain sync (the usual default), You get a clear image of a dancer frozen in midair, with a ghost trail in front of her as she continued to move.

With second curtain sync, you the frozen image of the dancer, with the ghost trail behind her.

With first curtain the "ghost trail" shows where she is going, and with second curtain it shows where she has been.

Some people find the results of second curtain sync to be more visually pleasing.

The advantage of first curtain sync (and why it is the usual default) is that it minimizes the delay between pressing the shutter button and the flash firing. If you absolutely need to capture a particular, and unexpected, moment, it's easier with first curtain sync.

I did find (by looking at the color) that at full power the flash was stronger than the ambient light. However, I'm still concerned that the ambient light will still be there enough to cause a shadow blur.

See above. With second curtain sync, the blur may not be objectionable.

Obviously, whether or not it's objectionable or pleasing is an artistic judgement call for you to make.

About extra flashes. My daughter has an identical 500EX flash that I borrowed yesterday and I did try (at home so not really a good test) using them as on board master and remote slave and it worked fine. That may give enough light to be almost the equivalent to full power.

An extra flash that's about as strong as yours, should give you an extra stop of light.

...

Michael,

I think I'll use high speed sync at 1/320 to freeze the action. For $50 I'll pick up an external battery pack for my flash to shorten the recycle time and lengthen the time between battery changes.

Since I'm using both flash units for ceiling bounce I don't have to be super careful about placement. What I have to be careful about is that the slave sensor can see the master flash and fire.

I may set the slave at 1/2 power to shorten the flash recycle and lengthen the time between battery changes. I'll do some testing at the beginning to see what ISO I need and whether I can reduce the slave power somewhat.

Thanks for your help.

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