The Basics of Performance Photography

The Fantasticks-8

Performance photography is incredibly fun, rewarding, and it gives you a chance to see some amazing theater, dance, and music. It can also be some of the most challenging photography you’ll ever do. There are many challenges you’ll face; here’s how to overcome them.

1) No Control

My Fair Lady - Flat Rock Playhouse
My Fair Lady – Flat Rock Playhouse

If you’re taking photos at a dress rehearsal, you’ll probably be the last thing the director, producer, or actors want to think about. This is probably one of the first times they will have run through the show, so stress levels will be high, attention will be directed elsewhere, and you’ll be on your own. Your best bet is to get coverage: take lots of photographs, move around, and pay attention to the performance. The more you know about the story, the more you will be able to predict what’s going to happen next.


2) Fast Paced

Miss Saigon - Flat Rock Playhouse
Miss Saigon – Flat Rock Playhouse

Remember, the show will not stop because you botched a shot. If you’re taking a lot of photos, there’s a good chance no one will notice a missed opportunity. But there are always, always moments that you have to capture just right. To ensure you get the shot you (or your client) needs, ask for an opportunity to see the show before you’ll have to take photos of the run. Take notes and memorize them. Or, find a way to schedule 30 minutes with the cast to capture the necessary photos. This may not always be possible, since producers are often under tight deadlines or might have contracts that specify working hours—so be aware that they might not be able to call (or schedule) the actors for any overtime.


3) The Lighting and Subject

The Fantasticks
The Fantasticks

Photographing performance means you’re at the mercy of the lighting, choreographer, director, and designers. Whether we like it or not, the design cannot—and should not—be changed. So, try to get an idea of what variables you’re going to face in advance, before the shoot starts. The stage manager can often get you a look at a production’s lighting setup before the run starts. It’s usually possible to get a look at the costumes, as well. Be aware of full blacks and whites, since these can either disappear or glow under stage light.

Unfortunately, lighting for the stage and lighting for the camera are two very different practices. You’re going to face hard shadows, lots of top light and constantly changing aesthetics. As hard as it’s going to be, shooting manually is your only choice. Use your LED screen and your fingers as fast as you can to keep up. When in doubt, underexpose. Spotlights (or specials) can be incredibly bright compared to the rest of the stage, so expose for those.


3) Lighting Technology

CATS - Playhouse Downtown
CATS – Playhouse Downtown

The most modern stage lighting makes use of LED lighting instruments. These instruments allow the lighting designer to change looks very easily, but they can be a nightmare for a photographer. Much like a television monitor, stage lights ‘blink’—or change—at a rate of 60 Hz. This means the color that these lights output can change if your shutter speed is set much faster than this. I’ve pushed it to 1/120sec before without much change, but have found that any slower risks not capturing motion, Faster shutter speeds risk the colors onstage changing in camera. Consider your subject and adjust accordingly.

If you’re focusing on a whole-stage look, go with a slower shutter speed, but if you’re focusing on an actor or dancer, use a faster one. The backgrounds may change color, but your subject will be clear.


4) Consider the Story and Staging

Miss Saigon - Flat Rock Playhouse
Miss Saigon – Flat Rock Playhouse

Paying attention to the story onstage will only ever help you gauge intent in the staging, position, and lighting. Once you understand the sum of what the design team and director are trying to achieve, you can reinforce those ideas in your photography. Ultimately, you are there to represent what they have created; it is not your art as much as it is theirs. Understand it, then capture it.


5) Listen to the Music

The Time Travelers Masquerade - Multiverse Asheville
The Time Travelers Masquerade – Multiverse Asheville

The dancers or musicians onstage are playing and dancing to the music, so you should too. Listen and shoot to the beat. If you’re shooting on the beat, chances are good you’ll be capturing dancers at the peak of jumps or at full extension. You’ll be capturing musicians at the peak of performance. There’s nothing you can do about performers’ poor timing, of course! 😉 Also, be aware of your camera’s limitations and compensate. Some lower-end cameras might have a short lag between the shutter button press and the actual capture.

Performance photography is challenging, but it can result in the most fun you’ll have taking some of the coolest shots in your portfolio. With these tips, you’ll be able to master capturing the arts in all their creative energy!

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