I’ve shot 32 community theater productions since March 2006, when my son appeared as Curly in a high school presentation of Oklahoma (above). I learned, unlearned, relearned and forgot quite a bit in the interim. Here are some of the key things I know today:
- Actresses love to be photographed, but hate the photographs.
- Non-theater people cannot believe that the chaos masquerading as a final dress rehearsal will miraculously turn into a magnificent, professional production just two nights later, but it almost always does.
- There’s never enough light, except when there’s too much.
- Aiming and focusing the theater lights is the last item on anyone’s list.
- Community theater volunteers work their tails off, and don’t understand why the photographer in need won’t simply create a ladder, scrim, softbox, or other item from found objects in the theater’s prop room.
To be fair, actresses tend to hate my photos because I’m only now figuring out how to light women properly (close, big, diffuse light sources to soften or eliminate wrin… wrink… Oh, I just can’t say it). My early headshots of actors were based on my study of Clint Eastwood’s recent portraits. How could I have known that most women aren’t going for that rugged, weathered look?
I produce three types of images for the theater folks: Headshots for the lobby, publicity shots for the papers, and keepsakes for the participants to print or post online.
Rehearsal time is precious, so I work quickly and minimize disruptions to the schedule. For the headshots, I typically work with two lights: A diffused key (using either an umbrella or a Gary Fong Lightsphere) and a background or backlight to separate the subject from the background. Standard portrait stuff that I’ll be happy to write about, but the best information in the world is at strobist.com.
Experience shows that I can get better publicity stills with fifteen minutes of posed shots than with four to five hours of live-action rehearsal shooting. If there’s time to set up my own lights, I can guarantee newspaper-friendly images.
Sets usually remain unfinished until long after the media need publicity shots, so we improvise a setting. The actors and director always want to recreate a scene from the play, but I prefer to compose an image that will appeal to newspaper editors, which means a bold, clear image of people interacting, including an attractive woman whenever possible (Hey, I’m a marketing guy). No one attending the play will notice or care if the costumes are different or the interaction was invented expressly for the photograph.
I shoot keepsake images during rehearsals or, on some occasions, actual performances. If possible, I work close to the stage and use a 17-55mm f2.8 zoom lens. Otherwise, it’s the back of the room and my go-to lens for theater, the 70-200 f2.8. In a future post, I’ll illustrate how lens choice impacts results. As I described in the post on dance concerts, I’ll typically shoot in manual mode, locking in a shutter speed and aperture to suit my needs, and letting auto-ISO manage the exposure.
For some plays, the lighting is very much a part of the experience, but mood lighting that thrills an audience often makes no impression on a digital camera sensor – literally. Sometimes I have to identify the best-lit portion of the stage and simply wait until the action moves there.
Theater and dance challenge me to capture low-light images without the luxury of slow shutter speeds, but I’ve learned to recognize when I’m beaten. Last year, a local theater put on The Glass Menagerie. When the lead character opened by explaining that the play was a memory, and memories, like dreams, are dimly lit, I knew I was in trouble. I struggled through the first act, with little to show for it. If you’re familiar with the play, you know what happened next. In the second act, a character neglects to pay the electric bill. So the lights go out. At that point, I called it a night and enjoyed a rare pleasure – I watched the play.