The Toughest Theater Shoot Yet, Part 1

I’ve often said that for the photographer, there are only two types of theater light: too little and too much.  Ojai’s Art Center Theater production of Cabaret managed to confront me with both, and that was just one set of challenges as I attempted to create publicity and keepsake photos.

Not only did the reflective panels ensure blown highlights, but they would also confuse most camera meters. By planting a focus/metering sensor on the face of the young lady, I was able to get within striking distance of a workable exposure value.

As soon as I walked into the theater, I could see that the Kit Kat Klub set would confuse both my light meter and my focus modules, because the set featured tall, faceted silver panels behind the action on stage. This assured erratic reflections BEHIND the actors, regardless of the light source.

Speaking of light sources, dim overhead lights simulated the ambiance of a nightclub, and a powerful spotlight was thrown on featured performers.  This assured extreme contrast that made it impossible to show featured performers in context – the rest of the stage all but disappeared once the spot hit them. Of course, I mean that it disappeared to my camera sensor. The lighting is beautiful for a live audience, but exceeds the dynamic range of my camera. Often, the bright light was on the Emcee, a man wearing white greasepaint and a black tuxedo. Are you getting a sense of the metering difficulties?

Even if you nail the exposure for the subject, a scene this extreme sacrifices both highlight and shadow detail.

Let’s think about the metering options on a Nikon D300. One can use evaluative matrix metering, which divides the frame into 1005 segments and compares the light values to a database of over 100,000 sample images. Often, it works brilliantly, but like any computer, it has no way of knowing how I want to expose MY images. And I’m pretty sure it has never seen anything like the set of the Kit Kat Klub.

Another option is center-weighted metering, which I often use for theater and dance when tracking a moving subject. But in this case, I found that too often, dark clothes or bright reflections dominated the center of the frame.

The third option is spot metering, which is very hard to use with moving subjects, but definitely delivered the best results for me on this particular show. I was not working as hard as the dancers onstage, but tracking them with the tiny spot meter sensor added a real physicality to the whole process. I was exhausted by the end of the rehearsal.

Scenes in the boarding house were reasonably evenly lit. I could have metered with any of the three modes, set a manual exposure and left it fixed throughout these scenes.

Of course, I also had to choose whether to set exposure values manually or let the camera adjust exposure automatically. I started with the former, but the actors moved too quickly in and out of varied lighting.

After some trial and error, I settled on this exposure routine:

  1. I used spot metering and strove to keep a sensor locked on an actor’s face, attempting to expose for the skin tones and let the highlights and shadows fall where they may (I couldn’t capture the full range anyway).
  2. I shot in RAW for two reasons. First, because RAW delivers better low-light results, and anything outside of the spotlight was in low light. Second, I needed exposure latitude, because the spot meter is calibrated for 18% gray, but the actor’s skin tones ranged from white greasepaint to cocoa tan.
  3. I chose shutter speed and aperture manually, and let the camera choose from ISO values between 200 and 1600. In this manner, I hoped to keep a high enough shutter speed to freeze action, and an aperture wide enough to gather light but small enough to give me some focus wiggle-room through slightly increased depth of field. When there was enough light, the camera chose a lower ISO, which produces smoother tones. With less light, the camera chose a higher ISO value, which compresses dynamic range and produces higher levels of noise (grain).

Just my luck: When I finally get a simple background, I also get a dancer in a gorilla costume. This one required some dodging in post-processing.

Exposure was only one of my challenges, but this entry is already a bit long. Next time, I’ll discuss focus strategies, lens selection, and how to concentrate on all these complex decisions while a bunch of beautiful women prance before you in their underwear. Talk about challenges.

In this environment, exposure is difficult, but accurate focus is even tougher. Next time, I'll explain how I chose my focus settings and why, after shooting 700 images with two of Nikon's newest, best zoom lenses, I ended up getting my best shots with a twenty-year-old prime lens.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Lighting, Post Processing

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