The Toughest Theater Shoot Yet, Part 2

The subtext of my experience photographing the Ojai Art Center production of Cabaret: However smart your camera may be, there are times when you have to outsmart it.  Usually by dumbing it down.

In the photo below, we see three people caught in the act of singing and dancing. They wear black and red clothes. Some of the background is black and red. Much of the background reflects bright, gelled lights.  I mention all this because the amount of detail in this scene narrows my choice of useful focusing modes on the Nikon D300.

The D300 features fifty-one focus sensors and several choices of focus sensor arrays. For a moving subject on a simple background, one might choose all fifty-one sensors, but for multiple moving subjects and a very busy background, one wants fewer sensors, to prevent surrounding areas of similarly colored, high contrast subjects from confusing and distracting the autofocus brain.

One advantage of working close with a wider lens is additional depth of field without too much depth of field. I haven't the foggiest notion where I focused.

For Cabaret, I set the camera for a nine-sensor pattern to keep the active sensors near the subject of MY choice. (I’m not explaining this well, but you really need to spend time with your camera manual or one of Thom Hogan’s books to learn how this works on YOUR camera).

It took me a long time to figure out why my dance images often seemed to be focused on the wrong dancer. I was using all of my sensors, and when another dancer was lit more brightly than then the one on whom I focused, the camera’s computer shifted focus to the brighter, similar looking subject.  Choosing fewer sensors decreases the camera’s opportunities to outwit me.

By locking a focus sensor on the blonde dancer's face while holding down the continuous focus button, I was able to engage the surrounding eight focus sensors to track her movement and keep her face in focus (in as much as the shutter speed could freeze that motion).

I tried three different lenses during the course of two rehearsals, and each performed admirably. I started with the 17-55 f2.8, mostly from the front row. Then, I spent the second half of that rehearsal in the middle of the theater, shooting with the 70-200 f2.8. Naturally, anyone on the Internet can give you a dozen reasons why these lenses are imperfect, and therefore, in the Bizzaro World of Internet forums, total crap. In fact they are great lenses. But I came to the second rehearsal armed with one lens only: my ancient 85mm f1.8. There was an audience for this rehearsal, so I wanted a compact kit I could use discreetly from the third row.

Cliff and Sally shot with the 17-55 from the front row.

Cliff and Sally shot with the 85 from the third row.

What a joy it was to work with a prime lens! Instead of driving myself crazy and missing the moment while zooming in and out, I just aimed and shot.  I said in the last post that I got my best shots with the prime, but upon further review, that’s not quite true. The images are as good or better than any I got with the zooms and it was much easier to use. I also believe it produced superior color and contrast, but I haven’t done any scientific review of the raw images (and never will – I’m done with this event and moving on to the next one!).

When you get right down to it, I just like the look of the 85 more than most of my lenses. Perhaps it's familiarity, but I don't want to over-analyze it. I just want to enjoy the lens.

The 85mm f1.8 also allowed me to shoot in lower light, and sometimes one third of a stop makes the difference between a usable image and a reddish blob.

Forgive me for patting myself on the back, but the reason I chose to blog about this as “The Toughest Theater Shoot Yet” is because it was difficult, but I figured it out on the fly, and I’m very proud of that. By the end of the experience I was shooting in manual exposure mode, with a single focal length lens, making my own decisions, just as when I started in photography. The time I devote to practice and study equipped me to recognize and overcome obstacles. That said, I hope I never see those reflective panels on a stage again.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Dance and Theater, Professional vs. Amateur

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