Theater Lenses

Last night I photographed a dress rehearsal for Senga Classic Stage Company‘s upcoming production, Playboy of the Western World. Usually, I shoot rehearsals with the 70-200 f2.8 lens, and that’s how I started out last night.

I fearlessly shoot the 70-200 at full aperture of f2.8.

But after a while, I began to wonder whether I’d be better off using one of my slightly faster lenses for dimmer parts of the stage. Besides, I recently fine-tuned my camera’s autofocus for the 85mm f1.8, so I was itching to give it a try in the field. After the first act, I swapped lenses.

My old 85mm f1.8 lens produces fine results at f2.2, and allowed me a slightly higher shutter speed, which really improves sharpness for shaky guys like me.

About halfway through the second act, I felt like the 85 wasn’t focusing fast enough (it’s a very old lens), so I switched to my 50mm f1.8.  It’s a wickedly sharp lens, but seemed a little short for my position in the theater. Several times, I more-or-less rushed the stage to “zoom” with my feet, but I felt very bad about distracting the actors that way.

The $100 50mm f1.8 lens is surprisingly capable.

With the 50, I had to stop down because I was getting some halo-effects on high contrast areas when I shot at f1.8 or f.2.2. Since I ended up shooting at f2.8 anyway, it occurred to me that I could be using my 17-55 f2.8 zoom, which features better focusing technology and coatings.

Nikon's 17-55 f2.8 zoom is my go-to lens for theater publicity photos, but I typically shoot rehearsals from mid-theater or farther, which is not optimal for those focal lengths. But I really love the short zoom's fast focusing, excellent sharpness, and lovely color rendition.

Sure enough, I got some nice images, but decided I was missing too many opportunities for tighter framing, so I switched back to my 70-200, settled into a comfortable spot, and shot the rest of the performance.

Often, I'm torn between tight shots of the actors and wide shots to present the actors in context. Sometimes, I get lucky and manage both. The 70-200, with a fast aperture and vibration-reduction features, helps to keep my options open.

Obviously, your shooting location influences focal length, and both influence perspective. But if you get comfortable zooming with your feet, here’s the kicker: two of the four lenses I used last night cost well over $1,000 each, but the 50mm f1.8 costs around $100. I think every photographer should have one.

In a small theater, the inexpensive 50mm f1.8 absolutely rocks. This was shot wide open at f1.8, which slightly degrades sharpness, but hey, not bad for a cheap lens that fits in your pocket.

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Filed under Camera Gear, Camera Settings, Dance and Theater

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