The Show Must Go On, But Someone Else Can Photograph It

From my first theater shoot in 2006. The Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 was slow to focus, but tack sharp, with good color and contrast. And Nordhoff High School lights its shows better than many professional theaters.

One of my 2012 goals is to extricate myself from the web of community theater photography arrangements I’ve fallen into over the past few years. I enjoy the challenge, and the people, and the challenging people, but my attention is needed elsewhere.

While contemplating a future where fewer than 80% of shots might occur at the limit of my camera’s ISO sensitivity, I decided to compare some images from my first theater shoot with a few from my most recent session.

In 2006, ISO 1400 required a healthy application of noise reduction and all the Photoshop trickery I could muster. But it worked pretty well, and I was ecstatic to get anything at all in that light.

By 2011, ISO 6400(!) looks pretty good right out of the camera. This high ISO performance is the most compelling benefit of all those camera body upgrades, vis a vis image quality.

My first theater shoot was Nordhoff High School’s 2006 production of Oklahoma, in which my son played Curly. I used a six megapixel Nikon D70 and my long-in-the-tooth but much beloved Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 lens. I bought the D70 in 2004 because it was the first “affordable” camera body that worked with all of my old lenses. A couple of years after I got it, I started upgrading lenses. And then I started the camera body upgrade path as well, moving to a D200, then a D300 for several years, and now the 16 megapixel D7000. How much has this investment in better lenses and bodies improved my theater photography? A lot less than I thought.

The best images from the D70 with 80-200 lens are surely as good as any from the D7000 with the 70-200 f/2.8 lens. The main difference is the ease of capture and the keeper ratio, especially in low light. I get more good images with less effort now, but even that improvement may result from experience as much as from better equipment. I also spend a LOT LESS TIME post-processing, and that too may be the benefit of experience, since I’m more attuned to the lighting idiosyncrasies of specific theaters, and I’m less likely to waste time on a marginal image.

In 2006, I shot with a long lens from a distance, causing compression of the subject and background. Plus, I needed so much noise reduction on these ISO 1600 images that they appear airbrushed - few teenagers have skin this smooth.

With experience, I learned to move closer with a shorter lens to achieve a more three dimensional look. This isn't possible during performances, but experience taught me to shoot during dress rehearsals. I did not use any noise reduction on this ISO 2500 image, but the actors might wish I had.

As long as I’m being ruefully nostalgic, I may as well note that all of my old lenses focused perfectly with that original D70, but each upgrade of camera and lens required more fine-tuning of the gear and my technique.  I now second-guess myself continuously in the field, questioning the sharpness and focus accuracy of every image. Here’s a good tip to remember: a higher resolution camera reveals your errors in greater detail.

Worst of all, I look at the pictures from five years ago and think they look better than what I’ve been doing recently. As they would say on Battlestar Galactica, that’s a mindfrak.

In the meantime, I see all my friends giddily posting blurry, ill-exposed, color-shifted, oddly cropped, YET WONDERFULLY EVOCATIVE cell phone pictures on Facebook.

And so I am hitchhiking to Byzantium, or something like that, to make photos for myself for a while and see if there’s any there there. And to ponder what the hell I’m doing with all this gear.

Is this the end of my phase as a theater photographer? Perhaps I should borrow this fellow's thinking cap. Hey, wait a minute...


Filed under Camera Gear, Dance and Theater, Low Light

2 responses to “The Show Must Go On, But Someone Else Can Photograph It

  1. Cindy Pitou Burton

    Love this post. An honest assessment and good questions. Change is good for the creative juices. As for the question about your equipment–well, guys seem to love all that equipment. Maybe that one is simpler than you thought.

  2. Myrna Cambianica

    o.k., you have all the technical knowledge and the equipment … now comes the inquiry into your self … deciding what you really want to photograph and not what you have to photograph

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