One of the things that is very gratifying about being a freelance photographer is the diversity of work. One day one may be shooting a portrait for a annual report and the next day photographing for a news publication. The past two months, I have returned to shooting live theater in the form of opera.
Photographing in a theater environment is always a challenge. Unlike shooting available light outdoors, the lighting director is constantly changing the look on stage to evoke different moods and messages. The only real constant in the photography is the source of the light. Tungsten!
In an attempt to get correct colors in my photographs, I set the white balance to the tungsten icon. If I were to use the daylight setting, all the photos would be too warm. Additionally, if I were to use the Auto setting, there is no guarantee the camera could match the color correctly. Tungsten lights are the source of most of the light that falls upon the stage.
Metering the stage and it’s actors is a trick to do also. When you point your lens at the stage, the meter is taking in a lot of background that is often black. One could set the meter sensitivity on the camera to “Spot” and take a reading just of the performer’s clothing in the center of his or her chest. The clothing should be fairly neutral in tone and the setting should be transferred to the shutter speed and lens opening in “Manual Mode” If this meter reading is say, 1/160 @ f2.8, I assure you when you pull back and compose the photo, the meter will tell you that you are underexposing the shot because of all the dark background area.
Shoot the photo at the settings made from the close in metering and evaluate the image on the back of the camera. If it is too light, increase your shutter speed (1/160-1/200). To dark, slow your shutter down a bit (1/160-1/100).
Be aware also, that, as you view and shoot different parts of the stage, the light level often changes. One’s eye goes to the lightest in any scene, hence, the center of the stage may be 50-100% lighter that the sides of the stage.
One thing I seldom do when shooting theater is to go to the balcony. From that point of view, you see too much of the markings on the floor for the actors and the scenery. An 80mm-200mm f 2.8 lens about 10 rows back on the floor is a very useful tool. Dress rehearsal is really the only time to get your photos done. Come opening night, a photographer is a distraction to everyone, talent & audience. Folks have paid to see a show and not the kind a photographer puts on.
Once you get the hang of it, theatrical photography really makes one look good as a shooter. You have a paid professional lighting person that tees the ball up very nicely for you. All you have to do is get quality exposures at the right moment and you now have a new dimension to your portfolio.