Thursday, 28 March 2013

Performing Arts - Low Light

I was fortunate to be asked to photograph a performance of Anthony Breslin's Trybe recently. It's not the first time I've photographed performing arts so I had some idea of what to expect and how to prepare.

I thought I might cover some aspects of the preparation and shooting at the event performance.

To prepare I cleaned and checked all my gear including the sensor. Theater lighting is harsh and when mixed with smoke machines tends to bring out every spot of dust on the sensor. Charged my batteries and made sure I knew where everything was in my bag. I found dark matt clothing.

On the night I went in with another photographer George Darsas. We made ourselves known and negotiated shooting positions based on our personal preferences and the lighting positions. Our rules were set (no crossing lights and no crossing the audience). George had shot the rehearsal so knew some of what was coming. I deferred to him as he'd seen the lighting operate.

I reviewed the lighting and saw that I could either be at 45 degrees to the stage area or I could be on stage left or right. George preferred right and I preferred left so that was handy. I would have several powerful coloured spots and floods to my back and sides. Directly opposite me were more spots and floods aimed directly at me. A smoke machine was huffing filling the air. I felt the position was challenging but it gave opportunities for backlit silhouettes, layered images and interesting effects like this one.

Since my chosen position was basiclly on stage I spoke to the stage manager to work out how far I could move in each direction to minimise my visibility to the audience and eliminate any possible interference with the performers. The dark clothing helps.

Once my spot was set I lined up my lens collection that I wanted to use, spare battery and lens cloth ready to go. I made sure I knew the order as I'd have to feel for them in the dark later. In my bag nearby was a second body and other gear that might be needed during the performance. I could not keep the bag near me so if I'd needed it I would have had to cross lights to get it.

What glass did I select? I had a f/1.8 50mm prime, a f/1.8 85mm prime, a f/2.8 70-200 zoom and a f/4 24-105 zoom with image stabilisation. I normally don't use IS but it would allow me to shoot at f/4 for good depth of field and reduce the ISO. The other fast glass would also allow me to minimise my use of high ISO. I mostly used the two zoom lenses as the action was fast and furious.

The performers came in for a pre show pep talk. This was the first time I'd seen them in the stage lights. I started shooting even though a lot of them were not yet in complete costume and those that were had coverings. I wanted to test the light and prove my gear. I shot some test shots with each of my lenses. I found that when the blue and white lights were on I could use 400 iso but when the red lights were primary I had to go a high as 6400 iso to stop motion without blur. This meant I'd have to do some noise reduction in post but not too bad as my body is quite good up to and including 6400.














Some of the lighting was enourmously bright and harsh such as the massive flood from above highlighting this dancer during her performance. The harsh light combined with her white costume and face paint made shooting her without blowing out and retaining any of the other surrounding detail very challenging. Conversely there were times when the lighting was so dim I could barely manage outlines and silhouettes such as this didgeridoo player.

To shoot in the low light conditions I had to keep the shutter fast. I know my personal limits when hand holding and it's not great. I've got shaky hands. You should practice before you get into a situation so that you know your limits too. For me I follow a simple rule, minimum shutter speed is 2 x the focal length. I know this is vastly simplified but it works great for me and errs on the side of caution. If I'm shooting with a lens at 100mm then I will use a shutter no less than 1/200th of a second. As I want to control the depth of field in shoot in aperture priority (AV). This means I have to keep an eye on the shutter the camera is about to use when the button is half pressed before shooting). I could shoot in manual, but to be honest thinking about controlling two things manually (ISO and aperture) is enough without chucking in shutter on another dial. I use spot metering so my subject will be in focus and have best available light. I trust the technology.

When choosing my shots I try to pick emotive and action moments when the actors are well involved. I try to get it right in camera as much as possible. I look around and frame to cover the performers and to try and minimise surrounding detail.

In this shot you can see a paint roller clipped to the fence in the foreground and a video screen in the background. The roller was part of the stage and used throughout the performance. I also knew I could not move it as the performers would expect it to be exactly where it is when the reach for it in the dark. I waited in this moment as they moved until the screen showed a dark image then went for it squeezing off several in succession. The yellow performer is quite bright but not blown out while the others are less visible depending on their role of the moment. The lighting happened to play into my hands.


If you get an opportunity to shoot a performance, do it. See what magic you can capture of the moment. It is a lot of fun but it is also challenging and stressful. Trying to capture a moment, waiting for good light and manipulating that light as much as you can within your confines is not easy. However, the rewards are fantastic and enjoyable. If you can, spread yourself over several nights - a moment missed one night can be captured on the next.

There is an album of my favourite images from this shoot.