Crystal Ball Photography tips and tricks

My October creativity project was crystal ball photography, and it was an interesting experiment into what works and what did not. Most of my shots were with the 24-70, as it has the versatility of some close shots and some wide shots. Some things I learned:

Compositionally, you can shoot tightly around the ball, or more wide:

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Sometimes it is nice to line up horizon lines:

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And sometimes you can completely ignore them:

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I personally think either a match or complete mismatch looks better than an almost-but-not-quite match:

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The aperture you choose will make for very different images! You can go for a more abstract background shooting wide open:

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Or a more defined background with a smaller aperture:

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Either way, I find it looks better if the edges of the ball are in focus, and that often takes an aperture of at least f/4 with my camera/lens combo. Here’s one where I didn’t get that and I think it doesn’t look as good:

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Focus on the refraction in the ball rather than the background. Here’s one where I tried it the other way around, and I consider it a flop.

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Sometimes it looks better to flip the image vertically so the glass ball is at the top. I did it with this image, because the background looked more abstract and the refraction makes more sense right side up:

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But this one I chose not to, because there is enough of the background in focus that it made sense to leave it, and I felt my hand looked weird upside down.


Sometimes it makes sense to flip it horizontally, too. In these images, you can see that flipping horizontally makes the words more readable:

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City Library-1

Sometimes holding the ball is the only way to get the composition and refraction you want. But I have found I much prefer images without my hand in them. I haven’t tried using someone else’s hand, but I know I don’t like MY hand in the images as much! I just know that I played with a bunch of different ways of holding my hand and I am not really loving any of them!


The thing about spheres is that they like to roll. Often they’ll roll away from you. It helps to find a small crack, divot or corner to put it in:

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Or you can create your own on smooth surfaces. I’ve brought clear washers, buttons, a key ring, and sometimes just put some dirt or sand underneath it to prop it in place.

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Make sure you polish the ball and don’t leave fingerprints! Sadly, I didn’t notice this one until I got home.

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And last but certainly not least: The ball can make nice starbursts and flares, but it can also set fire to things! Right after I took this shot, I smelled smoke and realized the wooden handrail was burning! It you look closely there are a few wisps of smoke! Thankfully moving the ball made it stop and I dumped some water on it just in case, no real harm done.


Have fun shooting with your crystal ball and don’t set fire to anything!




Stage Shooting Part 4: Dance Specific Tips

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In some ways, dance is remarkable similar to theater, especially musical theater. In other ways, it is remarkably different. I’ve already addressed how to get in to shoot dress rehearsals, general stage shooting, and theater specific tips, so here are tips specific to dance:

Don’t worry about specular highlights on sparkly costumes – dance can have lots of sparkle and shine, and it’s perfectly fine for some of those highlights to be completely blown. Expose for something NOT sparkly and unless the costume is 100% sequins and the bright lights are bringing it ALL out, let the chips fall where they may. (And if that’s your situation, God bless you!) Thankfully my daughter’s dance studio is not into sparkly costumes much.
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Anticipate the action Try to catch the movement at it’s fullest extension or most fluid look. This is easiest when you find and watch for a repeated phrasing in the dance.
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Anticipate and try to catch swirls and flow in costumes
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Be aware of shapes and lines in the individual dancer and in groups Look for them and catch them!
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Repeated elements are also common – you can emphasize the pattern my extending it past the margins of the image.
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Just like with theater, look for smaller groupings within the large group and highlight them. At the time I shot these dancers, there were two other small groups, one on either side.
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Look for repetition with multiple dancers Patterns and repetition often happen in dance, and photos highlighting this can be nice compositions.
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Don’t be afraid to catch closeups of hands or feet
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Small well timed bursts can be useful. Whenever I anticipate a leap, I do a short burst. In this example, I shot a burst of 4 images as the dancer leapt. Two will be deleted. I personally love the bottom left, thought the top right comes a close second! Don’t overdo it with burst mode or you’ll hate yourself come culling!

Use symmetry Because it has such a nice balance, symmetry is a common element in dance, and I particularly like using a square composition with it.
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Find and use reflections and shadows The shiny floors and bright lights can make for some interesting effects, if you can find a way to include them in your compositions.
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I’ve had the opportunity to shoot my daughter’s dance company in some unusual locations off site that have been an amazing experience. Some times for shooting dance other than on a stage:

Take advantage of a different vantage point For this shoot at the public library, I chose to take a spot on an upper floor and shoot down for a different look.

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Shoot wide Include elements of the space for the dancers and the surrounding area.

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Stage Shooting, Part 3: Theater Specific Tips

My three kids are all proud self-proclaimed drama geeks. Earlier this year, between the two kids at home, our family was juggling rehearsals for FIVE plays all at once. (And yes, we asked ourselves quite often “What the heck were we thinking?!?!?”)
So I’ve shot lots of plays in the eleven years since my oldest first got involved in theater. And here are a few things I’ve learned over that time that help get good shots:
Know the play! If possible, read the script, or at least the Cliff Notes version. Or Wikipedia. Whatever it takes to know what to expect. Make a mental note of important things that make a plot twist or might be visually interesting.
Ask in advance about blocking, special lighting effects, etc. The director will likely be a little too busy, but if you can ask an actor or crew member. Since you know the script, you can ask things like “When Romeo first kisses Juliet, which side of the stage will they be on?” or “Who throws the first punch in the fight scene?”
If possible, shoot more than one rehearsal This will help you to catch the things you might have missed the first time. I missed this dramatic scene where Jean Valjean rips his release papers at the end of the song the first time through, but caught it the second time.
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Figure out zones for different lighting I keep my ISO steady most of the time, and often keep the aperture around 5.6 unless I am going for a special effect. Then I adjust the shutter speed. I mentally divide the set into several “zones” – starting with the darkest part. I figure ISO on that spot, so that my shutter speed can be at the minimum I need, then I figure what the shutter speed will need to be at the next darkest area, and on up. This works best when the set and lighting don’t change much, such as this production of You Can’t Take It With You where I marked the shutter speeds I used for each zone on the image below:
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And for this production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, a spotlight was sometimes used when the actors were center stage, and sometimes not used. The sooner you figure out the difference the spotlight makes, the faster you’ll be able to shoot under changing conditions. A difference of about 1/200 was about right, though if I were doing it again, I might have gone about a third of a stop faster with the spotlight as I ended up reducing a lot of highlights.
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Look for expression and emotion Especially those moments that show connection between actors or humor. I love this scene from You Can’t Take It With You because the casting of Essie and Ed was so comical, and their expressions emphasize the disparity.
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Look for the iconic moments Without me even telling you, it’s obvious which plays the next two photos are from, right?
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Shoot details and closeups You don’t always have to get the wide sweeping view. Often when I’m shooting a second dress rehearsal, I’ll focus on closeups and detail shots the second time. The two girls who split up a pair of legwarmers for this number very much appreciated that I noticed and shot it.
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Get there early You can get closeups of the set and portraits of the actors as they come onto the set. The portraits are of my daughters in two different plays. And yes, my daughter was playing a drunk for this portrait!
Stage Shooting Set Details

Dance numbers need a higher shutter speed With musical theater, remember that the principles of dance (which I’ll address in the next article) apply as well. A higher shutter speed and anticipating moments of good positioning really help!
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Next up: Dance Specific Tips!

Stage Shooting, Part 2: General stage shooting tips

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Shooting events on the stage definitely takes a different approach, and doing it well takes some skill and practice. Here are some tips for shooting stage plays or dance on stage:
Stage Photography Tutorial-7Expose for highlights plus 1/3 stop – it’s fine to clip the shadows, particularly in black curtains behind the stage. You can bring back highlights if they are slightly exposed, and slight overexposure helps with noise. Sometimes clipping the blacks does a nice job of isolating the subject.
Use lower ISO than you think Just because it is dark in the audience doesn’t mean it is dark on stage! You don’t need to max out your ISO, but also don’t be afraid of high ISO. Never use flash as it is distracting to the actors or dancers, and without light stands or good places to bounce, it’s hard to get good directional light anyway. Most of my stage shooting is done around ISO 3200-4000.
Keep your shutter speed high – 1/300 for plays, 1/500 or more for musical theater or dance – movement is MUCH faster than you might realize, and there are no reshoots unless the director decides they need to run the scene again. To the left is an example of blur because of a shutter speed that was not quite high enough. It was shot at 1/125. Just the flick of his hands was enough to create a blur.
Set aperture wide enough to get the action – adjust as needed if you want to use a narrow depth of field to isolate an actor. I find that the busier the set, the wider I like to shoot, but 5.6 suits me well for most purposes. At the left I’ve shown an example from a production of Les Miserables where I wanted to isolate Cosette and Jean Valjean from Eponine in the background. Definitely avoid shooting at 2.8 or lower if at all possible as you’ll be hard pressed to get multiple actors or dancers in focus.
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White balance – can be very tricky. If you’re lucky you can find something pure white, pure black, or medium gray to take a custom WB. Often the black curtains at the back of the stage work well. Remember to redo if the lighting changes. And ALWAYS be shooting in RAW so you have more flexibility in editing! Take into account the work of the lighting crew – In this scene from Fiddler on the Roof the lighting crew created an otherworldly green cast for the ghosts to perform in and I wanted to preserve it. With dance, they can get a little crazy with white balance and sometimes you just have to plan on going B&W!
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Shoot the tech crew They are the unsung heros of theater. And often they love to be remembered as much as the actors on stage. I try to arrive early for dress rehearsal to pop into the booth and get a few shots of them at work. The sound crew, spotlight aimer, stage crew and stage manager all should be captured. If there’s an orchestra in the pit, see if you can get permission to go down there. And I always shoot the director giving notes at the end of rehearsal.
Stage Shooting Crew
Shoot Makeup and Hair My daughters love it when I come and shoot the prep – and the large, well lit mirrors for makeup make for wonderful opportunities.
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Use silhouettes when appropriate When the light on the actors or dancers is dim, consider shooting a silhouette – make sure it’s still clear what’s happening and that the actors don’t blend into one big blob.
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Change your angle – One of the best parts about shooting dress rehearsal is that you can generally move around the audience. I am careful to not be blocking the director’s view of the stage, but otherwise I run ALL OVER. I will shoot from halfway back in the theater, I will shoot from one side or the other, and occasionally even from right on the proscenium, depending on the setup of the specific facility. One of the stages my daughters perform on has a concave front edge with stairs across the front, and I can often stand on those stairs way off to one side to shoot across the stage. It’s OK to shoot low, or high if you’re lucky enough to have a vantage point.
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Watch the front of the stage Remember that when you shoot from any angle other than straight on, the front edge of the stage will NOT be straight. This is a real problem when the front of the stage is curved, as it often is. Of the two stages my girls most often perform on, one is curved concave (away from the audience), and the other convex (toward the audience) Avoid the temptation to fix that. If you do need to straighten in post, use the actor’s feet or the legs of a piece of furniture as your point of reference.
Wait for them to look up! Many theaters for amateur plays don’t have footlights – catch them looking up to avoid dark shadows around the eyes. In this example, you can see the difference in the light on their faces.
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Watch for small groups or tableaus – Many directors like to block things this way when there is a large group, and it can be a nice way to get interaction between cast members without random hands and feet at the edges of the frames. Here’s an example of that from theater and an example from dance:
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Try for a full cast shot at the end of the rehearsal It can be hard to corral everyone, but with the director’s cooperation, it can be done. They’re often a favorite with the cast.
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Next up: Theater Specific Tips!

Stage Shooting, Part 1: Getting in, Gear, and Gotchas!

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I’ve been asked many times about how I shoot my kids’ plays and dance performances, so I thought I’d write it up ONCE and then I can just send people here.

Getting in:

The best time to shoot is during dress rehearsals! That way you are free to move around (usually) and not bothering other audience members. Plus when it comes time for the actual performance you are free to relax and enjoy the performance without having a camera in your face.

Stage Photography Tutorial-4Tips:

1. Get permission to shoot the dress rehearsal (see the sample letter to the director below.)
2. Remember ABOVE ALL that this is not your photo shoot. Not in the least. This is their dress rehearsal, and you are to be the fly on the wall. Never, ever, ask a performer to do something or change something for you.
3. If this is your child’s performance, either focus on shooting your child or try to shoot all the performers, depending on what the director prefers.
4. If possible, ask the director or performers before rehearsal starts if there are any sudden dramatic moments you should be prepared for. Fight scenes, kisses, and gymnastic moves are all things to ask about.

Sample letter for the director of the play:

Dear (director):
I am (describe who I am and why I want photos) would like to be able to take photos of (name of play) during the dress rehearsal on (date). I prefer to take photos during the dress rehearsal so I am not a distraction to the audience during performances. I want to assure you that I understand this is your rehearsal and not my photo shoot. If you allow me to come and take photos, I promise that I will:
Stay out of your way
Not speak to or instruct the actors in any way
Use only your available stage lighting – no flash
Share the images with you and any of the actors who request them
Please let me know if this will be all right with you, and I thank you for all your hard work on this play,

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As for gear, this is personal preference. I do about 90% of my stage shooting with my Nikon D810 and the Tamron 70-200 2.8. I also have my backup D700 with the 24-70 on it available. There’s already enough running around and I’d hate to use a prime and have to zoom with my feet even more!

I recommend that you choose:

  • A camera body that can do ISOs of 3200-4000 *well* (not just have it on the dial, but can do it WELL without lots of noise)
  • A constant aperture zoom. I think the 24-120 f/4 might also be a choice that would work well, and if I didn’t have two camera bodies I might go that route.
  • A good crossbody camera strap. I use the Slide strap from Peak Design, but I’ve also used a Black Rapid as well in the past. I wear my main body and 70-200 and pick up the backup with wider body as needed.

You can always rent gear – for many years I rented a Nikon 70-200 2.8 from a local camera shop for about $35 a day.


Some things to be cautious about:

  • Stick to stills – the licensing agreements the school or community theater sign often prohibit video, as it can capture copyrighted dialog and music in a way that still photos don’t. Remember, you are there as a courtesy, and you don’t want to cause them trouble with the licensing.
  • If you’re up on the proscenium, don’t fall into the orchestra pit! I personally never go up there if the pit is open.
  • When running around a dark theater, BE CAREFUL about tripping. Especially in the school setting, there can be backpacks everywhere. I personally will pick up backpacks and put them on seats to make it safer for myself and ALL people in the theater.
  • Moving between the rows of seats has it’s own dangers – I’ve bruised my knees and thighs many times. It might look stupid but I’ve taken to doing a sideways hop/leap thing in the rows. (But at least it’s dark!)

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Next up: General tips for stage shooting.