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

Stage Photography Tutorial-2
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,
(signed)

Stage Photography Tutorial-1

Gear:

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.

Gotchas:

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!)

Stage Photography Tutorial-25

Next up: General tips for stage shooting.