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!
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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!