A few years ago, after a request, I started to photograph stage shows. Generally I would classify myself more as a landscape and wildlife photographer, but I was intrigued and certainly up for the challenge technically. My brief was pretty straightforward – no flash, to confine myself to a discreet location by the stage and photograph the main performance of a private school’s annual dance. Firstly, this was a pretty special private school with a great auditorium, professional level choreography and lighting and really high level production values. The performances are sometimes astonishing and the dancers often go on to professional careers.
I began with a Nikon D800E and 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II. I learnt reasonably quickly that relying on the meter when dancers and performers are often moving rapidly under wildly varying stage lights just resulted in a lot of badly exposed shots. Consequently, I learned to shoot everything manually, including adjusting my ISO on the fly (I reprogrammed the video record button to do this). I also realized I needed a broader range of camera bodies and lenses to really do the job.
In developing pure stage photography and treating it as an art form, I wanted to differentiate myself from many other stage photographers who use a tripod and then photograph the performers posing for the shot under optimal lighting. In my case, I want to capture the performer engrossed in their dance and lost in that moment.
These days, I continue to photograph the actual performance, however, I’m usually asked to shoot the dress rehearsal as well. Although the performance normally has a special quality when the audience is in and it’s real, I often get wonderful shots from the rehearsal. The other advantage of the rehearsal is that I can shoot from diverse angles and get really close, something impossible to do if an audience is in the theater. A two or three day shoot allows me to get to know people involved and work more cohesively with them.
I find some performers are acutely aware of the camera. They know how to assist you to get a great shot, whereas others may be less confident.
It’s taken considerable experience to be able to gauge a stage environment and know instinctively how to set up my cameras. I’m currently running a Nikon D4, D750 and a D810. I use them for different looks and types of performance shots. Normally the 70-200mm f/2.8 stays on the D750 and I use it when the lighting is moody, dark or dramatic. The D4 normally has my 24-70mm f/2.8 attached and I keep it on high speed continuous for particularly fast paced dance or stage performance where I need 10 frames a second to capture a particular moment or expression. I will also use my D800E or D810 with a prime such as a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 or Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art for ballet or slow moving performance where I’m seeking ultimate quality.
I would note that it takes time to instinctively look at a variable set of stage lights, dance performers and think 1/500th, f/2.8, ISO 6400. Photography under stage lighting is challenging and almost always a compromise because ideally, a shutter speed of 1/1000th would be better to capture the action of a fast-paced dance routine. Unfortunately, that may push ISO to unacceptably high levels. Normally, I try to keep my ISO to a maximum of 12,800 on the D4, but many of my shots are from ISO 3200 and up.
Technically, it’s vitally important to be properly equipped. To shoot an all-day dress rehearsal I have my cameras set up with the fastest 64 GB cards I can get. I carry plenty of spares. My D810 and D750 are gripped and the D4 has a spare battery. I might shoot 3,000 images in a day and running out of memory or battery is not an option.
I would describe shooting a stage show as exhilarating and with little margin for error. I recently visited Los Angeles; I would describe driving around LA in a rented vehicle, with no knowledge of the local freeways and navigating purely off a GPS device as a similar kind of scenario. People drive really quickly in LA. I was sticking to the 65 mile an hour speed limit and everyone seemed to be whizzing by. You can’t make a mistake. Similarly, I might capture a magical moment on stage but if that shot is out of focus, blown out or badly framed it’s almost impossible to rescue.
Stage photography of this kind of also labor-intensive. There will be a percentage of out-of-camera shots which will work, but many shots require significant post-processing. Something taken at 12,800 ISO under bright orange stage lights may need radical and creative thinking to bring to life. Often my shots end up significantly different compared to the original.
I have found that there is often an algorithm or solution which works for a particular performance or set of stage lighting and naturally, I dial that in as a preset in Lightroom or ACR. Photography is an art form, and the creative process really comes to life when it comes to taking an image photographed under complex and varied lighting and finding how to make it work.
When I shoot long exposure shots and landscapes, I have the luxury of carefully setting up the shot, using a tripod and taking numerous test images to get focus and exposure perfect. Shooting a high-impact stage performance is the exact opposite. You get only one chance. I love it. This is my favorite form of photography and when people appreciate the work, it’s incredibly satisfying.
Please note: I’m restricted in the images I can use. These are used with permission.
This guest post was shared by Stephen Weir. To see more of his work, please visit his website.
While I tend to shoot outdoors and am conscious about keeping my ISO at its lowest practical setting, I’ve learned, and you’re supporting this, that it is key to keep that ISO up in the 3200 + range. Dealing with a bit of grain is far better than dealing with smeary images.
Hi David. It’s easy enough to get perfect exposure at ISO100 with outdoor shooting. I recently had to get shots of a dove flying from a magicians top hat during a cabaret in an almost dark theater. That’s a tough shot in broad daylight. I used my Nikon Z6 at 12 frames per second using a 50mm Sigma Art at ISO6400, F1.8 and 1/800th.sec I had two frames out of about 20 which were usable but that was enough. I do like the Z6 but I find myself underexposing more than using my own instincts and an optical viewfinder on my other cameras. Often I find myself to be better off ignoring what the meter and viewfinder are telling me and going with my gut. Dark theatre? Fast moving action? One of my go to settings is ISO6400, 1/640th sec and F1.4 using a fast prime. That will stop most dance moves or action on stage, ISO6400 is no problem for a D750, D4 or a Z6, and if I’m trying to focus on a lead dancer or performer F1.4 from a distance is fine. You can see an example taken with a Sigma 105mm art in this article here ( the monochrome of the girl doing a handstand, taken on a dark stage under a single blue spotlight)
If I’m doing group shots indoor for a wedding or event I might use F9 and ISO400 or less but that is with a fair bit of off camera lighting ( Godox AD600 and AD200) in order to give myself plenty of depth of field. Using ISO3200 and up is always something of a compromise – inevitably you can’t use a flash during a performance in a theater. I have to conclude however, that negotiating the politics, turf, fiefdoms and other photographers are some of the more prickly communication issues surrounding my work which have often been more challenging than the technical aspect. I may write another article about these issues to submit to Photography Life soon, because they constitute an important aspect of professional photography.
Useful article Stephen.
Just couple of doubts if you could address.
It seems that you don’t use flash. What is your opinion or recommendations on using flash?
Secondly, without flash I find that I have to boost up the ISO too high and then the graininess on the image just ruins the image. So it becomes a toss up between flashed picture, which disturbs the audience and takes out all the wonderful colors of the stage, versus the no-flash high ISO pictures, which will have a lot of noise on the picture for enlarged prints.
SO what is your best advice on how to handle this scenario?
Thank you in advance.
If you look at one of the previous posts (Dan, Oct 31, 2017) You can see someone being critical of me for creating clipped highlights, missed focus and software noise reduction. I didn’t bother to reply to that comment because it was simply nasty, pedantic and hostile. It also ignores reality. The reality is that stage photography is by definition a compromise. I can show you gigabytes of images taken under ideal lighting conditions or using various on and off camera flash arrangements that are perfectly focused, perfectly exposed and where you can see every pore and eyelash in stunning detail. I’m writing an article about taking photographs of people during a performance, under sometimes almost impossibly difficult lighting conditions, where flash is simply not allowed. I may even later take some images in the theater foyer of the performers using my flash modifiers but during the performance, I’ve yet to encounter any scenario where I would be allowed to use a flash. In most cases it’s simply out of the question.
Another thing Dan was critical of was my focus on equipment. The reason I focused on my equipment is that it is crucial. I use cameras like the Nikon Z6, the Nikon D750 and the Nikon D4. These cameras have outstanding high ISO performance.
My lenses are fast, professional lenses. I shoot a lot of work with a Sigma 105mm Art at F1.4. To be accused of having a “negative impact on the photographic community” I find to be, frankly, offensive. I wrote the article in a voluntary capacity; I was not paid for it. I challenge Dan to take his gear and do better ( if he could actually land a gig). People pay me for my work and it’s partly because very few photographers do this type of photography. So absolutely it’s easier to get perfect results augmenting light with your on or off camera strobes. I’m photographing the stage show of a magician this week. Do you think he or his audience will be comfortable with a flash going off every few seconds? Absolutely not.
Thank you for the thoughtful piece and the beautiful photos. Stage/Event photography in mixed and/or little to no lighting is a tremendous challenge. It is its own art form and requires its own approach. I know because I deal with it frequently. And it feels like an ongoing learning curve. I appreciate your insights.
To be frank, from a technical stand point, most of these shots are highlight clipped. Also, the combination of missed focus and heavily software de-noising destroyed all dancers’ skin texture and made them waxy. The underlying assumption of this article is to provide “stage photography tips” but very few tips were mentioned apart from your camera gears which are also mentioned in BIO section of your website. This to me is somewhat a contradiction to what you wrote in your response above.
Furthermore, I found your tip regarding shooting manual mode and manually change ISO in a fast pace dance performance with unpredictable light sources is utterly bad idea. Even if you were somehow quick enough to manage a few good frames you would have missed many shots.
Please take this as constructive criticism and I have no doubt that you love what you do and Photography Life is a reputable site but article like this will have negative impact on photography community.
This was exactly what I was looking for. shooting a dress rehearsal tomorrow. Ill try to post some of my shots ( using your advice ) soon. Thanks!
Beautiful photos, love the way they capture the moment.
They are artistically and technically great, IMO.
Such negativity from commenters!
Photography is art, at least that is how I see these photos.
No right or wrong to art, only what appeals to the viewer.
Some comments did leave me feeling puzzled and somewhat under attack.
I certainly didn’t write the article with any agenda other than to share my work and hopefully attract more diverse opportunities in stage photography.
I think it’s a myth that all professional photographers make vast amounts of money. I make a decent living, however I’m a lot more motivated by the creative potential than the financial rewards. As we’re all aware, having access to technical information and sophisticated equipment is no substitute for artistic vision and creativity.
Hi Steve, thanks very much for sharing your experiences. The lighting on stage can make a photographers life really hard. E.g. if the performer is sweating, often the lights of the stage’s spotlight will reflect on the forehead, the nose and the cheeks and overexpose (and destroy) the photography.
Am I right to assume that you tend to underexpose your images while in manual mode and use the iso invariance of Nikon bodies (except the D5) to gain the right exposure later? I use spot metering for this task but also use exposure compensation of -1/3 to -1 stops because sometimes the light changes quickly because the artist(s) move out of the spot light or the light is switching from bright white to some colour e.g. as blue. I also tried on M with or without auto ISO. But I prefer aperture priority and set the auto iso to faster shutter with my eye constantly on the viewfinder readings.
My D4 gets a 80-200mm f/2.8, the D800E gets the 17-35mm f/2.8 or a 50mm f/1.8 or on a small stage the 14-24mm f/2.8.
With the D4 I take the close(r) ups (just as you do) with small bursts of 3-6 images (10 images/second) but with the D800E I often frame slightly larger scenes than I normally would and later use the 36MP-resolution to crop to the desired frame (so the hand of image 4 would be visible if wanted).
You got criticized above for your framing. I like the framing. One cannot compare relatively static musicians in b/w to moving artists in colour. These are two different worlds. (In b/w you can push ISO 2 stops higher).
What I wonder though is: How do you move around as a photographer? From the pictures I conclude that the audience’s areas were mostly seated. Another difference to concerts where often there are no seats and the crowd is moving freely before the stage. So how do you avoid being a disturber? Going from D800E to the much quieter D810 helps, but move around in front of the audience I dare not do so.
Thanks Jan, It’s nice to hear from an informed perspective.
Firstly, I would say that negotiating the politics of stage photography can be more difficult than taking the shots. Unlike photographing landscapes or architecture, stage photography entails the gaining of permissions, sometimes conflicting with the “turf” another photographer has staked out, or dealing with individual stakeholders who may have authority status and who may not necessarily see your creative endeavor as useful to their ambitions.
Apart from the technicalities of getting the shot, as I’ve mentioned, it isn’t possible to move around during a performance; you would have to remain inconspicuous. That is possible if you shoot the rehearsal. Of course, if the program is specifically arranged to take posed shots, you might be able to set up studio lighting or have all the stage lights turned on, however there are plenty of photographers who are capable of putting their camera on a tripod and taking this type of shot under ideal lighting. Getting first rate images under stage lighting of an actual performance is much more challenging.
In my experience any type of photography involving people means treading a fine line between getting the shot and being intrusive.
Another issue is using the images you’ve taken on social media or otherwise marketing them commercially. You may be under strict constraints with respect to how and where you can use work which is, ultimately, your own intellectual property.
Thank you Steve. You outline it very well.
I enjoyed the dance photos and have been thinking about trying to photograph some dance recitals myself. I wonder how a Nikon D500 would work for dance. right now that is my dream camera…I have a 5100 now.
Interesting to read all the debates above but I for one found it very interesting and helpful. The pictures too impressed me immensely. It’s a coincidence that I’m doing a shoot for a local dance school tomorrow (unpaid as it’s a charity event for the Make a Wish Foundation) so it will be interesting to try to use some of your helpful guidance above. I’m normally strictly a wildlife and landscape man. Thanks again for a stimulating article.
What gear and settings you use is your own choice. The images you create are yours, the tools you employ to enhance your work of your own choosing.
There is a vast array of equipment to choose from, and many individuals will tout one as being better than the other, faster, sharper, lighter and so on. Wait a year, there will be a new flurry to select from. However that does not mean one will work better or at all for each individual photographer. I’ve photographed with many bodies and many lenses. I use those that work best for me. My brother chooses other equipment and creates wonderful images. How he got there could provide a pearl of wisdom but no guarantee I could get to the same place with his technique.
Steve, it’s great people like you share what they garner from real world experience. It isn’t great you express an elitist attitude about equipment, what constitutes “professional” etc. Your words are important, choose them with wisdom. Everyone with a smartphone is a “Professional Photographer” now days, don’t believe it? Ask them. What you use to obtain images that please or amuse you, it what you use. Doesn’t matter what it is. Being ambiguous is a different thing.
When you write things like this; “for ballet or slow moving performance” I have to laugh. I’ve photographed ballet and found it many things, “slow” was generally speaking not one of them.
Aspiring photographers are not likely to buy a d750 or a d4 with prime lenses in a vain attempt to duplicate some of what you have accomplished here. Perhaps it would be good to say, buy what you can afford, learn technique, learn to use your equipment, learn about post processing a little bit, read the articles here about “how to” come to this same place, it’s all here in these pages and others. You can do these images, anyone can, employ what you learn, use what works for you, let me help, ask me how with what you have and welcome to my world.
Or you and I can debate FX vs. DX, primes vs. telephotos, shop or not shop, minimalist vs. elaborate, B&W vs. color, tripod vs. monopod and so it goes. But let me warn you, I’ll leave in the middle of the debate to go shoot.
In summary, photography is all it’s forms is a glorious endeavor. Let’s encourage new folks to join in.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
― Ansel Adams
Michael I agree with many of the points you raise – certainly I think the obsessive focus on equipment at the expense of knowing what to photograph, how to use the camera gear you have and even how to interact with your subjects – is misleading.
It’s also misleading that I have an unlimited fund to buy camera gear. I’ve carefully saved and bought most of my gear over years and when I recently sold the D800e featured here to pay bills it was like a death in the family. I use a D4, which I bought second hand for a great price. My Sigma 50 Art cost me half the new price. I traveled to the US recently with my battered old D7000. I’m hardly a gear snob and I’m certainly not some rich dilettante. I wrote this article to share my experience with other photographers and to hopefully acquire work from more diverse sources. It’s not a purely academic exercise. I need to make a living.
As a professional photographers it is incumbent on me to have the correct tools for the job and to know how to use them. If your local car mechanic didn’t have the right tools and couldn’t fix your car you would go elsewhere. And by the way, the tools of a car mechanic can be a lot more expensive than those used by a photographer.
It’s a fact that ballet is sometimes anything but slow moving, however this would normally be a question of the type of ballet, which as an art comes in many different sub types such as Jazz, classical and so on. My rule of thumb is to use the highest shutter speed with the lowest possible ISO. Another rule of thumb I use for stage photography is to dial in the ISO level you think will work and then double it. If I can shoot a ballet at 1/320th and ISO 1600 I will, however that usually requires plenty of stage light. As Rob Warren commented, anything fast moving needs 1/500th.
In terms of your egalitarian vision of embracing “new folks”; there is no debate there. My question is that digital imaging devices are so ubiquitous that it gives rise to the greater philosophical issue of whether we are experiencing life directly or just vicariously through an electronic medium. There are a lot of folks with iPhones at the concerts I photograph who still end up buying my work.
Really, I’m not expecting anybody to imitate what I do. I think it’s more important for people to find their own creative voice.