Theater photography involves providing images that are concise and maintain the integrity of the light and the vision of the director. Over the last several years, I’ve worked with local theater groups in our area to provide promotional images and headshots, as well as archive images of their productions. Archive images are used by the actors, set designers/builders and costume designers to represent their work. I have learned during these last few years to apply time saving-techniques such as the use of manual camera settings, manual white balance, targeted depth of field and post-processing tricks.
Photographing theater is slightly different than any of my other photographic sessions. I don’t have control of the lighting and am subject to the vision of the lighting director with the light being an integral part of the theoretical storytelling process. The light has been created to provide drama, it can be harsh and unflattering with dark eyecups and severe shadows. Changing that though would be an affront to their work. The following is how I preserve their dramatic vision.
Let’s start with the camera settings. I prefer to shoot manually for both aperture and shutter speed leaving my ISO on auto. Metering is set to center weighted – I find it to be more accurate and less likely to be fooled by dark areas and backgrounds, but I still find that most of the shots will require heavy negative exposure compensation to keep the highlights from being blown out. Subjects are usually static for these shoots so a shutter speed of 1/60th to 1/125th of a second with an image stabilized lens is good.
An aperture f/4.5-f/5 using the Nikon D500 provides enough depth of field. That is subject to change, of course, based on the image. I have found that the difference between shooting with a full frame camera vs a crop sensor is moot with the depth of field equivalency of a larger aperture on the crop sensor camera making up the difference. The predominate lens used is the Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-f/4E VR.
Conserving the unique look to the theater light involves a bit of a hands-off attitude. White balance is set using a custom WB setting using an ExpoDisc 2 with a #2 blue added to keep the skin tones a bit warmer for the main lighting source, which is tungsten base light with a blush gel. I also take an image of my X-Rite color checker for reference later if needed. Remember that the color added for the performance is key to their vision, so we don’t want to change that. Exposure in the final image should closely reflect the mood of the set at the time, a very common mistake is to correct it. Lastly, this should go without saying, no flash or added light!
The performers are the main subjects and they want to be seen as clearly as possible. With that in mind, depth of field is important. This is one of the areas that we can cheat, bring players closer together and more on the same plane as to allow all subjects to be clearly visible and sharp. I’ll also ask them to turn faces slightly to the camera to make them recognizable. There are times where it is important to focus on a primary individual and put the others in the background out of focus, but not often. It’s dealt with by maintaining the distance between the actors, reducing the aperture and increasing the focal length for less depth of field.
Post-processing is where we even the playing field. Having a manual white balance preset, there is usually very little that I’ll change in post in that area. The dramatic and uneven lighting on the other hand, can be several stops different across the scene and while not wanting to change the look too much, I still want to be able to reveal the actors in the shadow areas. This is where we get to cheat again. In these cases, I rely on the Gradient Filter or Adjustment Brush in Lightroom to alter the difference in brightness to a plausible level.
Headshots are done with a single light setup, a Paul C Buff Einstein into a softbox, (no cinema lighting here, simple and flattering) with a popup background. Minor global adjustments, vignetting and light retouching is done. Duplicates are made of all the images needed for promotional display and converted to black and white with Photoshop via a channel mixer action I’ve made that works well with skin tones. This is tweaked as needed to accommodate varied facial tonal qualities.
With a tight two-day turnaround delivery, I prefer to print the images myself. 8×10 prints of the promo B&W images are done through Lightroom to an Epson P800 using Red River luster paper. Images are also uploaded to a gallery for the performers to see and download.
Hopefully, this will help some of you to improve your shooting of theater or even concert venue shoots. Live shooting may require a bit faster shutter speeds, but the basis still applies. I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and I’ll try to answer any questions you may have in the comments section below.
This guest post was submitted by Michael Steinbach. Michael has been a photographer for 34 years specializing in weddings, senior and family portraits, commercial and corporate photography. You can check more of his work at his website Bach Photography.