Many of us know friends or family who will be performing on stage in a school or community performance or perhaps a local open mic night. Here are a few Tips from a Pro that may help you get the best quality photos to share with family and friends. Some apply to shooting video as well.
Some Basic Tips:
First, find out if there are any restrictions on camera use! Sometimes there are. Schools and community groups may forbid video recording copyrighted performance material as a requirement of their contract with the copyright holders. Often still photos may be allowed with the restriction of “No Flash”. Flash can be very distracting during any performance. I like to use available light whenever possible. Always ask about restrictions first even if none are posted.
Be respectful when taking photos or video. Every performance consists of sights and sounds to be enjoyed by the audience. Depending on the nature of the event, any camera use has the potential to disturb your fellow members of the audience with annoying shutter clicking sounds or blaring bright image viewing screens. Set your DSLR to “silent” mode if it has one and be selective on when you press the shutter. When shooting with a cell phone camera try to keep it close your chest to block the view of the bright screen from those behind you. For many classical music or choir performances I often choose to just enjoy the concert and make photos of key people at the finale when bows are taken.
Arrive early enough to find out if there an area set aside for photographers. Sometimes there is. Often it’s in the rear of the venue where setting up tripods may be permitted to get steady telephoto still shots and video.
If you must work from your seat, try to anticipate key moments and avoid continuous camera use out of respect for the performers and the audience.
Dress Rehearsals often provide the best photo opportunities. If you get permission from the director or producer, you’ll probably have greater flexibility in getting the best angle for your photos. And you won’t have t worry about blocking the view of people in the audience.
Arrive early for the performance. So you can check on camera permissions and find the best seat or side location to take photos from For performances on an elevated stage, I like to to take a seat far enough away to be eye level with the stage so I can get full length photos without cropping out feet.
The Best Camera: It has been said “the best camera to use is the one you have with you” Whether you intend to shoot with the camera built in to cell phone that’s always in your pocket or the latest generation of DSLR camera, take some time to learn how it works and what settings you may have the option to choose to get best results.
For video, use a tripod or other camera support if at all possible. Shaky video is awful to watch even for a few seconds.
Auto or Program settings will do all the thinking for you and may be all you need to get acceptable photos or video to share. Within some limitations, these settings will automatically read the light level, the color of the light and set an appropriate ISO, shutter speed and aperture for optimum exposure given the available light. Beware that some auto settings may deploy flash when you don’t want it unless you deliberately disable it.
For More Accurate Color determine the dominant light source and set the camera to that type of light. For many years stage lighting has been done with tungsten lights and color gels added for theatrical effect. If that is the case in your venue set the camera to record for tungsten light. (The tungsten setting is most often shown on your camera as the little light bulb icon) That should not only give you good color when all lights are up to what appears to be “white” light but a fairly accurate representation of what the audience experiences when colored gels are used.
It can be challenging to get the most accurate color representation in a theater setting with multiple lights changing into multiple colors and may actually be near impossible. The safest fallback is to set your camera to Auto White Balance, often shown as AWB in settings and be prepared to make some color adjustments with photo editing software later.
The Best Lens: DSLR lenses with wide apertures like 2.8 or 2.0 are very useful in the low light situations often encountered in local theater productions. These wide aperture lenses can help you shoot with a lower ISO setting for better quality or get a higher shutter speed than lenses that max out at openings of 5.6 or 4. I always shoot near wide open aperture to get the most light through the lens to the image sensor enabling the highest shutter speed possible. Of course at very wide aperture settings, your depth of field will be minimal, so it becomes critically important to be sure of your focus. I often switch between my 85mm lens for close up and medium shots and a wide angle to catch more of the whole scene.
Some informal venues like pubs with open mic nights may let you bring your own lighting if you ask in advance and get permission. Be sure to place your lighting out of the way of paths used by servers and customers. Also know that your electronic flash will become part of the audience experience. This can be cool for a performance of a loud rockin’ song but not so cool during a soft ballad.
Here’s an example of an available light photo during a local band’s performance and another with remote flash. Which lighting do you think works the best?
The results on anything we do usually corresponds to how much thought and effort we put in to it. Hopefully these tips will give you some food for thought on capturing the best photos at live performances.
Most often when photographing family and friends on stage, I choose the seat with the best view, shoot sparingly with my DSLR equipped with wide aperture lenses – and try to enjoy the show as much as possible.