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How to Photograph Your Theatrical Lighting

If you’ve ever tried to snap a photo of a stage production, you know that it’s difficult to get an accurate representation of how the scene appears. You’re fighting a number of unseen photo demons: color, contrast, brightness, and sharpness can all go awry if not addressed. This article assumes that you know a little about photography. If you’re a complete novice, you may need to enlist a friend who has some photographic knowledge.

My first suggestion is to use a 35mm SLR camera. SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, which means when you’re looking through the viewfinder, you’re actually viewing through the lens. This type of camera generally has features which are useful when shooting theater lighting. Although a point & shoot camera might produce useable images, the chances are better that it will not. If you do use a point & shoot, turn off the flash if possible. (A digital point & shoot might produce better results than a film point & shoot, but an SLR camera, either film or digital, is preferable.)

A zoom lens can come in handy if you’re unable to move around the theater while shooting. A tripod is not a necessity, but if the light is extremely low or if you’re using a telephoto lens, you’ll have difficulty maintaining sharpness without camera support.

Since most theaters use tungsten lights, it’s important to buy tungsten film for accurate color. Although our eyes will quickly adjust to different sources of light, film is not nearly as flexible. Tungsten film is not as widely available as daylight film, so you might have to look around for it. A professional camera store should stock it.

These days, 35mm tungsten film is available only as a slide film. Because good color is crucial, I recommend using the slide film, even if you eventually want prints. Kodak makes a 320 speed tungsten slide film which works well for theater photography. A lot of photographers will rate this film at 640 and have it pushed one-stop when it’s developed. Doing this allows you to use a faster shutter speed and/or a smaller aperture, increasing the sharpness.

When you load the film into your camera, be sure to set the camera’s light meter to your film speed. (A lot of newer cameras do this automatically.)

Once inside the theater, you’ll need to determine your camera settings. It’s best to use as high a shutter speed as possible– especially if there are actors in motion. Any shutter speed over 1/30 of a second should do a reasonable job of freezing action. Consult your camera’s manual to determine how to set the highest shutter speed possible for the lighting conditions.

Sometimes in theater lighting there is a small bright area surrounded by a large dark area; for example, when a performer is in a spotlight in front of a darkened stage. Assuming that the bright area is the most important in your shot, try to meter only the bright area when determining your camera settings. Otherwise, if the meter takes an average of the entire stage, the light area could burn out in the photograph, because the meter is trying to lighten up the predominant dark background. If your camera happens to have a spot meter, then you’re set – this is exactly the situation for which a spot meter is designed. However, if you don’t have a spot meter, you’ll have to zoom in or walk up to the stage. If you can’t manage to somehow fill the frame with the bright area while metering, then as a last resort I’d suggest stopping down one-and-a-half stops from the meter’s reading of the entire stage.

If you’ve pre-arranged a photo shoot as opposed to photographing a show in performance, you’ll have the opportunity to create better photos by controlling certain elements. One thing you can do to assure sharpness is to use smaller apertures. To do this, you’ll need slow shutter speeds. (This seems to contradict the above advice to use the fastest speed possible, but you can get away with slow shutter speeds if you use a tripod and your actors are still.) If you can use an aperture around f/11 or smaller, you’ll have good edge-to-edge sharpness.

Another opportunity on a controlled photo shoot is to lower contrast. The problem: Stage lighting can sometimes have too much contrast for film to accurately record. Although our eyes can often see detail in dark areas, film cannot, so dark areas will photograph as black with no detail whatsoever. The solution: If there’s any way possible to slightly boost the lighting in the dark areas of the stage, then your lighting as photographed will be much closer to the lighting you see.

Be sure to shoot a lot of “coverage.” This means zooming in (or getting close) and shooting lots of isolation shots of various groups of actors, scenery, etc. The usual tendency is to shoot the whole stage, and although a wide shot is a must to show overall lighting, detail shots will reveal subtitles that will not be noticed in the wide shots.

If you follow these guidelines, you should produce images that accurately show your lighting design. Good luck with your shoot, and feel free to email me with any questions you may have. jadler@leefiltersusa.com