Over the years, I've talked to a lot of moms and dads about family photography and some of the common challenges they face. Complaints vary, of course, from getting moody teenagers to smile to capturing sports and other fast action. But one of the events that almost every parent tries to photograph that seems to cause the most frustration is the school play.
Many (if not most) schools have an annual play production, complete with costumes and props and a homegrown script. It's a big moment for most those pint-sized stars—getting on stage in front of all those parents can be nerve-wracking, but every kid who does it experiences intense pride in what she’s accomplished when it's all over. For this reason alone, parents attend those stage performances armed with their cameras and determined to capture the best photos possible. But so many of these parents come away from the experience frustrated and disappointed with the results. What can be done to guarantee good results when photographing plays? Read on to find out.
The first tip for photographing school plays is one that you might not expect, and it's this—don't photograph the play. Instead, ask your child's teacher if you can photograph the dress rehearsal. Why? Because the dress rehearsal is going to be much less stressful to photograph than the performance will be, for a number of reasons. First, you're not going to be disturbing the audience or stepping in front of someone who is trying to see their own child in his debut performance. You are free to move around in front of the stage, to get close to the actors and click away on that extra-loud shutter button without having to worry that you're going to make somebody mad. If you obtain permission, you may even be allowed to get up on the stage steps or stand behind the curtain for some unique angles and that you wouldn't ordinarily get to shoot from if you were just in the audience.
When you're at dress rehearsal, you also have more freedom to go backstage and grab photos of the kids getting ready for the show or goofing off with their friends. You can capture those final moments of advice from the play director or teachers. This will give you a complete picture of the show and everything that went into creating it, rather than just those moments from curtain-rise to curtain-fall.
Pay close attention to things like shutter speed, but think carefully about how you’re metering the scene as well. One of the biggest complaints I hear from parent photographers about the play-shooting experience is the tendency of faces to become completely washed out and featureless under those bright stage lights. Fortunately, the technique for avoiding this is actually pretty simple—if the show is mostly lit by a series of spotlights rather than even light across the whole stage, change to spot metering instead of matrix metering, and make sure you meter off your subjects’ faces. To do this, place the spot in the center of the frame on your subject’s face, dial in the settings, and use those settings to capture the scene. Note that you do have to take changes in light into consideration, so this technique requires constant re-metering or you risk losing a few shots because the light changed and you didn't change with it.
the voice by Flickr user eschipul
Shoot in shutter priority mode—that way you won't have any trouble with your meter slowing down your shutter speed in the interests of capturing a well-exposed photo. Remember that you're shooting living subjects, which means you really don't want to be shooting much lower than 1/250 or 1/125 for scenes where there isn't a lot of movement. Keeping your shutter speed fast will guarantee that you don't get any unwanted motion blur in your shot.
An exception to this rule is if you actually want to show movement. If your subjects are dancing, for example, you might want to capture a little bit of that motion. Take a few shots at a slower speed, say 1/60, so you catch a little bit of blur in your subjects. Remember that you will also get blurry faces doing this, so you want to use this technique sparingly.
If you're used to relying on your auto white balance setting, you may be disappointed in the photographs that you get at an indoor stage production. That's because those stage lights tend to have a yellow cast, just like the incandescent lights inside of your home do. So if you're not using the correct white balance setting, you may find that your subject ends up with a sickly yellow skin tone. If you can, try to set a custom white balance that you can use through the entire performance. You'll have to consult your camera’s manual to see how to do this, because all cameras do it somewhat differently, but the procedure basically involves taking a photograph of something that is a true white under the lighting conditions used on stage and then using that as the baseline for the rest of your photographs. If you can find a white prop on stage that’s going to be the way to go, otherwise you will have to ask if someone can help you get the reading onstage prior to the show. The latter is a bit of an inconvenience for everyone, so if your camera gives you the ability to shoot in RAW I recommend just doing that instead—RAW solves the white balance problem altogether because it is a relatively simple matter to correct white balance in a RAW file, versus the somewhat hit or miss a way of doing it in a JPEG.
I like to recommend shooting in burst mode for sports photography, but the same is true for stage productions. Unless you are intimately familiar with the play and the actors already, you don't really know what is going to be happening from one moment to the next. If you're not shooting in burst mode, you run the risk of missing out on the exciting moments when they happen. That can mean anything from on-stage action to the animated expressions on the actors’ faces as they play out the various moments of drama and humor.
I haven been to stage performances that are lit by a single spotlight, as well as stage performances that are fairly well lit from one side of the stage to the other. But one thing that’s almost certain no matter what the lighting conditions (with the exception of outdoor performances in daylight) is that the light is simply going to be too low for conventional photography. That is, you're probably not going to be able to shoot a play successfully using a low ISO and a fast shutter speed. Instead, you're going to want to turn up your ISO in the interest of making your camera more sensitive to light. Now, a lot of photographers avoid those higher ISOs because high ISOs can produce digital noise and other quality problems in your photographs (although this is not as true for newer cameras as it is for older ones). But it's far better to have a little noise in your image than to have an image that's blurry because you weren't able to turn the shutter speed up fast enough to freeze the action.
Whatever you do, don't choose flash over high ISO. Yes, engaging your flash will allow you to shoot at a lower ISO (provided you’re close enough), but that flash does a couple of things that you really don't want during a stage performance. First, it can be hugely distracting, both for the actors and for the audience. Unless you have permission ahead of time to use the flash, I really don't advise it. You don't want to be the one responsible for throwing those actors off their game because they keep getting blinded by unexpected bursts of bright light.
The other problem with flash is that it ruins the ambience. Even a school play has someone on staff who is very proud of the work they have done on the stage lighting. Certain parts of the stage are lit in certain ways in order to create a mood, and as soon as you add flash to that stage it you are wrecking the mood that somebody worked so hard to create. That is another reason why flash is just ultimately a very bad idea.
You can also use a lens with a wide maximum aperture, such as a 50mm prime lens, which typically has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or even f/1.4. Shooting at these very wide maximum apertures allows more light to reach your camera's image sensor, which in turn will allow you to shoot the scene with faster shutter speeds, sometimes without also having to resort to a very high ISO.
Finally, shoot in RAW if you can. Another great thing about shooting in RAW is that in low light situations it allows you to make some mistakes. The RAW file format captures a great many more levels of brightness than JPEG does, so if you do end up with a few underexposed shots you might be able to pull some detail out of the shadows in post-processing, where you wouldn't have been able to do so with a similar JPEG file.
Remember to be unobtrusive, that is, don't get any in anyone's face or block anybody's view of the performance. But other than that, try to get as many varied shots as you can. Don't just focus on a single person—zoom out to include a few people, and then zoom out even further to include the entire stage. Take lots of photographs of different kinds, and when it's all over be sure to congratulate your little actor or actress with a bouquet of flowers (and take a photo of that, too).
- Shoot the dress rehearsal
- Take photos on stage and back stage
- Camera settings
- Spot metering
- Shutter priority
- Custom white balance
- Burst mode
- The light
- Turn up your ISO
- Avoid flash
- Use wide apertures
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