Richard Bird Photography | Theatrical Photography


I have been shooting theatrical performances for over ten years, learning by trial and error. In this article I describe what has worked for me, but this article should not be considered the final word on theatrical shooting.

For most commercial theatrical productions, no photography is the rule, but this article is intended more for those who might want to shoot a school play or musical where photography is often allowed. The first thing to check is the schools policy on photography, no flash and no tripods are are common restrictions. For remainder of this article I will assume that your local school is OK with handheld, available light photography.

Seating Location

Being seated in an auditorium, the biggest challenge is getting clears shots of the stage without the audiences heads obscuring the shots. My preferred location is that the end of row, so that I am shooting across the aisle towards the stage. I like to sit half way back or further to get reasonable broad sweep of the stage. The graphic below shows some potentially good shooting locations. The best locations might vary depending on the auditorium you are shooting in, but try to get some clear space between you and the stage.


Theatrical lighting can vary considerably depending on the production, but lighting is often significantly less bright than shooting outdoors in the middle of the day and you will need a relatively high shutter speed to freeze the action on the stage. This means your camera should perform well at high ISO - at least ISO 1600 and preferably performs well in the ISO 3200 - 6400 range and/or a fast lens, such as f2.8 or better. Most interchangeable lens camera, such as DSLR's fall into this category.

For a lens from my preferred seating position, a 70-210mm (on an APS sensors) should provide a good range of coverage. If your camera does not have in body image stabilization, you might want to consider this feature in your lens. In low light situations where the shutter speed drops and/or you a zoomed to a high magnification and there is increased risk of motion blur due to movement of the camera image stabilization can help keep the picture sharp.

I have shot theatrical performances with both Electronic Viewfinders (EVF) and Optical Viewfinders (OVF). I have been able to get better results with OVF. With EVF, I found found the slight lag between you see in the viewfinder and the actual scene can result in mis-timed shots. In darkly lit scenes, the EVF image can become very grainy. With a good OVF you can still see the actual scene. EVF viewfinders do have an advantage in providing near real time exposure feedback, but for me this is not enough to offset the lag and graininess issues in dimly lit situations.

It should be noted here that there are two types of OVF - pentaprism and pentamirror. If you are shopping for camera, look for a pentaprism, rather than pentamirror viewfinder. Pentamirror viewfinders are significantly less bright than pentaprism.  

My personal choice for theatrical shooting is the Pentax K-5 IIs and the Pentax 55-300 f4-f5.6. I wouldn't complain if the lens was a little faster, but it is a relatively light lens and comfortable for two hours of handheld shooting. The K-5 has a bright optical viewfinder and the camera performs very well in the ISO 3200-6400 range.

Preparation for the Performance

Make sure the battery in your camera is fully charged and you have a big memory card in the camera. Changing memory or batteries in a darkened auditorium takes some practice, if you haven't done it before. Make sure you can find and adjust the camera ISO and exposure compensation controls by touch. 

For a theatrical performance my initial settings are:

Setting Comment
Image Stabilization On. 
Auto focus Single shot, single center focus point. This is what I use, I think other focus modes would also work.
White balance Auto. There is no way to predict how a production will be lit, Auto White Balance makes the most sense.
Image Quality Raw. There can often be a big contrast range when a spotlit is used to highlight one performer and the rest of the set is dark. You will want the dynamic range that raw provides.
ISO 3200. This is a good starting point for the K-5, other cameras may be different. Some cameras have an auto ISO feature where the camera will adjust the ISO automatically. Image quality can degrade quite rapidly as ISOs increase, so I prefer to retain manual control of ISO.
High ISO noise reduction Your camera may or may not offer control over noise reduction. My recommendation is try out your camera at high ISO prior to the performance and see which setting works best. With the K-5, I use low NR at ISO 3200 and 6400 and medium NR at higher ISOs.
Shooting mode Aperture Priority. You typically want to shoot with lens wide open. For me this is f4, but f2.8 if you have it would be better. Be careful if you shooting with a very fast lens e.g. f2 or faster, as the depth of field will become very shallow. 
Drive mode Single shot.
Exposure compensation I typically start with -0.3 EV, but you will likely need to change this multiple times during the performance.


Shooting the Performance

I do try to be sensitive to the performers and audience around me. Definitely no flash photography. The Pentax K-5 IIs has the quietest shutter of any DSLR I have used, but there still some shutter noise. This is not a problem during a big song and dance number, but I do avoid taking shots during any quiet dramatic moments. I use the camera LCD screen as little as possible and typically only use it to check exposure when the stage lighting has changed. 

Your camera metering is not going to know in advance how the director planned to light the set. My recommendation is to take a shot and see how the camera metering as responds and to dial in any needed exposure compensation. If the shot is badly over-exposed, don't be afraid to dial in -1EV or -2EV compensation. The most difficult scenes are where most of the stage is dark and with a single spot being used. A big dance number where the whole stage is well lit should not be a problem for the cameras metering.

You will want to try and keep the shutter speed at 1/100s or faster. This will provide a reasonable chance of freezing moderate action on the stage, for rapid move you will want to try for 1/200s or faster. If you don't have image stabilization in your camera body or lens you will also need higher shutter speeds to minimize camera shake. The following table provides rules of thumb for shutter speed vs. focal length.


Actual focal length

35mm equivalent focal length Shutter speed
70mm 105mm 1/100s
150mm 220mm 1/250s
200mm 300mm 1/300s
300mm 450mm 1/500s

If you have image stabilization, reasonably good shutter release technique and the performers are not moving too much on the stage, you can go much slower. Here is an example of a darkly lit scene at 1/13s.

Sweeny ToddSweeny ToddPerformed by FHS Drama company

Scene from Sweeny Todd performed by FHS Drama

In framing the shots during the performance I am looking good looking to good compositional lines. Sometimes framing to include part of the set can make a nice shot, other times you will want to focus on one of the performers or the ensemble. If you are stuck with slow shutter speeds during a dance number, its possible to guess when the dancers will change direction. In this case there is a fraction of the second where the dancers are relatively motionless and you can grab a successful shot at a slower than desired shutter speed.

Post Processing

My first step is to delete any total misses and straighten and crop the remainder. I don't crop heavily, but just remove any spurious arms or legs intruding into the shot.

I then check shots for exposure, figures directly under a spotlight can tend to blow out highlights, but if you shot in raw you should be able to pull the highlights back. Sometime the shadow areas can be worth boosting, but keep in mind that the director intended some areas of the stage to be dark or black and in these cases I usually leave dark areas that way. In general with highlights and shadows I will look to bring back fabric or skin and hair textures.

I try to avoid touching white balance. With the variety of lighting that you may see in a performance it can be difficult to adjust correctly. One technique that can sometimes work is to look for a white, gray or black item of clothing and to set white balance from that. This may or may work depending how neutral the color of the fabric truly is. When you adjust white balance, you may also see color shifts in background color washes.

For the finished results, here are a few highlights from a recent shoot of Beauty and the Beast performed by FHS Drama Company.