I shot a late-stage dress-rehearsal of this show Tuesday evening, and started to process them this morning. The schedule in this theater is that Thursday is “Opening Night” for the public, and Wednesday is a by-invitation “preview” for friends, family and selected critics as an audience. Because there is an actual viewing audience on Wednesday (albeit, non-paying) I don’t like to shoot then because I often have to pop up-and-down and move around to get the framing that I want and that along with the camera noise can be distracting to others. I suppose that some would just say “tough shit”, but I prefer to be more courteous.
Even 48-hours before the paying-public is there, the production is never fully cooked. There was still a big scaffold on one side, the seating area was a mine-field of crap, and they still didn’t have the blackout curtains all in place and stage-junk was visible from some angles. Fortunately, all the characters were in costume, although this isn’t always true at this point either. Still, the Tuesday before opening is really the last chance that I have to shoot freely.
For this show I shot with two cameras. I had my older Canon 1DmkIII set at ISO-800 using a Canon EF16-35mm f2.8L lens for wide shots, and my newer 5DmkIII (auto-ISO; max @ 3200) with an EF70-200 f2.8L IS-II lens for tight shots. I have faster prime lenses, and sometimes I will use those in the theater, but the framing flexibility of a zoom really helps when most of the show is well-lit, as this one was. I wouldn’t even think about shooting theater with anything less than f2.8 however. As previously described, I had both cameras set for Tv at 1/100-sec with override. The long lens was attached to a monopod and the wide-angle was handheld and both hung around my neck so I can just drop one and pick up the other as I want to change the gross-level framing. I might look like a geek, but it works.
Lighting is always an issue when shooting a live show. Sometimes it is good, sometimes not-so and sometimes it simply ain’t happenin’, but there are always hard spots and strong contrasts to deal with. My preference is to sit very close to the stage to get as close to the light as I can (I was in the second row of the black-box seating here). Remember – light diminishes as a square of the distance (from the original source), so even if you have a long focal-length and large aperture lens, the closer you are the more light you will have and therefore more flexibility with things like ISO, aperture and shutter. It also makes AE and AF easier and more accurate. Because I am very close to the stage, the 16-35mm is needed to get ensembles into frame – sometimes the actors are only 3 or 4-feet in front of me in this black-box theater.
My other “trick” is that I shoot lots of frames. In this 2.5-hour rehearsal I took over 1,100 shots between the two cameras. Now, a lot of that is because I use a “rapid-fire” auto-drive and so any given shot often has about 5 or 6 slightly different versions (I use a “slow” rapid-fire at about 5fps). The reason for this is that in a nonstop live performance the actor’s motion and expressions change constantly and you might end up with an otherwise great picture ruined because someone had their eyes closed momentarily or their mouth twisted into a goofy expression (especially when singing). When you have 5 or 6 copies of the same basic picture to choose from, you can pick the best one to process and show off. I also frequently check my exposure in this problematic high-contrast environment by glancing at the LCD review. If what I have just shot is too dark or too light I will shove the ev a few notches in the appropriate direction and re-shoot. Once I offload my cards into the computer (using Lightroom) I’ll make a quick first-pass and flag the technically decent ones that I want to go back and take a closer look at. There are usually only about 10-15% that will make this first-cut so the more that are available, the better. I suppose that a truly consummate pro could get a much higher hit-rate, but these days there is no economic penalty (the 1,000 frames cost the same as the first) so there is no reason not to go-nuts like this.
I would also mention that the particular example in this post had very little processing done to it. I shoot RAW exclusively and often process through Lightroom, NIK modules and PS-CS6, but other than a little cropping, nothing was done to this image. I often (probably 98% of the time) have to adjust WB under the stage lights, but for some reason the Canon AWB looks perfect to me here. There was also no exposure adjustment or sharpening or noise-reduction applied to the original RAW file. I think that this is all a testament to the superb quality of both the camera and the lens, more than any skill of the photographer however.