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Top 7 Tips for How to Photograph the Performing Arts

The Performing Arts are a hugely important part of the life of a school. It seems as though so many other programs, like sports, get all of the attention, but within each school lies a treasure trove of talented, eager students who would just love to be photographed.

What I have noticed, is that typically there isn't a qualified photographer within high school performances. That's not to say that occasionally a parent with photographic talent will be able to get some fabulous shots of their students performance, but year in and year out, it's a challenge to find a photographer who can shoot in a tricky, lowly lit environment and get acceptably sharp images.

Shooting in a theater can have some significant challenges. When performers are in the spotlight, the lighting is perfect, and shooting in spot metering mode will help you get the shot. However, if they are moving, it can still be difficult to shoot at a high enough shutter speed to freeze the action.

Also, as soon as they are not in the very center of the spotlight, the light falloff is significant. Shooting with a full frame camera, capable of high ISOs is very helpful, as is a 2.8 or faster lens. This is one of the main reasons that the performing arts are in need of a good photographer. Knowing how to set up the camera and shoot in a tough environment is a must, and since it's hit or miss if a parent even has a good camera, let alone the lenses necessary and knowledge for how to shoot with them, they are unlikely to have many good photos of themselves. Your shooting their events is an "in" to dozens upon dozens (for the larger schools) of students as potential clients.

Camera Settings for Theaters

I shoot two different setups for the theatre. I personally shoot the Sony a77ii, and prefer the electronic viewfinder (EVF) compared to the optical viewfinder of other systems. Typically, as a starting point, I shoot in Manual Mode, at ISO 3200 with a shutter speed of 1/250th, and an aperture of f2.8. If it's a musical with movement, I up the shutter speed, and therefore the ISO. If it's a concert, I may be able to lower the shutter speed and shoot from a tripod to compensate.

I also have a Canon 5d mark iii.  I can shoot that comfortably at ISO 6400. so if I need to, I can always use that.  I prefer (and I know this sounds crazy) my cropped sensor Sony, though, and use it as my first choice, whenever I can.  With the full frame sensor of the 5diii, I can then shoot at higher ISOs, and still have quite a bit of latitude when it comes to working with highlights, shadows, and the like.  

It's a great system, I just find that I often wish I had the EVF, along with wifi features that my Sony has.  The Canon is also fairly clunky when the shutter fires, and it's noticeable, so shooting judiciously becomes more of a concern.