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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.

Tips for Photographing a Performance

Photographing a theatrical performance can seem like a difficult thing to do. It doesn't have to be, though. Try some of these tips and see if it helps you get the photos you're wanting.

1.  Talk to the Director

DON'T do this right before the show!  That will not go over well, as the director is probably fretting over nervous kids, sick kids, kids running late, and any other variety of projects, considering that in schools, the Director is a one-person show.

Getting photo permission from the director MUST happen, though.  Emailing or calling them ahead of time, would likely get you a warm response.  I would recommend offering some free photos for use in future marketing efforts as a way to get in the door.  After you've built up some good will and rapport, perhaps the director will be more inclined to let you photograph head shots of the actors and sell them much like a team does team sports photo day.  

2. Know the schedule

Know when scene changes occur. Know when intermission is. Pay attention to the scenery and props so you know where most of the action will be. It is bad form to move around during the performance, so planning ahead to be in the right place at the right time is crucial.

I choose a scene where there are great props, or a dramatic character will be. Either that, or a scene where the largest number of performers performing will be. If I'm out of position for other shots, I just enjoy the show. But, by planning ahead and knowing where to be for THE moment, I know I will get my shots.

3. Be Courteous

Never use flash. They will tell you this at the beginning of the show. Be sure you know how to use the menu system of your camera to turn the flash off, so at no time does you flash go off. If, somehow, some way, your flash goes off.....STOP SHOOTING! Continuing to shoot would be rude, and may get you banned from performances.

Also, don't move around when the show is happening. Wait for scene changes and intermissions to move. At intermission, move wherever you need to. As for scene changes, use slight movements...never walking more than a couple of steps, so that you insure that you are not suddenly what everybody is watching.

4. Shoot from the balcony

If there is a balcony, put on a zoom lens and shoot from a different angle. There is unlikely to be any other person in the balcony, so you can get whatever spot you need. Still be sure to not move around though. Shoot a wide angle for a dramatic effect that showcases the whole auditorium.

Both the zooms and the wide angles will be angles of view that parents with cameras that only have a kit lens will be lacking. Getting a different focal length that is unique for a parent will give a wow factor for parents and students alike. It never fails.

5. Get in the Green Room

With pre-approved permission from the instructor, you may be able to get into the Green Room where actors get ready. This can give great shots of actors in makeup, looking into the mirror, actors rehearsing, those in their quiet moments prior to the show. These are very personal moments and can make for some amazing story line portraits.

6. Bring Business Cards

You should have business cards everywhere you go. If you are shooting an event, always have them ready. The more the parents see you, the more likely they are to remember you when the time for family and senior portraits.

7. Be approachable

We've all seen the photographer with the nice camera gear, looking professional, and tread lightly because they "are working". Don't be so caught up in the task that you forget to smile and enjoy being around prospective clients. Your disposition and it's importance, when surrounded by all these potential clients, is priceless.

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