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The Drama of Shooting Live Theatre 📷

Thoroughly Modern Millie (Dogwood Dell, Richmond VA, 2017)

Ah, the theatre. One of mankind's most prolific forms of entertainment for over 2500 years. Popularized by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and made mainstream by the iconic William Shakespeare, theatre has been a part of human culture as much as war and disease. And much like war and disease, it shows no signs of stopping.

My interest in stage photography began my freshman year of college, back when I was first getting into photography. For me, it was simply an accessible photo subject. I would often take photos at my school's weekly improv get-together, The No Shame Variety Show. Eventually, I'd gain a love for the theatre in general, and these late night forays would continue to nurture my photographic aspirations.

Eventually, I wanted to photograph something bigger than an improv show, so I decided to take my camera to a local theatre house for a stage production. I had gotten permission beforehand to photograph the show from the back of the room. This doesn't happen often, so I was grateful for the opportunity. I did this several times, and slowly began to develop an eye for it. The most crucial aspect of stage photography is the ability to anticipate what's going to happen. This ability is part-talent, but mostly practice. I continued shooting at small shows and eventually snuck my camera into bigger shows as well. I know now that it's audacious to do so, but at the time, I was naive, and it seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

Idina Menzel, If Then

After some time, my work began to be noticed and I had lots of actors asking me if they could use the photos I took for their websites or social media, and I happily obliged. However, on the same token, I had plenty of actors taking my photos without permission as well. Unfortunately, that's just the cost of the convenience of social media, but I think it's worth the benefits. Either way, this was exactly the kind of validation I needed to realize stage photography was something I wanted to keep pursuing.

I kept shooting and improving my craft. I started to know, instinctually, what camera settings would work best given the conditions of the stage, and the pacing of the actors and shows. Over time, the art of anticipation became second nature to me, and I was able to capture shots I could be proud of.

It's become a true love for me, and there are honestly just so many things that make it exciting to me. Like a wedding, you have the opportunity to capture emotion, but because it's theatre it's just so much more over the top, and fun. Like with portraiture, you get to work with people, but you also get to work with costumes, backgrounds, props, and creative posing and lighting. Like the theatre itself, stage photography is pure drama, and there's nothing else like it.

Of course, one goal of mine was to translate this love into a revenue stream, and thankfully, I've been fortunate enough to do so, at some level. A lot of the actors I meet have a need for headshots; I'm the official photographer for CAT Theatre, and I've had opportunities to work with other theatres as well. In an official capacity, most photography is done during special photo calls, as opposed to during a live show. It's the safer and most respectful way to go about it, but every now and then I think it's nice to have the audience element as well. Ultimately, it will depend on the show and the theatre.

My immediate goal is to be on retainer for at least 4-5 local theatres, but in the meantime, I'll continue to hone my craft, and as always, share my photos and experiences for others to learn from and enjoy.

On that note, here are a couple of tips for shooting stage photography:

• Always make sure it's okay for you to take photos at whatever production you want to shoot at. Whether that means you're contracted by the theatre, or have portfolio-building permission to do so, you want to be legit. If you decide to shoot it anyway, always be respectful. Position yourself where there aren't other audience members; put your shutter on silent shooting mode; and NEVER use flash. It's dangerous, and disrespectful to the performers. Keep in mind many productions are protected by copyright, so unless you have permission to do so, do not attempt to sell the photos, and always be compliant if asked to remove it. Many actors, especially at the entry level, appreciate having a photographer at their shows, but not all actors are fans of it. Keep that in mind.

• This goes for theatre in general, but always show up at least 15 minutes in advance. And be professional. If you look like an amateur, you'll get treated like one.

• For your settings, you'll want your camera to have a shutter speed of at least 1/150 of a second. You can get away with lower if it's a slower show, but if it's fast-paced you may want to go all the way up to 1/250 of a second or faster. Keep in mind you'll have to balance out your exposure triangle, so having a full frame camera is definitely helpful as you'll be able to increase your ISO without issues.

• Use a fast lens. At least a f/2.8. I normally shoot with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, but a 24-70mm f/2.8 would be great too and would give you greater flexibility, thanks to the zoom.

• Don't worry too much about white balance. Set it to a single setting (I use the K function) and leave it there. Stage lighting is going to be changing all the time, so the auto mode is not going to work well. You will have to work on it in post, which leads to my next point.

• Don't skip out on post production! The difference between a decent photographer and a great one is your post production editing abilities. I, personally, try to retain as much of the original scene as possible, but I'm also not afraid to photoshop out a stray glowing red "exit" sign, or blocking tape on the floor, as well.

• Shoot from a variety of angles. Make it interesting. Photos are almost always more appealing when they're shot from an angle that's not typical. For theatre, this would been not shooting from where the audience will be sitting. Try getting higher up and angling down, or shooting from the side, or from just below the stage. It will make all the difference.

• Don't be lazy. Lots of stuff is happening during a live show, so you've got to be quick on your feet. You'd laugh if you saw how I run and roll around during a shoot. But fact is, people notice it. I've had people approach me and tell me how impressed they are that I actually move while shooting. Lots of photographers make the mistake of just sitting in place. Don't be that guy/girl.

• Always have business cards. Just like any other event, you need to be prepared to network and make connections. With this industry, it's all about who you know.

• And finally, for sharing photos: I usually post them on Facebook and Instagram, and label the album with the name and date of the show and welcome actors to tag themselves, and 'share'. Depending on the show, you may want to include producer and director information as well. I also usually include a line like "Please ask before using." It's not a catch all, but it helps with the usage issue. And as far as letting actors or others use your photos, there are usually two ways I go about it. The first is to charge them for the photo, and give them a non-exclusive, limited license to use the photo for their needs, and I give them the option of crediting me. Most are kind enough to do so. The other option is to share with them the watermarked version of the photo under the conditions they are not to edit the photo in any way, and that credit is required. This is usually the route for more entry level actors and photographers. And in the event someone takes a photo without asking, I will normally just message the person on Facebook and politely ask them to either edit the post with proper credits, or to take it down.

Those are some basic tips, but if there's anything else you'd like to know, please feel free to email me with your questions!

The Greatest Show on Earth

In summary, shooting theatre is a very rewarding and enjoyable experience, and certainly profitable if you work at it. In addition, many of the skills you develop are applicable to concert, event, and wedding photography as well, so it's an invaluable learning opportunity.

Thanks for reading! Make sure to follow me on social media to keep up with all my photo shenanigans. Good luck!

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