At the Theater with a camera and a big lens.

One of my favorite clients is Zachary Scott Theater. Their marketing director uses photography well and they appreciate my style. I do a lot of straightforward, set-up images throughout the year for their website and print collateral. But one of the things I've been doing for them for over sixteen years now is "running shoots". These are documentary shoots of the dress rehearsals. We usually do them the night before each show opens. We do them straight through. No stopping and starting. I have access to every part of the stage but there are no "do overs". These are the photos that the theater sends to the lifestyle publications and the local newspaper to run with reviews and announcements.

What we're trying to do is give a potential audience the feeling of what it's like to be there. To be in the audience.

When I first started doing this the publications wanted black and white prints. We shot black and white Tri-X in Leica M series rangefinder cameras. This took a lot of concentration on the changing stage lights. Since the cameras were unmetered I was constantly checking things with a spot meter. It was quite an undertaking. Our hit ratio for well focused and well timed images was much higher than our ratio for proper exposure.

At the end of the show I'd head to my darkroom to develop film that evening. The next morning I'd make contact sheets and try to meet with the marketing team around 11 am to get their input for needed prints. By mid afternoon I'd have ten or fifteen 8x10 inch black and white prints ready to be picked up and sent around.

Over the years the cameras changed but the deadlines never did. Last year I was shooting the shows with a Nikon D700 and assorted lenses. As you may know I changed systems and now I shoot with the Olympus e series SLR cameras. I really like them but they don't handle high ISO noise as well as the Nikon stuff. I was nervous about using them on a show like the one I've included images of. The stage light isn't bright and everything is knocked down a bit by colored filter gels. I have trepidation in shooting anything over ISO 1600 with the e3 or the e30 so I didn't go there. But while I was getting ready for the shoot I remembered shooting at ISO 400 with a manual focus Leica. Things have gotten better.

The standard lens I used for 80% of my stage shots last year was the Nikon 70-200 f2.8. The Olympus equivalent is the 35-100mm f2.0. The Olympus is a full stop faster and at least two stops sharper. By that I mean that the images I get at f 2.0 seem on par, in terms of sharpness, with the images I used to get from the Nikon at f4. I packed an e3 and an e30 and just two lenses, the 35/100 and the 14/54mm.

I shoot a lot during rehearsals so I tend to shoot large/fine/jpegs. I set both cameras to ISO 1600 and I set the color settings to "natural" with a minus one click on contrast. I use the spot meter in both cameras. One 4 gb card for each. (I've settled in at 4 gb because they fit nicely on one DVD.....).

Since both cameras have great IS (image stabilization) I forgo the tripods and monopods. This year my 14 year old son, Ben, joined me with his Pentax istD camera and short zoom lens. 14 year old non coffee drinkers seem to be better at holding a camera still than some adults....

While I missed focus more often than I would have liked I found that the lens performed very well at f2, f2.2, f2.5 and f2.8. I rarely had to go below 1/160th of a second and found that most of the time I was working around 1/250th of a second. Not a very perilous range for handholding. Most of the actors were African American and nearly every background was dark and continuous. A ready made torture test for noise in the shadow areas.

Non of the examples above have had post production noise reduction applied. The noise reduction in camera is "standard". Please take a moment to blow a few of them up on your screen and evaluate the noise. While I'm the first to admit that the Nikon's are less noisy I don't think the noise in these files is at all objectionable. I took the time to print a few and found them to be just right.

When I pick up the 14-35mm f2 SWD I'll stop worrying about noise altogether.

The magic thing seems to be that the lenses have enough depth of field to cover what I need at nearly wide open. Not the case with full frame which requires me to work around f4 for satisfactory sharpness and focus depth. Amazing how you can never compare apples to apples in this craft. If Olympus made a few f1.4 or f1.2 lenses for this format I'd sure give the whole thing a try with the older e1's and e300's. If I could use them at ISO 400 it would be fun.

So, sheer square inches is a nice thing to have when you need to shoot under low light but.....it's just one shifting side of a changing paradigm. Olympus figured that out when they started designing lenses for their small sensor system. I can hardly wait to try my hand at some architecture with these little cameras. The 7-14 and the 9-18mm lenses have reputations for being some of the sharpest and best corrected wide zooms around. Couple the lens performance with really wide DOF at f5.6 and f8.0 and you really have a totally different way of looking at that field. Should be fun.

I suggest you head out and support your local theaters during the holidays. Live theater is something special. And while not as polished as a movie or a television show there is a tremendous value in the unexpected and the energy of live performances. Many theaters depend on the holiday cash flow to help subsidize chancier work during the rest of the year. And if we let theaters die off all we'll be left with is television and YouTube. Don't you want a nice excuse to get out of the house?

Final Note/Request: If you are looking for the perfect gift for someone who is really hard to shop for, like a really hot girlfriend/boyfriend, a generous aunt, a demanding boss, your sainted mother, etc. you might want to consider a really original gift. My third book, Commercial Photography Handbook, comes to mind. Beautifully illustrated and full of good, solid business info. You never know when your great grandmother will give up knitting and pick up a Leica S2, ready for business. You'll be happy you got her the book when she starts turning a major profit. Heck, she may even share tips with you. Thanks, Kirk


Anonymous said...

Great shots, of course, at web res, you'll notice noise a wee bit less. Then again, it'll be less visible when printed than it is on screen, and for web, you don't post full res anyway, do you? :-)

What white balance did you use? Shooting JPEG at these kinds of gigs never seem very appealing, WB is a constant issue. But as you say, times have changed..

By the way, you seem to be right in the market for the Panasonic Leica Summilux 25/1.4. Works like a gem on my E-3, it's probably illegal not wanting it..


Mel said...

I just got the 50mm f/2 macro for my E3 and really like the ability to do closeups under challenging lighting. Of course the DOF at minimum focusing distance is 1mm, but that just gives me some creative license. I'd love to try to 35-100mm but not in my budget right now.

Great shots. You've motivated me to approach a couple of small theatres in the area and see what sort of projects I can help them with.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe these are ISO 1600. I've been led to believe that the e3 couldn't do anything over 800. I guess everything we read on the forums is just bullshit. Amazing. It's as good as the Nikon D90 any day of the week.

Phototrain said...

Love those dressed up ladies! Great shots!

Guess whose "Commercial Photography" book is at the top of my Xmas list? For me! The others can get their own! Lol!

Just starting to go through "Location Lighting" again. This time it will be not only studying the words, but also picking up the Nikon and replicating the examples. The old 'learning by doing' trick.

Thanks for the help,

Have a wonderful holiday! :-)


John Taylor said...

noise, what noise? lol I can't speak to what your work from last year looked like but i can be jealous of the quality of this years work! Love these, reminds me of when i had similar access many many years ago doing local theater work in the burbs of Montreal. It was great fun but my success rate was not nearly so high what with slower colour film (i did manage to convince them to do my colour correction with gels for me!)

Jeff said...

Good article and great photos Kirk!

I have shot a few rehearsals for high school plays this month and am liking the d90 70-200 combo. I shoot at f4 a lot and the difference compared to last years photos, shot with a d80 and a Sigma, was huge.

Michael said...

Kirk, these production stills are gorgeous. I've posted an excerpt and one photo at AustinLiveTheatre.com, linking to the rest of your posting. Please advise me at michaelmeigs@austinlivetheatre.com if you would prefer NOT to be the subject of an ALT posting. Direct page link: http://tinyurl.com/ykwzdsc .
Michael Meigs

zijon said...

Wonderful images, Kirk! I tried the similar stuff some weeks ago using E-3 and 50-200SWD combo. I must admit my results were not as good . ;) I was struggling with WB because scene lights were changing from deep reds to deep blues, so I switched WB from Auto to Cloudy and to RAW format as well. What WB setting would you suggest in such circumstances? You also said that DOF was right at large apertures. What was the distance between you and the performers? You used spot metering. What spots do you usually choose to meter off (faces, clothes, etc.)?

Thanks for sharing your experience!

kirk tuck said...

zijon, just about every theater uses tungsten balanced lights that measure around 3200 degrees. But lighting directors tend to gel them a bit. I find most times that a color temp of around 3400K works well in the theater. If I have time I'll ask the lighting director to show me a "stage wash" before the rehearsal begins and I'll use a Lastolite gray target (a pop up thing that looks like a diffuser but is gray on one side and white on the other....) to set a custom WB. I can click in and out of that custom WB as needed.

I shoot manual exposure. I take a reading off a face, interpret that and then use it until the lighting cue changes or my actor moves. Lucky in this show as a lot of the primary stuff is under a follow spot so the light doesn't fall off as quickly and as long as they are in the light the reading stays pretty constant.

Thanks, Kirk

Simon said...

Yes, metering off faces generally work well. Normally, a caucasion face will get a good exposure if you spotmeter the face and overexpose it around one step. Darker skin require some guessing, but generally, you'll be good at 2/3EV over metered level.


Jeffrey Goggin said...

If you're waiting for some encouragement to buy the 14-35, then here it is: This lens is freakin' amazing! Ditto for the 7-14. Neither one is inexpensive, to be sure, but there's more to value than just the purchase price.

bcramsay said...

Kirk - just found your blog thru Mr. Strobist. Your books are in my Amazon Cart and the cheque's in the mail.

Great Stuff - Many Thanks!

Charles Black said...

Yes, Kirk, I can find noise on the large versions on my monitor.

Who cares?

While technical aspects of a photo are indeed important, especially when dealing with finicky clients, capturing the essence of the subject is still more important. That's what you've done.

To me that is the purpose of photography. I choose gear based on how well I feel I can capture the essence of the subject as I want to portray it to others. Any technical shortcomings...well I deal with them as best I can, even to the point of using them aesthetically.

This is why I like your blog and your photos. You're more concerned with presenting your human subjects as individual, real people than with technical aspects. You use technique to serve the end purpose of your photos, not as an exercise in itself. To me, that's what photography is all about.

Raj said...

Kirk, these are lovely images, thanks so much for sharing. I've never been a big fan of cross-system comparisons as it's like comparing apples to oranges. Personally, I've never had problems with the noise on Olympus cameras, but banding has proven to be an issue from time to time. In the samples you've posted, there is a slight hint of banding in acouple of images, but at this resolution nothing to really affect the image.

I feel that the noise in an image really should be jusdged only at the size/resolution at which it is intended to be used, 100% crops prove nothing and this post is a good example of that. If one primarily shares on the web or prints at 8x10 or even 13x19, Olympus cameras hold up very, very well. It's only when people look at 100% crops that the game changes.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Raj and Charles. I agree with both of you. All that matters is the image. And in the image all that matters is the connection.

Everything else is just craftwork.

Bear said...

Hey Kirk

Thanks for these - I have very rarely seen accurate assessments like yours when cross conparing systems. I use Olympus equipment and shoot a lot of very low light performances often shooting at 3200. If you compare the Olympus E3 with the Nikon D700 at like for like settings then the Nikon is a hands down winner but as you correctly point out, you don't need to shoot the same settings with Olympus kit as you do with Nikon FF - it changes the landscape of the comparison and makes the results much more even.

When it comes down to it though it really doesn't matter what eqpt you use as long as you get the shot and the client is happy.

kirk tuck said...

Exactly. I shot the same show last year with the d700 and I shot the whole thing at ISO 3200 out of necessity. I was using the 70-200 which was nowhere near as sharp as the Oly lens. I was parked at f4 in order to get enough sharpness and depth to cover faces and "two shots". That meant I was shooting one full shutter speed slower which put me in the middle of "subject movement" jeopardy. You have to compare stuff in actual use.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,

I shoot the E3 plus the 50-200 and the 14-54 for events. Most of the time its gets the job done and when I shoot jpg, I think I actually have the advantage over other shooters.

However, I wonder about your promotion of the f2 SHG lenses when your original stated desire for getting Oly was to get kit weight down. SHG lenses are as heavy and of similar size as similar high grade stuff for FF (starting, as you say, at F4 for the FF kit).

You state in your article that you shot at half the shutter speed and an equiv aperture (F4) with the D700 using ISO3200 and then say that noise doesn't matter. Why not use 6400 ISO and double the shutter speed then?

Now don't misunderstand me: if you like Oly stuff better I won't dispute that (how can I?) but the reasons as you state them seem a little odd to me.

Can you clarify?



kirk tuck said...

Good points, Tim. I think we all have the best of justifications when we make a gear buying decision. I did like the idea of not spending so much on cameras as I did with the Nikons and before that Leica R series gear. And I do love the portability of the system. Then, one day your local camera store calls with a fabulous lens for your system at about half the new price. The part of my brain given to "the potential" of the new gear beats up the pragmatic part of my brain. And we end up at a different place than the original destination.

I shoot all kinds of stuff. One Weds. last week I used the system the way I always intended to use the system. One body and a 14-54mm for three corporate portraits on location. And truly, that's such a big percentage of my work. 95% of what I do could (and usually is) handled by that small assortment of gear.

But the big glass is fun and for the 5% of jobs that are challenging it's cool to use.

As to the difference between the D700 and the e3 at different ISO's. I really don't care (and didn't care) about the noise in either camera. I like the way the e3 feels. And it's more fun (for me) to shoot.

Sadly, much as I wish I were logical and linear personal history proves that I'm not. I'm capricious and mercurial. As such I try new things and distill the experiences before moving on.

Some people I know are very methodical and once they learn a protocol they embrace it like oxygen. Others never do the same thing twice. I'm somewhere in the middle.

Same with lights. Not logical. Not efficient. But hellbent on having fun with the stuff.

I do take issue with your phrase "...your promotion of the f2 SHG lenses....." I don't work for Olympus, don't get any free stuff from them and don't have any extra lenses to sell. It's just what I'm interested in right now.

all the best, Kirk

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,
Please continue to be capricious and mercurial! Over the years of having a serious photography hobby (addiction?), I have tried to rationalize some of my choices, but I have to smile at my logic sometimes.

I try to put the quality of lenses and images first, if I can afford it. I have followed your reviews and postings here and elsewhere and own all three of your books, because you seem to have a similar bias.

Keep up the mercurial work!

Anonymous said...

Greeting Kirk
Some one sent your blog to me awhile back and I enjoy reading it when time permits. I find your comments interesting and informative. I shot with Olympus back in the 1970's and was on their VIP program for a few years before I moved to Minolta in the 1980's where I did work for them for 20 plus years. Anyway after reading your blog a few weeks back I was able to secure two loaner E3's and a 12-60 and 35-100 f2 I find the E3 so comfortable, it was like coming home to an old friend. So I now own two E3 and lenses. I found the 35-100 to large for me and shoots I have to do. The E3 is wonderful and fun. I agree with your comment about digital and the future of photography from a few weeks back. I enjoy your blog and I haven't found anything to disagree with you on, yet.
Have fun

Anonymous said...

(Rovingtim's response)

Hi Kirk,

Thanks for the reply. When I said 'promotion' I didn't mean in the commercial sense ... though I must admit I did wonder.

As to your philosophy: I agree that happiness (or enjoyment of life) as far more important than living a logical one, in my opinion.



Shawn said...

Hi Kirk,

Your point about "equivalence" is very important and tends to get lost on most reviewers, enthusiasts, and internet readers / forum participants: there's no free lunch in optics and digital image capture.

Larger sensors have less noise at higher ISO, but give you less DoF in return. They also require bigger lenses that generally are not as sharp wide-open. There is more than one way to skin the photographic cat ;)

Also know what you mean about missing focus more than you would have liked. If there is one thing I would really like Olympus to work on, it would be their AF system. Granted, they've made huge strides with the E-3 and E-30, but they are still a step behind Nikon in this area, who has IMHO the best AF system on the market.

Like you, I shoot both Olympus (E-3, E-520) and Nikon (D300, D700) systems. But I tend to use the Nikons more for weddings and events mostly due to the better AF. It's not for image quality / noise considerations.

kirk tuck said...

Shawn. Thanks. It's exactly what I meant. As to the focusing systems I think it's operator error more often than not. I tend to use the center sensor in s-af and lock focus. The actors move but I'm locked on focus. I should be more adventurous and use the wide field focusing in C-af but I'm such a creature of habit....

Shawn said...

Certainly, there is room for people to improve when it comes to optimizing AF technique and settings for various situations.

Firmware v1.4 has improved things, however, there is still what i believe to be a slight disdvantage for the Olympus AF system when it comes to the ability to lock onto and track targets with low edge-contrast in low-ish light.

C-AF, IMHO, would not have helped consistently, as it can lose lock and AF in/out of focus before it re-locks. Or, it might lock onto the background at an inopportune moment.

Bottom line, I would stick with centre-point S-AF or maybe centre/diamond pattern S-AF, shoot in MF, and use the AF-L/AE-L button on the back to initiate AF when desired. I've found this to be the most dependable combination of settings thus far for the E-3, and is what i use when i'm using the E-3 + 35-100 for event photography.

Anonymous said...


When I shoot events, I shoot beside a D300 and a 1DMIII. Overall, the E3 is more than 'slightly' behind in low light focus. While there are some situations where the E3 is nearly equal, there are other times where the E3 can't find anything where the other two lock without fuss. CAF is very far behind the other two. Even all points focusing is not very clever and tends to hesitate before locking in lowish light.

Using all points focusing, I compared an E620 to a Panny G1 and the G1 was much quicker to focus in medium to low light.

Kirk: I think CAF will disappoint, but all the E3 focus points are equally sensitive so you can compose at will in SAF.