Intense Theater is different than intense movies. You're actually in the same room with the intensity..

 I am wholly unqualified to review live theater.  I've seen a lot and I can tell good craft from bad but I'm shallow when it comes to much of the subtlety of scriptwriting and the nuance of great direction.  Last night I photographed the dress rehearsal for The Book of Grace,  the play by Suzan Lori-Parks.  The one thing I can comment on is the difference between two dimensional entertainment, like movies and TV,  and intimate, live theater.  With live theater when the action gets intense you are pretty much in the middle of it.  You feel the emotions projected by the actors in a much more direct way.  The Book of Grace had me on the very edge of my seat for the first 2/3rds of the performance.  By the last third I was  making plans to duck and cover right up to the end.  Amazingly powerful theater.
I went into the performance with several cameras and two primary lenses.  I started out shooting with the Canon 5Dmk2 and the Zeiss 85.  Then I switched to the 50mm Zeiss on the 5Dmk2 and put the 85mm on the Canon 1Dmk2n, just for safe keeping.  Big mistake.  The first time I pulled the 1D+85 combo to my eye and clicked I was hooked and shot most of the evening with that combo.  Why?  Great focusing acuity,  lightening fast system response and the perfect ergonomics.

The play was staged in the round in the smaller theater at Zach.  It's always tough and kinetic to shoot theater in the round.  Unless you've been in multiple rehearsals you don't know where to actors are going to end up or just where you need to be to get a good two person grouping.

You are constantly trying to balance your need to be discreet and invisible to the actors with your need to get the images you know the marketing people need to sell the show.  Of course I dress in dark colors, try not to move during emotionally charged scenes, and stay low.  As cameras have evolved I've found my original way of shooting theater to still be the most compelling.  That's manual focus and manual exposure.

There are no "do overs" for the photographer during the dress rehearsal.  This is the last chance the cast will have to go straight through the performance before they have an audience.  If I don't get what I want it's just too bad.

The only issue I have with shooting performances these days is with the color filtering of the light sources.  And this will be a point of contention between lighting designers who are moulding the light to drive an emotional context and photographers who are (wrongly) trying for neutral accuracy.  At some point you have to accept the lighting as it is and move on.  A strongly gelled light will defy any attempt to bring the scene back to neutral color, no matter how good your PhotoShop skills are.  The light is part of the artistic collaboration of theater.  It's part of what I'm there to document.

Shooting dress rehearsals is incredibly good for practicing your integrative photography skills.  You have to think on your feet, react, make fast decisions, understand the value of exposure compromises and anticipate action and blocking.  And, you'll be doing this in the dark since the house lights are gone and all the light is on the stage.  That means you better know how to use your camera blindfolded.  

Just takes a little practice.  Better get started now.


Jeff G. Rottman said...

Yes! for the 1DMk2n. I'm a big fan of the 1D series. I shoot with a 1D and 1DMk2 and have the Canon EF 85 F1.8. Great combo!

Mike Padua said...

This communicates what I never had the word power to communicate about shooting theatre. It's rewarding when you feel like you just shot the hardest show of your life, and you see the results and you realize "I got the shot." It makes me feel like I don't suck after all. And while I expose completely manual, I don't quite have the skill (and guts) to focus manually. Great post!

Ken Bennett said...

I love shooting theatre, the more emotionally difficult the better. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, except that I shoot mostly with a 70-200, wide open at f/2.8, and some with a 24-70, and I rely heavily on the AF capabilities of my 1D series cameras.

To handle the lighting issues, I just put a flash on the camera and blast away (KIDDING!)

This past season our university theatre put on Frank Galati's adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Awesome. Great show, and a blast to shoot.

kirk tuck said...

One of my favorites was a Grapes of Wrath shoot at Zach Scott. The art direction of the stage was amazing. I'll respectfully disagree about AF and zooms. But there's room in the pool for every method.


Rick Dickinson said...

Well said. Your last line perfectly encapsulates what I consider to be an optimal philosophy for fully living life:

"Just takes a little practice. Better get started now."

I sometimes forget to live in the moment. I sometimes let fear of failure hold me back from seeking greatness. I sometimes cling to the tried and true, rather than embrace the opportunity to grow and learn, out of uncertainty about the outcome.

But, in those moments of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, it helps to remind myself that the cure is a simple one:

It just takes a little practice. I better get started now.

Simon Hucko said...

My wife directs school musicals and plays, and I love getting in to shoot a dress rehearsal for her. I almost become part of the show, moving with the actors, anticipating where the action is going, adjusting exposure every time the lighting changes, waiting for movement to hit its peak to prevent motion blur, watching a shot about to happen that I'm way out of position to capture and the moment of panic before letting it go... I'm amazed at how intuitive and from the gut the whole experience is.

Not sure I could handle manual focus, but manual exposure seems to be the only way to go. I set my white balance at tungsten and leave it there, generally only tweaking it in post if something looks really wrong out of context. I agree with you - the lighting designer put a lot of effort into focusing and gelling all the lights, I try to capture that in my images rather than try to balance it all out.

Great photos, Kirk, and an excellent expression of what it feels like to shoot live theater.

kirk tuck said...

Simon, thanks for contributing. I'll go one step further and say that, because of time constraints we got into the habit of shooting all the dress rehearsals in Jpeg. Just to up the ante a bit......

Simon Hucko said...

Sounds a bit masochistic to me... Not sure I'm ready to give up the RAW safety net just yet. Might be fun to shoot RAW+jpeg one day and see how it goes.

kirk tuck said...

Simon, it's not that bad. Sometimes we have to shoot until late and deliver early in the morning. There's not always time for raw conversions.

Anonymous said...

The top image is incredibly good. Is that from the Canon 1d2?

Anonymous said...

Hope Zachary Scott Theater is paying you a fortune. These are beautiful.