Zach Scott Theatre opens big. Big.

I've spent two evenings at the theater this week. Both times I was watching RAGTIME in the new, Topfer Theatre building. It's a brand new 400 seat theater that's pretty much state of the art. Beautifully design, great bars, and a large percentage of the stage lighting is done with state of the art LED lighting fixtures. For those of you who've never seen RAGTIME it's a play set at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States and it deals with issues of racism, how Americans at the time dealt with immigration from nearly everywhere and, issues of personal morality and our responsibility to our fellow humans. The play is held together with eerily beautiful Ragtime music. Enough about content of the play, I want to write about shooting in the new space.  It's going to be challenging and I'm still coping with all the changes but that's what makes this career so much fun. Just when I get everything figured out for shooting on a small and intimate space we get to change gears and shoot BIG.

Since RAGTIME is an enormous production we were tight on schedule. The costumes and scenery weren't quite finished for our usual dress rehearsal and marketing wanted to ramp up attendance quickly. Both nights I attended there was an audience in the house which meant that I didn't the usual leisure of moving around to get the best angles and elevations. It also meant that I couldn't work in close to the stage as I have for years at the other two theaters.

I went the first night without a camera in order to concentrate on the run of the play. It was like scouting. I wanted to see where the lighting cues came in. What the action and choreography looked like. How the stage was blocked out. I did discover two interesting things that would affect my photography.  One is that most of the stage lighting was set as approximately a 3700k color temperature but the follow spots were set up as daylight fixtures. This meant that there would be a  color split depending on which light sources had dominance. I would have to set two different color balances and then be able to "see" the changes and to toggle between the two color settings.

I also learned that being stationary during the show is a whole new way of doing the work. I had to rely on the long end of my long zoom in order to get the shots I needed for most of the show. My observations on the first night let me know where the "ta-da" moments were in the play and allowed me to be ready for them on the next night.

When I came back to do the actual photography I was positioned in the center of the house about 26 rows up from the stage. There's a break between seat rows there.  Unusual for me since I've been shooting at stage level or actor eye level for most of my previous work.

What I figured out in my scouting was that the majority of stuff I wanted to capture, shots of one two and three people together in a scene, or small groups, would require long lens and enough ISO to lift up the shutter speeds to something higher that I was used to using. I did most of the tight shots with a 70-200mm 2.8G lens on the front of a Sony a57 (supposedly better high ISO performance than the a77...) All the wide, stage and scenery shots as well as shots of the entire cast on stage at one time were done with the 16-50mm 2.8 Sony lens on an a77 body.

I set both bodies up with two different color temperature/wb settings. As soon as I noticed the faces turning blue or cyan in the electronic viewfinder (yes, that's one of the fringe benefits of the EVF, real time color analysis!) I could hit the function button on the taking camera and then toggle to the needed setting.

Since I was trying to capture action, expression and movement I decided I needed to shoot a lot. How much is a lot? I ended up with around 1800 shots over the course of the three hour show. This meant I needed to be shooting Jpegs or there would be no way to edit, process and convert the files in time for the marketing department's deadlines. It also meant that I really had to nail the changes in color since I'd have a limited opportunity to make color shifts in post. The majority of images were shot in the a57 camera which did 1200 shots on one battery while still showing 41% power remaining at the end of the evening. So much for the hit against Sony on battery life...

There was a non-revenue audience in this particular run through but the electronic first curtain shutter of the Sony cameras, and the lack of a moving mirror, makes the Sony camera quiet enough to use unless you are seated directly next to or directly in front or behind someone. On the mezzanine row I was far enough in front and behind the other rows that the camera was mostly inaudible.

What have I learned or re-learned? First, the obvious. If you are shooting from further away with a longer lens you flatten out the scene and you lose a lot of intimacy in the images. There's a reason why  world class photo journalist and street artists use shorter lenses and work close in. It makes for a more emotionally exciting image. Really.

Secondly, even though the Sony 70-200mm 2.8 is a really nice optic and the cameras have built in image stabilization I was at the outside limit of my ability to hold the lens steady enough at anything longer than around 1/500th of a second. 200mm on a cropped frame camera is the eq. of a 300mm camera on a full frame camera and, at the longest focal length, every subject and camera movement is amplified.  And not in a good way.  Next time I shoot at this venue I'll try to shoot much closer. In fact, if we can do a closed house dress rehearsal I'd want to stand on stage and shoot with a collection of much faster single focal length lenses. The longest I would need in that scenario would be the 85mm and that's a whole different ballgame when it comes to lens speed/subject movement/ISO compromises.

In the final processing I could see some issues from camera movement in dark scenes. But I have mixed feelings about changing the mix in the camera bag. I could go with the new Sony a99 but then I'd lose about 100mm of effective reach which would necessitate buying longer lenses. If I use a longer single length lens I'll be switching back and forth to other cameras as the scenes change in order to get the framing I need for each shot. It's a bizarre compromise and one that I'll ponder for the rest of the week.

The theater is beautiful and the range of new stagecraft that's been made possible is breathtaking. I just need a few years of practice to lock in a new way of working with the dimensions and layout of the new space and everything will be groovy.  Photos below.


  1. Your post reminds me of an experience I had about a dozen years ago shooting a high school production of "The King and I". I shot from a very similar position in the auditorium as you. I recall shooting with either a 70-210mm f/3.5 zoom or a 300mm f/2.8 for the tight shots. Because I had no in-body or in-lens IS I had to use a tripod to keep things steady. Since the house wasn't anywhere near full I was able to stand, off to one side without blocking anyone's view. Would a monopod possibly work for your situation?

    Your point about wanting to use a very-quiet or silent camera is a very good one. The camera I used for that shoot was the Nikon F801S, which had one of the noisier drive motors at that time. Today's DSLRs, DSLTs, and mirrorless cameras are so much quieter than many motorized film cameras. Still, it's good to have one of today's quieter cameras for this sort of event.

    Also, you once again explain why EVFs are such a great thing to have. In my case I was shooting colour negative film, which allowed for some exposure leeway and post-shoot colour correction. Being able to set colour balance in camera would have been so sweet.

    I really appreciate these posts where you have experiences that are similar to ones I have. Please keep 'em coming.

  2. I did bring along a monopod but it really does nothing for subject movement and lateral movements. I used one for the first half and then went handheld for the second. I couldn't see any real difference in this application.

    1. Yes, subject motion is one thing extra support won't compensate for. That's a challenge sports and wildlife photographers face all the time. And, it appears, photographers of musicals too.

      I forgot to mention earlier that the noise from my F801S so irritated two audience members sitting nearby that they got up and moved to another location, on the other side of the auditorium. Unfortunately, I had only that camera to work with. I wouldn't dare do that again. Your point about selecting the quietest equipment and using it in the quietest way is extremely important for this type of environment.

      I take it you were impressed with "Ragtime". I saw a very-good production of it back in the late 1990s. I think it is a musical well worth seeing. I'd love to be able to see this production of it.

      Lastly, I really like the shots you posted. They may have been mostly taken with longish telephoto lenses, but to my eye they have plenty of emotional excitement in them. I'll look forward to seeing similar shots taken with shorter lenses once you get used to working in this new facility.

  3. It's annoying the way a monopod stabilises vertical camera movement but lets it easily swing from side to side, increasingly annoying the longer the lens. I have a monopod with three little legs which can be folded out to make it a rather wobbly tripod. Better than no tripod, and often a useful flash stand. I discovered that if I only fold two back legs out that very effectively cuts out a lot of the sideways swing without hindering rapid shifts of view. So if I'm photographing a staged event from a fixed position in the seats that's what I usually use now. It's a good improvement over a standard monopod for that kind of shooting.

    I would expect that some of the other 'pod stabilising accessories such as a footplate could do as well. I have sometimes wrapped a big gorillapod around the 'pod so that I can easily lean that part of it against a suitable surface (such as the seats in front). The big rubber faced leg joints are good at adding extra stability, including twist stability, to a monopod. In fact I once used that method against a wooden park bench to take a crisp 20 second night exposure of a park.

  4. Kirk, first of all congratulations on the great blog you have and the topic that led me here was the a77, one of the best posts I've read after all those sony is this, sony is that articles I've read and all of them bringing down the a77. At the end and because of budget limits I picked up the a57 from sears (I'm from a small city in Mexico so not to many options for buying) and fell in love with it completely, for me the feeling is better than the one of the t2i I owned once, more comfortable and find the button placement really well thought, the low light performance may not me at par with my nex-5n but I found Iso 3200 as my limit for some shots. But well, to the point, I'm still interested in the a77, the a57 is more a field body for me and I'm still using my 60d for studio work, but discounts are around the corner and I found my self still wanting that a77 for studio and to get advantage from that 24mp, my question is (since I'm also shooting with continuous lighting sometimes) what's the furtest Iso value you use before you start feeling the shots are not that useable? thanks in advance

    1. thanks a lot Kirk, that was really fast, I hope you really enjoy your new a99!!


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