33 Variations. Beethoven, Theater, Photography. Always learning new things about Music and my Sony a99.

The place: A new Theatre on the banks of the Colorado River. The play: 33 Variations. My purpose: Get great images from the play for use in public relations and advertising. My primary tools: Quick reflexes and the Sony a99+70-200mm f2.8 G lens.

The premise of the play: Musical publisher, Diabelli, comes up with the idea of composing a small piece of music (four different note to begin with?) and then having the best music composers of the day create variations on the theme. Then publish the variations in a book of music. The other thread of the play revolves around a musicologist who is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease and has been studying Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, in the present. The play is funny and warm and dramatic all at once. And woven throughout are renditions of various segments and pieces of Beethoven's 33 Variations played by world renowned concert pianist, Anton Nel.  So here we go.....

There was a "family and friends" audience in the house for this first, post dress rehearsal, performance. I guess the restaurant business would call this a "soft opening." I wanted to be in the orchestra area, center, about five rows from the front of the stage. This would get me close enough to capture some intimate groupings while giving me enough leeway to go wide enough when I needed to. As the house last night was "open admission" I asked the house manager to reserve me five seats across the middle of the row and to block the two seats directly in front of me. I did this so no one would be disquieted by the noise of the camera shutters, or my movements, as they tried to enjoy the show. The added benefit of not having the two people directly in front of me, combined with the rake of the seats, was not having heads in the wider shots.

I got to the Mort Topfer Theatre about forty five minutes early, checked the seats and dropped off my camera bag on the middle seat. I went to the first floor bar and acquired a very nice cabernet sauvignon in a plastic cup, with a lid and a straw, and then went back into the theater to go through my camera pre-flight.

I don't know about you but I make it a point to zero out the things that routinely change in menus on my cameras and then re-enter them. I never want to take settings for granted only to discover that I've been shooting small, normal jpegs at 3 megapixels when I really need something else. Ditto with focus settings, ISOs, etc. I start at the left side of the Sony menu and work my way to the right.

I set the camera for super fine jpegs @ 24 megapixels. I turned on steady shot. I presumed it was already engaged but as soon as I entered my pre-flight routine I remembered that my last use of the camera had been on a tripod and the SS had been turned off. My camera will (with the help of an eyepiece sensor) toggle between the back screen and the EVF if you bring the camera up to your eye or bring it down from your eye. Since I could read all the menu items in the finder and never like to push bright light into a theater setting I turned off the auto select and manually selected the EVF. I usually keep the review on and set it to 2 seconds but it slows down the process when shooting theater so I turned it off entirely, knowing I could rely on pre-chimping just as well.

Here's an interesting thing I learned about the a99: The camera is capable of making 14 bit raw files. In fact some experts say that the camera has one of the truly great raw files on the consumer camera market. But here's the rub. It is only available in the single frame mode! If you set your camera to single frame shutter release you get 14 bits of wonderful color and detail. Set it to 3 or 6 frames per second and you get 12 fps. What did I care? I was shooting Jpegs. But it is interesting to know how you can operate your gear for best effect, when necessary.

I'd worked on some video for this show in a dress rehearsal on Sunday and knew that the prevailing stage light was neither daylight balance nor tungsten (3200K) so I looked back in my little camera bag Moleskin notebook at my color settings from before. The optimum for most scenes was 3900K with just a nudge of magenta correction. I set that manually. The final menu setting adjustment was to set the high ISO noise reduction to "low." 

At this point I formatted the 16 gigabyte SD card in the primary shooting camera and then turned my attention to my back-up/wide angle camera and duplicated the settings on that menu as well. That meant I could pick up either camera and shoot with the need only to change exposure settings or, in limited situations, ride the color balance a bit.

Next I turned my attention to the function menu. All the parameters get set here. I used ISO 1600 all night long. That generally got me 1/200th @ f3.4 or f4. Just the way I like it. I used the "standard" creative setting but I dropped the contrast down one click. Stage light is contrasty. Honest. I set the focusing to AF-S and used (creature of habit) the center AF sensor.

Since I was pre-chimping I never considered bracketing. And really, in fast moving situations and when doing portraits I don't think you ever should because Murphy's Law will bite you on the rear. The expression you love most will be in the lightest or darkest of your brackets. But because of Moore's Law than blown out frame will at least have gobs and gobs of resolution.....

When I go to the theater to shoot I take along a few little things to make my life easier. I take chewing gum because it's actually a goud cough suppressant. I talk laundered, cloth handkerchiefs, because a gentleman should always have a clean one to offer to a beautiful woman.....(day dream sequence), to blow his nose with and.....because a freshly laundered hanky can be pressed into service to clean a lens. I also take a tiny flashlight with a deep red gel taped over the front. It puts out just enough light to help you find that dropped memory card on the dark floor without ruining your night vision or annoying everyone around you. Finally, I bring a lead lined bag in which to drop my cellphone after I turn it off......just to be certain that I am never that person! (goes with the tin foil hat...).

While I shoot a ton of images I don't do any of them in bursts. I try to see and time every image I take. It's a good exercise because it helps you create your own luck instead of trying to get lucky. Besides, not much changes during 6 or 8 or 10 frames per second. It really doesn't.

The a99 tossed off about a thousand frames last night and did so with one battery. The battery had about 39% power left on the meter when I wrapped up the cameras and tossed them into the old, weathered, black canvas Domke bag. What would I do differently next time? Not a damn thing.

It all worked fine. The files look good to me and the client was thrilled to get them this morning since live theater has a definite marketing shelf life. The images you see here are my quick and quirky selections, I am sure the people at Zachary Scott Theatre's marketing department will make a different set of choices.

If you are in Austin you should definitely go and see this production. The music is wonderful. It's the first totally acoustic show in the new theater (no sound amplification) and the venue has a sweet sound. The lighting is wonderful and more than enough to keep a photographer engaged. If you love piano music you'll probably already have your tickets in order to see Anton Nel in such a  different styled performance. If you love a good musicology story the play is also for you.

Go here to see more: http://zachtheatre.org/

Finally: Could we have done this with an Olympus OMD system? A Nikon D6oo? A Canon 6D? or some other kind of camera? You bet. We have for years. But the pre-chimping is especially nice for stage lighting and the 24 meg chip yields some good files for those (frequent) times when the theatre gets into its "banner" thing and starts printing really large. The camera that yields the best results will be the one you enjoy having in your hands. 

What's up tomorrow? No new blog tomorrow. I'm spending the day making portraits for a healthcare company and I'll be using LED lights. I'm wrapping this up now so I can go back into the studio and cut fresh gels and then pack. Hope everyone is doing well. And doing good. -Kirk


  1. Thanks for this insight Kirk. I know you said jpegs but does this mean you don't do anything in post?

  2. Zeroing your settings is a great tip, something I need to do more. I have been bit by the Steady Shot off a couple times, but when I first got my A99 my friend tried it and set it to 10MP APS-C crop mode and I didn't notice at first. No big loss, but still a good reminder.

    Really great photos, and thank you for again sharing your process!

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  4. Excuse me for being a smart-*ss but http://zachscott.org/ doesn't resolve to a website whereas http://zachtheatre.org/ does ...

    And the choices are nearly the same ;-)

    Kind regards

  5. Thanks so much for the pictures and the play recommendation. We went last night and were enthralled. Anton Nell was great, the other performers did a fantastic job. We were enlightened, inspired and we learned a little something besides. The productions at Zach are always memorable, but this one is at the top of the list.

  6. My wife, Barb, and I went to this play last night, and I was emotionally moved at the end. I'm not ashamed to say that I had tears running down both cheecks when the lights came back on. What a wonderful play! Thanks for sharing these photos, so that we can remember this play all over again.

    1. Gregg, thank you for sharing this. I'm very happy that you were able to get so much out of 33 Variations. Zach Theatre is an incredible resource for Austin. It really makes me think and appreciate people and ideas that are outside my usual comfort zone. It helps me continue to grow at age 57. Glad you and Barb are along for the ride.


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