Why I think the Sony a99 is the best camera around for documenting live theatrical performances.

All images above are from last night's dress rehearsal of Mad Hip Beat and Gone, from director, Steven Dietz, at Zach Theatre. All shot with the Sony a99 and the 70-200mm 2.8G lens.

The play started at 8pm and I expected to get to the theatre at 7pm to get my bearings (It's only four miles away from the studio) but real life got in the way. We had a very rare and dramatic meteorological event here in central Texas...it rained. And sometimes when it rains here in Austin the clouds get all urgent and overwrought and try to rain down everything at once. And that's when the fun begins. It was almost Biblical for an hour or so in the late afternoon. Thunder, lightning and seventy mile per hour winds whipped fat rain drops and sharp, spitty chunks of hail at us with no mercy.

My dog cowered in Ben's room, hiding under the covers on his bed and trembling with every thunder boom. Ben, unfazed, continued to study his calculus. I had my hands full in the studio as water started to seep in on one side. The side with the French drain. A French drain that was clearly overwhelmed.

I meant to pack up and get out earlier by there I was with a bucket and a mop wondering if I was bailing out a life boat with a thimble. But as soon as the rain slowed down the seepage stopped and the rest was just a matter of mopping up.  I hopped into the studio's racing Honda CRV and thought it would be the usual quick jaunt to the theatre until I hit the first of several blocked roads. The water had come up so quickly that the main arterial from my house was closed by local law enforcement. Drat. I headed for the secret back roads but in the day of GPS and Garmin there are no longer secret back roads and so I inched toward my destination with thousands of other frustrated drivers.

I got to the theater and blocked off five seats in the orchestra section, dead center. The crowd settle and the play started. I was there to shoot so I had my usual, ever changing collection of cameras in lap and spread over the chair next to me. Two Sony Nex-7's and a Sony a99 with a 70-200mm G Sony lens. Last night the a99 got the most use with 1198 images coming from that combination. It was glorious.

Theater photography is where the EVF (electronic viewfinder) comes into its own. Since there is no single "correct" white balance you get to chose and what better way to keep a handle on the ever changing color of light on the stage but to monitor it in real time, with your correction overlaid and presented to you as a fait accompli in the high res view finder. You get to see, at a glance, exactly how the exposure and color balance you've set will render in your final image. The only way to get that with lesser, OVF camera is to take a "chimp frame" then make some corrections and then chimp again. And again. Eventually you'll get everything into the ball park and will be able to shoot in earnest but by then, chances are, everything will have changed and the play will have moved on to its next collage of colors and light settings and tone.

It sounds like a simple thing, right? But it's anything but. When I look through the viewfinder of an OVF camera I see what my eye sees. And my eye works with my brain to neutralize everything I look at. It makes magenta skin look normal and it makes green skin look normal. I can't see the range of colors that diverge from normal because the eye is only a good comparator, not a good stand alone color checker.  And when I look through an OVF the scene always looks perfectly exposed to me. The only two ways I can tell that it's not perfectly exposed for the camera's use is by either stopping to review images on the back screen or by watching the meter. But the stage is all about pools of terrific colored light and inky black shadows. Exactly what are we metering?

That's why I love the EVF on the a99. At a glance I can tell whether a scene is over exposed for the main subjet that I want to render.  The EVF shows me what colors I'm getting instead of me having to stop, push the review button and evaluate. And if the exposure or color does need changing I can watch those changes in real time as I push a button or turn a knob. I never need to stop and start and iteratively test each parameter. It's like looking at a Polaroid versus a video feed. The feed can be live/now/immediate. The review is past/moving target/gone.

If I enable DRO (Sony's in camera dynamic range expander) I can see the effect of DRO in the review of every shot that comes up automatically in the EVF. That means I don't have to remove the camera from my eye to evaluated a "proof." If I like what I see I tap the shutter button and the camera is ready to take the next shot.

Last night I hit the focus hold button in order to lock focus on a subject. When the camera went into MF mode the focus peaking feature automatically kicked in and the red (color I chose) surrounded the subjects that were in good focus. If a subject moved out of red zone I knew it was time to refocus.

An EVF means not having to upset the people behind you that are trying to watch the show. There are plenty of times we need to make control changes on the menu. With a non-EVF camera that means bringing on the 3 inch screen on the back of the camera and that means intruding into the darkspace of the show. The people around you now have an extra, peripheral stimulant to distract them from the action on the stage. Not so with an EVF. Hit the menu button with the camera held up to your eye and you can change menu settings or review images without spilling light out of the camera and creating visual stink for your seat neighbors. Truly a camera implementation with manners...

The same viewfinder qualities that make the Sony a superb theater camera also apply for all other EVF enabled cameras, such as the Olympus OMD EM-5, the Panasonic GH3 and even my little Canon SX40 IS.

But what makes the Sony perfect for me is the wonderful sensor inside the camera. It shoot well at higher ISOs, just like the Canon and the Nikon's do but it has one more trick up the sleeve that neither of the more primitive, traditional, conservative cameras have: It can do image stabilization with every lens you stick on the front of the machine because the IS is on the imaging chip.

Now my Rokinon 85mm 1.5 and my Rokinon 35mm 1.5 are both image stabilized and with focus peaking and in-finder focus magnification it makes the totally system the most accurate and fastest to use system for taking advantage of a giant selection of manual focus lenses. Pretty amazing.

Great Sensor, Much more useful and flexible finder, IS with all lenses, Great handling.  I'm trying to think of any downside to the big Sony flagship in regards to shooting live theater on the stage and I can only think of one thing that gets trotted out with regularity: Battery Life.

The big hit on the Sony is the idea that you'll only get about 400 exposures on a freshly charged battery. All depends on how you use the camera. Last night I shot 1198 images on one battery with 32% charge remaining at the end. Not so bad. Certainly good enough for me. But just in case I do keep an extra in my pocket...

I'm not saying the a99 is the best all around camera in the world, only the best live theater camera. Now, if I only had the 300mm 2.8G....


Anonymous said...

"and even my little Canon SX40 IS"
Kirk, please do some work with the SX40, some portrait LED work, some night shots, some bokeh. I have the same camera and I'm sure you can do magic with it. Some people say all of these is possible.
Hey, the New York Times used an iPhone and instagram:


John Hall said...

As a recent convert to the EVF fold (OMD style) I agree with all of the advantages you mention. BUT for stopping movement you really need the bleeding edge of high iso and a little extra DOF (2.8 vs 1.4 or 1.2) never hurts. For those reason's I'd argue that for dance you still really want a 1DX or equivalent Nikon - those are the tools I rent when I need to deliver for dance. (my site: www.motionphotography.net) For everything else the OMD rocks and I imagine the Sony would be wonderful.
Thank you, as always, for the great site and thought provoking reads!
John Hall

Kirk Tuck said...

Maybe for dance you'd need to go faster. But for most dramatic stuff we can do well with ISO 3200 (jpeg) and 6400 (raw) in a pinch.

Craig Yuill said...

In the 1980s I would try to shoot these types of photos for university newspapers with an Olympus OM-1 and ISO 400 film. The camera had no spot metering, just center-weighted averaging. And exposure was determined by an unilluminated needle to one side of the screen, which was often invisible in shots with black edges. It was shoot, and pray that I got a reasonably exposed negatives that could yield publishable prints. I would have loved having one of these A99s back then.

You really do put this camera to good use. Great shots!

Joseph Ferrari said...

Great read!

There's nothing like having an EVF and IBIS as part of a capturing system—and full-frame to boot!

Did you capture any video with the A99?

Kirk Tuck said...

Yes. My video footage of Erin (one of the actors) is used in the play. I don't videotape the rehearsals, that's done by someone else (using a four camera set up...) but the controlled video used as part of the narrative is from the a99. Works well.

theaterculture said...

JUST had this conversation with an acting student yesterday. He and his friends are starting their own company and want to get a camera for documenting their work in stills and incorporating video into the show they're working on, and he asked me if he should get a Nikon or a Canon "full-framer."

My response was that he should look for external mic input, a good evf, a fast medium telephoto that's affordable and compatible, and image stabilization, in that order of priority, and if they can get all that in a full-frame camera than it's gravy but that would be about the 5th or 6th thing I'd think of.

Of course he's 22 so he was only really "asking" in order to tell me that they're looking for a used 5DII because it was used to make that episode of _House_, but what can you do?

John Hall said...

Agreed, and 3200 jpeg with great color and dynamic range is simply amazing, let alone at 24 mp.
As you've proven many times though - it's really not the camera tech. that matters. If I'm honest, while ever higher iso's are nice, I come home with about as many keepers now as I did with a 6 mp Canon 10D. The only difference might be the (usable) resolution. Ultimately it's the thinking behind the photo that matters.

Anonymous said...


Now that you are really in tune working with the A99, how we'll does it work for you if you need to wear your glasses?

If you are able to work without glasses, can you see the full viewfinder and the information displays at the bottom?

The few times I have handled the A99 the eye piece seems a bit cramped. Which seems strange, as I have not felt that way about the A77 eye piece the last time I compared them. For the time being I have decided the difference was probably eye fatigue on my part. Do you notice any differences switching between bodies?


Kirk Tuck said...

Paul, the diopter correction is more generous than in some other cameras so I need never where my glasses when shooting. The finder is big, bright and I can see all the way to the edges.

Jim Waite said...

Good afternoon Kirk,

I have been reading your blog for over a year now. I found it while searching for ‘Theater Photography’. What great fun and very informative. The comments above about the OM-1 and your subject matter prompted this response.

In the early 70’s, I caught the Theater bug and wanted a camera to record the shows I was designing and directing. I too started with an OM-1 a 28/2.8, 50/1.4 and 100/2.8. Ektachrome 160 Tungsten was my film of choice. I would burn through 5 or 6 rolls of 36 during rehearsals. When all was said and done, the usable slides often numbered less than 10. From time to time we would pose some scenes which would usually work out fairly well. This craziness and joy lasted until 1990 when my daughter joined us and I found it all but impossible to run a business, raise children and try to keep my lovely wife happy.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago. The kids are mostly grow, my wife found a satisfying job outside of the home and I’m feeling the tug of the stage. I still didn’t feel that I could commit months at a time to productions, but I could go in and record shows with photography. I did a little quick reading on digital cameras. I didn’t want to go into debt with a Nikon or Canon pro model on what might prove to be just a whim, and decided on an Olympus e520 with a 14-54mm zoom. It ought to be good enough to get started, after all, my OM gear had served me well for 30 years. Boy was I wrong.

I spent my first night in a dark theater trying to get focus lock and a reasonable exposure. I shifted to manual focus and manual exposure with a little help from my old Luna-Pro, with less than good success. My eyes aren’t what they used to be and light levels were changing too fast. Also, I was pretty sure that I really ticked off the cast and crew with the focus and shutter noise, but they were nice about it. I don’t remember how many frames I took, but my keeper, yes, keeper, was nothing to write home about. I had had much more success with film and fully manual cameras. Frustrated, I didn’t go back to the boards right away.

I have since become very fond of my e520, but it was obvious to me that it wasn’t the tool for the work that was really tugging at me. Your stage work, love of the Pen’s and all the great press about the OM-D convinced me to pursue stage photography seriously. I sold almost all of my Olympus OM cameras and lenses, save for the 100/2.8 and a Tamron SP 90/2.5 Macro, and threw in some cash to get an OM-D, 45/1.8, 17/2.8 and based on your raves, a Sigma 30/2.8. The next time I went out; Wow!!! I could actually concentrate on timing and composition. I have since acquired an e-p3, vf-2 and the crème de la crème, a 75/1.8 (all previously owed). The OM-D purchase was just before you jumped into Sony. If I had waited much longer, you may have influenced me in a different direction, but I’m not at all sorry with my choice.

The finish work is not totally there yet. WB has been my biggest challenge. The keeper rate is still quite low. In December, I opened a Smug Mug account; www.Show-Shots.com. I’ve posted the last two shows for the cast & crew. I have tried to include a little bit for everyone involved. Honestly, if I had just picked out what I felt was good, there would be far fewer pics posted. So far, I’m having a great time and getting better. Theater is certainly a unique genre. I think I read somewhere that it’d like “Shooting sports in the dark”. What kind of keeper rate do you normally see? I’m a little jealous of your opportunity to work with a Professional Theater. Do you have any suggestion for getting access to other companies? It’s been hit and miss for me, so far.

It’s truly a pleasure to read your blog. Obviously, your theater work has been a lot of fun for me. My favorite piece was the process piece with the actor in the rain. Thanks so much your daily thoughts. I look forward to the next.


Kirk Tuck said...

Jim, thanks so much for your positive and happy comment. I really needed one of those today. Getting into the groove in digital just takes a little time. I'm recommending setting exposure manually and letting the camera handle the focus. In weeks you'll be right in your game. Best.

Anonymous said...


I had the opportunity to visit my local Sony Store over the weekend and was able to handle the A99 again. You are correct, the diopter adjustment is very generous. Though I have determined that my facial ergonomics are probably not inside the design parameters Sony had in mind for the typical user. For me to get a reasonably clear view of the EVF and the bottom dislay I needed to put the eyepiece very close to my eye.

After trying the A99 I noticed that as I stepped down in camera size things seemed a little better for me. The A77 was an improvement, and the NEX-7, was a little better as well, but the EFV that was a pure joy was the one for the RX-1. I will be returning to the store to evaluate this camera again.

Thanks again for the reply.

Ugo Baldassarre said...

Hallo Kirk. i've a question for you. Can you use IS of A99 (and a77) on non-electronic lens? When i use my Samyang 85mm on a77 (and the 8mm on my olympus E-3) I have to turn off the IS of the camera. If I don't do this, all image are wrong, blurred.