Photographing "A Christmas Carol" at Zach Theatre, circa 2015

a quick collection of my favorite shots from "A Christmas Carol" at Zach Theatre.

Let's discuss actual photography. One of my jobs as a freelance photographer is to take photographs during the dress rehearsal of the plays at Zach Theatre. Technically, these are called running shoots because we do the photography while the cast is running the play. In the very early days of my theater photography we did our running shoots in black and white because, in Austin at the time, all of the outlets for public relations photos related to entertainment, ran in black and white; and mostly in tabloids that were web printed on newsprint. If we wanted to do color shots we found it very difficult to work at the highest quality under the hot lights and with the slow films available in tungsten color balance.

When we attempted to shoot color during the actual dress rehearsal I would load up Leica M series cameras with Kodak's ProTungsten 320 film and push the ISO one stop to 640. At 640 I had a fighting chance at getting a high enough shutter speed (if I watched for the peak of action) to freeze movement while getting a workable f-stop. I was generally walking the line between 1/60th and 1/125th of second...

To get really great color stuff we would do set up shoots. Sometimes on stage and sometimes in my studio, depending on how far along a show as in the rehearsal. Sometimes the crew is working on creating a set right up to the week of the play and back in the film days the lead time for publications was appreciably longer that today.

I loved doing the set up shoots because the quality of the images wasn't constrained by the stage lighting, and we could stop the action and pose our actors exactly the way we wanted to. If we had some feature in the background we really liked we could change camera angles or an actor's position to accommodate the feature. The most compelling reason for my appreciation of the "set up" shoots was that they represented an opportunity to light the shots extensively and also to bring to bear our medium format cameras and lenses, along with slow, delicious, rich color transparency films.

My good friend, Jim Reynolds, who was the marketing director at the theatre during most of my career, would come to the studio or the stage with five or six different shots in mind and we'd carefully set them up and light them, always trying to make them look as though they'd been lit with theatrical lights, only with much better results. My tools back then were a mix of big, 4x6 foot soft boxes along with small fresnel fixtures made for Norman and Profoto flash heads. We worked around the contrast limitations of the film with smart lighting. The images could be amazing. They were the backbone of the theatre's marketing in the days before online social media and we spread them around everywhere as post cards, subscription mailer content and posters.

Now we tend to rely on the running shoots (dress rehearsals) for everything and in some ways it limits us from evolving the absolute best images from a play. The chance to re-stage and to shoot iterations of the same gesture or look are very powerful tools and I think we tend to ignore them in the rush to maximize efficiency and the time commitment of cast and crew. I long for the days when it was the standard to at least aim for perfection in our work. I think it imbued the photographs with more energy and that came across to the viewers.

The one other thing that has changed for me is the change of the actual theater space. Three or four years ago we moved from a very small, intimate theater space to a beautiful new theatre that can seat 350 people. With it came all the attendant costs of owning and using a very large space: more crew, more electricity, more expensive lighting instruments with which to throw longer and longer beams of light, and a much bigger stage. Once we did this the theatre decided that we'd bring in audiences to the house for the dress rehearsal. These audiences are "family and friends" and there's no denying that it's a good experience for the actors to play to a nearly full house before the first performance in front of an audience paying the full ticket price. But with a full house I no longer really have the option of stalking the actors from directly in front of the stairs.

We've changed the methodology and now I am constricted into a small space that's much further from the stage. This means that we're using more and more telephoto lenses which, in turn means we're seeing less and less depth in the shots and more compression. What's lost in the translation is a sense of visual intimacy that the immersive nature of a wide angle lens, used close, provides.

Instead of shooting from ten feet away with a fast, wide zoom I am shooting from thirty or forty feet away (or more) with a longer lens like an 80-200mm f2.8.

While I understand the restrictions we're working under as regards the space, the budgets and the availability of the actors, no small part of me wishes we could go back to the previous methodologies because they helped me to create more interesting and, I think, harder marketing images.

For the play I shot yesterday, A Christmas Carol, I worked in the new methodology with both a longer zoom on the Nikon D810 and a shorter zoom on a D750. I'm now shooting down on the stage instead of at eye level to the actors. Since most of the stage is dark and the actors are in pools of every changing light I use manual exposure and try to anticipate and rides the shutter speed as needed. The goal is to watch scenes form, choose a composition that's tight and graphic and then make sure I have sharp focus on the important subjects, as well as the right exposure. I cheat a bit lately by shooting in raw with the Nikons and having the option to pull up or push down exposure in either direction by one stop.

There is always a battle of sorts, in my mind, between lighting that works well and is exciting for an audience versus lighting that works well for photography. We're constantly trying to tame wild contrast ranges and at the same time work to figure out what the dominate light color is. It's a fast chess game for the brain; especially when you know that you won't get "do overs" of any particular scene.

With all the constrictions aside, the challenge of the shoots and the potential to get really exciting visual content certainly makes shooting live theater worthwhile to me. If you can shoot a fast moving show with a huge range of contrasts and constantly changing colors I think you are ready to shoot just about anything. I always go back to see the shows later, without a camera in front of my face. It's amazing how different a show is when you are working and then when you are a part of the audience.

This version of A Christmas Carol was amazing. I can hardly wait to see it again.

I have to be in New Jersey for a shoot all next week but I'm already making plans to see it again the following week. I know I'll love it even more!


Jim Waite said...

Hi Kirk,
Really nice captures. I can certainly relate to your thoughts on the subject of Theater Photography. For publicity purposes, crafting the shot has many advantages and as you said, likely produces the best images. But, for me, capturing those live moments, fleeting though they may be, is a lot more fun. Some of my favorite shots involve the actors introspection and sweat that you are hard pressed to get with a posed shot.
I always enjoy your thoughts and ramblings.
I hope your boy is home for the holiday. My little girl is in the Netherlands getting her Masters. It's hard having them away on these major family occasions.
Have a lovely Thanksgiving.
Jim Waite

Rob said...

Hi Kirk,

I just wanted to thank you for your blog, I have enjoyed reading back through older posts over the last few weeks and I have felt inspired to do my own, less regular and most definitely less popular blog. For myself more than anything, but I linked through to this site on it and spoke briefly about you so thought i'd post you the link.


Many thanks again, looking forward to future posts!


Gavin Muenzberg said...

Hey great Shots! I can't wait for the 2016 Zachs Christmas Carol, I saw something that reminded me of it on Yobored.com today and remembered I still need to get tickets!