A photograph from Zach Theatre's, "The Great Society."
As you might know I've spent quality time over the last 28 years documenting almost every single production Zach Theatre has done in that span. I've used at least 30 different cameras and hundreds of different lenses and I've enjoyed watching somewhere between 350-450 performances. I know a lot about theater, I just don't know what I like... Just kidding. I know exactly what I like.
I like plays that challenge my view of life, make me laugh, make me cry, etc. But most of all I like plays that are fun to shoot. That doesn't always mean comedies or musicals; it means any play that is well staged, beautifully lit, powerfully acted and, in some way accessible to me. Having literally photographed thousands of hours of material (both content on the stage and set-up advertising shots in the my studio, or a temporary studio at Zach Theatre; on the stages at Live Oak Theatre, The Paramount Theater, the State Theater, The Rollins Stage at the Long Center, and the rehearsal stage at the Austin Lyric Opera) I think I finally know a thing or two about how to photograph plays and operas, and just how my photographs will be used. The photographs I share here on my blog are not necessarily the ones I, or the marketing people from the theaters, think are the perfect ones to use for mass market communications, they are the ones I like from the shows --- for one reason or another.
You would think that, over time, I would become a bit jaded and, more or less, just photograph productions on auto pilot by now but you would be wrong. This year I decided I needed to up my game a bit, mostly for my own enjoyment and for the challenge of making better works. A constant push for me and for my clients, and especially for the actors who commit so much time and energy to make their art work.
To this end I've started going to rehearsals and digging into the look and feel of the content while trying to better understand what the artistic directors are trying to do in their interpretations of the material.
For "The Great Society" ( a drama about the second term of LBJ's presidency) I started my research by going to an early rehearsal and mostly watching the blocking while reading over the script. I came back a week later and we set up some lighting and used an a6300 to record three video interviews with key actors. About a week before the design rehearsal (the first rehearsal with full costumes and fully finished sets) I came by just to sit for a while and look at the set on the stage. It was also a nice chance to talk with the lighting designer for the play and try to understand the way she would use lighting to help drive the drama.
I came to the design rehearsal which pretty much gave me the run of the house for photographs. This is where I got a lot of the closer, wider shots which I like very much. It was also the first time I was able to see a production run all the way through the script. It's great to know where the action builds and when there might be "reveals" that are important. This play is in three acts with two intermissions so there is a lot of action to remember and to prepare for.
For the design rehearsal I brought along "the twins." The RX10ii and the RX10iii. Don't know why I did it that way but I liked it. A lot. I used the 2 for most of the close stuff andwas happy with the way the files look, even when shooting wide open. I keep finding new uses for the long lens on the model 3. It's pretty astounding. The cameras shoot fast and I've now got them set up so I can be in C-AF and toggle in and out of a locked, manual focus with the button in the center of the four way controller on the back of each camera.
When I got home late Sunday night I tossed all those files into Lightroom and started editing them down to a manageable set of images. I am getting more and more ruthless in editing as time goes by. (A reminder: "editing" for photography, means removing the photos you don't like or don't want from the folder, library or project you are working on. "Post Processing" means adjusting color, tonality, sharpness, etc. While "retouching" means working on some part of a photograph to fix something like removing a pimple or taking out a wrinkle in a shirt.)
So, I am getting more ruthless in my editing (image selection) and winnowed down the "take" from about 1500 images to a few more than 400. At this point I try to post process as many similar files at a time until every selected files has be touched. Then I upload the files to Smugmug and send along a gallery link to my client(s). I also send Zach Theatre download links because I feel that I can trust them to do the right things with the files.
When I had a free half hour on Monday evening I went back out to the studio, sat down and carefully looked through the images I'd selected. I was trying to educate myself. To see what had potential and what was just a mess. Were there images that didn't work? How could I make them better? Was I capturing the human side of the actor as he portrayed LBJ? Or as she portrayed Lady Bird? Sometimes just taking 24 hours off and the coming back to a set of images can trigger a reappraisal of sorts. I see things just a little differently after a good night's sleep.
Ben and Belinda came with me to the final dress rehearsal on Tues. night. This would be my last opportunity to get the photographs that marketing folks will use constantly for the next month in order to sell tickets. Since dress rehearsals now "feature" an audience of "friends and family" my movement through the space is a bit more restricted. Since none of the "friends and family" are paying for tix, and they know that there's still a chance that we'll be making last minute adjustments, I know I could roam the house and shoot from any angle but it's not convenient or (I think) polite to step over people to get down to third row center to line up a shot. In fact, it might be too disruptive even for the actors.
With this in mind the videographer and I reserve the middle of the house where a wide row separates the front of the house from the rear half of the seats. That wide aisle runs parallel to the stage which means that no one is directly in front of us and only theater tech people are behind us.
I brought along only two cameras on Tues., the Sony A7Rii and the RX10ii. On one of my earlier visits I took time to get the lighting designer to give me a recurring light cue so I could measure the color temperature and figure out a working white balance. I set this on both cameras. For this play it was 3800K. No hue adjustment needed.
I worked with the 70-200mm on the A7rii and mostly used the lens wide open. I like the combination because I can choose huge resolution images for the wider shots but when I need something to be really tightly cropped I can drop into the APS-C mode, get another 50% reach from the long end of the lens and still walk away with an 18 megapixel file.
I used the RX10iii for all the very wide (full stage) shots and then at the opposite end, grabbing super close ups from halfway up the house, in the theater. (See images below). The EVFs make a very big difference to me because there's no good way to meter the light while shooting quickly and in ever changing mixed light. Instead, the EVF provides a constantly on "pre-chimp" state which allows me to change exposures on the fly and base those exposures either on zebras or a histogram, or right off the eyepiece screen image. Working this way also allows me to completely turn off the rear screen so I don't disturb the people behind me while still allowing me to review what I've shot during the moments when the action is subdued.
Another big plus for both of these cameras is the silent mode. No sound at all. Even at 10 fps, no noise.
I posted a lot of images because I love to look at the work and just burrow into the details, the tones and the expressions. I am never really aiming for technical perfection, instead, I want the images to work telling something about the play or the people. I've always shot too much but it doesn't matter now. At least I won't miss a good moment waiting to decide whether or not to waste free electrons. And, as I mentioned, I am becoming a brutal editor so the storage is no longer much of an issue.
Lately I've been putting up full sized Jpeg images on Smugmug. My logic? It's free medium term storage and the images can be made quickly accessible to my clients.
I hope you'll take a moment to click through the images below. I think the satisfaction I felt in making them will show through during your click through. You may notice that I've started setting up one camera for square shooting. Future discussion?!
An uncrossed, 600 mm equivalent photograph, handle held from mid-way up in the house.
Of course, the Sony RX10iii.
Image from the Sony RX10ii.
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