I don't know why I've felt so intimidated by the prospect of photographing the play, "Matilda" for my friends and colleagues at Zach Theatre. I think part of my hesitancy is based on my usual apprehension of shooting any performance where most of the set and background are black. There is also quite a big cast and lots of moving parts to the play. Another contributing factor is that this is the first big splash of the season and I think a lot is riding on making the numbers. I want the images to be as perfect as they can be and that's why I wanted to go and pre-scout the show this last Saturday.
I saw what I needed to see and I showed up yesterday evening prepared to give it my best. I was shooting from mid-house, in the fancy seats, and I actually used three cameras and three lenses to get everything on everyone's shot lists. Since Zach Theatre designed and constructed the set they'll be renting it out to other theaters that produce "Matilda" so they wanted some super wide shots that encompassed the stage and a bit more.
My two "primary" cameras were XH-1s. One had the 16-55mm f2.8 on it while the other sported a 50-140mm f2.8. I shot with both of these nice lenses stopped down by 1/3rd to 2/3rds from the widest aperture (f3.5?). The third camera was my little XE3 with the (wonderful) 14mm f2.8 lens on the front. I used the XE3 + 14mm combination for lots and lots of handheld stuff.
The Topfer Theatre at Zach has been completely LED for a while now and each lighting designer opts for a different base color temperature. In Matilda the base white balance seems to be right at 5100 K but there's a lot of gelling in some scenes. When we see Matilda's family there is a distinct warm, yellow hue to the stage lighting. In the classroom shots there is a slight bias to blue and in the shots that showcase the evil Ms. Trumbull the light has a very slight greenish cast overall.
I try for neutral faces unless there is an obvious lean toward one color palette or another.
Shooting stage shows is tough under normal lighting conditions where there is some sort of scenic, lit background mostly because of the contrast range of the light and the constant change of light levels. Going with a black stage that supports a mostly black set is tougher because there is only enough light to break the subjects away from the background in scenes that have the actors backlit. And separation is a good thing! There is also no bounce light coming from back walls, side walls, props and other parts of the set to reduce the quick transition to black in most frames.
It's pretty amazing to realize this but if you want to teach an entry level photographer the difference between what the eye sees and what the cameras sees I would think shooting on a dark stage with an actor in spotlight would be a perfect example. When I look at a scene that's black on black I can see into the shadows enough to discern all of the set but when I correctly expose for the main actor in a spotlight there are many times when the camera can't see additional people just outside the circle of the spot; much less the stage detail in the background.
When I'm confronted by a high contrast stage set like this I abandon my default Jpeg preference and head quickly into raw territory. I know that when I pull my selected images into Lightroom I'll want to make good use of the shadow and highlight sliders to bring back some detail in the shadows while preserving the good stuff in the highlights. And thus far the Fuji cameras, at or below ISO3200, do a good job controlling noise.
Since I was shooting raw format I could experiment a bit more with wide-ranging global settings. One of the things I played with extensively in Lightroom today was looking at the effects of all the different camera color profiles that Fuji offers on the XH-1 and which, by extension, are available in develop menu in Adobe Raw. Standard (Provia) had richly saturated colors but the shadows fell to black very quickly. I went in the other direction and applied the Eterna profile to the photographs. It was flat but held onto both the highlights and shadows to a much greater degree than any of the other profile settings. I guess that just makes sense considering it was modeled after a very wide latitude color negative film for moviemaking. I liked the look but decided that the files benefitted from an increase (slight) in contrast and about 5 points more saturation.
It also helped the overall look to put in about 12 plus points of clarity slider to balance out the flatness of the files.
In keeping with the title of this blog post I want to discuss my use of the 16-55mm lens. In a word = excellent. In conjunction with the XH-1's image stabilization, in the vast majority of my 1300 selected files (about 50% of which were shot with the 16-55mm) there are few that aren't perfect and those are a result of my hubris in thinking I can freeze moving subjects on stage at speeds of 1/125th of second and slower. When setting shutter speeds you have to take into consideration, if you want all parts to be free of subject movement, just how fast people are moving across the stage, shaking their heads, wiggling their hands and kicking up their legs. For most shots of people in normal motion on stage 1/250th is a good, safe shutter speed but if there is dancing, running or frenetic gesturing you'll need to head up to 1/500th of a second, and beyond.
When I did properly nail the right speed, the right exposure and the right focus the finished photos were in line with all the glowing material I've read about the lens from other photographers, and from my own tests.
The lens and camera combination is not nearly as heavy as I thought it would be after a couple of hours of handholding, and the handling characteristics of the lens, the way it feels in the hand and the quality of the aperture ring, make it a delight to use as a tool. I was happy to see that all three of my Fujifilm "red badge" lenses take the same filter size and even happier that my 77mm variable neutral density filter arrived in the mail box today.
After having used the 100-400mm for a while the 16-55mm seems delightfully small and fun to handle.
It's also perfect when zooming in on small groups and then zooming out to put the groups into context with the stage sets. The 24-84mm range (ff equiv) is just right for a normal range, premium zoom lens. I've never been able to make a good adaptation when using the more limited 24-70mm permutations because I'm always begging for that last ten to fifteen millimeters of reach.
I'm wracking my brain trying to think of some negative aspect of the lens so as to provide some illusion of balanced neutrality in discussing the 16-55mm but I have to admit I'm struggling to find anything wrong with it. I guess (age appropriate analogy) it's like trying to find something wrong with Audrey Hepburn's performance in the movie, "Funny Face." You just can't reasonably do it.
Leaving the 16-55mm for a moment I'd like to discuss my one caveat about the 50-140mm f2.8. I wish it was about 10% longer. I want the speed, the size and the weight to stay the same. I just want it to reach out a bit more. Many times last night I was wishing I could comp some two person scenes just a little closer. I guess I got a taste of real reach when I tested my 100-400mm....
I am married to a graphic designer though, so when I showed her my photos and expressed my wish for a bit more focal length she asked the right questions:
Is the image sharp? Did you photograph it with a high resolution camera? Did you get the tonality correct? Do you remember that there is this secret technique called: CROPPING? Do you think you can find a cropping tool in Lightroom or Photoshop? End of spousal correction/conversation.
But I kinda have to listen to her since she is, from time to time, one of my favorite clients....
All in All, the combination of the two premium zooms is an almost perfect set of lenses for the kinds of theater work that I do. I wish I had more time to photograph each play. I'd probably do three days of shooting for each. One for general stuff and ensembles, one concentrating on all the production aspects that are new and different, and then one day with the long zoom just picking out actor's faces at particularly appropriate (and awesome) times. Might be fun. But clients, of course, are more interested in condensing time rather than extending or diluting it.....
So, how did I enjoy the play? It's by Roald Dahl and it may be one of the best stage shows with kids I've ever seen in the 500+ live theater performances I've watched. It's that good. I'm heading back tomorrow to photograph the final dress rehearsal and then heading back again for a business networking event and show on Wednesday. (I am a guest at the networking event so I'm sure to show up for cocktails and food but less sure I really need to see "Matilda" for a 4th time this week.....).