1.30.2020

Acknowledging the vital role that the standard 70-200mm lens plays in my theater photography.


My theater work for main stage shows at Zach Theatre has me thinking in two opposite ways. On Sundays we generally have technical rehearsals which are the last chance to fix technical issues. Since we may stop and start the run-of-show for one of the technical crews to fix something we do not have any sort of audience or media at that run through. 

While everything is not as perfect and nailed down as it will be two day later for the dress rehearsal, for the purposes of still photography it's more than finished enough. The benefit of being close to the launch of the show and not having an audience in attendance is that I can range all over the venue; from the front row to the rafters. So, for a show like "Janis" I can shoot it more like a concert than a seated auditorium show.

On Sunday I like to explore angles from both sides of the stage and I mostly work in the first three rows and within 45 degrees of the center of the stage. Obviously, wide angle shots are going to be more immersive and show a lot more of the stage context. But it's not always the case; sometimes it allows me to get in close with a lens like the 85mm and experiment with shooting wide open or, maybe at f1.6.

I get a lot of my best shots this way and, as long as I don't use a flash or wear a white jump suit (stick to bright colors so the tech people who are carefully watching this very important performance don't get visually distracted. If you hair turned white you might consider putting it under a black ball cap....) I can move through the rows without causing shifting the focus to me. With mirrorless cameras and loud, live audio, there's so little noise from the shutter that it's not noticeable by the actors. 

Usually, I've dropped by one or more rehearsals so the actors know who I am and aren't trying to figure out why some strange guy is roaming around, unleashed, with two big cameras in his hands. In any event an Actor's Equity notice goes out to cast and crew whenever we're going to be in the house making photographs....

So the Sunday rehearsals, shot close to the stage, are the times when the wide angle zooms come into their own. My current one is the Panasonic Lumix S 24-105mm which is a constant f4.0 aperture. The lens is more than sharp enough, even when I use it wide open ---- and so I usually do. While I always would love faster lenses, now that I have a brace of cameras that work really, really well all the way up to ISO 6400 those fast apertures have fallen down the priority scale for me. Besides, I don't know of any companies that make wide-to-short tele zoom lenses that are faster than f4.0. The f2.8 lenses all tend to be 24 to 70mms and that's just too short a range for my needs. 

I try to get as much great stuff as I can on Sundays but I never miss a Tuesday dress rehearsal because 95% percent of the time every bit of the production is finished, and perfect, and ready to be shot without caveats. 

The only consideration is that we always have an invited audience. Usually a broad, family and friends audience. It's a good thing for the actors because they get to see for the first time where the audiences will react and how to time deliveries and pauses. The audiences gets energy from the actors but the actors get even more energy by having that audience to play to. And, by extension, the actors are more "on" and more "dynamic" than at any other time leading up to that first attended show. And I think it's reflected in the expressions and gestures of the cast. Since it's the "big test" of the show they aren't holding anything back. They're there to give it everything they've got. 

The compromise for me is that I can't move through the rows of seats and I really don't feel at all comfortable moving around the edges of the house, distracting the audience and the cast. What we've worked out over the years is that I shoot the dress rehearsal from the cross through row in the middle of the house. The house blocks off that center row and aisle and I share the entire row with a guy named, Eric, who shoots two camera video for show documentation.

With the whole row reserved for me I can move across twenty or so seats to get a position 20 or 30 degrees to the left or right of center. What I can do is move closer to the stage or further away. It's a bit constricting but I rationalize that I'm seeing the show exactly as an audience member would see it. 

But since I can't get closer to the stage I need the longer reach of the 70-200mm to get tight and dramatic shots. Since this production has a catwalk on the stage, at the very back of the stage, I would have loved a lens that goes all the way out to 300mm. I could have gotten a bit closer on the shot at the top of this post. Most of the time the 70-200mm is fine. Just fine. With all the 24 megapixel, full frame cameras, it's easy to crop in a bit and tighten up a good frame. 

I've been using Panasonic's Lumix S Pro 70-200mm f4.0 and it's really great. But, over the years I've also used the Nikon, Canon and Sony 70-200mm f4.0s as well as a collection of f2.8s and they are all very sharp and very well designed lenses that all deliver the sizzling steak to the clients. I'll test the f2.8 from Panasonic but I probably won't replace the f4.0. It already does everything I want it to...
As you may have noticed, when I change systems (and I do change my underwear much more frequently than camera systems; thank you very much!!!) I always buy the two holy theater lenses first and foremost, the wide-to-tele zoom and the 70-200mm. Can't leave the store without them. The fun stuff, like 50mm f1.4s and 20mm f1.4s all get added in as we go along. 

The nice thing about 70-200mm zooms of all varieties (non-entry consumer....) is that you know what you've got in your hands and if you've been photographing theater for long enough you know what your composition will look like at every focal length. You'll also know, the moment you see a great wide angle shot that you can't do it with the long zoom and you need to toss that camera into the maw of the open case sitting on the chair next to you, grab the camera body with the wide angle lens on it and blaze away. 
On dress rehearsal evenings I tend to get to the theater at 7:15 p.m. before an 8:00 p.m. show. This means I can always find a convenient parking place in one of the theater's lots (I have a staff hangtag on my rearview mirror that grants me free parking....). I get into the auditorium as quickly as I can get through the knot of staffers chatting each other up in the lobby. I want about 15 minutes of quiet time in my center seat so I can pull out the cameras, check for sensor dust, pop on lenses and then set all the menu items to the same settings. It takes the guess work out of everything when I need to quickly switch cameras. At most I end up making a quick shutter speed or ISO adjustment to match. 

Once I'm set and ready I head back out to the lobby for a quick bathroom break and then follow the audience back into the theater. I spend the last ten minutes in my seat, surrounded by seat with "reserved for photographer" signs on them because there are always people with excessive feelings of privilege who will actually take the signs off the seat back and plunk down. I move them out quickly, and I keep a small stack of reserved signs in the pocket of my roller case.....

I used to grab a glass of red wine at intermission, mostly because I could get one of the premium red wines at a discount if I'm wearing my name tag. But, since the beginning of the year I've been abstaining so I spend that fifteen minute gap catching up with the lighting designer or sound engineer. It's like we're all old school alumni. 

I used to worry about running out of space on my memory cards because I like to overshoot to make sure I've gotten just the right moment and expression. Now I buy bigger, faster cards; like 128 GB and up, and I find I simply can't run out of space. The downside of overshooting is the Herculean task of working through the next day's edit. 

I usually get home from a rehearsal shoot around 11 p.m. and drop by stuff by the office on the way into the house. In the last 11 years of shooting I've never experienced a single shoot evening that doesn't end with Studio Dog greeting me warmly at the front door and checking in to make sure everything smells good and that I'm okay. That's nice touch. 

So. The TLRIA (too long, read it anyway) is this: Two nice cameras. Two nice zoom lenses (with one being the 70-200mm) and you're ready to start shooting theater production photographs. Thanks for reading and leaving a pleasant comment...