Liz Cass as "Dinah LeFarge"
This was an assignment I walked into blind. I'd never met the people at the production company before. Never been to the "theater" where I'd be photographing the dress rehearsal of "Lardo Weeping." A modern opera. I had no idea what to expect.
It rained for the first time in months here in Austin yesterday. A good solid, multi-hour rain. A soaker. We all ran outside when it started and cheered. But then I went back in to pack up my stuff and make a change to my gear package. I was going to shoot the show completely in raw but had a change of mind and added a second memory card to each camera so I could shoot raw+jpeg and have the two file types on separate cards. Partly for back-up and partly because I wanted to see how good (or bad) the output from the cameras, in Jpeg, would look. Would it be useable? Could I save some processing time and some storage space? At least I'd be covered either way.
The gear selection included two Leica SL cameras, one Leica Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm lens and a Panasonic 70-200mm f4.0 zoom. As an afterthought I tossed in a Sigma 65mm lens but that never came out of the case. I scaled back on batteries after I read the opera company's website and realized that the entire performance would last only 88 minutes. One in-camera battery each and one back-up battery for each camera should be plenty. I packed everything in the Gitzo backpack which works well but is a bit over-engineered. It's probably too well padded so the internal space is smaller than one would think when looking at the outside of the backpack. But on the flip side the backpack certainly does a stellar job protecting the cameras once you've stuffed them inside.
Since it was pouring rain, and since Austin drivers are famously skittish drivers in any kind of weather other than "sunny and dry" I left an hour before I promised to be there. Sure, it's only nine miles away according to Maps but the straightest path is through downtown and, well, rush hour. I got there about ten minutes in front of my scheduled arrival time.
But where was I? My last live performance photography was done on the main stage at Zach Theatre which sits just south of downtown on an incredibly valuable couple acres of land, adjacent to the park. The theater has seating for 400, a plush and roomy lobby with a soaring ceiling, a giant fly tower for backdrops, a huge stage and lavish bars; all the features of a newish, world class theater. But yesterday I wound through downtown and snaked east of the freeway through a couple of detours and found myself looking at an old line of garage-doored, single storied shops from the 1970s. The final one on the row was Crashbox Theater. It's a dodgy space. Maybe 1500 square feet in total. The "auditorium" seats 40 and the air conditioning and electrical connections are all on their last legs. But after a few minutes it didn't seem to matter because there was a palpable excitement in the space and everyone I talked to was smart, focused, experienced, talented and carried great credentials with them.
I talked to the lighting designer after getting a quick-run of-show brief by the director/stage manager. The main lighting was all tungsten. Not tungsten balanced LEDs but full on tungsten. And the lighting designer reminded me that as the tungstens dim they get warmer... Got it. I asked for a lighting cue and stepped into the stage with a white card to get a reading. Yep. 3200K. Pretty much right on the nose. They mentioned that they did have some LEDs for color effects but not as a main light source. All good to know.
I got there early enough to have ample time to fine tune the cameras and get used to the feel of the room. The small crew, and the photographer (me), were all masked. I sat and went through the camera menus once again. I set the camera for Large Jpegs, standard saturation, one move less of contrast, and standard sharpness. I set the noise reduction up from my usual "low" setting to the standard (middle ground) noise reduction setting, figuring that if I didn't like the effect in the Jpegs I could change it in the raw files. The camera was set so only the EVF was live. I didn't want a bright set of rear screens antagonizing all the crew sitting behind me. It worked just fine because even with "EVF only" set as soon as you push the review button and your eye is not behind the viewfinder the camera defaults to the rear screen.
I am a not a modern focuser. Sure, I use AF like almost everyone else but I've never learned to be comfortable with continuous AF or letting the camera select focus points or follow people. I like that center focusing square and I like the AF to lock when I push the shutter button half way down. Lately I've played around with back button focusing and it works well but when I have a lot to shoot in a short amount of time my brain defaults to what I know best.
I sat three rows up from the floor level stage. I had one camera with the wide-to-slight telephoto zoom sitting on a chair to my left and the other camera with the telephoto zoom on a chair to my right. I spent the evening going back and forth between the two but most of my use and emphasis was on the camera with the Leica zoom. Its wide angle to mid-tele reach was just right for the smaller space.
With the white balance set to 3200K, with raw potential in reserve, the only thing I really needed to consider beside composition and focus was getting the exposure right as the light level changed. One surprising attribute of the SL cameras is how precisely the exposure and color on the EVF track the color and levels of my computer screen back in the studio. With other cameras I consistently get back home to find that most of my images are about a half stop (or more) darker than they appear in those camera finders when shooting on darker locations.
My target is always the exposure on the main actor's face. If I get that right I think everything will usually fall right into place. I think most theatrical photographers live in fear of blowing out highlights and each of us has some sort of method or process in place to prevent that. Since we're trying to catch constantly changing expressions bracketing isn't as useful as it might otherwise be. A really well calibrated viewfinder goes a long way toward helping you see just how close you are getting to the edge of highlight burnout. While histograms can, I guess, be useful, it only takes a few bright white props in a frame to peg the histogram and encourage one to wildly underexpose. Blinking highlights are good if you have them. As are zebras that you can set to 100%. In the absence of those measurement tools a well calibrated screen is your best ally.
The EVF tech of the SL cameras is the older LCD stuff. The newer cameras, like the SL2 and SL2-S have the latest LED EVFs and it was tempting to bring along the SL2 but I was set on using the older cameras because 24 megapixels (raw or Jpeg) is the sweet spot for quality, speed, storage and...quality... for adventures on which you'll be shooting a lot of frames in a short amount of time. Also, the sensor in the SL, while not perfect for raising shadows in post, has bigger pixels and I think it handles lower light and higher ISO settings better than the newer camera. It's probably a moot point if you are just shooting Jpegs and are downsampling the SL2 in camera at the time of photographing to the 24 megapixel size. But you can't create smaller raw files so....
There were times I needed to quickly change ISO and that's handled pretty neatly on the SLs. I have the top left of the four buttons on the back set to go straight to ISO setting with a long push. A short push gets you to the "favorites" menu and a two quick pushes of the button gets you to the main menu. So, one long (two seconds?) push and I'm ready to switch from 3200 to 6400 without delay. The next button down is set for white balance. They are the only long settings I have to memorize since I rarely change anything else while shooting (except aperture and shutter speed but those are both on main dials).
The top button on the right side of the rear panel is set to be the play back button if you give it two quick pushes. While a long push gets you straight into exposure compensation. The bottom button acts like the display button on other brands. It takes you through all the screen modes as you press it quickly. Long press it and you get metering mode (spot, all area, face detect, etc).
Batteries worry me. I'm too used to grabbing a camera for a walk and leaving it on all the time so I can grab shots at random. But the batteries continue to drain and always faster than I think they will. But yesterday evening the entire show was in one long act and the way I was using the camera then seemed to be parsimonious with battery power. I have also found that native Leica SL lenses allow the camera to conserve battery power better than Sigma or Panasonic lenses on the same bodies. Manual lenses seem to be best of all because you're only using power for live view and shutter work but not focusing/moving big elements. Both cameras had at least half their battery power left after the show and I thought that was a great thing. And I have to say that they are the most comfortable cameras to have in my hand for shoots like this. But considering haptic while shooting a show is a bit of cheating since, during parts of the show that aren't made for photographs I can put both cameras down on their respective chairs and relax. Or settle my favorite one in my lap for a relaxed but higher state of readiness.
I have three battery chargers for Leicas on the corner of my office desk. When I come back in from using the cameras I drop the batteries into the chargers. Usually, when using a charger, the battery sits in the holder and a green light eventually goes out, or it stops blinking and goes solid when the battery is fully charged. But the Leica chargers have a second, orange light that comes on at the 80% charge zone. If you are willing to forgo always charging to 100% I believe the batteries, when charged to just 80%, have a longer, healthier life. I notice the same thing on some mobile phones; you can set your phone to pause at 80% charge instead of always going for the "gold." The phone makers (and they should know) are quick to tell you this saves your batteries for the long haul.
Two of my desk chargers are for the SL/SL2 batteries while the third one is for CL batteries. I like to make sure we're playing with at least an "almost" full deck when I go out. That's the one thing about old film cameras that I really miss = their battery independence.
There isn't much else to be said about the cameras. They do a good, yeoman-like job. With good exposure they are highly usable up to 6400 ISO and with lousy exposure you can still hit the 3200 mark. I ended up using the Jpegs for all the deliverables today since they were nicely exposed and had good noise reduction baked in. I'm sure, if this was a portrait assignment where we needed only one or two frames for final post production, the raw files could be made better but the Jpegs really do look nice. And they were quick and easy to work with in post.
So let's talk lenses. I used all kinds of standard zoom lenses starting, back in the dark ages, with the well regarded Nikon 28-70mm f2.8 lens. It was a great one. Others have included the 24-105mm Zeiss for Sony, the Canon 24-105mm L series, the latest Sigma 24-70mm Art lens, and the Panasonic 24-105mm S lens. All are pretty good. All could be used for just about any project that would call for the middle focal ranges. But, and you knew this was coming, the Leica 24-90mm is just wonderful. It's too big. It's too heavy. It's way too expensive. But it's also way too sharp and way too optically near perfect.
This praise is based on the fact that I spent my time with this lens last night shooting everything handheld and at the lens's maximum aperture (which ranges between f2.8 and f4.0 depending on focal length). It's as sharp or sharper at the wide open settings than any number of prime lenses I've used in the past. When you add in the rendering and the contrast it just smokes most lenses in its focal range class. zoom or prime.
I have to say though that it's absolutely not the lens you want to use for casual street photos because it's too ungainly. You know the saying "the elephant in the room"? Well this lens is the "elephant in your camera bag." For something like theater work that's mostly meaningless because you're not traveling around and you have the opportunity to set the camera and lens in your lap in between scenes with good that have good, photogenic action. And just being seated while shooting takes a lot of the strain off your muscles. But dropping this one into your backpack in anticipation of a ten mile hike is almost absurd.
If I need to travel lighter I always reach for the Panasonic 24-105mm or, even better, the Panasonic 20-60mm lens. But when I want to do my best work wide and normal I have to say that the Leica lens is superior. Is it $5,000 more dollars superior? All depends on how much money you make by shooting it.
My longer lens has been, for me, a well proven and reliable tool. It's more than adequately sharp when used wide open at f4.0 and only when shooting portraits in the studio to do I bother to stop it down. It's nice to have the longer range and I use it a lot when I have to shoot from the center of the house in a bigger theater but last evening it mostly saw some tight head and shoulders cropped images that weren't essential but were nice to have. It's also a big and heavy lens and, again, would not be my first choice for scampering over rock faces at the state park. I'd choose something like the Olympus 40-150mm f4.0 pro instead. About the same weight as the 70-200mm's tripod mount collar.... But I'd have to give up some sensor real estate.
At the end of the show I headed out and drove through some more intermittent rain. That was actually a nice thing. By 8:30 traffic had died down and over on the horizon the last vestiges of daylight were peaking through. It made for a visually different drive home than the relentless, clear sky sunsets.
How was the show? Delightful. Funny, smart and all sung as an opera. I'll probably buy a couple tickets and head back for the premier. The actor is extremely talented, has perfect comedic timing and the material is wonderful. A blend of bitter and hilarious. All mixed together.
I'm very happy with the files and have not even bothered to crack open the raw files. I guess I should take a look at them next...
Peter Stopschinski, Composer/Pianist
In his red pajamas. Tungsten light is great for reds...
I've missed shooting for theaters. Now that we're hitting lower Covid numbers here in
Austin I hope the big shows come back. And that we all feel safe photographing them.