Theatre Photography using Micro Four Thirds (MFT or M4/3) Olympus cameras and lenses.
I have been actively involved in community theatre with Rampart Players for many years, both on and off stage. My photographic background leads to a natural inclination towards the visual elements of performance, particularly lighting.
In photographing performing arts shows over the past couple of decades, I realise that I have picked up a lot of experiential knowledge and skill in theatre photography. Over the past three or four years, as I moved from using full-frame digital camera systems to smaller micro 4/3 systems, I found that this modern system does make capturing performance more fluid and productive.
Here are a few thoughts and practical tips to improve your theatre photography:
All photography is about painting with light, and this can be especially challenging in the theatre environment. Flash is a major no-no for good reason, in that it both distracts the performers and audience members, but also destroys the look and mood that the set and lighting designers have worked hard to create. So getting to view a rehearsal, and speaking with the designers is the first step in doing your background work. I also like to see the opening performance and enjoy it as an audience member without thinking about it too much in photographic terms. Somehow the feeling of the visual aspects of the show's sink into your 'photographic brain' and when you come to photograph the show you have a reasonably instinctive sense of anticipation and timing.
Understanding the look and design is one thing, but the practical realities of photographing theatre light are inherently challenging. There will be extremes of brightness and darkness, and you will need to be able to react to these changes quickly to get the technical aspects of your images right.
Your choice of lens is also crucial. In discussing the show at a rehearsal, or making other background enquiries, you will get a sense of where you can be positioned and therefore what lens or lenses will be a good choice. Fast aperture, bright lenses are the name of the game in theatre, as you will be using your lens wide open or stopped down by only half to one stop. In my current system, I use an Olympus OMD EM-1 markII camera, and the best lens for theatre photography is the Olympus 40-150mm F2 .8 Pro lens. In full-frame terms, an equivalent lens would be a 70-200mm F2 .8 or a fast telephoto prime lens.
Your choice of camera settings is also a key component of getting technically correct photographs. I use either Aperture priority mode, or full manual mode – and use the aperture as wide open as possible. I will keep an eye on the shutter speed and adjust this depending on the level of movement of the performers, and merely adjust the ISO to its low lowest usable setting. Typically, this works out at F2 .8, ISO 1600 and a shutter speed of between 1/100th to 1/250th of a second. It is also essential to shoot in Raw as this will allow you to correct colour and white balance back at the computer. It can be challenging to get the photographs right straight out of the camera.
It is difficult to shoot with more than one camera and lens, but if you can manage it, you will be more productive. If you can handle this, having somebody to help you is useful.
One of the significant advances in mirrorless cameras is the ability to use a completely silent electronic shutter. For quiet performances, this is essential. When a play reaches a moment where you can hear the proverbial pin drop, the last thing you want to hear is the shutter and mirror slap of an SLR camera. Of course, modern cameras can shoot many, many photographs, and it is wise to overshoot – bearing in mind that someone has to edit your trigger-happy inclinations – probably yourself!
There is something deeply satisfying about capturing the look and, more importantly, the mood of theatre performance. The actors, director and creative team involved and are sure to really appreciate an excellent photographic record of what are one-off, unrepeatable live performances.
Rampart Players 'Pilgrims'(C) John Collins Kinsale Rampart Players Kinsale, 'Lady Windermere's Fan'©John Collins Rampart Players Kinsale, 'Lady Windermere's Fan'©John Collins Rampart Players Kinsale, 'From Both Hips'