The only thing better than watching an incredible live show is getting a chance to photograph it, guts, glory, and all. If you think experiencing a live theater production as a member of the audience is exciting and dramatic, you haven’t seen the half of it yet.
Stage productions aren’t always theater-based, although those are a lot of fun to shoot—TED-style talks, industry presentations at conventions, and musical performances are all just as relevant. These live event photography tips apply to all of the above, and then some.
1. Get There Early (and Wear Dark Clothes)
You, the live event photographer, are an apparition. Allegedly, somebody hired you, and the photos were, in fact, submitted. Were you ever really there, though? Nobody can recall.
Stage photographers should be dressed modestly and practically in all-black, just like any other backstage crew member. Even if you were lucky enough to be invited in for a tech scout before the show, you should still arrive early, fed, and ready to shoot well before your actual call time. This affords you a valuable window of time to set up for the evening.
Find a discreet and unused corner of the venue to establish Camera City, a place to charge your batteries, plug in your laptop, and stash your camera bag and lens bag. Once your gear is ready, you’ll be able to carry out your work throughout the night without worrying, fumbling, or finding yourself without something vital at exactly the wrong moment.
2. Scope Out the Best Spots Beforehand
One extremely important part of this pre-show due diligence: acquiring a workable lay of the land, especially if you’ve never set foot in the place before in your life.
After settling in, grab your coffee and take a few laps, both in the front and in the back of the house, anywhere you’re allowed to wander. Take a peek at the lighting setup to start formulating the most effective plan of attack; if the lighting director is available, you might even introduce yourself and inquire into their design for the show.
3. Remain Unobtrusive and Undistracting
With a live event or a stage production, there are two parties that you should avoid disturbing at all costs: the talent performing on-stage, and the audience that has likely already paid a lot of money to watch them strut their stuff. Your role is secondary to both; think about the way that the emotion of an undisturbed performance enhances the value of every shot.
If all the dancers or speakers are glaring right into the lens, your photos will probably not command the same sense of gravity and wonder. Be polite, stick to the sidelines, and always be ready to retreat when somebody more important needs to sneak by you. Sometimes, your backstage area will be a very small amount of space to work with, but the show must go on.
4. Invest in a Sound-Muffling Camera Muzzle
A noise-canceling camera muzzle will silence every shot. This guarantees that the noise from your camera will never spoil the scene or presentation.
For aspiring career documentarians, this investment is an absolute must. With a camera muzzle, you’ll be more than equipped to capture even very sensitive and quiet proceedings, and you might have the opportunity to shoot more important events in your city if you can land the right job and get in with the right people.
Even if you just shoot for fun or for your family and friends, camera muzzles can help you take photos covertly. Again, the aim is to avoid calling attention to yourself. Keep the spotlight where it belongs and never worry about your shutter stealing the show again.
5. Leave Your Speedlight in the Greenroom
Speedlights and strobe lights are awesome for cast and crew photos after the performance has concluded, but they’re just a little too conspicuous to use during a live performance. In fact, if the performers are dancing or doing acrobatics, using a flash while they’re on stage might actually be dangerous for them.
The stage lighting technician has their own job to do—the onus will be on you to make the most of whatever light happens to be coming out of the rafters at any given time.
There’s also the philosophy that this type of photography should remain faithful to the spirit of the occasion. Stage light is unique and expressive, but, more importantly, it makes it feel like all of your photos actually took place in the staged setting that you’re working within. You want your photos to feel like Broadway, not like they were taken in a basement.
6. Shoot Long, but Keep a Shorter Lens on You
We’ve all been there: the theater director has relegated you to the back of the house, behind the last row of seats, no exceptions, or you’re gone. Not a problem if you have at least a 200mm lens on you, or possibly a 400mm lens if you’re literally shooting from the back of an opera house. Should that be the only lens that you have on your person? We would argue not.
Some shows may feature cast members or speakers entering the fray from the front of the house, for example, which might mean they’re walking right past you. Whether they’re lit up with a spotlight at this moment or quietly stepping into their role without the fanfare, this is one excellent opportunity to nab a winning shot.
Wider shots of the stage area might also be something to prepare for—a long lens to snipe singles, and a portrait-length lens to capture the entire troupe or group. If you’re always prepared, you’ll never miss a great shot when it presents itself.
7. Exploit Rim Lighting Whenever Possible
Stage lighting is strong and harsh by definition, much like stage makeup. Both are a lot to take in up close, but, without the exaggeration, the performers on stage and the emotions that they convey would be much more difficult for the audience to read.
In a theater setting, many of the on-stage, front-facing portraits that you capture will look very “theater-y,” which is fine. There may be some moments throughout the show where something slightly more dramatic may be in order, however.
The stage lighting is likely to follow the mood of the story; a soliloquy lit by a lone fresnel from above may not be lit traditionally or commercially, but it still may be a show-stopping photo to take nonetheless. Positioning yourself so that the spotlight rims the subject is one way to distinguish the figure of the performer without a real key.
8. Tell Every Part of the Story
Depending on how personally involved you are with the show, you might be able to document the lead-up before the show—we’re not advising you to bust your way into a changing room, but it’s likely that both cast and crew will be rehearsing or milling around before the house lights are scheduled to go down. If they’re friendly and not super busy, they might be happy to stand in for a few behind-the-scenes shots.
After the show, if you’re not required to clear out before a certain time, you might be interested in doing the same sort of thing. The rush of a ramshackle performance, the flush of a performer who’s been dancing their heart out, and the jubilee of a job well done all make incredible fodder for emotional and meaningful portraits that end up being great memories for all parties involved.
It’s about more than just the show—you’re there to photograph the talent that makes it all possible, and it can be a really wonderful feeling when everything comes together perfectly. Not bad for a Thursday night.
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