Getting the “stage” photograph

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Stage photography is quite different from ordinary portraiture.  With portraits you are generally trying show the subject in a flattering manner.  With stage portraits you are trying to capture the atmosphere of the event on stage, often with just one performer.  Your photo has also to scream out ‘stage’, and this week I will show you how.

Firstly, in stage photography, you are not in control of the model.  You also have some very difficult composition and lighting problems to contend with.  You cannot quite ask someone in the middle of Othello’s death bed scene to hold that pose, put the skull in the other hand and say “Cheese”.  Mick Jagger will not also stop for you to focus while running frenetically from one side of the stage to the other.

The lighting, too, is quite different from that you normally experience.  Stage lighting is generally tungsten based and sharp (what we call “spectral” lighting).  Spots for the performers and floods for the background are the hallmarks of the usual stage lighting.  The use of spots in particular is used to highlight the principal performer or action on stage.

Successful “stage” photographs have managed to retain that “stagey” lighting feel to them, so that instantly you look at the image you know it is of a performer on a stage somewhere.  Remember, that as a photographer you are recording events, people and places as they happen.  You are a mirror of the world!

The secret of retaining that stage feel is in the lighting.  Because it tends to be dark, the first thing the average photographer will do is to bolt on his million megawatt gerblinden flash gun with enough power to light up the far side of the moon.  While understandable, I do not endorse that approach to stage photography, but more on that shortly.

Do you use a telephoto lens?  No.  Because it gets you too far from the light falling on the performers.  Again it is the old adage of, “Walk several meters closer” for this type of photography too.  Use a standard lens and get close.  If needs be, find which row seat you need to be able to do this.  All part of being prepared.

Now in the good old ‘film’ days, you got hold of some “fast” film.  800 ASA if you could, but 400 ASA will do.  It was a good all-round film that does not give too “grainy” an image, yet will allow for handholding the camera in the stage situation.  However, with today’s digital cameras, I have found you can run the camera on a nominal 100 ASA, or 400 ASA at most.  (Anything over this and the digital image begins to break down.)

So, what about lighting?  Pro photographer’s tip – leave the flash in the bag, or turn it off at the camera.  Now I know it is dark, but you are trying to retain the stage lighting effects.  In other words, you are going to let the stage’s lighting technician be the source of light for your photograph too.

Now get a seat as close to the action as you can, and then select a lens that can allow you to fill the frame with the performers.  Funnily enough, that will be, in most cases, the ‘standard’ 50 mm lens.  Shots that show an entire dark stage with two tiny little people spot lit in front are not good stage shots.  In fact they are not good anything shots!  If all you have is a fixed lens point and shooter, get as close to the front of the stage as you can.  You can still get the scene stopping shot – you have just to get very close.  OK?

There is also the ‘problem’ with white balance with digital cameras.  The constantly changing lights with stage performances means that the digital camera can get very confused, but honestly that is not a problem.  You will still get an image that says “stage performance”, which is what you want.

Next time you are getting shots of people on stages, try turning the flash off, get as close as possible and you will see the end result is much better.