Stage Photography, theatre and concerts, photographing in low light conditions and without use of flash and/or tripod or the aid of telephoto lenses.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011
All photos of this article were made with essential equipment: a Canon EOS 40D + EF 50mm 1.8., without flash and by hand. As I’ll explained below, this is a sufficient and affordable setup for any beginner.
Stage photography - be it concerts or theatre performances or any indoor situations with artificial lights and without the use of additional lighting - is definitely one of the most popular genres for many amateur photographers who begin with dSLR photography, but at the same time one of the hardest even just due to technical complications.
I'm always in difficulty when a student who may have not even completed a basic training seeks for a quick guidance by me on how to deal with this type of photography. Because in addition to the lacking of a sufficient experience in order  to understand the many technical difficulties, the student is often lacking of an adequate equipment too.
The "miracle" of high ISO produced by modern digital cameras makes it possible to deal with this type of photography using basic equipment  but beyond the indisputable advantages that this technology entails, there are all those problems related to the inability to use a tripod, flash and, as it often happens, lenses used have not enough luminosity (primes are highly needed), what is essential not only for the shutter’s speed (on which you can intervene by changing the ISO) but also for a fast focusing.
If the high ISO facilitates the task, the beginner often faces situations where even a professional photographer would encounter difficulties, especially if lacking of the proper optics. This can be a source of considerable frustration because they ignore the reasons for bad shootings.
But before we delve into the technical aspects, I shall remember how important it is, for example, in stage photography, to be able to capture and translate the atmosphere and energy of this kind of situations, possibly by focusing on the moments before the real representation (if we have access to the backstage), and then on the preparation of the actors until shortly before going on stage. And then try to compensate for the lack of very bright telephoto lenses, which would allow us to sit comfortably behind the people and zoom, and try to choose a good point of view for the most special moments, at least during executions If you are unable to have access to the backstage. Among other things, the attitude "I mount telephoto and shoot from the back of the room so I can photograph what I want without bothering anybody" has the effect of making us shoot a series of images that are all the same and generally with a flat/front view.
Momenti divertenti o espressioni singolari in scena
Addressing the problem of how to photograph what will happen on stage, given the above limitations, means that wiling to pursue crisp images at all costs may be a loser choice, better to wait for the right moment and situation by preparing the focus before.
Generally a beginner can have one cheap fixed lens. For example, a 50mm lens in my opinion is mandatory for all types of photography even at an early photographic experience. A basic prime costs around 100 Euros, which is a very affordable price, and with an aperture of F1.8 the lens gives us a light amount that is up to 16 times greater than any zoom lens sold with a kit of low-end cameras.
Not mentioning the many issues, suffice it to say that it is not advisable to use these primes to maximum aperture, but whatever the aperture used, the autofocus will have up to 16 times more light to focus on the subject and this translates into sharper images and if we can manage wide apertures also faster shutter speeds  (at equal to ISO).
An alternative are the moderately wide-angles, like a 35mm or 28mm, these can be usually purchased at a reasonable price and have a good aperture. We always talk about focal values ​​with reference to the full frame format, if you are using APS-C cameras you have to make the x1.5 or x1.6 adjustments. A wide-angle also has another virtue, it lets us gain a lot in terms of depth of field, so we can work with a moderately open apertures without excessive loss of focus/sharpness.
31All this of course requires us to be very close to the subject or scene that we want to represent, especially if we want to do a close-up. The possibility to operate crops, thanks to the many megapixels available in today's cameras, ensures us to crop a bit more on the subject if the focal length of lens used was not up to the task. This of course should not be the common use, but better so than not to bring anything home after the shooting.
Another solution that I would certainly recommend to anyone who is used to it is to manual focus. Often the autofocus, in addition to keep hanging front/back due to the too low light available (and cheaper camera’s AF is certainly even less powerful), is not equipped with a very responsive focusing motor (USM, etc.). With low light we have the typical situations where the autofocus moves the internal lenses front/back trying to capture something and if does then the moment that we have seen has passed away.
The technical difficulties unfortunately do not end here and by the way we have described them without being too specific, but it is clear that in addition to shooting it has become very important today to correctly work in post-production to create a correct chromatic harmony. With artificial lights, the only relying on the automatic white balance by the camera is a real suicide.
Besides, even with film this was one of the most difficult issues and in such a situation you often had to intervene with coloured filters to match the colour of the light or simply change it. Today it is only required the photographer to understand how the camera reads the colours and then subsequently to intervene in post-production with an infinite range possibilities to rebalance the white balance .
In these example picture, the post-production is very simple but very accurate. No particular action is required on curves if not to bring up a bit of brightness whenever, in order to not use too critical shutters , we preferred to sacrifice a little the light (never more than 1 /2 stop!). As for me since I am accustomed to the film, I don’t raise too much the ISO of the camera, but of course if you are working at high ISO is then necessary to intervene with a minimum of noise reduction to clean the image up from the noise (using RAW is important and it is always better to do it after and to disable the in-camera noise reduction). The white balance on the other hand is the most important aspect for a faithful rendering of the atmosphere created by artificial lighting. Needless to say, with lights having different colours , this aspect is particularly problematic . Shooting RAW greatly helps with this type of photography.
_MG_3253Finally, it is important not to get lost in search of spectacular images at all costs , it is important to focus on the effects on stage generated by artificial lights, at theatre or concert , and to freeze the facial expressions or gestures that best represent the meaning of the acting. I think we should be honest with ourselves, first and foremost, and indulge in the pleasure of free experiencing, change point of view, should focus on the details or the atmosphere even if we make some technical mistakes but at the end maybe we bring home some good shots even spectacular, at least the best for the situation we had .
Do not get caught by the anxiety of the result, leave this burden to those who do stage photography as a job and must at all costs have sharp portraits of an actor or a singer. Just allow yourself to experience the photography for your pleasure, this way the many technical and practical limitations will not seem so important and, most importantly, we will happily face the next experience in the stage photography.


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