f/5.6, 1/100, ISO-800, 55mm

The last time I photographed a stage play I was pretty unhappy with the results. Oh, by shooting a few hundred exposures I was able to get 8-12 shots that were decent simply by playing the odds, but I didn’t come away from the experience feeling like I was in control of the image quality. I’ve thought long and hard about the experience since then.

Shooting a stage play is hard. The backdrop (at least for the examples I had) were black and swallow the light something fierce. Yet the subjects themselves are lit harshly and often in brilliant, primary colors – visually interesting in person but tending toward garish in a photograph. People move quickly, so it’s important to have a fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur, yet using a fill flash will often eliminate the drama of the moment, as well as flatten the subject. The stage is often unevenly lit – intentionally – as actors move from one spot on the stage to another, and move from one scene to next. So settings that are perfect for one exposure can be as much as 3-5 stops different just a few seconds later.

There simply isn’t the time to fiddle with all the different settings on your camera in real time. There are a few ways to deal with this. Take hundreds of shots, as I did, is one way but gets to be tedious quickly. It also gets to be frustrating as you see lots of great-looking thumbnails that turn out to be horribly blurred or unfocused. You can attend lots of rehearsals so that you can anticipate the shots you want and the settings you need, but who has the time to attend that many rehearsals (other than actors, of course)? Or you can pose scenes before or after a rehearsal, but there are several challenges with that. It takes a long time for actors to change into the necessary costumes for each scene you want to photograph, and posed shots always look, well, posed.

So, how to get sharp, properly exposed photographs in real time? The answer I found that worked very well was a setting on my camera I’d never used before – auto-ISO, combined with shutter priority. By letting the camera decide what ISO and aperture to use, and setting the shutter speed to 100, I was pretty well guaranteed to get images that were within a hair’s breadth of proper exposure and generally sharp. Sometimes when there was a lot of light colors on the stage I would need to choose my focus (and thus my light reading) carefully, getting my light from a lighter area of the stage so that white dresses wouldn’t get blown out. But in this way I was able to focus entirely on shooting, and never had to worry about camera settings. I knew that I would always have a wide aperture and thus a narrow depth of field, so I always tried to keep that in mind when composing my shots, but these settings gave me the freedom to concentrate on composition, putting all else aside.

In the end, I find it somewhat amusing that I gained more control over the image quality by giving up more control to the camera. I guess the lesson is to understand what it is about the shoot that needs to have your control for the best results, and give up the rest to the camera. Those needs will vary from one setting to the next, but it’s a good idea to consider what those needs are in advance.

Creative Commons License
Diva by Anthony Bopp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

This entry was posted in Indoor, Photography, Portrait, Theatre and tagged , , , , .


  1. Tuxedo Sophisticated Cat February 27, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

    I’ve never used automatic ISO. I’ll have to try it when I don’t have time to do adjustments. I really like this photo.

  2. AJBopp February 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    Thank you! Auto-ISO is not something I’d ever tried, and certainly not right for every case, but when I realized light was changing enough to make adjusting the ISO necessary in addition to shutter and aperture, it kind of dawned on me to give that up. 🙂

  3. Beedie February 28, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Beautiful Work!

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