Stage Performers - How do we do it - A laymans guide

Being an outdoor person I have climbed mountains, crossed rivers and hung from trees to try to get the perfect angle on just about anything.

More recently however I was invited to a series of indoor events as the pro on site.

One of these stands out above the rest as the audience of some 1200 strong was asked not to take their own photos but rely on 'the pro' to put them online.

Many of the guests asked the same question - how do you get such well lit shots in such a dark environment?

I will assume that most people reading this are still learning about their camera and photography general.

This is where technology meets technique. For most cameras the ability to process high contrast images is too slow to capture the motion, for this the ISO or EV needs to be boosted which results in noise and lack of sharpness in the images. Leaving the camera to decide for itself is generally out of the question too because it will try to reduce the brightest parts of the image, lighten the darkest and eventually the image is not as you would want.

If you are pro, then you can normally make several visits to the venue and make some test shots. For me, I visited a few days before and trampled all over the 1200 seat auditorium taking test shots with my favorite lenses until I decided where I wanted to be. I then came back for the rehersal and shot a many test shots using my laptop and iPad to check the quality at each stage until I was sure that the best settings were achieved for the lighting and even reflected light from the performers and their clothes.

Lets look at the specifics.

First of all from your location you need the correct lens - I use only prime lens meaning that I need to get the correct lens size and zoom with my feet, sometimes that is impractical in a theatre so I need to make sure my lens reached 80% of the stage area.

Then the speed of movement, some of the dancers moved relatively slow, whilst others were jumping and running around like mad rabbits. For this I set my camera so that I could quickly use the thumbwheel control to change the SHUTTER SPEED. I counted the number of clicks between the slowest and the fastest speed I would need.

From time to time the dancers were stationary for a few seconds allowing the use of speeds down to 80th second. (Too slow and you risk slight blur from the subject or you!) At other times they would be jumping requiring speeds up to 1/500th second minimum.

In order to do this the camera needs to adjust the ISO (or you can do it manually). Nikon have a great built in software called DYNAMIC LIGHTING which is a great help in these situations, but it does boost and reduce parts of your picture to get the best lighting in a mixed lighting environment.

The ISO ranged from 800 for just a few shots all the way up to 6400 for the majority of shots.

This is where most cameras breakdown, at such high ISO the quality is awful and not saleable to say the least and is also the difference between a PRO range camera and a starter model.

The next major issue is the APERTURE, to most this is a dirty word that one cannot really understand. For the photographer it is essential. If your f stop is too large the depth of field becomes an issue and so does the amount of light let into your camera.

I used large apertures (small numbers !) because most of the performance was done in a relatively shallow field depth.

I used my smartphone app, to determine the depth of field and the hyperfocal calculator to tell me over how many metres I would retain sufficient sharpness to get enough of my targets in focus. with a 50mm prime lens I found that I could achieve an near focus at 1.5m, my hyperfocus was at 7.5m and far focus at 2.8m

What is this babble - well if my dancers were at 7.5m and I took a shot, the nearest point of acceptable focus would be 1.5m in front of that and 2.8m behind. Perfect.

Now to the lighting, the stage lighting whilst being colored lighting, was always the same type of lighting in this case tungsten.

The easiest way to set your WHITE BALANCE is to use LIVE VIEW if you have (the screen on the back of the camera showing the photo). Press and adjust the WHITE BALANCE until the colors displayed on the screen look exactly like the stage.

Otherwise back that up by taking test shots with a color card - I use the color checker from my ColorMunki to get perfect colors.

To recap - we have now found the lens, checked the white balance and decided on the Shutter, ISO and Aperture.

If you have gone to all this trouble the final step that in my mind is important, is to ensure that the focus and exposure metering point is correct.

This means that the subject (face) normally, or eyes if you are close enough will be the target from which the camera makes its instantaneous setting adjustments. If you use an automatic mode here, you will end up with some of your subjects out of focus because the camera has used the closest target and worse than that the exposure information (metering) will find a bright spot and try to reduce it from the beautiful white for example to the mid-grey that is used for internal datum.

This is why many shots of snow are a dull grey rather than a bright white. For this you need to tell your camera - my target color is +xx brighter than the Mid grey tone you reduce it to.

If anyone was watching my performance over that of the dancers they would see that I was constantly turning the control knobs, moving the selected subject spot (metering) and changing modes.

Ken Rockwell has some great simple explanations on his website on all of these features and probably even the use of your camera.

Putting this altogether in a few simple steps:

1 - Check lens 'width' to ensure the stage is covered

2 - Set camera to S(peed) or M(anual) mode

3 - Choose A(perture) to give correct depth of field

4 - Set white balance (should not change much during performance)

5 - Set the highest ISO that will give minimum noise

6 - Set initial shutter speed. 400 minimum for movement, 800 for rapid movement

7 - Decide how you will focus on moving subjects.

All of these will take much practise, but go out there enjoy the performance and most of all be happy with a few good photos, don't beat yourself up on the bad ones - they are how we get better.

2 two dancers pose against dark background on stage

2 two dancers pose against dark background on stage

Four dancers in standing leg pose against dark blue background on stage

Photo credits: Kabayanmark.

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May 03, 2015


mike2 focus ... If you are seriously considering the D800e move to the D810, according to latest reviews it is much the same but with the low pass filter removed to improve sharpness further, but the. Important feature is that it is quiet. Unfortunately the D800 is more like a tractor in a quiet room, one thing that I noticed immediately I upgraded.

April 26, 2015


There are great helpers on DT and you are one of them. Thank you very much.

April 26, 2015


Lots of fantastic tips here. Thank you for the effort to put it down for everyone. Cheers.

April 20, 2015


Joezachs :
Sorry I don't know the capabilities of the D5200. What I suggest you do is find a location or room in your house and practice with 250ths sec and ISO 800 for example as a baseline and see if the photos have grain and sharpness at 100% view size.

Then practice moving subjects in a semi-dark environment with different ISO and aperture settings until you know what capabilities your camera and lens combination have.

The lens is equally important in this case. I used a Nikon Prime 50mm with f1.4 capabilities. But then the distance from the subject is important to ensure Depth-of-Field is sufficient.

Go have fun

April 18, 2015


Wonderful tips.
Love those pictures - poetry in motion.
Just one question. With a Nikon D5200 can I achieve these results?

March 31, 2015


For anyone interested in more of the photos of this and my around the world albums shot with the D7000 or D800e check out

Ask any questions you wish - always happy to help

March 31, 2015


Mike 2Focus - remember it is not only the equipment, and outlaying for such a huge expense depends on what you are going to do with the photos. If you only make 4x6 prints then your phone cam will do that, for stock you want to get the best quality within a reasonable budget that matches your style because buyers may want a bigger size than your phone cam can produce.
The final comment has to be, buy the best you can stretch too and it will long be able to provide your needs, if you buy the cheapest you can get away with you will be forever looking to upgrade.

You might want to check out the D810, apologies to the Canon users but I am not familiar with the range available.

March 30, 2015


I really appreciate how you broke your process into understandable steps. I'm relatively new on DT and this article was super helpful. The images were outstanding.

March 30, 2015


very informative Kabayan..thanks for sharing...

March 29, 2015


Thanks for the info! I've now looked into the Nikon D800e and am seriously considering this for a major camera upgrade. It is a big investment, but the quality and size of the images I'll be able to capture will probably cut my post production in half. Happy shooting :-)

March 29, 2015


Good question MIKE2FOCUS - I used a NIKON D8002 with NIKON prime 50mm lens.

Prime lenses give a much better quality image because they only have one job to do. The aperture is therefore your only enemy in the system as the quality may fall off at each end of the range.
Whereas any zoom lens will have the same fall off in aperture range and the zoom length will also have its own tuned sweet-spot.
That said, there are some excellent zoom lenses out there but pricey for a good one.

The D800e is an amazing camera, it does very well in all circumstances, its low noise in dark conditions is unparalleled. Some cameras produce great shots by using a lower pixel density (Mpixels). I didn't use noise reduction in the camera and needed only a little in lightroom. About 14% I think.

March 28, 2015


Wow. Great work! Working under the worst conditions, which is low light and moving people, you captured some wonderful crisp images. Thanks for sharing your techniques. One question: what kind of camera did you use?

March 27, 2015


Thanks, it was my first attempt at a blog article, - better next time !

March 26, 2015


Great tips and awesome images. Congratulations!

March 26, 2015


Good article, thanks!

March 26, 2015


Good article, thx

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