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. www.kenrockwell.com
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.
Photo credits: Kabayanmark.
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