For this week’s blog/newsletter, I thought I’d do something a little different. I wanted to share with you a little bit of my thinking and a few of the techniques I use when photographing theatre productions.
Last Thursday was the first dress rehearsal for Stockport Garrick’s production of “Bette and Joan” a play that gives an insight into the difficult relationship between two of Hollywood’s great female icons: Bette Davies and Joan Crawford.
The action takes place in their respective dressing rooms during the production of the 1962 thriller “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”
The six images in this blog post are the six images I chose to put up on display in the theatre foyer. I want to talk you through not only how I came to select these images but how I photographed the play in the first place.
The first and perhaps most important piece of advice I can give on theatre photography is to arrive early. This does mean a certain amount of hanging around, but during that time I seek out both the director and the lighting director.
From the director, I want to know if there are any bits of action that I need to be ready for. In Bette and Joan, there was a very short sequence where Bette enters via the doors that the audience uses and then quickly exits again via the stage.
To capture this action, I need to be in the right place, and perhaps, more importantly, I need to make sure I am not standing next to those doors at that point in the play.
From the lighting director, I want to know what type of lighting to expect. Is the lighting going to be changing often or is it going to fairly static? This will affect what mode I put the camera in.
If the light is going to be constant and even across the acting area, I would most likely shoot in manual mode, fixing the ISO, shutter and aperture, by taking a spot meter reading off an actors face in the first few moments of the play and then leaving the camera set to this until the lighting changes.
For Bette and Joan, I discovered that lighting would be changing periodically. Most significantly there was the use of spot lights for relatively short periods of time during the play.
With that sort of lighting, I chose my most common theatre set up for the camera: aperture priority mode, with auto ISO. I typically select the widest aperture on whatever lens I am working with and let the camera work out the rest.
On the Canon 5D Mk III I can set some parameters for “auto ISO” – I can set a range of ISO values that I want it to use and a minimum shutter speed to maintain. For me those values are: ISO100 – 25600, with a minimum shutter speed of 1/125s.
Shooting in aperture priority
When shooting theatre in aperture priority mode, it is necessary to make a lot of use of exposure compensation. For “Bette and Joan”, because of the light coloured dressing room sets, the camera made a reasonable job of calculating the exposure. However, when the lighting switched to spotlight the camera calculation was way off.
The camera sees the large area of black background and tries to set make it mid grey. This causes skin tones and light coloured costumes to be badly over exposed. I have the histogram and ‘flashing highlights’ switched on so that I can see at a glance when this has happened. It is then simply a case of 1-2 stops of negative exposure compensation to get the skin tones correctly exposed and the background back to black.
With a Canon camera, exposure compensation is done by turning the big dial on the back of the camera. For me, those sort of adjustments have become second nature. When the lighting is changing frequently it is certainly quicker to work this way than to spot meter and adjust shutter/aperture/ISO every time the lighting changes.
With “Bette and Joan” the stage was divided into two separate dressing room sets, the rooms were mirror images of each other. The moment I saw this I knew I would want to create some images which were effectively ‘split screen’. So before play began a found the where the right point to stand would be so that I was looking straight down the ‘dividing wall’ of the two sets. My preparation was rewarded near the end of act 1 when both actresses were on the phone in their respective dressing rooms.
When I am photographing a play I look to create a variety of images: some close-ups of the actors, some wider shots showing the full set. There is one particular shot which has almost become my signature theatre shot: Shooting from low down almost on a level with the stage and with the camera at a quirky angle. At Stockport Garrick the stage in only 6-8in above floor level so this usually involves me lying on the floor to create the shot.
Post-production and image selection
With theatre photography, it is important that you can ‘turn round’ the images quickly. The images need to processed and printed and on display in time for opening night. For many theatres that might give you just 24hrs. Fortunately, Stockport Garrick theatre has two dress rehearsals so I have 48 hours to get the prints ready. However, in most cases, the images are created at the first dress rehearsal and I have them on display in time for the second dress rehearsal the following night.
A lot of thought has to go into the selection of images that will be displayed. Not do the images have to be from among the best images from the shoot, but you have to be careful to tease what it doing to happen in the play and not spoil it. For example, you really don’t want to show an image of someone being arrested from the end of a whodunit – it doesn’t matter how good the image is you just can’t do it!
One play I photographed a few years ago caused me real problems, a major character was apparently killed off early in act 1. In a big plot twist just before the interval, it was revealed the character wasn’t actually dead. In Act 2 this character was on stage almost all the time. This meant that I couldn’t use any image from Act 2 that showed the character, otherwise the big surprise would be spoilt.
For Bette and Joan, as the play is a “two-hander” my concern was to give both actresses equal weighting in how they appeared in the images. This meant of the six images I have to produce for the theatre I chose two images with both characters, two images with just Bette and two images with just Joan. Not only that I selected three from ‘spotlight’ scenes and three from dressing room scenes. So that when I arranged them on the display in two rows of three I had a checker-board effect of alternating black and white backgrounds.
When I first reviewed my six selected image from the play I realised the both of the close up images of Bette were of her in her white face make up – which she does wear for a significant amount of the play. I felt that it would be a better display if I could swap one of those images out for a similar shot of Bette without the make-up. A quick scan through the images and I selected the image above. It is a good image and I am happy with but by itself it is not as strong an image as the one I removed, however the overall display is much better for making the change.
This blog post just scratches the surface of what is involved in doing theatre photography. If you want to know more I am running an Academy Training event on Theatre Photography on Saturday 12 August 2017 – 10am till 1pm.
Until next time, keep MAKING great images,