On Stage Photography
By Richard Seah
17 Jan 2009
Since August 2008, I have been photographing stage performances almost every weekend without fail.
This is thanks mainly to The Esplanade, Singapore's premier performing arts centre, presenting free performances at its newly-built outdoor amphitheatre every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. During the December holidays, it presented performances every evening.
Occasionally, shopping malls stage free shows as well, to mark festive occasions like the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, Christmas and Chinese New Year.
A whole new world of photography has opened up for me. Never before had I the opportunity to photograph so many stage performances, ranging from traditional and classical to pop and rock...
I learned a lot in the process and am happy to share with you my 10 tips for On Stage Photography:
1. Get close
If possible, go early to ensure a front seat. And use a telephoto zoom lens (mine is a 75-300 zoom) to get even closer. For dramatic effect, get super close to capture only the face, complete with frown and perspiration.
This may seem the obvious thing to do, yet I often see many photographers shooting from the back. My guess is that they want a wide angle view to capture the overall scene.
Sure, that might look nice. I once saw a very wide angle shot of The Esplanade amphitheatre taken from the side of the stage. It was a pretty picture, with the stage lighted and the audience in the dark. Only trouble was, the caption said the performer was 16 years old, but from that distance, one cannot tell if he was 16 or 60!
The point is this: performers tend to be showy people and you want to get close to capture details of their expressions. Close-ups of their dressing, jewellery, tattoos and other ornaments can make interesting images too.
Additionally, I love taking photographs of hands. Among my favourite On Stage photographs is one showing a Digeridoo Artiste's hand, several hands of guitarists plus the hands of a choir conductor.
Concerts are about people, sometimes famous people. A landscape approach misses the point.
2. Don't sit in the middle
Taking close up shots at concerts is a lot more challenging than taking distant, wide angle shots. From afar, it does not matter if the microphone stand divides the singer into two. From close up, even the shadow cast by a microphone can ruin an otherwise good picture.
One way to avoid these troublesome obstructions is to shoot from one side. Don't sit in the middle.
When I don't have a choice, then it is time to get creative. I have had good results by purposely incorporating obstructions like music stands into the composition. See, for example, Funky Mathilda and Eye on Mr Conductor.
3. Don't use flash
Once, I met an old photographer who devised a complicated contraption, using handles, Blu-Tack, rubber bands, etc to attach a second flash to his camera. Another time, I saw one photographer place a slave flash at the edge of the stage and he was promptly told to remove it.
Unless expertly used, in a complicated and troublesome manner, flash photography will not likely produce good results. The images will have a certain 'dead' feel about them. Moreover, flash distracts the performers and blinds the people around you. Some venues disallow flash photography anyway. So don't use flash.
Instead, use a high ISO setting. I usually set my camera to ISO 1600, increasing to ISO 3200 if necessary. To use such high settings, you need a relatively new camera (mine is a Fuji S5 Pro) that will produce good, low noise images at high ISO.
4. Shoot in 'S' or shutter priority mode
First, do not use 'P' or program mode, where everything is automatic. You have no control over how the images will turn out. For maximum control, learn to shoot manual. Otherwise, use a semi-automatic mode.
I used to always shoot in 'A' or aperture priority mode. It became a habit and I used it without much thinking. For stage photography I would set the aperture to its widest (f4 to f5.6, since I do not own an f2.8 lens) and hope for the best. But this was still not good. If I inadvertently pointed at a dark spot, the camera would compensate by giving me an extra long exposure. The result: a correctly-exposed image with very bad camera shake.
When I switched to using 'S' or shutter priority mode, I began to get more consistent results. At worst, if I set the shutter speed too high, I would get a dark image. But I check my images often enough. If I find them too dark, I would switch to a slower speed and, because I am aware of it, be more careful to steady my hands.
A dark but sharp image can, to some extent, still be corrected using Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. A correctly-exposed image with camera shake is generally useless - except in a case like The Angry Drummer. where the facial expression of the drummer is too good.
5. Use centre-weighted exposure metering
Centre-weighted metering tends to produce more 'correct' and consistent results for stage scenes, where some parts are brightly lit while other parts may be totally dark. Because the exposure is calculated depending on where the lens is pointed.
With overall or 'matrix' metering, if the dark areas are too large, the main subject will be over-exposed. Spot-metering is an absolute no-no. It is too precise. If you just move your lens slightly, say from pointing at the nose to pointing at the cheeks, you could end up with totally different results.
6. Know your white balance
When I first bought my digital SLR, I only knew how to set the white balance to auto and it worked fine most of the time. When I started shooting stage performances, however, I found the automatic white balance (AWB) going havoc. I would get nice, almost perfect colors in one shot, crazy orange and red in the next.
It occurred to me that the AWB might have been over-reacting to the color changes in the stage lighting. I began to experiment by shooting with a fixed color temperature, set at about 3200ºK. I stopped getting wild, havoc results.
As I became more familiar with color temperatures, I would fine tune the temperature while shooting. In most situations, I find myself working with a color temperature range of between 2900ºK and 3600ºK.
Still, I would always shoot raw and make the final, minor adjustments on Adobe Lightroom. Here, I have found it useful to reduce the 'vibrance' setting on Lightroom, to about -15. I find it produces a more natural skin tone.
7. Use single-area / manual focus
Under dim light conditions, the auto-focus function sometimes take too long to work.
One solution is to use 'single-area' focusing mode, where the camera focuses only on the subject that you point at. This works a tad faster than 'dynamic area' focusing mode, where the camera takes information from other areas as well.
Ideally, you should get used to manual focusing. In dim light conditions, this is often faster than auto.
Enough of technical discussions... Now let's consider what to shoot on stage:
8. Capture movement
Earlier, I wrote a fair bit about how to avoid camera shake. At times it is a good idea to capture movement. It could be a hand strumming a guitar or beating the drums, or the arms of a conductor waving... even the whole person jumping or shaking in a frenzy, with the hair flying. Such movements impart 'life' to the image. Don't always 'freeze' your images, least of all with a flash.
To capture movement, you will need a relatively show shutter speed (and this is another good reason to shoot in 'S' mode). This, in turn, might mean having to use a tripod. But I dislike tripods, so I usually just experiment with my camera hand held, using shutter speeds of between 1/15 and 1/30 of a second. Often enough, I get good results.
9. Shoot performers at rest
It is not necessary to photograph performers only when they are performing. Often, they look good the moment just after they stopped, when you can almost see a sigh of relief that the performance had gone well.
One recent on stage image that I like is After the concert taken when most of the stage lights have already gone out!
10. Shoot lots of images
With my new found interest in On Stage photography, I am taking more photographs than ever before. I find that when the performance is good, I naturally end up taking more pictures and producing more good images.
When the performances are exceptional -- such as Raemker, Bali's Ramayanaand the Singapore Junior Performing Arts Championships - I could end up taking more than 400 images a night. This might seem excessive. But sometimes, you need that many just to find one outstanding image from among the many that are merely good.
When it is a band of mediocre musicians, I might just take a few. Once, I even deleted the images without first viewing them on my computer. But generally, I don't write them off too quickly. I do also get good images from mediocre performances, such as The guitarist wore black.
Sometimes, luck is on my side.