A few months ago, Catherine – she of CJ Trigg Photography, a blog you really should follow as it is along a similar theme to mine – asked me to take some photographs for her. In her day job, Catherine is a theatre manager, and she wants to decorate the foyer of the building with some images from the theatre. With the idea of having some of my photographs framed in a public space, as well as lure of a new subject matter, I was keen to get involved.
So at at the start of December, I attended a full dress rehearsal of a student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well in order to get some photos. As it was a dress rehearsal, I was given near enough the full freedom of the theatre; I was allowed in the seats, backstage, in the control room, basically anywhere except the dressing rooms (had I known that I’m not sure I’d have agreed to it. I was hoping to get a Paparazzi shot of someone’s bum).
As it was a full rehearsal, it was essentially the finished product, complete with lights, costumes and technical cues. The only thing missing was the audience, which gave me the scope to rush about the theatre for angles without annoying paying customers. Or tripping over them for that matter. It also allowed me to get really close to the front and centre of the stage without blocking any views.
The show started with one of the actors in the ‘audience’. He was backlit by a spotlight from the control room, making for an interesting image.
The high level of black in the image required a really low exposure compensation to stop the camera from returning a bright and blurry puddle of mess. There were a few thrown away images of that nature.
Lighting was the main problem I encountered, which was more of a post-processing problem but I realised at the time it was likely to be an issue. A lot of the light was very yellowy-orange, sort of a super-tungsten (I’m not sure that exists or is even a physical possibility). Because the lighting was changing from scene to scene I decided not to attempt correct the colour temperature using a manual white balance (as I have done in the past) but instead left my camera on auto-whitebalance so the camera took its best guess at the time, and I could fix it later if I needed to.
When I came to edit the images, many shots just looked too yellow. I couldn’t blame the camera; everything was yellow. It’s not its fault it didn’t look right. Theatre lighting is a bit subjective; the colours can look really good sometimes and quite interesting (this post of Catherine’s is a fine example). But this yellow was just in the wrong range, making it simply look like my white balance was all out. So I set about correcting the white balance to something that looked more natural. For the most part, this meant throwing the colour temperature of the images down to only just about 2000-2500k, and often needing other adjustments in the tint setting as well. For the most part, the end result looks pretty good, and still holds signs of the atmospheric lighting.
If it was all just yellow, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But at times other colours were thrown into the mix as well, making correcting to a natural-looking shot difficult. Sometimes, this was solvable by converting the image to monochrome, but I only ever did this with images I felt would benefit from it – if the images didn’t work in black and white, I did my best to work around the colour issues.
The biggest problem colour was purple. At times the stage uplights were throwing purple onto the actors’ faces, which make it looks like people had circulatory problems or just were really, really angry. Of course, sometimes they were.
Well, obviously that’s acting. As you can see, the colour on this image is still a little bit wonky.
In order to keep moving and get a lot of variety, I loaded up my pockets and left my camera bag behind. I quickly realised that I could move a lot quicker, and unimpeded, without the bulky bag on my back. So I threw my telephoto into one back pocket, my Nifty Fifty into another, and some spare cards into my shirt pocket. With that, I had little need to return to my bag. I decided against using my cherished macro lens as I figured its relatively long focal length combined with its lack of any image stabilisation feature would render it useless in the lighting conditions of the theatre.
I’m not sure if that was the right decision. Part way through the show I switched to the Nifty Fifty, which has a pretty big f/1.8 aperture, and it allowed me to get some decent shots at a relatively low ISO, despite its lack of IS. The macro opens out to f/2.8 which might have been enough to get some non-blurry results.
I’m pleased with a lot of the shots I got with the Nifty Fifty. This is one of my favourites.
This image is made, I think, by the actor playing the clown looking straight down the camera. I actually really liked the clown; he was often to be found in photogenic poses.
Another character that was fun to watch and photograph was (I believe) Parolles. I mean, I believe it was Parolles, not I believe that he was fun to photograph. Much like the clown, he was often to be found in some very good poses.
He was also to be seen in a few poignant situations as well.
Of course, there were quite a few other good expressive characters too. There was this woman, for a start.
Although that shot is nowhere near as brilliant as this one.
And the guy playing the King – who we saw earlier – also pulled a face or two.
There was also one look from this guy which I liked.
A couple of times during the show I varied my theory regarding aperture. Most of the time I was shooting with the aperture as open as I could get it in the rather sound theory that I’d need more light, and that a shallow depth of field would give more aesthetically pleasing images. At times, however, a fair amount of movement was going on, and I posited that a slightly wider depth of field would result in sharper images. The tradeoff, of course, was less light being let into the camera, worsening my battle between shutter speed and ISO noise. For the most part, I kept with big apertures, but from time to time I dropped to f/9 or thereabouts.
At the interval I had a quick chat with Catherine, who reminded me that she was after more general theatre-type shots. Fortunately in the second half more scenes were suitable for wider, theatre-encapsulating shots.
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what sort of theatre shots I should be going for. Most of them involved lights in the background or in some part of the frame. Earlier on in the evening, whilst wandering around before the show began, I spotted a chair onstage which I thought looked nice. Does it count?
Later on, I snuck backstage during the show and got a few shots of some of the actors from an angle the audience wouldn’t normally see.
Then the curtains closed, and I found myself staring at the same chair again, but this time lit with one of the stage lights. I think it looks better as a wider shot compared to how it looked earlier, but it’s back to the ‘if there’s a stage light in shot, it must be a theatre photograph’ mentality. Your thoughts are welcomed.
The lighting also made for some nice, interestingly-lit portrait-style images.
I wasn’t the only photographer there. The troupe had brought their own. It looked like she had some kind of bridge camera. It was a bit weird to have some competition,especially since at times it felt like we were almost tripping over each other. She also had an advantage, in that she had clearly seen an earlier rehearsal and knew when to get into positions for certain shots. She did, it turns out, have a disadvantage, however: either her battery or memory capacity. At some point she ran out of one or the other, and the show’s director (at least, I presume that was he) came up and asked if I could furnish him with copies of my images.
When I came to edit the images, I realised I was editing for three separate purposes: theatre shots for Catherine, shots of the actors for the performers, and images that would be postable here.
As I had a lot of images to edit, most of which needed work, I decided to do a multi-pass edit. First, I did a ‘fix’ pass; going through the images and making whatever edits needed to be made, only deleting the ones I deemed unsalvageable. Then I could swing through again, comparing the images on a more even keel to remove ones that were very similar, or just not interesting enough. This is my usual process when dealing with big sets of images, especially ones where most of them need a tweak or two before they’re ready to be evaluated.
I realised that the group would like quite a lot of photos – more than is sensible to upload here. After a couple of passes of the images, I had cut them down to 341 of the best images, which I’ll pass on to the group via Catherine. Hopefully Catherine will find some images of use in this batch. Either way, I’ll likely be back to shoot another show in the next couple of months for some more material. Of the full batch, I’ve selected the best 83 for the gallery below. If you’d like to see all 341 images, then they’re all viewable on Flickr.