Photography Tips for Performances on a Stage

I enjoy taking photos at a concert or at my kids’ stage performances.  But I must admit that taking photos of a concert, play, or anything where there is a major difference in light level (between subject and background) is tricky.  I caught myself tinkering with the settings to get results that I am happy with.  This tinkering often detracts my attention from what is going on at the venue.

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Taken at a Willie Nelson concert with phone’s camera.  Note that while background is exposed correctly, the light from the spotlight on the subject is too much overexposed the subject based on the settings the phone’s camera selected.

From my tinkering, I came up with several tips that I want to share with you to give you the best opportunity to capture more great photos.  The tips below are generally geared towards SLR type cameras.  However, the tips may also apply to photos taken with smartphones or point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras, especially if you are able to override some of the default settings.

Do not use a flash.

The lighting for the stage or the spotlight will overpower any portable flash unit you may have.  Besides, if you are close enough for the flash to have any impact on the photo you take, you will end up being a distraction to the performer or audience.  Venues may prohibit the use of flash photography for that reason.

On the technical side, the flash’s impact decreases as the distance of subject from flash increases.  A real word example illustrating this would be taking a flash photo from your seat where the person’s head (or other foreground element) in front of you shows up unintentionally bright in the photo.

I strongly suggest turning your camera flash off.

For non-SLR photo takers, turning the flash off may be the single most important thing you do with your smartphone or P&S camera as it will force your smartphone or P&S to use the venue’s lighting for determining exposure.  A consequence of this is you will likely need to hold your smartphone or P&S very steady because shutter will likely open longer.

Use Spot Meter if available.

For everyday photos, matrix/evaluative metering often produces the properly exposed photos.  This is typical default setting on a camera.  However, such metering is problematic for shooting a concert or other stage performance where there is a wide range in lighting intensities.

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Use spot metering, especially if subject is lit by very strong spotlight as in the photo above. ISO 4000, f/2.8, 1/160 sec with  200mm lens.

I like to use the spot meter on the brightest element in the composition – usually lit by the spotlight.  The use of ‘spot meter’ enables the camera to determine the correct exposure for a very limited area – usually at the center focus point.  I spot meter the intended subject, then recompose the shot using the metered settings when I take a photo.  Consequently, I run less of a risk with over-exposing my photos when there is a strong spotlight.

Take a couple of test shots and look at the dark areas not under the spotlight to see how it looks.  If you need to brighten up those dark areas, then either increase exposure compensation setting, aperture,  ISO or reduce shutter speed so more of the ambient light hits the camera’s sensor.  Take another test shot to check the highlights to see if they ended up getting overexposed by the changes and finally determine which setting you prefer better.

Some smartphone or P&S cameras do not have a metering option.  Remember that the meter just tells you a camera setting to get a ‘proper’ exposure for the type of metering it does.  You may be able to adjust the exposure on smartphone or P&S by using exposure compensation setting (if available).  Typically go ‘+’ to make photo of scene brighter and go ‘-‘ to make a scene darker.  SLRs typically offer this setting as well.

Set your camera to MANUAL. 

Manually setting the camera’s aperture, shutter speed, and ISO may be the single most important thing you do as it gives you, the photographer, the control.  I’m assuming you have knowledge of the exposure triangle.  If not, Google ‘photography photo triangle’ to find many resources explaining this in detail.

If you want a photo of a scene brighter, decrease the shutter speed or increase the aperture or ISO sensitivity.  If you want the photo to be darker, increase the shutter speed, or decrease the aperture or ISO sensitivity.

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ISO 400, f/4.0, 1/40 sec at 105mm

ISO – Ideally, I’d want it as close to 100 as possible to get least amount of grain or noise in the photo.  However, limitations of the lens aperture or the amount of motion blur that will be acceptable often facilitates the need to shoot at higher ISO.  The amount of noise due to ISO setting is dependent on your camera.  Generally, SLRs have less noise at higher ISO than smartphone or P&S cameras due to their larger sensors.  I find that setting ISO at 800 to 2500 yields very acceptable images with general lenses on my Canon 6D.

Aperture – I like shooting with primes as they offer wider apertures than zoom lenses.  The wider the aperture, the more light that hits the sensor.  Keep in mind that the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth-of-field.  Also, a lens tends to be sharper one or two stops down from its widest.  I prefer shooting with my 50mm f/1.8 lens set at f/2.8 because it is very sharp at this setting and allows as much light as the fastest zoom lenses – all for affordable price.

Shutter speed – Set shutter speed to faster than the reciprocal of your lens to avoid picking up on camera shake.  This means no slower than 1/50th of a second for a 50mm or 1/200th of a second for 200mm lens.  Also, set the speed fast enough to avoid motion blur – typically 1/60th of second for general motion and 1/200th of second to freeze dance routines.  What this means: even though I could shoot with a 50mm lens at 1/50th of a second to avoid shake, I should still set it at 1/200th of a second to freeze dancing on stage.

The above settings are a lot to process.  If you allow your camera to decide the settings, it may choose too high an ISO and give you noisy photos.  Or it may slow the shutter speed down too much that you capture unwanted motion blur of the action occurring on-stage.

Set the White Balance. 

As with exposure settings mentioned above, it is important to set the white balance correctly (vital if you do not shoot RAW).  The camera’s auto white balance may do a fair job.  But you may want to take control of it as well.  White balance is color balance.

Do not constantly adjust your settings.

Okay, so I wrote about ISO, shutter speed and aperture above and to use spot metering to figure out the exposure.  That can be daunting to have to consider all this with every single photo snapped.  Set your settings in manual and then do not change them unless the scene’s lighting changes drastically.  So once you find the balance or shutter speed, ISO and aperture that are yielding good photos, leave the settings alone! At least until the scene’s lighting changes drastically.

Scope out venue and/or performance beforehand.

With photography, composition is a very important key to yielding great photos.  The last thing you want is to reposition yourself due to obstructions and miss the action while doing so.  You also want to be proactive in anticipating the action, not reactive.  Seeing a rehearsal or performance beforehand can help you figure out who will be where anat what time.

Doing so will also give you insight on how the lighting changes during the performance so you can prepare yourself with the appropriate settings.

Scoping things out beforehand will also give you an idea on what lens(es) would be best to shoot with and can reduce the amount of gear you end up taking with you.

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Iso 4000, f/4.0, 1/125 sec at 105mm

Ditch the tripod. 

I find that it limits your ability to move around to recompose.  It also takes up a considerable footprint.  You really would only need a tripod if you are taking a photo with a long duration shutter where camera shake becomes a possible concern.  I define long shutter duration as 1/lens focal length.  So with a 50mm, 1/50 sec or 1/200 sec with a 200 mm lens.  Besides, I would adjust ISO and aperture before increasing shutter above the shake threshold I mentioned.  Image stabilization may give you a couple Stops of flexibility.

Shoot RAW. 

We live in a digital world and therefore have the ability to post-process our photos.  Shooting in RAW preserves all the information hitting the sensor for that photo that was taken.  Making the adjustments in post-processing to exposure, color temperature, etc. are easier if you have the RAW image to work with.

I hope you find these tips useful!  Happy shooting!

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