Friday, November 27, 2009

Theatrical & Stage Photography Assignment

All the World's a (Photographic) Stage

I got a call late on Friday evening from the marketing manager of a professional Irish theatre company - Druid Theatre in Galway - who asked if I would be interested in photographing some of the cast in their current play.

The only thing was that the play was moving to Dublin in a few days time, from it's current run in Siamsa Tire theatre (the National Folk Theatre of Ireland) in Tralee, County Kerry. They needed the shots for press and PR syndication before the play opened in Dublin. So, I had to be there on Saturday evening, and I would have about 30 minutes to photograph 3 members of the cast, both singly and in 2 different pairings, in scenes from the play - "The Gigli Concert", by Irish playwright Tom Murphy.

There's something about photographing live theatre or music that really appeals to me. Maybe I'm a frustrated thespian, or something. But I really am in my element in a theatre or a concert hall with a camera - and better still, official permission to be there, which brings with it (sometimes) the cooperation of the venue officials. So I was, quite literally, thrilled to be taking that call.

I was also quite anxious about it. Not only was I teaching portrait photography class until 90 minutes before the shoot, and the drive would take 70 minutes; the weather had been appalling and many of the roads along the route where likely to been flooded, if passable at all. So, just getting there on time would be a task in itself. Not to mention the difficulties inherent in taking the shots themselves.

Theatre photography is one of the most demanding of all the photographic genres. Actors, singer and dancers move quite fast and unpredictably, light levels can be quite low and constantly changing. So, it's important to be able to focus accurately and quickly, and use shutter speeds and ISO ratings that will give sharp, blur free images that are not too "noisy". Colour balance is also a consideration - as the stage lights are seldom white (or colour balanced) although I've never really worried about this for music photography (especially rock) as it can add to the style of the image. It also helps to shoot if black and white - if appropriate - but that's something of a "cop out".

This commission though, required well colour balanced images of the cast in scenes from the play and in portrait-style poses for publicity shots. I was very fortunate to have the assistance of the stage lighting person, Pat, who boosted the lights to a workable f5.6 (while I took light readings reflected from my assistant, Marisol, who stood in for the actors at different areas of the stage). I decided to focus manually, and although this is slightly more time consuming - and only works if you don't panic from trying to rush the operation - and I set the ISO at 400, to avoid any semblance of noise and improve the definition of the images (I was using my trusty EOS 1Ds II - which will cope with higher ISO but I prefer to say as low as possible).

The real asset in getting these shot right, though, was the generous cooperation of the actors themselves. Although time was tight - from arriving onto the stage after we had arranged the lighting, they had about an hour before "curtain up" - but they stayed as long as I needed them to, and went into lots of different poses and scenes from the play to give me as much variety in the shots as possible. So, all-in-all I was very lucky. But it was important to for to be clear with them in terms of what I needed, and the purpose of the shots. Communication is everything in photography, especially when photographing people.

I also found it helpful to ask the actors a bit about the nature of their characters and that helped us to decide on the poses - when we were shooting the PR portraits.

The 2 shots above show (in descending order) Derbhle Crotty (as Mona), Denis Conway (as The Irishman) and Mark Lambert (as JPW King).

There are many more images from the shoot on a special web gallery here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Not to be a Wedding Photographer

The Scary Truth About Wedding Photography

Question (edited version):

Hello Stephen, hope you are doing well. Firstly let me say, I am a huge fan of your work. It's so beautiful and fresh.

Secondly, I am emailing you in regards to one of your posts about scams. Recently, I was looking through different photographers' sites with my friend, who is getting married, and stumbled upon a somewhat shady-looking (ie. unprofessional-looking site).

I found the following red-flag rising facts:

  • None of the photographers/owners are professionals. I found out that they have only done a handful of weddings and therefore, are charging people $300 dollars per hour essentially for practice.
  • Neither have any solid credentials in photography. On their photography site, they don't disclose this and don't inform anyone that they've just started and have done only a few weddings. Also, they don't put any professional credentials in photography. They just said, in an email, they've done workshops.


Thank you very much for your email and your very kind comments about my work.

I can’t advise you on whether to report a website, or a photographer, as that has to be a decision that you make yourself. What I will say, though, is that the wedding photography market probably has the largest percentage of non-professional (and often very inexperienced) photographers working in it, than any other sector of the photographic profession.

This is due to a number of factors including:

a) Low start-up costs

Wedding photographers don’t need to have a studio, or a lot of expensive camera and lighting equipment. They just need a reasonable camera (and many underestimate this, and buy what they think is a good camera, but actually it’s not nearly good enough in terms of the reproduction quality of the image) and a flash gun – and again, many beginning photographers don’t even know what fill-in flash is, or why they might need a flash gun – and how to use it properly.

b) Previous Experience

If I want to get a job as a magazine photographer, or a commercial photographer for a large company or a press photographer for a newspaper, or a travel photographer for a guide book – all of those potential employers will ask to see examples of my previous work. If I don’t have the work to show, I probably won’t get the job.

Also, some particular work, like press photography, will (sometimes) require me to hold membership of an appropriate organisation – like The National Union of Journalists (UK & Ireland) or the Association of Photographers. This is because many employers won’t consider a photographer without those credentials.

Wedding photography doesn’t work like that, though.

All you have to do is find someone who is getting married and convince them that you are the best wedding photographer in town. A few shots from the wedding you took of a friend, when you attended as a guest, might be enough to convince them – as a lot of people wouldn’t appreciate the skills involved to separate a snap shot from a great photograph.

They might also be swayed by the cost element, so if you’re less expensive (and by that I DO mean “cheap”) you might get the job.

c) Regulation Against Sham Wedding Photographers

It doesn’t exist. Anyone can set up as a wedding photographer – and the market is flooded with part-timers trying to supplement their income by working on weddings at the weekends. There are certainly more part timers than full-timers out there. Some are actually quite good at what they do – and some that I have seen are criminally bad.

Occasionally, the Law comes into play and Brides & Grooms sue their wedding photographers for poor work and a ruined day – there is an example of that happening in the UK here.

Also, I've found that on forums where wedding photographers show their work to each other, they are often supporting each other from a base of misinformation. By that, I mean that some wedding photographers are not as experienced or skilled as they should be and examples of poor work - or at least "mediocre" work is being complimented and praised instead of being criticized.

The result of that, is that the standards never get any higher - and those photographers keep on producing the same low standard work as before.

d) Should you report a wedding photographer?

Well, maybe after the event (admittedly a bit late), because people are entitled to set themselves up in business as a photographer, if they want to do so – even (unfortunately) if they are incompetent!

Before the event, you should ask to see a lot of their work, in person, not on a website – and also ask for the names and phone numbers of the last 3 (or more) couples whose wedding they photographed.

Because, the decision to book them is yours.

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for – and experience always counts. And the old Latin phrase “Caveat Emptor” – Let the Buyer Beware – still holds as true today as when it was first coined.