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.

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