How To Photograph Plays and Recitals

Nothing like the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd… If you’ve got a kid, friend, or relative in a play, recital, or other performance and you happen to own a decent camera, don’t be surprised if you’re pressed into service as the photographer for the evening; even if you haven’t been, it’s a great opportunity to try something new with a bunch of willing subjects, and to be entertained in the process. So whether it’s community theater, a high school musical, or a dance recital, here’s a few tips for getting your best shot.

Your preparation can actually start well in advance of the main event. Before you arrive, see if you can get your hands on some of the music used, or a script. This will give you an idea of who’ll be doing what when.

If you’re shooting because you’ve got kids or friends in the play, see if you can’t make it to a dress rehearsal. You’ll be able to do things you couldn’t if you were there on the night of a performance (standing, using a tripod in the aisles, moving around the venue for different angles and perspectives… you can even ask the director about limited flash use). You may also get the chance to get shots of the cast and crew relaxing, goofing off, et cetera.

Bring more memory than you think you need (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it), and bring spare batteries. Make sure your batteries are charged and memory cards are formatted. I would also suggest bringing some kind of support. While a tripod is going to give you the most stability, it’s also going to be bulky; a monopod does quite nicely without taking up much space. Not only will it stabilize the camera, it will also help to keep your lines straight. If nobody’s sitting directly in front of you, don’t be afraid to brace your elbows on the seat back for additional support.

Choose your lenses carefully (more on that below), and make sure everything – camera body, lens(es), batteries, memory and support – is packed.

Once you arrive, scout your location. You’ll want to pay attention to the pitch of the seating area since some venues have steeper seating than others. Above all, you’ll need clear sight lines – something that minimizes the number of heads in your shots – and you may want an aisle seat for easy access, and having your shooting side free of obstructions. I’ve had better luck off to the sides than in the orchestra seating (again, fewer heads). Somewhat further from stage is better (so you’re not craning your neck, and so the angles look more natural). Arrive early so you can try a few different seats and figure out what works best for you. If you’re using a support, make sure you’ve left sufficient space for it.

About your lens choices: Fast primes are nice for the options they afford you in terms of shutter speed and lower ISO. Having said that, you’re going to be confined to one place for extended periods of time, which eliminates the possibility of zooming/reframing on your feet, and also taking a number of compositional possibilities off the table. A zoom lens – even a slow one – will give you a greater degree of freedom. If it’s a musical, I suggest something that starts wide to be able to encompass what’s going on in the big song and dance numbers. Dramas give you a bit more leeway with a tighter field of view because the staging doesn’t tend to be quite so scattered. In any event, whatever you pack, just be ready to adapt on the fly.

Check your settings: Shoot with the highest quality your camera will allow. That means shooting RAW if you have the option or the inclination, or in the highest-quality JPEG setting your camera has. You’ll likely want/need to edit your photos later, and the more information they contain, the better they’ll stand up to editing.* At the very least, allot one card per act (two per, if your camera has two slots). Auto white balance. Your ISO should be sufficiently high that it allows you to use a decent shutter speed and aperture. If you’re not already familiar with how your camera behaves at high ISO, try some test shots in low light. In any event, unless you’re using a camera that performs exceptionally well at very high ISO’s, don’t go past 1600 ISO. You’ll lose a lot of detail, and notice a lot of noise, especially in dark areas (even if your camera applies noise reduction). Your choice of metering will depend on how you’re shooting; if you’re going to shoot in auto or a priority mode (which, again, I’d suggest you don’t), use center or spot-weighted metering, because average/matrix metering is going to take into account the entire scene, and if the action’s taking place against a black, or very dark, background, you’re going to have some seriously funky exposures, probably with a lot of blown highlights. If you’re shooting manual, it doesn’t matter much; you’ll be ignoring the meter anyway.**

Noises off: First and foremost, turn off your flash. Let me repeat: never, never, never EVER shoot the performance using flash. I don’t care if the blue-haired old lady in the fifth row is doing it. You know better (and if you didn’t, you do now). It’s going to be a distraction to those sitting around you, which is bad enough. Worse still — and I speak from experience here — it’s a huge distraction to the performers. Likewise, if your camera uses an AF assist light, shut that off too. It’s not quite as much of a distraction as a flash, but it’s pretty darn close.

Speaking of distractions, if your camera has a “quiet” setting, use it. That means turning off the little beep that lets you know the photo’s in focus, turning off the shutter noise that the camera makes when it takes a photo (if it has one), and using the setting that quiets the “slap” of the mirror if your camera allows that. Finally, shoot using the viewfinder and not the camera’s LCD. You’ll have a steadier hand, your focusing be faster and more accurate (both manual and auto focus), and you’re also keeping your camera from being a distraction for those seated nearby.

Okay, now it’s show time… and time to shoot in manual. It’s not as hard as it seems, but this is one instance where it pays off. Here’s why: left to its own devices, your camera will try to expose any scene to look like it’s daylight. When you’re dealing with a scene where the lighting is far from ideal, shooting in Auto or even in a Priority mode is going to lead to your camera defaulting to a wide aperture and/or long shutter speed. What’s worse, the end results aren’t likely to look like what you saw in front of you.

While we’re on the subject of aperture and shutter speed, if you’re shooting with a long lens, I’d suggest you sacrifice aperture before shutter speed. If the scenery’s a bit out of focus, nobody’s going to mind, but using a shutter speed that’s too slow is going to leave everybody looking a bit ghostly, if not ghastly. If you’re using a short telephoto zoom (105mm or less at the long end), you can get away with shooting at about f/5.6-f/8 1/125 handheld, and at about 1/200 at the same apertures with a longer zoom, depending on the lighting. Check your photos as you go – you’re only checking at this stage, not deleting/editing/obsessing – so you know what settings need to be tweaked. Don’t be afraid to underexpose a bit (you can brighten photos later), but try to avoid overexposure, since it’s very difficult to recover blown highlights.

Finally, shoot with your ears open, especially if you’re shooting a musical or dance recital. Sometimes getting the shot means not just looking for it, but listening for it. At intermission, check your battery, changing if needed. Change your memory card whether you think you need it or not. Above all, remember why you’re there, and don’t obsess over getting the shot to the point where you miss the important part – the performance itself.

*It also helps if you have to recover highlights or shadows later.

**This takes a little practice, or at least a couple of test shots. The reason I suggest ignoring your meter is because your meter is likely going to tell you the photo’s irredeemably underexposed if you shoot at these settings, but the photos will be a close approximation of what you saw on the stage. Pay attention to the lighting, however, since you may have to adjust from time to time based on how it changes.

If any of you have tips of your own, let’s hear ’em!