Taking Photographs of Stage Productions

(Note this was written in 1995 and so does not have information about digital photography) See also: Photographing Costumes For Your Portfolio On Stage And In the Studio


Most theatre designers, technicians and students need to know how to photograph stage shows in order to get pictures they can later use in their portfolios. It is not necessary to transform yourself into an expert photographer to take good stage photographs. It is only necessary to understand a few basics as they relate to the needs of theatre movement and lighting. It is quite usual for an “expert” photographer, who knows all about F-stops, and aperture and flash to take lousy stage photos because he knows nothing about the needs of theatre.


First, what are those needs? Well, obviously, it is quite undesirable in rehearsals and performances to use a flash. It can blind the actors temporarily, which is distracting and dangerous, and it completely destroys the effect of stage lighting. Flash is very good for photo-call close ups in black and white for the newspaper, but is annoying in performances, and useless for pictures for the scenic and lighting designers. (see figs 1-3.)

1. By shooting this scene without flash, I was better able to capture the dark and frightening mood of this scene. While the details of my costumes are vague, the photo more accurately depicts how the costumes actually looked to the audience. (Theatre UAF’s The Eagle’s Gift, 1993). 640T film.

2. This photo of the same scene, was snapped at the exact moment a newspaper photographer to my right, set off his flash. As you can see, all the details are visible, but the mood is gone. (UAF, The Eagle’s Gift, 1993). 640T film.

3. Lighting effects like this totally vanish with a flash. (Theatre UAF’s Agayu, 1994.) 640T film.

For true rendition of colors on stage, especially for scenic and lighting designers you will also need to use either tungsten film or a blue filter. Using regular daylight film without a filter will give a strong orange cast to your pictures. For movement oriented shows (nearly all shows) or dimly-lit shows (the rest), you will need to use fast film. This will help to freeze the action, or compensate for dim light. Finally, it is important to know the show you are filming. You have ten times the chance of getting good show shots if you have watched rehearsals beforehand, read the play, or otherwise familiarized yourself with what is going to happen on stage.


If you are an academic in theatre with a comfortable civil service salary, I highly recommend investing in a single lens reflex (SLR) automatic camera without flash and with a zoom lens. For example, my own camera, a Maxxum 7000 (c.1980) has many bells and whistles like autofocus, weighted auto light meter, self timer, continuous shooting, auto forward and rewind, and so forth, and yet can be bought used from ads in Shutterbug or Popular Photography for $100-120 for the body and $60-80 for the zoom lens. If you are on a tight budget or are advising someone who is, any 35mm camera that can have the flash shut off will do (though often just barely.) Cameras with zoom lenses however are best since you can sit in one place and still do both close ups and long shots. A tripod is not necessary, and except for full stage shots of the scenery and lighting, is not even desirable. A tripod stops you from pointing your camera in the right place fast enough for live photography of most shows. It is good for photo call shots, scenery shots, and very slow-action shows, however. Directors, who have seen their show dozens of times also can find them useful, since they know in advance with great accuracy where actors will stand. Also it allows them to abandon their camera to direct without any chance that their camera will “walk away” while they are otherwise occupied.


My personal favorite film for stage photography is an obscure slide film, sold almost only by mail order through ads in camera magazines called ScotchChrome 640T. The “T” stands for tungsten, which is the kind of lighting we use on stage. The 640 is the ASA, or speed of the film. Film speed is measured in ASA and is marked on the packages of all film. The larger the number the “faster” the film, and the less light it needs. Films 100 ASA and below are “slow” films good for use outdoors, with strong clear color. When you are in the camera store trying to buy “fast” film (400 ASA and above) you will often be confronted with a salesperson who tries to talk you out of using fast film on the grounds that “slow” films have finer grain, better color, and after all, you can just use a flash…DO NOT BE TEMPTED! Use slow films for outdoor shows, family snapshots, set up photo call shots, and your vacation, not for actors running around “live” in dim tungsten lighting.


640T unfortunately, only comes in a “chrome” AKA slide film. If you need or want prints immediately, you will need to get a daylight film at your local camera store or supermarket, and use a blue filter to balance the lighting. For a SLR camera you should get a screw on filter or Cokin filter. If you have only a snapshot camera you need to tape a blue lighting gel over your lens. If you are only doing actor shots, or souvenir photos for fun, or don’t mind a bit of an orange cast to your shots, you can omit this. (see figs 4-7.)

4. Tungsten film is especially important for scenes with strong blue or green colors. Unfiltered daylight film muddies cool colors, turning them to brownish or grayish tones. (CSU Fresno’s Portable Dance Troupe in Forms of Heaven, 1985). 640T film.

5. Bright scenes with mostly warm colors are sometimes better shot with a lower speed daylight film left unfiltered. Only the green of Claudio’s legs are yellowed by using Kodak 400 ASA without a filter. The slower speed yields much more saturated colors than 640T on a brightly lit stage. (Theatre UAF’s Much Ado About Nothing, 1991). 400 ASA Konika Print film.

6. The faster 640 Tungsten film gives more accurate blues and greens, but less saturated color than the slower 400 ASA film. This illustrates why it’s best to work with lower speed film for brighter shows. (UAF, Much Ado). 640T film.

7. Under dim lighting 640T gives amazing color rendition, showing all the subtleties of the lighting without distortion. (Theatre UAF’s Cabaret, 1994). 640T film.


Choose your daylight film based on the level of lighting in the show, and the level of action. The more action and the less light the “faster” the film needs to be. So, for a brightly lit show with low action like Much Ado About Nothing, I used 400 ASA for my prints, but for a dimly lit show with lots of action like Frankenstein, I used 1600 ASA color, and even 3200 ASA black and white specialty film to freeze action for my prints. Any brand of film will do, even “house” brands of films sold by drugstores and supermarkets are made by the major film manufacturers, and have a high quality these days. If you don’t need prints right away, and want both slides and prints, take slides, and get prints made from the slides later by a good mail order processor like Sunset Color Labs.


If you do a great deal of photography, it is financially desirable to buy your film in bulk from a company with an ad in a camera magazine. For example, I buy my 640T for only $3.50 a roll from a company called Freestyle, by buying 10 rolls at a time. If I were to go to a fancy camera store in a big city that actually sold 640T off the shelf, I would expect to pay $10-12 a roll. 1600 film, which usually sells for $8-9 in a drugstore or camera store, can sell for as little as $4 by mail. For more on this read the section: “Movie” films that give both prints and slides, and need to be mailed out to a processor to be printed like RGB film or Seattle Film Works film aren’t really good for stage work. The fastest speed they come in is 400 ASA, and the trouble and time wasted in mailing out the film means you will only see your photos by the end of the run of the show. If you missed an important shot this won’t leave you enough time to go back and reshoot.


The best time to photograph most shows is during the last few days of final dress rehearsals. During this time the scenery, lighting, costumes and blocking will all be in place (one hopes), but the audience won’t. This means, that with permission, one may roam about the house, or even the stage, without annoying anyone, to get the best shots. It is best to sit and watch one rehearsal without the camera first, to get the blocking and effects set in your mind. Above all, it helps to be as invisible as possible while taking the pictures, so the actors will relax and do well. Nearly always, a bad performance yields mostly bad pictures; good acting and “real” emotion reveal themselves in the face, and make for good, intense close ups. Since you have a chance to get closer in rehearsals, do so. Usually the best show shots have only 1-2 actors in them, locked into an emotional moment. Also, high speed films have a large “grain” to them, which means that in long shots your detail is not sharp. (see fig 8.) Do long shots for the scenic and lighting designers, and do close-ups for everybody else: actors, costumers, and directors.

8. Long shots with fast film, while suitable for scene and lighting designers, lack the detail necessary for costume or actor shots. Most important, the drama in this scene (a phone call from Stalin on his deathbed) is almost invisible when the actors resemble ants. (Theatre UAF’s A Russian Christmas Tale, 1990). 640T film.


Again, get permission to do this. Usually it will be given if you prove you don’t intend to use a flash (don’t have one with you, or visibly cover the built in flash with black tape). Sit near the front, or if you have a super-zoom lens, the back of the house to minimize your annoyance to fellow audience members. Sitting near the front also helps for getting close ups. If your camera has a noisy auto-rewind, stop it till intermission, or jam the camera between your legs and lean over it while it is doing it’s thing. If you watched the play during rehearsals you can also set it to go during times you know will be very noisy on stage when it won’t be heard.


Good times to snap are at still moments and at the ends of actions like the momentary “freeze” at the end of a musical number, or the second’s pause of reaction in a fight. (see fig 9.)

9.  A musical number usually ends with a convenient group pose. This has two advantages, a second or two of stillness, and everyone facing in the right direction at the same time. End shots therefore usually turn out better than shots done during the dance itself. (Theatre UAF’s Grease, 1992). Ektachrome 400 film with blue filter.

An obvious example would be in Romeo and Juliet during the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio. The action of the fight itself might well come out as a blur even with fast film, and the picture, even if clear, would be all confusion. Better to wait for the moment when you know Mercutio will be stabbed under Romeo’s arm, when all three actors will be close together, in a tight tableau, and momentarily still with “shock” on their faces. Even in a dancer’s leap, the point at which the body is fully extended in the leap, is held a moment longer than the motions leading to it, and is besides, more visually exciting to look at. (see fig 10.)

10. Motion can nearly be “stopped” with fast film, but it still helps to catch it at the end. This shot of an actress at the end of a gesture swinging her sleeves worked, while the frames I took during the swing were blurry and unexciting. (St. Petersburg Academy of Theatre, Interstudio Branch Student production of Noch [“Night“], 1994). 640T film.


If you have a simple box (fixed focus-snapshot) camera with only one se-tting, ignore this part. If you have a box camera with two settings one for 100 ASA and another for 400 ASA, put the setting on 100 ASA, and put in 400 for a bright show with blue filter or a medium show without, 1000 for a medium show with filter or a dim show without, and 1600 for a dim show with filter. Your camera will usually tell you there isn’t enough light for the picture, but take the picture anyway. If it objects and won’t shoot, put the setting back to 400 and try again. Some cameras will not shoot (even at 400) if they think there is not enough light; you can’t use one of these cameras for stage work in dim light. Unless the show is bright, borrow another.


If you have an SLR, or any other camera with a built in weighted light meter/exposure setting, there is a little dance you do to “trick” your camera into doing the correct exposure. A weighted light meter is one where there is a small box or circle in the middle of your viewfinder that measures light coming from the part of the picture in the box. Nearly all automatic cameras work this way. You can tell if your camera has one and if it is working by pointing the lens at different places in a room. If each time the center part of the viewfinder shows a bright spot in the room a little green light goes on, or a needle jumps, or a tiny “beep” is heard you have a built in weighted light meter.


A beep or a green light usually mean auto exposure as well. You “trick” auto exposure cameras into good behavior by pointing the box at a very bright point on stage near the point you wish to photograph and focus and meter read on that point. For cheaper, uncomplex automated cameras, you have to frame the photo with the bright point in the center, however, most cameras will allow you to push the trigger button 1/2 way down to focus on that bright point, and then still holding the button 1/2 way down move the frame to the place you want to take the picture before shooting.


A needle in the viewfinder usually indicates a manual or semi automatic SLR. A manual SLR is best handled by an expert. however, even an amateur can obtain decent stage photos with it by taking one light meter reading, and doing one manual exposure setting for all the shots, and not mucking about taking readings for each shot.


You can set the camera several numbers to either side of the main reading for the speed/aperture ratio for faster or slower action. For fast shows, dance shows, musicals and the like, or for dim shows (or unsteady hands like mine) you need to choose the setting with the widest aperture and fastest shutter speed. This will help you to freeze action, but will give you very little depth of field. For steady hands and slow action shows like O’Neill, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw do the opposite: slowest shutter speed and narrowest aperture. This will allow you to take all those great shots where an upstage actor is looking at a downstage actor with passion and intensity, by widening the depth of field.


This is actually where the majority of stage photos go wrong. Most stage photographs are much darker overall than the average snapshot. Often they show brightly lit figures against a pitch black background, faces lit or painted unusual colors, and odd figures and scenery silhouetted with only side lighting. As a result these pictures offer unusual problems for photo processors. For example, most color prints are printed now on huge automatic machines that test for color, light and picture edges with a computer and “correct” defects automatically. Unfortunately, to a computer, a mostly black picture of a person with a green face, is a defect, and the machine will diligently attempt to lighten the picture. The result is often a grainy brownish mess: background of dark brown, and face of pale green looking over exposed! If you have photographed a dimly lit show, or a show with dark scenery or black backgrounds (most are), you need to insist that your black backgrounds be printed black or the actors will appear over exposed. (see fig 11.)

11. This is a perfect example of the kind of shot that drives a machine crazy. An automatic printer cannot see the edge of the frame because of the black background, and can chop the photo at the wrong spot. Also the machine’s color correction feature, by trying to lighten the overall shot to a “middle grey” tone, will usually overexpose the figure and smoke into a white blur. Finally, the smoke in the picture resembles a large out-of-focus section, and some printers will automatically reject printing it at all. (UAF, The Eagle’s Gift). 640T film.

Obviously this is easiest to do in a good “one hour” lab where you can talk directly to the technician operating the machine. Writing instructions of this kind on supermarket send out envelopes is usually a wasted effort. For enlargements the absolute best choice is one of those huge self operated Kodak “Zoomer” machines. If there were any flaws in your framing, your color, or your exposure you can correct them up to about an 80% improvement just by pushing the right buttons.


In addition, if your backgrounds are truly black it is nearly impossible for a machine or for a lab technician to tell where one frame begins or ends. The result is that your negatives can be accidentally cut into strips in the middle of a perfectly good picture. This is also true for slides. Unless you have your photos processed by a lab that knows you, knows stage photography, and is careful to excess, it is best to ask for negatives and slides to come back uncut in a roll for you to cut and/or mount yourself. Small plastic snap in slide mounts are better than the cardboard ones still used by many processors, and are easy to use. Slide processing of E-6 film (most slide film including 640T) is virtually idiot proof, and therefore worry free if you get them uncut. University photo labs sometimes offer one day processing of E-6 because of their use for slide lectures.


Outdoor performances at night are identical in condition to indoor performances, and so should be shot as you would any other stage show. Outdoor performances in daylight however are a different thing altogether, basically opposite of everything indoors. Don’t use tungsten film or a blue filter, don’t try to “fool” your camera with weird settings, don’t use fast film for any but the fastest moving shows (dance pieces). However, some things are still the same. Don’t use flash, do shoot at the end of actions and a still moments, and do sit near the front or use a super zoom lens. On unusually bright days it helps to put a polarized filter on the camera the same way you’d wear sunglasses to cut glare. For performances in the early evening, that have 1/2 daylight and 1/2 stage light it’s best to use a mid range speed like 400 ASA daylight film, without a blue filter.


In rehearsals, try weird angles. Sit on the floor, take shots from the wings. Backstage photographs are often more effective than onstage ones. If performers are acting in front of a front lit scrim, standing behind the scrim will get you a performer’s view of the stage, complete with lighting pointing at the camera, actors in silhouette, and the house in blackness. One show I got excellent shots (on video) of a circular dance on the stage below by climbing the ladder 1/2 way to the grid and shooting down. Often lighting positions or the booth will get you interesting angles. Even the worst acted, most tedious show looks exciting from a backstage or unusual angle.


Sometimes, it is worthwhile to deliberately use slower film for dance shows. Often blurred shots of dancers convey movement better than the best still shot. For this sort of show, do spend one roll of film one grade slower than advisable to get these deliberately blurred shots.


Mostly, you won’t want to muck up show shots trying to do weird effects, but occasionally a show arises that begs for specialty filters. For example, The Yellow Wallpaper is a one woman show about a woman going insane. I obtained several interesting prints of her mad scenes using a rainbow multiplier filter: her figure was slightly blurred and her edges were surrounded by tinted ghost images. Any stage shot can be improved by sticking on a star filter (it turns any visible stage lighting instrument from a bright blob to a bright star shape without effecting the rest of the picture). Shows that have not had gels mounted by rehearsals can be tinted with colored filters to compensate for the lack.


Academics and students traveling to Russia now should take note that the Russians make excellent and exotic lens filters that sell for under $2, that fit many Western cameras. It is a good idea to stock up while you are there since filters are much more expensive in the States. My favorite Russian filter is an innocuous “halo” filter (clear spot in center) with a funny pale pink surround: When used it “smears” the area around the center of the shot so that it appears to be spinning and shimmering! Cokin, makes expensive but very good filters that do dozens of other neat effects that would make for interesting lobby photos. Their sepia (brownish) filter can make photos somewhat resemble turn of the century photographs.


Buying film and processing it are two of the most expensive things you will do for your portfolio. If you buy slide film you will pay more for the film and less for the processing, if you buy print film, your film will be cheaper but you will pay a lot for prints. On one show that I was anxious to photo document to excess, I found I’d spent as much as my month’s rent on film and processing. This is a bad idea.


First rule for doing photos cheaply: BUY YOUR FILM WHOLESALE. There are several good places for doing this, their ads appear in Popular Photography, and Shutterbug. The cheapest one for the kinds of films I use most is a place called Freestyle, which will, for a fee, and with a credit card, send you your film in less than a week if needed. If you are not sure if you can use ten rolls of film in the time it takes before the film will be outdated, but want to buy 640T anyway, store your film in a ziplock bag in the fridge, and it will last well past the expiration date. I do this anyway, just to keep my film in peak condition.


If you don’t do enough photos to make buying ten rolls or more worthwhile, getting house brands (K-Mart, Safeway, Longs, etc.) of film is usually quite acceptable. Most of these brands are actually Konica, Agfa, 3M, Kodak and Fuji films that stores sell at cost under their own name to encourage you to process your film at the store. The differences in quality between each of these brands in each of their speeds of film is virtually negligible to anyone but an expert. All of them have good quality.


While traveling in exotic foreign places, however you probably won’t want to pick up “local” film for taking stage photos. Eastern European films, for example, require different chemicals for processing than Western films. You can’t get them processed when you get home, and they take 2-4 weeks to process in local labs. They are really only acceptable if you are living in Eastern Europe for months at a time. Also, uniformly they are too slow in speed for indoor stage work. They are however an OK economy for outdoor snapshots. While traveling out of the US, save money by bringing your own film, bought wholesale in a lead lined pouch.


At home, do not skimp on processing. Above all try to find a processor who you can speak to face to face, and who appears to display intelligence and understanding of his/her work. This is not always the store that charges the most, but often is a higher priced one hour lab. You can usually save money by getting one day service instead of one hour. Some university labs charge less for services that are to be used in class lectures and projects. Ask and you may be able to save money.


If you live in a remote place, and are often having to send your portfolio out in the form of slides, you should know that by sending your slides out yourself to be copied by a slide lab like Sunset Color Labs, instead of getting it done by your local drugstore, you will save a lot of money. Fact is your local drugstore will also send it out, often to a place whose specialty is not slide copying, and charge you their costs plus a profit. By dealing directly with a slide lab you cut out the additional money and time it takes to work through a middleman. You also ensure that your film is going to a lab that specializes in slides, and so you will usually get a better product. If you are in a great hurry, try to find an in-house lab in your town like a university photo lab, or specialty camera store that does lab work and get them to copy your slides. However this will usually cost you 4-5 times as much as doing a mail order.


Despite higher initial costs for slide film, overall, slides are cheaper. If you are on a very tight budget, stick exclusively to slides, and only order prints, through Sunset, of those photos you want a hard copy of in your portfolio. All of this will change soon if you intend to put your portfolio on-line, but most theatres and schools are not yet up to speed on computers, and so still ask for slides and not a disk or URL. Slides also discourage folks from demanding you make them prints (which somehow you never get paid for), and take less space to store. If you are taking photos for a web site, however, you will want to stick with prints since they are easier and better to scan.


While I very much dislike recommending York Photo Labs for anything at all, since they have repeatedly torn and cut my negatives in mid picture, and lost several important groups of negatives and pictures altogether, (while still cashing my checks,) they do provide one incredible service. They make the largest, cheapest photoposters available in the U.S., from slides or negatives, at reasonable speed, and with moderate to good quality. They are cheap enough to be used sparingly as theatre posters, lobby prints, gifts, costume shop decor, and (you guessed it) portfolio photos. However, I must highly caution readers to send them only copy slides or non-vital negatives for use in making these posters (because of my many unpleasant experiences with their treatment of my negatives.) But the deal can’t be beat. They charge less for a 3×4′ poster than Kodak charges for a mini poster. York also does weird services like putting photos on T-shirts and mugs for less than your photo shop or grocery store will charge. This could perhaps prove to be a useful publicity tool or fund-raiser for your theatre.


The best method for improving your stage photography is to take any and every chance to do it. Volunteer to take photos for friends doing shows and student shows if they provide the film or the price of film and processing. My best shots are usually of other people’s shows because I am concentrating on the camera, not on my costumes. Each new show will teach you more things about your camera, it’s individual quirks, and stage photography in general.

See also: Photographing Costumes For Your Portfolio On Stage And In the Studio