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A Star-Spangled Paparazzo
By Mike Pasini, Editor
Imaging Resource Newsletter

"School plays often welcome the attention. And photographing them is an excellent excuse for not applauding."

Our love of the theater, it should be confessed, is unrequited. The only dizzying heights the stage has ever afforded us were balcony seats. Still, we love it.

Even when it is employed as a device to amuse middle school children.

Which is the only time no one will escort you from the building if you try to take a picture of the dramatic events unfolding before you on stage. In general (and you're hearing this from a former professional usher who would run for governor in Minnesota if asked at any party), you may not photograph theatrical productions.

But school plays often welcome the attention. And photographing them is an excellent excuse for not applauding. The question is: How do you expose for them?

The following professional advice may not be applicable to your local middle school's theatrical standards. Lighting systems vary tremendously with school district budgets and the expertise of the janitorial staff (not to mention parent volunteers). Costume designers may or may not cooperate with set designers. But that's what makes live theater so exciting. Until you wither from the feedback in the sound system, anyway.

The first problem is that it can be difficult to get a good angle. The good seats up front in the typical middle school auditorium (which is normally not a raked theater, but a flat gym) are usually reserved by at least 800 members of the female lead's family. So try to find an aisle seat that will let you get up and roam, preferably the side aisles so you won't block any relatives' views.


Second, consider the set background. If it is lit, for example. If it's a black velvet backdrop, you're going to have tell your camera to underexpose by at least a stop (EV -1).

Next evaluate the lighting in general. The stage will no doubt be aflame in footcandles, but spotlights may have to do the whole job when the curtain is closed for a scene change and the male lead has to come out and bark at the moon.

Autofocusing should not be a problem. If the audience can see the action, so can your autofocusing system.

"Autofocusing should not be a problem. If the audience can see the action, so can your autofocusing system."

Which reminds us: turn off your flash (pager, cell phone and watch). It distracts everyone and it won't illuminate anything from as far away as you have to shoot anyway.

While the lights are up, take a shot of the program. Digicams are great for this. Make sure to zoom in on your star's name. And if there are any posters up or other theatrical displays, now's the time to get them. You're documenting this event for posterity (which has it's own sense of humor), after all.

As the show goes on, you will no doubt see hundreds of larger-than-yours LCD screens flipped out the side of camcorders zoomed in from row 123 to fill the stabilized frame with the recently powdered face of poor Yorrick. Do not envy them.

Their own audience will later worry about sitting through the whole thing again.

Think instead about what you can do that they can't.

You'll no doubt be shooting at slow shutter speeds. So look for those moments in the show when the cast is both moving and still. If all you see is motion, forget it, you'll get a blur. You just aren't shooting fast enough to stop motion. But even in some dance numbers, faces may be still while arms move (which greatly aids the choreographer). And shots like that are very, very cool.

We've had interesting results forced on us (in autoexposure mode) with a wide open lens and exposures ranging from the fairly reliably handheld 1/30 to the insane 1/4 second. Exposures at 1/6 and 1/9 second were typical, though, and often yielded good results.

And if worse comes to worst, save your batteries for the hallway after the show where you can play paparazzo with your flash.


This article is reprinted from The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter,
Beginner's Flash Column, published June 30, 2000