How to Photograph Stage Performances

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You may wish to photograph a performance such as a play or concert that takes place on stage with stage lighting. Stage lighting presents a challenge for the automatic metering system in most cameras. The undesirable results are typically the people on stage are washed out or over-exposed.

Below I will outline some tips that will improve the quality of your stage lit images as you capture photos of your favorite performers. This Photo Tip is written with digital cameras in mind, although many of the techniques that follow apply to film cameras as well.
Christ on Cross

Metering technique, Christ on Cross captured at Northridge’s Glory of Christmas

The example photo above, was taken at Northridge Church’s Glory of Christmas show, illustrating the results of the techniques outlined in this Photo Tip.

Stage lighting presents a challenge for photographers and cameras. In most cases, flash photography is prohibited and distracts from the experience. Many of today’s digital cameras allow the user to adjust exposure settings. For stage lighting, we want to capture as much of the natural light as possible, but we also want to make sure the performers are captured with the best exposure. To do this, below are some camera settings that will improve the quality of your images. Note, not all cameras allow adjustment of all of these settings, try as many as you find on your camera and see what happens.

  • Turn off the Flash. With many point and shoot camera unless you are less than 10 feet from the subject, chances are your flash will not benefit the exposure. Turning the flash off allows the camera’s shutter speed to go slower, saves battery life, and does not distract other’s attention.
  • Set ISO (film speed) as high as it will go, depending on the camera, this may be 400, 800, 1600 or higher. Note, at higher ISO settings, the image resolution may be reduced and the camera’s sensor “noise” will increase making the image look more grainy. Experiment, with the ISO setting prior to the performance. Review the images and zoom in to look for changes in resolution and increases in noise.
  • Shoot in the Av (aperture priority) setting if you have one. Typically, this allows access to more user settable camera functions opposed to a “Scene” or “Program” shooting mode.
  • Open aperture all the way up to largest opening. The smaller the number, the larger the aperture. The larger the aperture, the more light will come into the camera. Note, when the lens is zoomed, the maximum aperture size is reduced. Also, f3.5 is a larger aperture than f8.0.
  • Set the light metering sensitive area to spot (the default setting might be something like Average or Evaluative.) Spot metering allows you to measure the exposure in a smaller area, in this example avoiding all the dark areas that would cause an over-exposure of the subject or region of most interest.
  • Take the meter reading (by pressing down half-way on the shutter button and holding) on the face or subject that is lit and most important to have at the correct exposure. (Typically this is a bright spot on stage.)
  • Take a couple of photos and take a minute to analyze them. When the camera is in the image review mode, most cameras allow you to zoom in on the image to see some of the detail. If the key subject is still too bright you will have to under-expose your images. Typically under-expose by 1 to 2 stops as a starting point.
  • Depending on the camera, there may be an Exposure Compensation control with a range from -2 to +2 with 3 steps between each number. If you adjust the Exposure Compensation from the default of ‘0’ to ‘-1’, this will under expose the image 1-stop and make the image darker.
  • If your camera does not have an Exposure Compensation adjustment, you will have to “trick” the camera’s light meter by pointing the focus spot at something bright at a similar distance as your subject, push the shutter button halfway down and hold to lock focus and exposure, then while holding the shutter button re-position the camera with the desired framing and expose the image. This same exposure trick will come in useful for all kinds of lighting situations where you have to adjust exposure to get the image you visualized.

Please let me know if you have questions. Have fun, good luck, and happy shooting!

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