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Photographing an Empty Stage

If you're a lighting or set designer there may be times when you need to record your work just as is, without actors. This is probably the easiest way to photograph stage work--no annoying humans to worry about. Still, here's some information that might improve your results.

I divide it into seven parts:

color accuracy

file format

checking your work

exposure lightness or darkness

speed and camera shake

lens focus

perspective and lens choice

Color Accuracy

I put this first because it's probably the easiest. For most common theater situations, set your camera color balance to Tungsten. If your stage is outdoors you should of course set to Daylight or Sunny. If it is lit by LEDs, well then, I don't know what to suggest, because no standard exists yet. For the time being I'd go with Auto. Later I'll have more to say about refining color.

File Formats

This is where you put up with my standard lecture on the advantages of shooting in the raw camera format. Raw files, as opposed to Jpegs, contain all the tonal information the camera can record, so they're much better at retaining information in the important near-extremes of a photo's tones.

When raw files are converted on your computer to Jpeg or Tiff, they allow nearly infinite color setting. (Note that I don't say correction. I say setting. Selecting color balance in the raw conversion creates exactly the same result as doing it in camera, except that now you can change your mind.) Also they can be lightened or darkened, either overall or in select areas, long past the point where Jpegs would get ugly.

Yes, raw files require a little computer time.* That's their disadvantage. If you need to deliver a picture right away you can set your camera to shoot raw and Jpeg simultaneously.

Checking your Work

For now, this simply means to look at the monitor on the back of the camera to evaluate what you shot: "Chimping." For those images to mean something, though, you must have previously set the camera monitor to the proper brightness. Use the tools the camera provides, most importantly the step-wedge (a series of monochromatic strips that run from black to white). Do this in the theater and under the light where you'll be when you're shooting, because the ambient light level makes a huge difference in how you perceive the brightness of your monitor image.

After you make a shot, look at the monitor to decide if your picture was properly exposed. (...And composed, etc., but you know that.) Use the histogram, that graph which shows you the distribution of tones from black (on the left) to white (on the right). Don't assume the histogram should be a classic bell curve, though. Most sets contain a lot of darkness, either in the background or offstage, so it's likely your histogram will peak over on the left. (Just as that white cyc set will probably peak to the right of center.) Still, you want to see something going on throughout the range.

Even more importantly, in the Playback Menu switch on Highlight Warnings. Then, anything that's completely washed out white will blink or otherwise draw attention to itself in your monitor view. If that happens to anything that isn't:

a shiny reflection

the face of a lighting instrument

then your picture is probably overexposed, which you really don't want.

Your playback monitor can also tell you a little bit about your focusing accuracy, but I find that even at high magnification it never looks really tack sharp, even if the picture is. Maybe your camera screen is better than mine.

Exposure and tonality

Turn the ISO (sensitivity to light) to 400. I'm being a little arbitrary with this, but stay with me. 400 is fast enough to keep exposures on most sets from needing to be ridiculously long, yet it is almost indistinguishable in quality from anything lower. If it makes you feel better and there's light to spare, go ahead and turn the ISO down to 200 or 100, depending on the camera's minimum.

Most of the time, the camera's light meter will "see" the same thing we want in our composition. But maybe we want the important part of the stage over on the side, or we want to show a lot of dark stage around our lit area. Then we need to point the camera at the important area, take a light reading and set it, then go back to our picture composition. A half-press of the shutter button will lock exposure settings for us, or we can set them manually.

If you're not comfortable in the world of f.-stops and shutter speeds, set your camera's exposure control to P (Program) or equivalent. It's usually the only marking that's in green. Some cameras offer you different kinds of P, a little running man, a flower, etc., but all in all I think the odds are best if you stick with plain old P. (Also, you should "bracket", which I'll explain in a minute.)

Of course, I'd really prefer that you take a few minutes to figure out the f.-stops and shutter speeds. They're no more complicated than all those little symbols, and once you understand them you'll have retained information you can use forever. Also, you'll have a lifetime to enjoy sneering at people who aren't as clever about camera controls as you are. Trust me, the condescension, the eye-rolling and the martyred sighing are simple joys that give life meaning.

Regardless of your method or degree of expertise, if your set contains a lot of darkness, which is usually the case, turn the Exposure Compensation (not the Flash Compensation!) function to the minus. I'd try 1-and-1/2 or 2. This should give you a reasonable starting point. Conversely, a big white cyc set might do better around plus 1.

If you are familiar with those manual exposure controls, start with an intermediate aperture like f.-4 or 5.6. You don't want to use the largest opening on your lens because that will limit the depth of field, the range of distances which will be in sharp focus. On the other hand the very smallest f.-stops will require unnecessarily long shutter speeds with no real benefit.

Your camera probably has a function called something like Automatic Bracketing. This is a handy feature in which three, five or seven exposures in sequence will run by degrees lighter and darker than your original exposure setting. In the static situation we're talking about here there's really no reason NOT to bracket exposures--the film is free, after all--and this feature lets you do it with less stress on your brain. Just be sure to tell the camera to bracket by varying the shutter speed, not the aperture. (Consult the manual on how to do this.) Remember to turn Auto-bracketing OFF when you finish your theater session.

Speed and Camera Shake

You have set the ISO, the lens aperture, and a bit of compensation to suit the situation. Now you just need to use the shutter speed the camera suggests and get to work.

But aren't I being a little glib about those shutter speeds? After all, how are you going to hold a camera for a half-second exposure and get a sharp photo? Well, you won't. I've been saving the bad news for last: Use a tripod.

Your set is not moving. Your lights are not moving. You paid a lot of money for an expensive camera. So get the most of all this good fortune by making your photos as sharp as they can be. Use a tripod.

Here are a couple of techniques to make your tripod shooting even sharper. First, find a cable or Infrared gizmo that will allow you to snap without having to actually touch the camera. (The infrared remotes are especially handy, and cheap, often under twenty dollars. The trick is to not lose them.)

If you're using a reflex camera (the kind with the hump on top and the big floppy mirror inside), use "mirror up". That will get that jarring mirror out of the way and rested for a moment before the shutter fires.

If you want to go really crazy with sharpness, follow the advice in this page on Nikon's website:

This is a long way of saying that with high resolution digital cameras these days, there's sharp and then there's sharp.

If you absolutely can't get your hands on tripod and must hand-hold, do this:

-plant your feet firmly and squarely on the floor

-if your camera or lens offer it, turn on vibration reduction

-breathe in, then shoot as you slowly exhale

-right hand around the camera, left hand cradling the lens from underneath

-small camera? same idea: right hand runs the controls, left hand under the base

-s  q  u  e  e  z  e  the button, don't punch it

-follow-through: keep your finger on the button for a moment after the picture snaps

-if your reflex camera includes a mirror-up function, try it

-first click--mirror up, second click--snap picture

-your viewfinder will go dark for a moment, but you'll manage

-avoid very long focal length lenses or zoom settings

-the longer the lens, the more your shake gets magnified

Lens Focus

This one's pretty easy. If you're shooting a whole set, usually the range of subject distances is not so great that you should have trouble getting everything into focus. The mid-range f.-stops I mentioned should cover you most of the time.

But...don't focus right on the very nearest or farthest point. Pick someplace in the middle or slightly forward of that. You might have to aim your camera one way to find a suitable focus point, then re-compose to shoot. Also, make sure your focus doesn't drift when you make successive shots in a sequence. (If you're brave, look up "back-button focusing". It will improve your life.)

Perspective and Lens Choice

Extremely wide-angle lenses were once considered exotic, expensive and rare. Now the kit zoom lens on your camera probably goes into that range without your even having to think about it. But, as the great twentieth-century philosopher Spiderman posited, with great power comes great responsibility. The fact that you can stand in the second row of seats and get the whole stage into one shot doesn't mean that you should. Being a theater design person, you don't need me to warn you about all the keystoning your picture will show.

So, back up a little, and zoom in a little. The farther back in the house and the farther from the proscenium you go, the less you'll need to point the camera up, and the less distorted the edges of your frame will appear. Before you go way back and way up, though, ask yourself whether your sightlines should depart much from those of seated audience members.

If for whatever reason you really do need to show that whole stage from the second row, don't stop on my account. Just be aware that a naive viewer, one who has never seen the space in real life, might have trouble figuring out what's going on. Are the set pieces near the lip of the stage really that big? Are the walls really pyramidal?

If you need to shoot details on set, by all means zoom in. I would avoid super-long zoom settings, assuming your camera has them, for reasons related to my hesitation with super-wide. If you need to move yourself and your camera closer to get tighter on your details, do that. If you have to get on stage for the shot you need, do that too, but don't forget about that point-of-view issue.

Closing Notes

I promised you information about refining color, so here goes. First, the absence of people on stage means that your set does not contain any reference colors. Reference colors are those for which we as a species with common experience have a pretty clear expectation. Green grass, blue sky, that sort of thing. Of course, human skin is the most common one. We could be completely ignorant of the race or complexion of a person on stage, but would still be able to declare with some confidence whether his or her color in a photo was accurate.

Lacking this handy reference, we can use an artificial one. Specifically, I recommend shooting one or more frames showing a Macbeth Color Checker card. Let it fill much, but not all, of the frame, and shoot it on stage in a real cue. The card will help you with color refinement when editing your files.

Because the process of digital photography contains so many rubber yardsticks a photo of that card will be useful twenty years from now when you open up your old pictures and wonder, "Did I mean for that flat to be beige or light gray?" Well, if your color checker's colors look right, then the answer will be clear.

You might not have or want to use a Macbeth card. (And who can blame you? Ninety bucks for a piece of cardboard! Yikes!) Then I suggest going back to Plan A--have a handy human or two stand on stage for a few shots and use them as color reference. Humans are cheap, readily available and self-propelled. Some of them even smell nice.


* A quick note or two about editing: try to do your computer work in the same place or, at least, in consistent lighting conditions, from one day to the next. Sunny fields and coffee shop windows are lovely places to write and look at cat videos but they're not really suitable for editing photos. The light is too bright and too variable for the laptop or tablet to lend an accurate portrayal of photographs.

Also, try to get your hands on a monitor calibrator, a.k.a. a "hockey puck". These devices set your monitor's appearance to universal standards. That way you'll have a truly objective view of your pictures, and you'll know with certainty what your camera has recorded.