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Still Photography of Live Performance

or: Recovering From the Nightmare That Was Ektachrome 160T*


Until a few years ago, color still photography of live stage performance or rehearsal was more a matter of hope and disappointment than it was a reliable way to record the event
-in the moment       -in the light       -and on the set.

However, the last few years have seen huge improvements to the quality of digital camera sensors, and they have made it possible to consistently capture extremely high quality color still images of on-stage action. The section to follow contains a description of one method of taking advantage of those recent advances.

The method derives from the happy realization that current higher-end (though not necessarily expensive!) digital cameras can produce perfectly acceptable photographs at ISO ratings that were once regarded as astronomical, nearly the stuff of fiction. As a result, the photographer can set aperture and shutter speed to suit the situation, and rely on the camera's “Auto ISO” exposure control to regulate the photo brightness as the play runs through its challenging and constantly changing light.

To refine the exposure, the photographer need only manipulate the camera's "plus/minus " exposure compensation control, freeing his or her brain during sometimes frenetic performance shooting for more useful work, like anticipating the next shot.

end of summary

I assume the reader has some familiarity with basic camera operation. If he or she has been frustrated with live stage photography in the past, then this should all be even more useful.

the details

Before Shooting

A few camera setting selections are necessary for best results. First, set the menu's “Quality/Resolution” heading to “raw”. The raw format captures all possible detail, especially in the critical near-extremes of the tonal scale, that Jpeg would compress to pure white or black. “Raw+Jpeg” is certainly acceptable if you're timid about making the switch.

Second, turn the color balance option to “Tungsten.” Even though the raw format will allow nearly infinite manipulation of color in the editing stage, the camera playback monitor will show a more realistic view of shot photos if the color setting is at least close to accurate.

If your stage is lit with LEDs, the preceding may or may not apply, because no color standard has emerged. For the time being, try Auto White Balance. If you're shooting in the raw format as I suggest, you can look through your thumbnails in the raw editor (more on that later) and apply the best-looking setting to the batch. (Note that this strategy will not work with Jpeg files. For Jpeg shooters the next paragraph is important.)

In unfamiliar light one can also use a white card and the camera's custom color setting option. Check the instruction manual to find out how. It's difficult only the first time you try it.

Be sure to set the camera's playback monitor to the correct brightness level. You must do this in your actual shooting location and lighting conditions. Be guided by the “step wedge” (the monochromatic strips generated in the brightness adjustment window) to provide an objective view of the monitor image. Aim for separation between all of the steps in the wedge. Remember that in a dark environment everything in that little monitor has a way of looking beautiful, even if the exposure is way off.

Most important, and also in the Playback menu, be sure to turn on what I call the “blinkies.” (Nikon: “Playback Display Options->Highlights” Canon and Pentax: “Highlight Alert”) This is a visual aid by which areas of pure white in the image playback are indicated by some bright solid color, flashing, or stripes. If your camera also shows you blinkies for pure blacks, ignore them or turn off that part of the feature.

Digression: If you're an experienced digital photographer, you might wonder why I haven't mentioned the histogram. It is certainly useful, but note that a photo shot on a “standard” proscenium set will generate a histogram that would a first glance suggest severe underexposure. Don't let this throw you. End of digression.

Moving on from the playback, under the ISO options choose “Auto”. By making ISO the “dependent variable” of exposure, the f-stop and shutter speed can be set manually as appropriate and then, more or less (!), forgotten. This is a key part of the method.

Appropriate” settings for my way of shooting are usually this: with a 24-70mm zoom lens I shoot at 1/90th of a second (fast enough to overcome my shaky hands and most actor movement) and a half-stop closed from fully open (to buy myself a little depth of field, margin for error in focusing, and lens sharpness). When I use a 105mm telephoto lens I set the shutter speed to 1/180th at, again, a half-stop smaller than fully open. Your needs and preferences may differ, but you're welcome to use my settings as a starting point. I'm so kind.

With the ISO at automatic, get familiar with the operation of the “plus/minus” exposure compensation control (not the flash compensation!) This will become the main exposure tool, so you'll be more productive if you can control it without having to think about it, or look at it, too much. Spoiler alert: for most sets you'll want this well into minus territory. I usually start at minus 1.5 and then adjust up or down as results dictate.

Most upper-end cameras these days present a choice of metering options, usually “spot,” “averaging,” and then something along the lines of “Matrix,” “Intelligent” or “I'm So Much Smarter than You.” Anything except Spot is fine for our purposes.

Your camera or lens might offer a vibration reduction function. By all means switch it on. It can't hurt. Be sure to switch it off, though, if you mount your camera on a tripod.

An aside: consider switching to what's called “back-button focusing.” It'll require some rooting through the menu to get going, but can be well worth it. With back-button focusing, the shutter button no longer activates the camera's automatic focusing. Instead a different one, usually found under your right thumb, does the job. This allows you to lock focus where you want it, then compose the picture without worrying whether at the last moment your camera is going to change its mind about focus.

Usually three control settings are needed to activate back-button focusing.

in the menu, turn off shutter button focusing
also in the menu, turn
on focus by “back-button”
set “single-continuous” focus control to “continuous”
this might be a lever or separate button, not in the menu

Just about every sports photographer around uses this method, and for good reason. In the next section I'll explain a little of how to use it.

During Shooting

The priority for correct exposure setting is this:

Do Not Overexpose

Despite the amazing progress in the low-light capabilities of digital sensors, they still just don't like overexposure. Once a highlight is overexposed, even a little bit, it's really hard to edit it back to a non-hideous state. Unfortunately, in almost every case the highlight in question turns out to be actors' skin. This is why I pay so much attention to the highlight warning.

Correct” camera exposure in this system, then, is not a center point or compromise between the lightest and darkest parts of the high-contrast stage scene. Rather, it is the brightest exposure possible just short of overexposing actor's faces. Even if such an exposure is not beautiful “out of the box”, it contains the data needed for later editing to make it so.

(Don't assume we should be concerned only with light-skinned Caucasian actors. No skin types in our species do well with overexposure. They just suffer in different ways.)

So, camera sensors don't like overexposure, yet stage lighting and the behavior of our camera's light meter conspire to steer them toward it. Here's why: most stage sets are darker upstage, where the scenery lives, than they are down where the actors work. Camera light meters, not knowing which parts of the picture composition have priority, guide us to “correct” exposure for whatever appears in the viewfinder, thus creating generously exposed scenery but irredeemably washed out actors.

This is where the exposure compensation comes in. Resist this bias toward overexposure by dialing the “plus/minus” value on the camera down to a negative. So, at the start of the show, as soon as the lighting cue allows, take a quick shot. Check the playback. If the actor faces are flashing, turn the +/- down by a couple of stops and shoot again. If no highlight warnings appear, keep shooting. If they still show up, dial down some more. As the play progresses you'll find you need to check the playback less often, though act and major lighting changes will certainly call for more scrutiny. Again, the goal is to get as bright an exposure as possible (to extract noise-free detail from those dark shadows) without stepping over the line into overexposure of important subject areas.

Here are some rules of thumb to help you nudge exposure compensation:

  • the tighter you are on the actor, the less compensation you'll need
  • the darker the background, and the more of it you see in the shot, the more “minus” you'll need to apply
  • a light background, like a white cyc, or some bright special lighting effect, changes the rule from “minuses” to “pluses”
  • a white cyc can light up all the highlight warning it wants
  • ...just don't let skin do it
A note about follow-spots: Because they can be so bright and create so much contrast, subjects shot under them often require special treatment. Their brightness could induce “Auto ISO” to call for a value lower than exists on your camera. Solve that part of the problem by quickly speeding up your shutter or dialing in a smaller f.-stop.

Under follow-spots, the trickier problem is contrast. There's just so much of it. Remember that anything on stage not under the spot is now so dark, in relative terms, that your meter will lie to you in a big way, and a radioactive glowing performer could be the result.

One solution is to quickly turn the exposure compensation down as far as it will go. If that's enough to fight off the blinkies, good. Gradually ratchet the compensation back up as you gather time and ambition.

Or: zoom in as tightly on the hot performer as possible, so that he or she fills more of the frame and thereby minimizes the background's effect on your light reading. If you're quick, you can zoom in for the light reading, press the shutter button half-way to lock the exposure setting (the ISO), then zoom out and shoot.

Or: just forget the method for a moment. Turn your ISO to a real number and use manual exposure.

As you shoot you might be surprised just how many pictures you're taking. (I often go over a thousand for a single show.) Don't worry about that. The film is free.

Also, a lot of those pictures are bound to be failures. Use them to learn how to make the next shot and the next show better, but keep in mind that you're not being graded on an average. If the process of making 900 rotten pictures steers you create the hundred you really want, then you might be on to a pretty good process.

So what about that back-button focusing? Aim the viewfinder focus point at your subject, push the back button and release it. Your focus is now locked in. It won't change until you push the button again. Compose the photo as you wish and shoot, and keep shooting without worrying whether the camera has changed its mind about focus. If your subject is really moving around, keep your thumb pressing on the back button as you shoot. That might limit your ability to fudge composition, but you'll be no worse off than you would with the default method. (Features like “focus-tracking” will help even more, but that's a subject for another day.)

When the back button controls the focus, the shutter button now controls only the exposure. (By default, the half-push of the shutter button will lock that setting, in our case the ISO.) So we have separated the two functions. That's helpful once in a while when you want to focus on one spot while metering off something else. For instance, zoom in to get a better meter reading, hold the shutter button half-way down, then zoom out to focus and shoot. It's hard on the brain and fingers, but, with practise, doable.

A note about dance

A great dance photo can be so much more interesting than one showing a bunch of talking actors, but everything about dance multiplies challenges to the photographer. Lower light levels: often. Faster changes in light and intensity: often. Unpredictable performer motion: almost always.

I wish I could give you a formula, beyond the method I've been describing, that would make your dance photography more consistent, but I don't think such an animal exists. You will wind up with many bad pictures. (Even though nobody else needs to know it.) I can only suggest that you stick with this system and practice.

Timing is even more of an issue with dance photography, of course, but be assured yours will improve. Early on you'll figure out exactly that time lag between the press of the button and the moment you want to capture.

I suspect that if you're a dancer yourself, you have a built-in advantage. You'll understand the choreography and therefore have a better idea of what will happen next.

If you're really interested you could even research that "Focus Tracking" that I more or less dismissed earlier. It's fairly advanced stuff, and will require some serious instruction manual reading. When it's set up and you understand it, the camera can maintain focus on, say, the face of a single dancer, as he or she moves across the stage, at and away from you. The quality of focus tracking varies from camera to camera, but even a mid-range model can do it amazingly well.

After Shooting

Transfer files

First, transfer the photo files from your camera memory card to your computer. Use a card-reading gizmo for this purpose. They're cheap, they're fast, and they're less balky than the camera-computer connection. Plus, I never like to attach expensive low-power cameras to big high-power computers if I don't have to. Place the files in a folder named in a way that makes sense for your cataloging system.

Forgive the casual mention of "cataloging system," as though we all keep one in our back pocket. If you haven't devised one, now is a good time to start. "Digital asset management" (DAM) is a little out of my field, but for what it's worth, here's a few things I've found:

If you use dates, make them run from year to month to day,
Independence Day 2013 is 20130704 or 130704
that way an alphabetical list will put dates in sequence

Long folder names, and folder names with spaces and dashes, seem to work okay, even though old computer conventions told us to avoid both. (Web stuff still doesn't like spaces, though.)

If you need to rename your folders and files, do it early in the process. This will reduce the odds of identical photos with different labels floating around your computer. (I don't know about you but I have an awful time deleting files, even though I'm certain certain certain that they're duplicates.

Your raw-editing software probably has a mass-renaming function of some kind. If not, you may have it elsewhere on your computer.

For what it's worth, my folder naming convention looks like this:

120704-Acme Rocket Skates Company-Product Photos

  • yours could be, maybe, theater-show name-type of event (e.g. Old Vic-Hamlet-dress parade) with a date at the front or end, depending on how you want them ordered in the Finder or Explorer
  • I assume that I'm the only person who'll see folder names, so they need to suit only me

...while my file naming convention runs:

name--date--file number.

  • now I add my name because others will see this title and I want them to know whose picture it is
  • I let Adobe Bridge manage these renames almost as soon as I see all the thumbnails in a folder


Enter information in the Keywords section of file metadata. It only takes a minute to add it to all your thumbnails and, therefore, files.

Decide now what to do with articles like "the" and "a". Omit them? (Crucible) Move them to the end? (Crucible The)

Keywords can be grouped, so you might want to create a group for show names, and maybe another one for theater names

Other Metadata

You can put a lot of information into metadata. Lately I've been copying the text out of the PDF files that go to the playbill printing company and pasting it in.

  • That may seem like a ton of data, but it's nothing compared to the overall size of a photo file.
  • Twenty years from now you could run a search for any actor or designer--pretty useful!

Copy your files from the memory card to the computer, don't move them. That way you'll still have your originals on the card in case of early computer disaster.

I prefer to use plain old Windows Explorer or Mac Finder to copy the files. Lots of editing programs will "import" pictures for you automatically, but I always worry that they'll apply some setting or other without my notice. Plus, I'm a crank.

Raw Format and its Conversion

On the computer, Photoshop's ACR (Adobe Camera Raw, which comes with Photoshop) and Photoshop Elements can do the conversion.

Adobe Lightroom does it.

A few lesser-known programs do it.

Your camera manufacturer will give you software that does it, too.

Every user has their own preference, but to me the Adobe products are like democracy: they're the worst except for everything else. While we might assume that the camera makers would make the best software for their own files, we'd be wrong. I have yet to find one that wasn't slow, buggy and almost comically non-intuitive.

Whichever raw conversion program you use, very likely it's first step will be to show you thumbnail versions of all the pictures in a folder. At your command it'll then present you with a window containing a wide variety of editing tools, which you can apply to either one or several files. Finally, the program will ask you what kind of files you want it to generate from your raw files and where you want to put them.

Remember that whatever adjustments you make editing the raw files can be undone at any time. You're not changing the whole file but simply writing a bit of instruction that lives with it or in it. Those instructions, however, do not cross brand boundaries. An Adobe product, for example, will not pay any attention to editing you might have done in Canon or Nikon or Brand X software. That is too bad. On the other hand, if you do open the files in more than one program, no damage will result. (At least, I'm 99% sure of this. If you try it and your computer explodes, you don't know me.)

All of these programs will also give you some way to assign rankings to your pictures, even at the thumbnail stage. Use this system to set aside the obvious stinkers. Send them to a sub-folder or, if you're brave, delete them. That way you don't have to expend time and computer resources editing them.

With the remaining non-stinkers, there are some edits you can make that will probably be common to the group. For instance, all of the files from a single show will probably want the same degree of color tweaking. (Sometimes overall color can change from act to act, but even then it's usually not much.) If most of the pictures look a little dark, which is likely, go ahead and raise the exposure slider for all of them. You can come back and refine settings to individual files later--you don't have to do everything at once.

Look at the “Black” slider. It controls how much of your very dark areas will or won't go into complete blackness. In spite of my carping about maintaining detail in the extremes, usually you still want something to go to blackest black. Without that true black, pictures show an unsatisfying haziness. This is true of pictures taken on a stage or at a picnic. Often all the shots in a show will want the same setting.

The Black slider will have a huge affect on the picture's contrast, so it might seem redundant for the program to also have a "Contrast" control. Unlike Black and "White", which control the placement of the ends of the tonal scale, Contrast works around the middle, so it's much more subtle.

Another editing control: your program probably has sliders designed only to draw out detail in deep shadows and bright highlights. They are independent of “Contrast,” though the two sets affect one another. In the ruthless contrast of stage photos, these “shadow-highlight” controls can open up detail near the tonal extremes, almost as if by magic. As with so many good things, try not to overdo these options, and, like so many things about digital files, you'll find the shadows respond better than highlights.

Now we come to a deeply technical/philosophical question. How do we treat the color of scenes which are heavily gelled? We could completely neutralize the color of the gels, but that would of course negate the lighting designer's intention. So, the more rational course would be to be assign the same color balance settings to the heavily gelled shots as their non-gelled neighbors. Then the difference in their appearance is accounted for entirely by the gel. Makes sense, right?

But here's the dilemma: I believe gel color is perceived much more strongly in a still photo than it is in the actual event. To my eye, at least, a color applied for a nearly unconscious effect on the audience can seem awfully front-and-center in a photograph. So, my policy is a simple cop-out: I dial the color change to a middle ground between neutral and full-on color saturation. Nobody's complained about my system yet, but I leave it to you and your spiritual advisor to find your own compromise.

Whatever you decide, I repeat: don't be timid about altering raw files settings. You can always undo them by degree, or just go right back to the defaults.

Finally, it can help sometimes to just walk away from your editing for a day or two and return it with fresh eyes. (I think that works for writing, too.)

More About the Computer

Almost any recently-made computer should be able to handle photo files, though higher-end machines will process them faster. Because a lot of your editing time will consist of the simple opening and saving of files, a solid-state hard drive can really speed things along.

Laptops can work, too, but I have some reservations. Unless they're built with an SSD (solid-state drive) their smaller conventional drives are going to be slower at opening and saving files.

My real beef with laptops, though, is that which makes them what they are, their portability. The fact that they allow you to process digital photos while you watch TV or sit in your backyard doesn't mean that you should. The ambient light is just too varied for consistent viewing and results. So, if you must use a laptop, try to do it in a single place under reasonably constant viewing conditions. You don't have to hide away in a closet, but you shouldn't work right next to a sunny window, either. Sorry nature-lovers.

Tablets and smartphones? I see software companies excitedly introducing versions of their software to work on them, so I guess somebody is using them, but really I can't understand how or why.

If you really want consistent results you should get your hands on a “hockey puck,” a monitor calibration device. They cost about a hundred dollars and up. These gadgets are made to set the brightness and color on your computer to empirical standard. So, when your screen is properly calibrated you eliminate the rubber yardsticks. That is, you have one point in the digital photography process where what you're seeing is a true representation of what's in the file. That's an important thing to know before you invest time in picture editing.


*If you didn't understand my catchy subtitle, Ektachrome 160 was Kodak's "fast" color slide film and pretty much the only game in town for shooting live performance. If necessary it could be rated at 320 (meaning it could be underexposed by one stop) and then receive special "push" processing to compensate. It was truly awful stuff--grainy, contrasty, blue in the shadows, horrible.

In later years Kodak made a very pricey "320/640" film which was, in spite of its greater speed, actually a little better. A little. Still, I'd hate to go back to the time when I'd have to drop fifteen or so dollars for every 36 pictures and hope for 3 or 4 "keepers."