Photographing Theatre

roberto herlitzka il soccombente photo by gabriele gelsi
Roberto Herlitzka, ‘Il soccombente’, 2012

“It is really difficult to shoot in theatre, light is really poor” or “it’s not difficult to create wonderful images shooting during a play, since it is basically something designed to please the eyes”.

These are the two opposite statements that I often hear about shooting during a theatrical performance. I believe these ideas to be both correct and incorrect. Both in different ways.

Theatre is not a simple subject to shoot, but not because of “poor lighting”. Sometimes the light is poor, other times the light is too much. Or it could be turned off in the exact moment you were going to shoot.

Theatre uses light as a language, and as a language light will change direction, color or intensity many times during a show. That’s why it could be difficult to shoot in theatre: once you have nicely composed your frame and you are finally ready to shoot, everything changes!

The other statement stresses on the idea that, being something that is “made to be watched, to ease the eye”, Theatre is an easy subject for photographers. And this is -in part- true. With a bit of experience every photographer could create stunning images of a theatrical show. However there are risks: being dazzled by actors’ expressive faces, illuminated by coloured lights and wearing elaborate costumes could make you forget the primary mission of the stage photographer in theatre: using his cultural awareness to understand what a show wants to say in the first place, and then translate this message in a photographic form. In other words, with pictures.

How to understand the meaning of a theatre play then? Maybe there are many possibilities, but I only know one: watching and taking part at as many rehearsal as possible, speaking with the director, the set and light designers, actors, and technicians. Study the play. If you are reading this tutorial it means you love photography but you also love theatre. So keep loving what you photograph because knowing the subject, studying hard what you are going to shoot, is probably the only rule that can be applied to all the different genres and branches of photography. If you don’t have a true passion for what you photograph, your pictures will never be so great. And there is a reason: the more you will know about every aspect of a show, the more you will be prepared to shoot at the right time.

Kemp Dances Inventions and Reincarnations photo by Gabriele Gelsi
Lindsay Kemp, ‘Inventions and Reincarnations’, 2015

From a technical standpoint, while some performances may be more difficult than others, there are some basic rules and principles you can follow:

The best lenses are the brightest ones, which happens to be -accidentally- the most expensive one as well. But you already knew that. Luckily most cameras can use high ISO without losing too much in term of image quality, so try to find the best compromise between your budget, your needs and your aspirations. There are plenty of forums and website about the best cameras, lenses, brands and accessories available: you can have fun finding your best fit there. 


Back to Theatre, if you will take photographs during a rehearsal you will be able to stay closer to the actors, maybe to stay even on stage: you will need a wide angle and a medium zoom.

If you have to take pictures during the show, with the audience watching (and that’s what happens most of the time, especially when you start), you must pick a position and stick to that, trying to move the less you can. There are basically two options: in the room, behind the audience and at the side of the stage, or on stage behind the scenery exit. In the first case you will need a zoom. In the second case a wide angle again.

Try not to shoot during tense moments of silence (I know, these are usually the best moments, with the actors posing in interesting way or with a particular intense facial expression): but the ‘click’ of the shutter will easily annoy both the audience and the actors. If you decide to stay on stage you will have a partial vision of the play but you will be closer to the actors. You will not be able to wander around and choose your composition, but maybe this will help you focus on what is going on on stage. A great example of this kind of approach are the photographs made by Alexey Brodovitch for his photographic book ‘Ballet’, which collects a series of pictures taken from the stage of the Ballets Russes.

Whether you are going to shoot from the room or from the stage, try to follow the rhythm of the play, let yourself carried away by the narration and by the history that is happening under your eyes first and your camera after. Try to be a little less a photographer and a bit more part of the audience: if you start to think about the correct exposure and composition of every shot you will never start to shoot!

blas roca rey amanda sandrelli non c'è tempo amore di lorenzo gioielli by gabriele gelsi
Amanda Sandrelli e Blas Roca Rey, ‘Non c’è tempo amore’, 2011

Set your camera in the spot mode and underexpose one stop or more: it is better to have a dark image easily to fx in post production than one perfectly exposed but easily blurry. Try not to go under 1/60, even more depending on the lens you are using and how steady your hand is. You can go with a longer time and create a movement effect, using for instance panning technique and again by trying and then trying harder.

These are just a few suggestions to a photographic approach to theatre, but as said before, it is not a matter of taking good pictures. After a bit of practice you will do that, I promise. But the moment you start to understand how to take pictures in theatre, you should start thinking about the most important thing: what is the true meaning of this play I am watching right now, and how can I translate this message using my photos? And I am sorry to tell you there is no tutorial for that.

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