Stage photography – long lenses and low light

This scene of the initial struggle between Frankenstein (Spencer Christensen) and the Creature (Nick Vannoy) was exactly what I was worried about: fast action in low light with a long lens. I had to fly the ISO on my D300s up to 6400 to keep my 80-200 mm lens at 1/200th of a second at f/2.8. But considering the subject, I kind of liked the grainy look. © Lexington Herald-Leader photo.

Since I started shooting again for the paper and on my own, one of my favorite things to shoot has been SummerFest, the annual summer outdoor theater festival here in LexVegas. The concept of the big setting in The Arboretum, shows that are usually pretty large and animated and the event vibe make it a rewarding event to shoot. Several shots from my portfolio hail from SummerFest for a reason.

Last week’s production of Frankenstein threw me a bit of a curveball.

This late-show shot of Nick Vannoy as the Creature, shot with a - 300 mm, f/4 lens at 1/80th of a second - would have been a lot blurrier without a really sturdy Manfrotto monopod. © Lexington Herald-Leader photo.

Inclement weather prompted the show to run the final dress rehearsal, which is what we usually shoot, out of costume. So, in order to have photos for the paper, to go with the review and for an online gallery, I had to shoot the opening night performance. That took out the ability to shoot the stage straight on and took medium and wide angle lenses out of play, for the most part. It meant I had to work from the sides with longer lenses . . . in what promised to be pretty low light. This is the dark tale of Frankenstein we’re talking about.

That’s a challenging set of circumstances since the big glass generally requires higher shutter speeds or some support for sharpness.
So, I packed out to the Arboretum with the 80-200 mm, f/2.8, the stage photographers’ bread and butter lens, and the added length of the 300 mm, f/4. I also had a Manfrotto monopod that could also could effectively be used for self defense, should the need arise.

And I was reminded that sometimes it’s good to change things up. I have been aware of a persistent wide angle addiction I have developed, and it was good to be reoriented to the teles and searches for dramatic closeups – bread and butter images for stage photogs.

And while I generally prefer hand-holding the camera, having drilled some camera-steadying Joe McNally and Luke Morgan grips into my arms, there’s a lot to be said for the clarity and few extra clicks of latitude you can get from a weapons grade monopod.

Early on the evening, I was pleasantly surprised that there was enough light to get some decent shutter speeds of 250 to 320 and even some latitude in aperture with the remaining rays of daylight left.

But as. Evening fell, I did find myself needing to, say, shoot the 300 at 1/80 or 1/125 of a second.

It was all a good lesson learned, because the next week, I faced exactly the same thing: having to shoot the opening night performance of The Rocky Horror Show.

The experience reminded me that in photography, you need to know how to get what you need, even when you don’t exactly have what you want.

I found myself drawing on the experiences of Frankenstein this week when I also had to shoot the opening night performance of The Rocky Horror Show instead of the final dress rehearsal, which was canceled due to lightning - one of the hazards of outdoor drama. © Lexington Herald-Leader photo.

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