Photo by: Ella Rayl

February 19, 2018 / Photo Quest / Photography

Photo Quest – The play’s the thing

Written by Bill Hankins

Updated by Walsworth Yearbooks

Much like shooting sports photos, capturing the peak moments in plays and musicals requires planning and good shooting technique.

To paraphrase Hamlet, “the play’s the thing” where the conscientiousness of the yearbook photographer is discovered.

At most schools, there will be spring plays and musicals in the coming months ahead, which will provide an opportunity to try out the ideas and techniques discussed here.

A challenge

There are a number of reasons shooting plays and musicals are challenging. Foremost, there are limits as to when and where you can shoot. Read most stage production programs, and somewhere a warning will read: “No still photos or video photography allowed.” Because of that limitation during live performances, it is imperative to work with your drama teacher or vocal/instrumental director to gain access during dress rehearsals for the school productions.

By communicating ahead of time, the photographer probably will not be stuck in some out-of-the-way shooting locale. You really want total access, including being on stage. When necessary, the photographer might need to get permission to bring a small step ladder into the theatre if there is a raised stage. The shooter would not want all of the shots to be looking up the actors’ noses.

Remember that a dress rehearsal can be a stressful time for all the cast, crew and director, so make sure that the yearbook shooters go in, do their jobs, and do not interfere with the production. When I was the yearbook adviser at Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Missouri, my photo editors would usually assign two photographers to each production. These photographers would shoot the dress rehearsal or rehearsals if more than one was scheduled. Often the photographers would shoot one rehearsal, see what they got, and then go back the next night to capture what they had missed the first time.

Photo by Sophia Reed

However, the real tool for successful play and musical photography begins prior to the dress rehearsal when the photographers, photo editors and reporter discuss the nature of the production and decide what key scenes, actors and behind the scene stories must be shot.

For example, when Oak Park staged Macbeth one year, the photographers knew there were many key scenes to the drama. One scene was pivotal to the dramatic story – the witches’scene – “Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble.” That early scene gave foreshadowing of the tragedy that would follow.

Also, that scene was fun for the photographers to shoot because of the wonderful facial expressions and body language of the witches. By planning ahead and knowing the plot of the drama, the photographers were ready.

Other important scenes included soliloquies by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, plus a famed death scene. In scenes like these, composition matters, so the photographer needs to plan ahead and be in the best location to get the most telling shot. If you miss the moment, it is highly unlikely that the director will want to call a time out in the dress rehearsal while the photographer gets his or her act together.

Planning layout

Another consideration for the photographer is how these images will look on the yearbook spread. Certainly, variety of images is a concern. For example, five images on a spread that are all shots of single actors would be boring. Distance from the subjects is a concern as well.

To capture a variety of story-telling images, the photographers should record the following types of shots:

  • Close-up facial shots, usually of the main characters.
  • Overall shots that show much of the stage scenery and a number of the cast members.
  • Shots from higher or lower angles that give a different perspective to the scenes.
  • Interaction shots of the supporting cast in key scenes.

These are just suggestions and will vary according to the type of play or musical being performed. Another area of concern in telling the whole story is the action behind the scenes – makeup, sound, sets, tickets, publicity, etc. – and the pit orchestra if the production is a musical.In fact, if the production is large enough to warrant the coverage, staffs might decide to have two spreads, one for the performance itself and another to cover the story behind the scenes or some other related story of interest.

Your equipment

Once you have planned your coverage and some of your needed shots, it is time to think about the technical aspects of shooting a stage production.

Lens use
If you can shoot next to or from the stage, you will not need a very long telephoto lens. The important aspect of lens choice is how wide is the maximum aperture. Try to use a lens that opens to F/2.8 if possible, even if that means using a shorter lens. The F/2.8 opening may help you to shoot using existing light with a moderately fast shutter speed. A 50mm lens is OK if you can move closer and even onto the stage. Next would be something in the 75-135mm range. Some photographers might have one of the nice 70-200mm zoom lenses, which are extremely versatile for this type of shooting especially if they have an F/2.8 opening.Film speed, ASA/ISO, or digital sensitivity
If you are using existing light (stage light), then you may want to push your film speed from a typical 400 ASA to 800, 1200 or even 1600. If you do that, you will need to process your film in a special fashion (see your developer information for details). However, if you are shooting digitally, then you can set your exposure sensitivity according to your needs. Most of your digital single lens reflex cameras will allow you to change your sensitivity setting (think ASA/ISO) as you need to. This is nice since you can change your setting if the stage lights go up brightly for one scene, but then change to a single spot light for another.

If you have to, use a flash. If your flash allows you to tilt the head and bounce the flash, then do that to cut down on the red eye and distortion that can happen with direct flash exposures.

Photo by Abby Willging

Flash use can cause the following problems:

  • When composing the picture, it can be difficult to frame the main subject when the flash creates interfering shadows.
  • Stage decorations might be reflective and catch the flash, creating hot spots that must be burned down or taken out (if possible) on the computer.
  • Clear your flash use with the director before you start. Some directors or actors might find the flash distracting even during dress rehearsal.

Professional advice

Photographer Chris Oberholtz, who has worked for publications that include The Kansas City Star, gets occasional assignments to shoot plays or concerts. Some of his experiences shooting plays in high school were not that much different than professional assignments.

“I speak with the director or stage manager before the dress rehearsal to discuss the nature of the play,” Oberholtz said. “I am looking for one image that says what the play is all about.

“Often I will get there 45 minutes early and spend some time shooting behind the scenes. Sometimes you can get pretty nice moments,” he said.

Oberholtz likes to use the existing light of a production if possible. He will sometimes move behind the stage to get the dramatic lighting on his subjects from the spotlights.

His biggest difficulty is getting lighting that seems natural. Even if shooting a rehearsal where flash is allowed, he will make sure to put his strobe off camera, not direct.

From that point, it is a matter of composition and key moments. Sometimes it is characters dancing or laughing or arguing.

“I am always looking for a nice moment to make the image compelling,” Oberholtz said.

Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.