Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Photographing Onstage Event Action

I'm relatively new to photographing live action at special events, although I have actually been a photographer all my life. I am rapidly learning how difficult it is to get really good images of onstage action at events. I'll share a few ideas from my experience.

First, if you want to catch stage performances up close and personal, you are going to have to put yourself right at the stage itself, preferably directly in front. Depending on the event and your part in it, you may need to get special permission from the organizers to allow you to place yourself there. This often involves getting an "All-Access Pass," which allows you to wander most anywhere with the typical exception of right ON the actual stage.

Second, you are not going to be able - or allowed - to use flash, mainly for two reasons: one, it is distracting to performers; two, because of the way cameras read light, you will inevitably have a very dark background and too much light on the performers closest to you. If you are further back from the stage than "the pit" directly in front, you will likely get only a shot of the first few rows of peoples' heads in front of you with a dark stage. People who try to take shots of concerts from up in the stands will usually end up with just this - well-lit heads and no stage action.

As for equipment, there is lots of information available on the web for shooting concert action. Let me briefly summarize:

  • Use a camera that can shoot at high ISO (i.e. up to at least 3200 or 6400) and crank the ISO up to around there, usually at least above 2000. Oh, yes, and put your camera in Manual mode.
  • Use a "fast" lens with as large an aperture as your budget will allow. 1.7 is great if you can get one. Whatever lens you use, you will need to open it to its widest aperture to let in as much light as possible. 
  • With a wide open lens and high ISO, you can play with shutter speed to do several things. The first is stop the action, so if you have dancers, for example, you will need a shutter speed of at least 1/100 sec, preferably faster. However, if you want to catch more of the exciting lighting shooting beams through haze, you will need a slower speed, probably under 1/100 sec. As you might guess, each of these presents a dilemma - either you get clear, in-focus performers with little fancy lighting effects, or you get nice lighting effects with possibly out-of-focus performers. You need to play around with speeds and ISO to hit it just right.
  • I prefer to use a super wide angle lens to capture the whole essence of the performance. My favourite is a 10-24mm Nikkor lens with which I can pretty well capture the entire stage, including lighting, from right at the downstage edge.
After you finish, you will undoubtedly need to do a fair bit of post-processing (i.e. work in either Lightroom or Photoshop). Why? Because most of the shots will no doubt have either a little bit or a lot of graininess due to the high ISO setting. Much of this can be taken out with software, Nik Define 2 being my personal favourite. You also may also have to play with colour temperature, exposure in some areas of the image, cropping, brightness, contrast and a few others. 

If you follow these general guidelines, you will likely get some good  - or even great - shots, but it does take work and practice. 

Below are a couple of my most recent attempts.

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