Shooting a Performance
Photos of Play on Words
I was asked recently to photograph Play on Words, an event where performers do dramatic readings of short stories. Falling somewhere between slam poetry and stage acting, this event took place a local jazz club one recent evening.
Photographically, there were some challenges, but challenges are fun!
First, it was going to be dark. The performers would be under stage lighting, at least, but stage lighting colors can be wild and wacky.
Second, the venue is a jazz club. People are going to be there for all manner of reasons, and aren't expecting to have a photographer climbing all over them.The camera setup
Taking these things in mind, I brought my Fujifilm X-Pro2, set to ISO 3200, and the 16mm, 35mm, and 50mm lenses, all being shot wide open (as the camera gods intended). Because of the dark club lighting, I opted against the 55-200mm zoom and relied heavily on the much faster 50mm prime. I also brought my flash and some gels, which I didn't end up using – my meager flash kit wasn't going to improve on the stage lighting. To get the exposure correct, I was using center-weighted metering and constantly adjusting the exposure compensation, usually around -1. For color settings on the camera, when I saw how red all the stage lighting was, I set a custom white balance to even it out, but only ended up using it for a few photos, because it otherwise made the background behind the performers a very unpleasant blue. The film rendition I set to Classic Chrome (like almost always) and the Saturation at -2.
Let's Take Photos
The club had a balcony towards the rear, so I took advantage of it early on to both grab this panorama of the event, and get a feel for how useful the balcony would be later on. Here, you can see the lay of the land: stage brightly lit with red light, a dimly lit bar area and lounge, and an overcast evening sky coming in from outside.
I worked at getting a few photos of the performers with the backs of audience heads in the foreground, to give the photo an "in the audience" feel, seeing and being a part of the crowd. Most audience heads are turned towards the performer, too, which is key. Shooting at 50mm f/2, I kept only the performer in sharp focus. The background is brighter than I'd like, but at least it's a contrasting color to the performer, and the rest of the club is darker than the stage.
In addition to what was going on on stage, Play on Words had two featured artists sketching the night's show. I got their permission in advance to photograph them, and tried to work them into my photo set through images like this. While you can't see the artist's face, you can see her canvas and subject, and her pose while she works. Luckily, this artist was working underneath a spot light, so the lighting between the canvas and the stage could remain somewhat balanced.
The only must-get shots on the list were at least one image of each different performer, so I worked at getting medium close-ups like this in for each actor. Since much of the performance is a reading, the actor only rarely looked up, and their faces were contorted by speech. It took a good number of shots and patience to get a photo like this, where their eyes are clearly visible and their expression emotive instead of goofy. The red stage lighting is bright, but not so bright that it ruins the shot.
I played with angles as best I could without being a distraction in the room, and found this direction to be pretty awesome. Although I lose some background to darkness, I gain by the red light becoming a rim light, which is just plain awesome.
The second artist, Clif Gold, was plying his craft in front of the big front windows, so here I pulled out the wide angel lens and relied on a shallow focus and contrasting lighting to make the photo work. And similar to the performers, I also waited until he looked up from his canvas, so we can see his eyes clearly.
As the crowd moved about through the evening, I was sometimes able to worm my way in close to the stage, and get a tighter composition with the 50mm lens. Because so much of the view here was dominated by the red light, I recalled the custom white balance from earlier for this shot, which helped mitigate the strongest parts of the red light, with the bluish background not mattering much here. While the performer is looking down at the paper here, I'm close enough that we can still see his eyes in the photo, so I'm happy with this shot.
Each performer of course had their own style, and I did my best to reflect that in the photos. Here, I believe I captured his mannerisms well, and was able to include blurred out audience faces in the background of people who were paying rapt attention.
As the day grew darker, and actors returned to the stage for a second reading, I went back up to the balcony for alternate angles of the event. The stage being well lit, while the audience is lit only dimly, pulls this photo together. There's still enough detail in the audience to see that everyone is watching the performer, but not so much that we get lost in the details.
Mid-way in the event, I pulled out the 35mm lens to start working on getting shots like this that show a wider view of the show, but still keep clear focus on the performer.
I'm tall. So one thing I have to keep in mind while shooting people is that naturally, I look down on people. For a shorter actor, like this one pictured above, who is short, I knelt down to make sure that the camera is still pointed slightly upwards at her, which makes her seem more important. I also experimented here with putting some of the DJ equipment in the foreground, which didn't work. But I liked her expression enough to keep this shot in the delivery.
Too much of an upward angle can start including the ceiling in the photo, though, which can lead to other problems. Here, I had to use Lightroom to remove distracting, bright green exit signs from the photo.
Here's there's just enough background information in the photo to make this work, but the lighting on the performer was too great to skip this angle.
This particular performer had such a distinctive bearing that I felt he deserved a shot like this. I pulled out the wide angle lens, put the focus and exposure on the actor, and was able to show how his performance worked within the room.
After the event wrapped, people of course stayed to mingle, so I worked at getting a few photos of that in the set before putting the camera away.
Hopefully this was helpful to you. I had fun making these photos, and am proud of them. Explaining my process like this helps me remind myself what I did well, and what I could improve on. And maybe you will see some of these photos in the Play on Words publications.