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Play and performance photography (02/19/2006)
By Tom Hirsch
Do you know a budding Barrymore or Bernhardt? What with grade school skits, Sunday School programs and high school plays, young up-and-coming actors and actresses have lots of opportunities to show off their acting talents. Even many adults begin their amateur acting careers later in life through community theater productions. Photos of these events will give performers of any age memories they'll cherish for a lifetime.

For grade school or church events, you'll probably be permitted to use flash during a production, but if you're even allowed to take pictures at a high school play, community theater or professional performance, you'll probably be limited to available-light shooting. If you'll be using a film camera, you can prepare yourself by getting some good-quality fast film. One in the ISO 800 or 1000 speed range will probably be adequate, but if the stage lighting is subdued, you'll want something even faster. You might want a faster film anyway because actors seldom stand still on the stage, and you don't want the images to show too much subject movement.

For any camera, film or digital, if you're allowed to use flash, chances are good that you'll be some distance from the action on the stage. Keep in mind that for most compact cameras loaded with ISO 400 film or digitals set at ISO 400, the flash is limited to subjects within about twenty feet. In most cases, Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) users will have a somewhat greater distance range.

At most performances of any kind, people in the audience are expected to sit still and keep quiet. Even the noise of a film camera taking a picture and advancing the film can be loud enough to annoy people near the photographer, and even disrupt those on stage. Here, digital cameras have a distinct advantage. They are virtually noiseless because there is no film to be advanced.

Rather than trying to take pictures during the play, it would be much better if you could do your photo work at the time of dress rehearsal. Most of the above factors still apply because this is a time when everything on stage should run as smoothly as possible, but you'll have more flexibility. Make a point of asking the director if this would be permissible, and find out what limitations you would be under.

In all likelihood, you'll be allowed to use flash, and there'll be little restriction on your movement, but be respectful of other observers. If a parent is videotaping the performance, avoid standing or moving in front of the camera. To move from one side of the stage to the other, go between rows of seats behind the videographer, or wait for a break in the activity.

Rather than showing up for the first time at dress rehearsal, come to a few performances beforehand so you'll have a feel for the play. You'll be able to determine which side of the stage to be on when your little thespian is performing, and you can anticipate when to capture those unforgettable actions, expressions and exaggerated gestures.

Getting proper exposure can be a problem at performances. Usually, the camera will get its exposure reading from the background rather than from the performers. Brightly-lighted subjects against a relatively dark background is not much of a problem, unless the contrast is extreme. With performers against a very dark background, decrease exposure about one stop, or set the exposure-compensation dial at minus one. If your camera doesn't allow for exposure adjustment, and even if it does, the latitude of the film should provide enough leeway anyway.

This situation seldom occurs, but if dark subjects are standing in front of a very bright background, underexposure can occur. To compensate, use the backlight button on a compact camera. With an SLR or digital camera, increase exposure a stop or two, or set the exposure-compensation dial at plus one or two.

When you know how to take pictures of dramatic events, the experience is fun, and the results can be rewarding mementoes for you and the participants. 


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