Photographing Live Theater

Photographing live theater is a challenge and also very rewarding.  The obvious first step is getting the permission to photograph the play (don’t pass this step up, you must have permission).  Once you have the permission to shoot the play you will need to know some vital basic information; where the play is being held, what time is the play starting, where you can do the photography from in the audience, a list of the cast, the name of the play, and if flash photography is permitted or not (most often it is not).  Armed with this information you will need to decide the best equipment to use when capturing the actors during the performance.  I used a Canon Rebel XS and a 70-200 mm F4 IS L lens for all of the photographs you see in this blog entry (the settings are under each photo).

The play I photographed was Macbeth, performed by Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (link to their page: They tour  each summer in 61 communities, putting on two different plays for many people who may not be able to afford to see a live theater performance in a large city. The actors are very well trained and skilled in many ways; putting up the set, working with a variety of props, and dealing with the often unpredictable, weather conditions. They create a performance that is extremely professional and unforgettable.

Macbeth has just come from murdering the king, and others. Their blood is still on his hands as he speaks to Lady Macbeth.  (Canon Rebel XS, Canon 700-200 mm F4 L IS : ISO 200, white balance was cloudy, no flash, 173 mm F8, 1/60 shutter). 

In the scene above I focused on the eyes of the actor who played Macbeth and waited until he was looking at the audience.  At this moment in the play Macbeth is speaking to Lady Macbeth about the murders he has just done and the blood on his hands. When photographing a play be certain you have the actors isolated and are choosing the best moment that is crucial to the play.  You will need to be very attentive to the play and have your camera ready at all times, as action can occur rapidly.

Macbeth’s men and women fight to keep Macbeth safe. (Canon Rebel XS, Canon 700-200 mm F4 L IS: ISO 2oo, white balance was cloudy, no flash,  114 mm,  F8, 1/45 shutter) 

For this scene I did a light pan of the action in order to not entirely freeze the battle scene and keep at least one actor’s face in focus.  The IS on the lens was activated during the entire time of the play.  Notice the shadows in the foreground background, since this play started just after 6 p.m. (Mountain Time) and did not finish until 8:15 p.m.  Late afternoon and early evening clouds and sun can be a blessing and a curse to live theater and photography.

If you can be sure to select the best location to photograph the play and take your best lens.  Make sure you are using IS or firmly handling your camera, as a tripod or monopod may not be allowed or wanted (it could be an issue for the actors or those in the audience). Once you are seated in the audience, do not move from your seat.Think about how to photograph the play that will not interfere with those on stage or around you.

The camera battery was fully charged and I used a large memory card  (16GB, as I shoot most often in RAW file format) that had been recently formatted and had very few images on it.  I ended up taking over 300 images of this play and ended up editing 260 of those, then choosing only 59 for a video (here is the link to the video I made from the still images I took of this play: )

Some key things to remember when photographing a play; permission must be given to you (some plays may have equity actors who are paid, or the performance may not be recorded by any means), know where and when the play is being done (indoors or outdoors), use the best lens and settings for any lighting situation, don’t use any flash photography (it can be a distraction for the actors and audience, rather set your ISO to 400 or higher), pay close attention to the play (know what is happening and get the big scenes), don’t interfere with the audience (I was seated three rows from the stage and did not leave my seat or stand to get a “better photo.”)  Finally, do enjoy the challenge of photographing live theater.

Questions:  Do you think live theater is more challenging than sports?  How is live theater like or not like portrait photography? Would you rather shoot a rehearsal or a performance with an audience? How would you. or could you use the images of the play? Do you think photographing live theater poses different challenges than other events?



About Douglas Wilks Photography

I am an advanced photographer who lives in western Montana. I create a variety of strong images using a DSLR, computer, and digital software. I am available for hire for full time, part time, or projects. Most of my images are of landscapes, still life, and events. I am always looking to improve my skills, network of friends and professionals, and portfolio. I look forward to creating new friends, contacts, and others who are interested in photography.
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