Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Brother, Can You Spare a Light?
Shooting in low light situations has always frustrated me. I like to focus on capturing the moment, and not have to worry about the light. Ironic, since photography is all about capturing light. I recently read an excellent book on lighting ("Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting") and have started to get past my frustration.
For many years I have photographed theatrical performances at my kids' high school. I still do, although my kids are now in college. Well, to be clear, I also build a lot of the sets, help out with lighting and special effects, and maintain the stage workshop. This past week the school ran 5 performances of the musical "Into the Woods". I am part of a small crew that spent the last three months building sets for it, so it was a big weekend for us. I took photos at the dress rehearsal and all five performances. Despite all of the lighting equipment (including some wicked awesome wireless DMX dimmers) there is precious little light for photography in these shows. Using my new book learnin', I took a considered approach to photographing this production.
First, I stopped fooling myself into thinking I could get away from ISO 1600. I hate the noise that comes with it, but I hate blurry and underexposed photos even more. So I got myself a noise reducing filter for Photoshop and cranked up the ISO.
Then, I set my aperture as wide open as I could. For my 28-70mm lens, that's f2.8, while my 70-200mm lens is F4 (both are constant throughout the focal range). I like shooting that way anyway - I dig shallow depth of field.
For shutter speed, I respect the old school rule of setting your shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of the focal length. So at a focal length of 100mm, I had to have my shutter at least at 1/100th. But, not really. I have a pretty steady hand, and a monopod. So I cheated down a bit and shot most at 1/60th. That got me pretty close to proper exposure - at least close enough that a stop or so of adjustment in Photoshop got me right.
I was very careful to time my shots well. In photographing musicals, it's very easy to get people with their jaws gaping open, or with a funny fish face. Singing is not a photogenic activity. I also chose based on movement. Knowing that I was shooting at 1/60th, any movement on stage would blur. So I was patient, positioned myself well, and took well considered shots.
I shot everyting in RAW, as is my practice. That gives me the opportunity to corret exposure and white balance - both critical in photographing musicals. The trick is to adjust the color so it looks right, but doesn't undo all of the artistic work done by the lighting designer.
Afterwards, I went through my newly developed work flow to rate, process, and touch up the images. My noise filter worked its magic, and reduced noise to a level that I can deal with. The camera did a nice job with auto white balance, so a little work there along with cropping and I ended up with a nice set of photos.
The lesson learned (or maybe reinforced is better) is that you can't cheat the light. It is what it is, and you have to adjust your camera for it, or suffer from weak images. The images of Into the Woods are the best I have ever taken of a musical. So I'm going to stick with this approach in low light conditions.
A sampling of shots from the production are on my web site at http://www.briankdonnelly.com under the "Plays" link. You can also compare them to some shots I took of the school's production of Damn Yankees some time ago.