Summer = Musicals! / by Jeremy Mudd

Summer is also the time of year for Musicals!

Well, at least for me it is. In the last 4 weeks I’ve shot 3 musicals: The Music Man Jr, Legally Blonde, and The Wedding Singer.

Shooting musicals and theatre has become a niche for me in the last few years, and I really enjoy it. Not only is it a lot of fun, the energy is infective. Often my creativity is sparked for weeks afterwards. They say if you surround yourself with creative people it rubs off on you – I think this is completely true.

Over the last few years I’ve shot many musicals, and I’ve learned a lot. I’m still learning something at every one that I shoot.  Things that work, things that don’t, things that I’d do differently.

Last year I wrote a blog entry with a few tips and learnings here:

Here’s a few more tips/tricks I’ve learned since then.

1.       Turn off the “image review” on your cameras when you are shooting during the performance. Not only does this save battery life, it helps keep you from being that annoying photographer that constantly has the screen on the back of the camera flashing while you are shooting. I learned this when there was another person shooting at a performance where I was an audience member, and thought how annoying it was. I never thought about it until I looked at the event photographer through someone else’s eyes. If you really need to see the shot, pause and play it back with the playback button. Hopefully you’ve got things dialed in already while you are shooting and you don’t need to waste time doing this – if not you’re missing the action on stage.

2.       Beware of harsh, bright stage lighting. If the main actor you are shooting is wearing a white or light colored costume and/or has light skin, no amount of Aperture Priority mode or Auto ISO is going to save you – there will more-than-likely be blown-out highlights. How do I deal with this? I’ve taken to dialing back the exposure a bit – either manually or by dialing in a little negative exposure compensation. Remember that digital sensors will lose the data if something is blown out, or beyond 255 on the histogram (light is measured from 0 for pure black to 255 for pure white).

3.       And speaking of lighting – colored lights are sometimes not your friend.  This one gets interesting and is really something to consider when you are editing, even if you set your white balance to what you think is correct at the beginning of the show and set all of your cameras the same. When editing images for musicals where there are a lot of colored spot-lights, you are working with three different ideas. The first is what you saw when there. The second is what was intended from a mood or drama standpoint. And the third is what actually looks good in your final image.  A good example of this is when you have a light-skinned actor in some cool lighting like green or blue. When shooting the event, thru the viewfinder they looked normal to your eye and you understood the lighting was part of the scene, but then when you get home and begin to edit the images from the scene, you realize the actor looks like some sort of alien creature or, at the very least, un-natural. This is where you have to make some decisions about processing and go with what looks “right”. Most of the time I error on the side of making the person look more realistic while trying to be true to what the mood was. It sometimes is difficult. I usually work with some combination of what the true white balance should be and what was intended. In the end of they are happy with the images you’ve done a good job.

4.       Shooting from directly in front of the stage isn’t what you thought it would be. Most of the time I am shooting with a second shooter, and due to stage layout and orchestra, one of us is stage left and the other is stage right. Sometimes I will move to the center to get some critical scenes from dead on out in front of the orchestra, but often members of the orchestra are in the way, or their instruments are. Disregard what I just said if you are lucky enough to have a venue with a true orchestra pit. Anyway, when we showed up recently to shoot Music Man Jr in Springfield’s Veteran’s Park, I was excited to learn that there was no orchestra for this performance and that we could shoot from anywhere in front of the stage, in the orchestra area. Here was my big chance to get some sweeping shots of what was going on center stage. Wrong. While in theory this sounds good, you end up with wide images that aren’t as “personal” and have too much going on. What about shooting in tight from the middle? Often this means you are looking up at the actors, and that’s not great either. Slightly off to the side almost works better, and also allows you to play around with depth of field to highlight the main actor in the scene while others fall away into non-focus. Plus sometimes it gives you an interesting, different view of an intimate scene if it is stage right or stage left.

5.       Tape on the floor – to leave, or not to leave? There are always tape marks on the floor for actors to hit their mark or for positioning props/set pieces. Do you leave them in or take them out while editing? For me it depends. If someone is in a dramatic moment in a spotlight and the light is highlighting them and the 3-inch blue “X” on the floor next to them – its outta here! If it’s a darker scene and I barely notice – they probably stay. I will also sometimes edit dirt or dust from someone’s costume if I think it distracts as well.

6.       Try to get everyone’s image. Over the past year I’ve been trying to make an effort to get at least a few shots of everyone in the cast. Even if they aren’t a main character I still want to include everyone. This is hard because everything is moving so fast and you don’t want to miss anything. A lot of times when one of the main characters is giving some long monologue and I’ve already taken ten shots of them during said monologue, I will pan around the rest of the actors on stage and get some candid shots. This is where the 70-200mm lens really shines. Sometimes there are some great gems that come out of this. I also try to get one shot of the entire cast either before or after the show, but that depends greatly on timing. Every actor works hard, whether they are in the starring role or not, and its rewarding to give them a great memory of the performance.

7.       “Continuous High” setting = bad! I’ve learned the hard way that setting the camera to shoot on Continuous High when you hold the button down produces a LOT of images that you have to go thru later when editing. While the actors are moving around the stage, its not like when I’m shooting wildlife and want to get the birds wings in just the perfect spot and NEED those 10 frames per second. Continuous Low is plenty fast enough to get the expressions and position you are needing in a scene, and cuts your images down that you have to go through.

That’s it! As you can see it’s a learning process that never ends. I’ve developed my own distinct editing style for this genre and am always fine-tuning my technique.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading this and learned something helpful along the way. If you have any questions feel free to reach out, thanks!