When I was given the task of documenting for the Virgin Lab Fest, I thought it was a good idea to read about theater photography. I have admitted some time ago that I was such a poor student of photography. I’ve never been into reading anything but I have changed my ways.

The following tips were taken from a Theater Photography blog:

“The first step is to try to view the entire performance prior to shooting it.  Of course this is not always possible, but if there are multiple rehearsals, try to sit through at least one before shooting the final dress rehearsal. If it is a sporting event, try to catch a game the day or week before the one you wish to shoot.”

This is the primary reason why I had to watch each set twice. Once to just view the performance and determine the moments that were worth capturing.

Unless you have viewed the action, you will find yourself taking pictures at the wrong time, missing the best shots.

You need to determine where to position yourself & the camera for each picture you plan to take.  It is rare that sitting in one place presents the perfect position for every photograph.  This is also why it is best to take the photographs at the last dress rehearsal.  It is difficult & rude to move around during a performance with an audience, and the final dress rehearsal will have the most complete costumes, scenery & lighting. Again, in the case of sporting events, watching a previous game will help you choose camera locations for the best shots.

This is also the reason why I had to watch each set twice. I needed to know which side of the audience to sit in so as to be able to take the best shots. I couldn’t move around the audience during the performance so I had to make do with whatever side I have happened to choose for that performance. The advantage of watching twice is that I had the chance to have two angles, one from the front audience and another from either side, depends on which side had better blocking.

You need to check the lighting levels to determine if it is possible to take the photographs without flash.

Taking photos with flash is an absolute no-no on a theater performance. I had to adjust ISO, shutter speed, metering and aperture.

Even with bright lighting, one of the difficult parts of shooting performances is avoiding blurred images due to movement. A tripod might help, but they are difficult to position in theatre seating, and even with a good ball head, difficult to follow moving performers. It is difficult to hold a camera steady during long exposures, but with practice, most photographers can do better than the basic rule for hand holding cameras – “your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of the lens focal length”. For a 100mm focal length lens, that would mean shooting at a minimum shutter speed of 1/100th of a second.  With practice most photographers can get that down to a 30th or even a 15th of a second.

This would have been easy if I was using a prime lens, like my 50mm, but I thought using the 50mm for capturing performances was a risk that I did not want to take so I used my 18-135mm. That meant I had to make sure that the minimum shutter speed would have to be 1/125 or 1/160 – but that would have required a higher ISO.

So I played around with my settings and I realized that my camera worked best at ISO 800, with a shutter speed of 1/80 no matter what focal length I used. My Nikon D90 had ISO settings of 1600 and 3200 but I found that that produced a lot of noise so I set my limit to 800. I tried my Auto-ISO feature but that didn’t seem to work significantly better than just having my ISO set to only 800 so I turned it off.

These are the other tips I encountered (from the same photography blog):

1. For theatre, dance, and other indoor performances under stage lighting you will end up with the best color renditions if you set your camera for incandescent white balance.  If you are shooting in a gym or other venue that uses mercury lighting, try the fluorescent lighting white balance.  Although auto white balance may work, it will be fooled by colored lighting, and often erase or dull the lighting effects.

2. If your camera gives you a choice of ISOs, choose the highest that still provides good images.  If you set an ISO too high, the images will be grainy or noisy. Some cameras have “Auto ISO“.  When set, the camera will increase ISO as needed, lowering it when there is more light.

3. Many cameras have lots of settings that can be used to improve your images. Be sure you understand them & set them on your camera prior to the show. If you expect to shoot more than one show, write down the settings you used so that you can reuse or change them for the next show, depending on how they worked.

4. Make sure you have spare and fully charged batteries, extra storage cards, etc. and have practiced changing them blindfolded. If you plan to change lenses on a DSLR, be able to do it in the dark. The audience area is often completely dark during scene changes, the time you will likely use to make changes.

5. Check to find out the “rules” for photographers prior to the event.  There are venues or authorities that do not allow any photography, some that only allow point & shoot cameras, some that don’t allow flash, and some that set aside specific areas for photographers.

6. If possible, shoot RAW. Although not all cameras save RAW files, they contain more data than JPGs or TIFs – Fixing exposure, white balance, etc in an editor is much easier when working with RAW files. Since they are larger than other file types, make sure you have enough storage to make it through the show.

7. When shooting action sports, auto racing, and other fast moving sports, always pre-plan an excape route for yourself when you are about to become “part of the action.” We all have seen a photographer taking a hit at a football game on TV – I garentee the player made out far better than the photographer!

8. Lastly, it you are going to share your images with the performers, other parents, etc. plan ahead as to how you are going to do it.  Many photo web sites such as Flickr, Fotki, Shutterfly, provide methods of sharing image files and prints.

I set the white balance to Auto because when I tried incandescent white balance, the photos came out all wrong. I had an 8GB SD card so I was able to shoot in RAW fine + Basic without having to change cards during the run of the show.

Theater lighting is often multi-colored; there may be no way to get proper color balance, but it won’t matter. When people see the photos they already know that theater lights can be many different colors and intensities.

Sometimes the Auto WB worked, sometimes it did not. Like at Raffy Tejada’s 3some where the lights were predominantly red, the photos were terrible.


Nikon D90 Aperture Priority. Aperture f/5.6 Shutter Speed 1/50. Focal length 52mm. ISO speed 1400. Spot Metering.

I had to set the Picture Control to Neutral instead of Standard (and certainly not Vivid!) to tone down the actors’ skin. It was good that I shot in RAW because then, the WB that I set actually did not really matter.


Nikon D90 Shutter speed Priority. Shutter speed 1/80. Aperture f/4.8. Focal length 48mm. ISO Speed 800. Center-weighted metering.

Try to take the pictures when the actors or musicians are loud. This will mask the sound of your shutter. Photograph in places that are a fair distance away from the audience. They will be able to hear your camera and it may be distracting.

The first time I shot photos for Set C, I was sitting at the farthest back row of the bleachers right beside the videographer and I knew the shutter clicks could be heard too. I had to move to another part of the audience so as not to be in his way. The next sets, I tried sitting as close as possible to the stage in the front rows and I had to choose the times I clicked or wait for until there was some other sound before I pressed the shutter. I knew the sound of the shutter could be distracting to the actors, as well as audience, if I pressed it during significant pauses.

I have an account on Flickr so the photos taken during the Lab Fest can be viewed by clicking here. The photos uploaded on my Flickr account bears my watermark but copies provided to the Tanghalang Pilipino as well as Teatro Pilipinas do not. I own the copyright to all these photos and the files bear my name. So when using the photos for any purpose, please do not forget to link back or cite.

Finally, if you have suggestions or corrections or other insights that may be of help to this blog entry or to me and other people who are into theater photography or who will need to take photos for their loved ones and need info, please don’t hesitate to contribute by leaving comments. If you have other sources too that you think may help, we will appreciate links. Everyone needs all the help he/she can get. Many thanks!

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