Spotlight on Stage Photography

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsworth

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsworth

LANCASHIRE BASED TOG, troubadour and coffee addict , Matthew Ainsworth, specialises in concert and stage photography. Matt very kindly took time out from his busy schedule to talk to that tog blog about his experiences; from the dizzying heights of stage rigs, to the murky depths of mosh pits. Take it away Matt…….

In the beginning….

MY INTEREST in Stage photography grew organically from involvement with the Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues club, just a couple of years ago. I’d won a photography competition at the jazz festival and things just went from there.  

Later, through a friend, I became involved in the Blackburn Drama Club, where I had an opportunity to photograph plays as they were rehearsed, meaning, of course, that I wouldn’t be getting in the way of an audience.

The ability to move around the stage with freedom, to shoot from all kinds of angles, meant I could think more about composition. It also meant less reliance on zoom lenses, leaving me more scope to shoot with primes at wider apertures for depth of field, faster shutter speeds, and lower ISO.

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsworth

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsworth

So long as my lens didn’t end up in anybody’s face, the cast tended not to mind. It’s not macro work after all. Shooting with primes also meant I could avoid using flash, which is good for the actors and good for me as I don’t have to worry about white-balance issues and tungsten stage lights.

Preparation

About a week before each production I visit an early rehearsal to take a sketch of the set. I make a timeline for any set changes, meet the cast and speak to the director – all invaluable stuff.

From the director I am able to get some idea of any constraints I will have to deal with on the night. This might be lighting-related, complicated stage settings or video and audio recordings which cannot be disturbed.

I consider it vital to get a copy of the script at least a few days before the night of the rehearsal, in order to create a cue-sheet for myself. That way I can be in position for the shot I want way ahead of time.

After all, I may have to dash up onto the balcony, climb ladders or even get up on stage depending on where the action is taking place. Being prepared in this manner is essential, especially where time is limited and it’s important to have as little impact on the rehearsal schedule as possible.

What I am looking for….

The shots I look for in general are moments where the cast are expressing some strong emotion, where they are connecting with each other or doing something which another character is reacting to.  I try to get shots which are immerse, so avoiding such things as set tops, edges and lighting rigs is important; being able to get up to the same level as the actors helps enormously in this.

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsoworth

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsoworth

Setting out to capture strong emotion can make for some disturbing images, but this is drama after all, and you can’t have comedy without tragedy! It’s not all doom and gloom though and comedy mileage does vary depending on the play’s content.

One thing to remember is that getting good exposure can be difficult; since the actors are generally lit from a single direction, with very little reflected light. It’s these challenges that go to helping me grow as a photographer though, hence it’s all part of an ongoing learning curve.

Concerts

Most of the music-related stage photography i’m involved with tends to be just me showing up to a gig or festival, camera in hand. Taking pictures at a gig is the flip side of the coin from shooting theatre.

You are very much constrained by the presence of an audience who have paid to enjoy the music and, unless you’re familiar with the venue, have little knowledge of lighting or stage arrangements. Zoom lenses allow greater flexibility in this, though the sharpness of a prime is preferable wherever possible.

Lighting can also be more of a challenge, since the light is there to add a visual element to the show, not just to illuminate the action on stage. So, expect high ISOs and long shutter speeds.

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsworth

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsworth

Lighting and colours

In the past I’ve had to shoot as slow as 1/30 or 1/40 of a second, making an image stabilised lens a very useful addition to your kit. Of course an IS lens won’t stop motion blur and may be out of the price range of many fledgling photographers, in which case a monopod may be a much cheaper alternative.

As challenging as stage lighting can be it does reward those patient enough through a gamut of colour. Colours at a gig tend to change very quickly however, meaning a shutter pressed a second earlier or later can result in a shot with an entirely different flavour. There is ample opportunity to use this creatively though. Other factors such as smoke generators are also useful, not only in obscuring cluttered stage backgrounds, (usually full of hanging wires and scaffolding) but also for picking out the colours created by the lighting set up.

Again the sort of thing I’m trying to capture is the emotion in the performance, only this time it’s the artist’s own expression, rather than the character they are playing. Jazz gigs are a good place for this. Due to the nature of the music, often involving a lot of improvisation, musicians have a lot more opportunity to express themselves physically, with facial expressions and motion. This can make for some great photos.

Key Changes, Crescendos and Chorus

When shooting gigs, be aware of key changes in the music, as well as the beginning and ends of chorus sections or solos.  It is at these times that musicians make eye contact with each other, all of which helps instill a sense of the band playing as a whole.

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsworth

Courtesy of Matthew Ainsworth

Don’t be afraid to include the audience either. Just as getting reaction shots – such as eye contact – on stage helps to highlight cohesion, showing audience reaction to the performance is a great way of engaging the viewer with the image. This can be tricky to capture but well worth the effort.

By

Matthew Ainsworth, 2013

First produced as a presentation for the Blackburn Camera Club.

To see more of Matthews work please feel free to visit his website at http://www.footlightphotography.co.uk/ 

All images contained in this article are the sole property of Matthew Ainsworth and should not be copied, distributed, or otherwise used in anyway without first obtaining full express permission.

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