Advice on New Camera for Theatre Photography


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Dec 22, 2007
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Hi - I'm researching digital cameras (either high end consumer or low-end professional) to use for theatre photography. I'm a newbie, but I'm hoping this will lead to career op's so I need something worthy of pro results.

I don't enough yet to know which direction to go though. In my short experience, it's become clear that I need to be able to get good exposure under tricky lighting situations, but with a fast enough shutter speed to catch the actors.

Any thoughts?
Any camera, with a fixed focal f/1.4 lens. You're right with the tricky lighting situations. The lens will be the most important item here, unless you have the excessive amounts of disposable income that will allow you to go for a Canon 5D, Nikon D300 or Nikon D3 as your first camera.
Garbz is correct. Live band and theater lighting have similar issues, like there is never enough of it. High ISO (with low noise) and large maximum aperture (2.8 or larger, the 1.4 really helps here) are a must for good results.
If you have the money, go for the D3. I don't know of any camera that performs better in low-light, couple that with a 200mm f/2 or something of that nature, and you have a killer low-light combination. The D300 is great in low light too. I'm not familiar with Canon's lineup, sorry.
Ah Ha! Thank you. Very very useful. Okay, so here's step number two for you to advise :)

After a bit of online research (soon to be followed by a trip to my Local Photo Shop around the corner) and my lack of, as you put it, disposable income, I'm opting towards a less expensive starter camera so that i can invest in a mega lens.

Either Canon Rebel XTi or (if I can find one on ebay for half price) 40d
Plus mega lense:
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM Image Stabilizer AutoFocus Telephoto Zoom Lens - USA

The lense seems to be what I need the most, and it has all the features. What I can't seem to find is if there is a similar lense but one step down. I checked out the Sigma version but it got poor reviews so I think I want to stick with the canon brand. I'm also not entirely sure of the 200mm zoom part. Can you fill me in on how much that will really zoom? Do I need that much power if I'm, say, standing in row 8 photographing a proscenium?

I am going to definitely go canon because I have a friend who already owns a couple canon lenses so we figure we can borrow from each other if needed.

What do you think?
Oh, one more question on this topic. I can't seem to find any lenses larger than 2. Should I really go for 1.4? I'd really prefer a zoom if I can get one since it will offer me more flexibility as I learn.

Thanks again. :)
I've done some work in similar conditions and I'd encourage you to try a Pentax k10 body and a Pentax SMC 1.2 or 1.4 50mm lens. The k10 is an amazing body for the price, the built in stabilisation is great in low light. The lenses I metioned are also quite affordable. The 1.2 lens doesn't have af, so it can be a bit tricky when used wide open, it's also got an old fashioned aperture ring, so I'd recommend studying the basics of exposure before getting it. Regardless of these quirks the 1.2 is y far my favourite glass.
The 1.4 has af, and works like any mdern lens.
This combination will certainly cost you less than the one you mentioned above.
As for the zoom, I'd recommend just cropping images (cutting out unnecessary parts, and thereby "zooming in" on the main subject).
I do quite a bit of theater shots and I shoot a 70-200 2.8 from a tripod from midway of the house main floor. I don't know what access you have to the theater during the productions, but I have been shooting these events at least 3 nights.

The first night (usually tech rehearsal) I shoot from the front apron of the stage and go for the overall scenes (the group shots of the action on stage) with a wide angle lens (now here's where I do things different; I use an 18-135 mm lens that has a smaller aperture 4.5-5.6, but I think the light on stage will usually accommodate me and make up for the lens), the second night (full dress rehearsal) I'm midway of the house getting close-ups and tight group shots with the 70-200. And last, Opening night usually, I take a variety of behind the scenes (taken from the wings and usually behind the downstage legs or close to the main rag) and I sneak up to the back of the balcony for full wide shots (during the big numbers to give a feel for the "grand-ness" of the production). These wide shots can be taken at the close of the first act or the finale.

Hope this helps
dpolston - thank you. that's reassuring that you can get good shots with a 2.8. You're very dedicated to go three nights running! Most theatres are lucky to get a two hour staged shoot! I'm hoping, like you, to convince them they need to take "action" and "behind-the-scene" shots too. We'll see...

am - I hadn't though about just cropping in order to get the zoom effect. Have you successfully cropped all the way down to close-ups? Do you have any images you can share?
am - I hadn't though about just cropping in order to get the zoom effect. Have you successfully cropped all the way down to close-ups?

Close-ups depend on how near the action you can get, but if you mean getting a good, big picture of a face on stage when shooting from an off stage location, then I would suggest a longer lens. The k10 has 10.2 megapixiels so you can crop away something like half of the image and still get ok quality as far as pixels go (unless you're gonna do big prints). If you're gonna crop alot then you also need a fast lens, 'cause it'll enable you to use lower ISO, thereby giving you less noise. Low noise is important when cropping, 'cause blowing up a picture also blows up the noise. However, lenses with a wide aperture tend to be a bit soft when used fully open, this will also affect the "crop-potential" of your images, since the softness really starts showing when you crop heavily.
All in all, there are lots of ups and downs to every sollution, and you need to work out excactly what kind of pictures you want, no single lens will be able to give you all the benefits. Personally, I'd probbably get a k10 + 50mm 1.4 or 1.2 + a long lens for close-ups. Spotlights usually light up the faces of actors, so you don't need a crazy fast lens when doing close-ups.

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