Shooting Star | Horizon Theatre | The Camera Coach

Last week I shot production photos for The Horizon Theater‘s play Shooting Star by Steven Dietz.  It was a really cool process.  Very fast paced and challenging.  Basically, the director ran the actors through bits of the entire play and we tried to get cool shots that captured the essence of what was going on.  I just ran around the theater and on stage or wherever I could while they were running scenes and tried to get interesting shots.  Actors Jim Hammond and Leigh Campbell-Taylor were really amazing, and very friendly  and  gracious considering they had to put on a real performance of the play like an hour after we finished shooting. Check out some of the shots after the nerdout.

(Skip down to the pictures if you don’t want to nerd out….)

PHOTOGRAPHER NERDOUT SECTION: Anyone who has tried to shoot in low light knows what a challenge it can be to minimize blurring from camera shake and to freeze movement from your subject.   What you need in order to do that is to use a faster shutter speed. On this shoot there was a ton of movement so I had to do a couple of things to make sure I could use a faster shutter speed.  Here are a couple of things you can do to get a faster shutter speed, but also to get away from using a flash, especially that disgusting on-camera flash, and to capture the light more like your eye sees it.

ISO: Don’t be afraid to jack up the ISO as high as you can stand it.  ISO is sort of like a representation of the light sensitivity of your camera.  Lower ISO numbers mean less sensitivity to light; higher ISO numbers mean more sensitivity to light.  For these shots I used ISO 800 which isn’t really all that high, and that along with the lens I used, that kept my shutter speed around 1/125-1/200th depending on how the stage lights fell on the subjects. That speed is usually plenty good enough to capture a lot of movement and keep everything looking crisp.

One note on using high ISO.  The higher ISO number, usually the more “noise” or graininess your pictures will have.  Photographers–definitely including me–are obsessive about minimizing the noise or graininess that high ISO can cause on almost all digital cameras that cost less that $2000. BUT image noise or grain is usually a whole lot prettier to look at than a blurry subject. And there are an abundance of post processing options out there for smoothing grain and reducing noise (I use Adobe Lightroom and like it a lot.).

FAST PRIMES: The best way to get more light in that there camera of yours is to open up your aperture as wide as you can get it. Most inexpensive “kit lenses” that come with cameras only open up to f/3.5 at the widest focal length, usually 18mm or so, and around f/5.6 at the narrowest focal length, usually around 50mm. For these shots I used a 50mm/f1.8 lens, which has a fixed focal length of 50mm. These kinds of lenses are called fixed focal length or “prime” lenses.  Because lenses like this can open up to really wide apertures like f/1.8 or 1.4 or even 1.2, they are very often called “fast primes” by the photography literati.

I shot at f/1.8 for all of these shots, and that’s pretty fast.  F/1.8 is much faster than f/3.5-5.6.  In the situation I was shooting in it’s the difference between shooting at around 1/200th of a second with my lens or  something around 1/30th-1/15th with one of those slow kit lenses.  That’s a huge deal when you’re shooting in low light and don’t want to use a tripod and want to freeze movement. You can buy the 50mm/1.8 for around $100, which is sort of unbelievable. So you should already have it is what I’m saying. 😉

So yeah, just a couple of ideas for getting faster shutter speeds without using flash.  Hope it helps you if you were having trouble.  Questions and comments are welcome below.

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Susan - March 11, 2010 - 1:59 pm

My camera only goes to f/3.5 but when I shoot in a fairly dark room(just a small window)at 1/200th my pictures are still fairly dark. They aren't blurred, they capture the motion well but its still dark even when I put it on ISO 1600. Were there any lights at all on the stage because those pictures look amazing?!

Josh Lamkin - March 11, 2010 - 2:07 pm

Susan, there were definitely stage lights shining on the subjects. 😉

Try using a slower shutter speed, like 1/80th and see what that looks like.

My guess is your background is dark (maybe your subject too) because when you shoot with a fast shutter speed like 1/200th, just the brightest light has time to get captured by your camera. So in order to get more of the ambient light in the room, you'll want to use a slower shutter speed.

You might even have to go down to like 1/30th for that. You might be able to hand hold at that speed. Test it out and let me know what you get.

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