I got my start as a professional photographer shooting comedy shows in Boston, and to this day I still photograph shows for my comedian friends about once a week. After spending years shooting hundreds of shows with moving subjects in low light, I’ve learned a few tricks for shooting in these kinds of conditions. The tips below share some of these, and would apply to live performances and any other photography which takes place indoors, at night, and/or with moving subjects.
Shutter Speed 1/60-1/100
Through years of trial and error, I’ve found that 1/60th of a second is the absolute slowest shutter speed you can get away with when shooting a moving subject and still get an in-focus image, especially if you’re shooting handheld. Of course, if your subject is stationary and you can use a tripod or other steadying device, go as slow as you want! But when you’re capturing a moving subject, 1/60th is as low as you can go without sacrificing focus and dealing with a significant amount of motion blur. Personally I tend to go with 1/100th to be a little on the safer side. You might be ok with motion blur if you’re going for some creative effects like tracking shots or pop flash, but if you’re going for a crisp, well-lit shot, this is going to be your sweet spot.
Unlike shutter speed, I don’t have a hard and fast rule on this. I mention these two settings together because since your shutter speed is basically locked, these two settings in tandem will be what you rely on to get your exposure. A higher ISO means a brighter picture, but the higher you go the more noise you get. If you use Photoshop, there are some excellent options for noise reduction, but these can only do so much and there is often some quality degradation. Some cameras (like the Sony A7s ii I use) are known for being able to handle very high ISOs, whereas others might struggle with anything above 1600 (like the Canon T2i that I used up until last year). For me, I generally shoot around ISO 3200-6400, and try to avoid going higher if I can.
When it comes to aperture, the biggest consideration is: the wider the aperture, the harder it is to focus. This is because your depth of field gets shallower as the aperture gets wider. So when you have a moving subject, them shifting even slightly forward or back can mean a loss of focus. I almost always use manual focus as I find auto-focus super unreliable, at least with the lenses in my price range. Even with a camera body that’s famous for its auto-focus chops, I still manually focus through the viewfinder (which I find yields better results than relying on the LCD screen). My preference is to shoot no lower than f/5.6, and ideally at f/8 or f/11, but I’ve shot as wide as f/1.8 when I want to ease off of a higher ISO. This takes a lot of practice and trial and error, and you’ll eventually find the balance of settings that works for you.
All-in-all, I’d say 90% of the time when I’m shooting a show in low light I’m at: 1/100, f/5.6, ISO 3200
Notes on Lighting
Flash an option for supplementing low light conditions but be careful with this. A burst of light going off during an event or performance can be distracting, so talk to the people in charge beforehand and make sure they’re okay with it. Maybe fire a few off before the event gets started so they can get a sense of what the flash is going to look like, and then they can make the call on whether the disruption is worth the improved picture quality. Letting your client “behind the curtain” can be intimidating, but I find that people appreciate knowing where your head’s at and being brought into the decision-making process. Also note: one way to minimize the disruption is to use the flash on its lowest setting (if you have a flash with adjustable brightness like the one I use) to minimize the disruption.
Some venues have really fabulous lighting, especially those that are primarily used as performance spaces. However live performances can take place in all sorts of venues including bars, coffee shops, comic book stores, and beyond! If you have a relationship with the producers of the show, it can be a good idea to brainstorm with them on how to improve the lighting conditions in the space. Let them know it will make your job easier and make their photos come out better. Some products I’ve used and recommended are a constant light LED wand, a small spotlight (like this one), and some simple shop lamps (like these) that you can get at home depot. Each of these has its own set of considerations: What’s the battery life? Does it need to be plugged in and where are the outlets? Can it stand on its own or does it need a mount? To what extent is the light focused on the stage and how much “spray” will spill into the room? Will this lighting detract from the live experience? These are the questions you and the show producers should ask yourselves as you look for solutions to the low lighting.
On Getting *the Shot*
Shooting events like these is some of the most exhausting photography work you can do. You'll be constantly tweaking your exposure settings, trying to find a framing that works in terms of both making the subject looks good and positioning yourself in a spot where you won't distract from the show or get in anyone's way. And on top of all this, you still need to get *the shot*. What I mean by that is a photo that is perfectly exposed, perfectly in focus AND features your subject looking good–usually smiling, laughing, or looking charismatic or funny in some way. This means you will take hundreds if not thousands of photos during the course of an event. You might be surprised how often performers look at the floor, avoid the light, or just generally put themselves in not so flattering positions. What this means is you have to be vigilant and always on. Suffice to say, your arms will be very tired. But once you've got this shot, you'll likely know it, and can give a sigh of relief and catch your breath, but only until the next performer takes the stage!
Another thing most comedy show producers (and event producers in general) might ask for are shots of the audience enjoying the show. This is a great resource because it demonstrates that not only did the show happen, but a lot of people came out for it, and enjoyed it! For this, you need to have a sense of which of the performers is most likely to get a big reaction from the crowd. If you're unfamiliar with the people on the lineup, ask the hosts who they'd recommend. When that person is on stage, train your camera on the audience during their build-up (you'll start to learn how to recognize when a punch line is on its way). That way, you'll be ready to capture them when they're laughing (or cheering or clapping for other types of performance). You need a near-universal reaction, two or three laughing people in a sea of folks looking bored will not do! Once you have a few audience shots you think you can use, turn your camera back to the performer, you don't want to miss out on shots of the heavy-hitter either! Also bear in mind that the audience will be kept very dark in comparison to the stage, this is where you'll be opening up your aperture to it's widest setting and kicking that ISO up a few notches. For audience shots I'm usually at 1/60, f/1.8 ISO 12800. Be prepared to switch back and forth between these and your stage shot settings quickly since the perfect moments come and go in an instant!
All photos included in this article were taken at Boyz in the Woods Comedy which takes place every 3rd Thursday at Friends & Lovers
Thank you to the comedians pictured in this article!
Photo 1 (from left)
Gabe Pereira, Twitter @gabe_pereiras IG @gabepereiras
Nick Chambers, IG @chamberscomedy
Tawanda Gona, Twitter & IG @tawandus
Photo 2 Brendan Gay, IG @BrendanGay
Photo 3 Calise Hawkins, IG @calisehawkins
Photo 4 Adam Mamawala, Twitter & IG @adammamawala
Photo 5 Courtney Reynolds, Twitter & IG @fullcourtcomedy