Tim Cross was responsible for most of the commissioned photography during IDFB 2012. In the second of two posts, Tim explains how he approached photographing the rehearsals for The Impending Storm, and the different techniques he used to tackle two very different scenarios.
The Dress Rehearsal
The dress rehearsal (or final technical rehearsal on stage) was an evening call two weeks after the last studio shoot. Having had the chance to see the piece, I now had the advantage of knowing the order, style and flow of the work. But live theatre is just that – live – so I would still need to be ready for anything.
It took place in The Patrick Centre, DanceXchange’s 200-seat studio theatre in the Birmingham Hippodrome complex. As standard for dress rehearsals I would be shooting from the stalls (or seating area) and as such this would give the images an audience’s perspective.
I arrived at the theatre with time to set up and prepare my kit. I decided to shoot from a central static position and used a tripod to support two cameras side by side at eye level. A third camera would be besides me on the floor, along with some other lens options to hand.
The rehearsal would run as if it were a performance, complete with costumes, set and lighting, therefore the stage would be lit by the stage lighting alone – no natural, ambient light here. Dress rehearsals tend not to be stop/start affairs, so again there would be no stopping unless technical or others issues surfaced.
Although I had the option to move about the stalls to get alternate viewpoints, it would be a risky one due to the lack of lighting in the seating area. With trip hazards and the obvious noise and disturbance issues, I decided against it. So although the dress rehearsal would be less physically demanding for me than the studio rehearsal, the conditions I was working in would make it a far more technically challenging exercise.
The only ‘audience’ present at the rehearsal would be the artistic staff, the theatre tech staff and myself, so I positioned the tripod centrally in the middle of the stalls, trying not to obstruct anyone’s view of the stage.
Mark Storor was finalising details with his performers, but came over to say hello as I was setting up. In passing he mentioned that there was a surprise at the end of the piece, but wouldn’t divulge any further information.
The rehearsal started and as I had guessed, the light levels were at times extremely low. The black walls and floor reflected little of the light that there was. For a member of the audience this is not a problem, as the human eye can see remarkably well in a darkened theatre. But photographing in low light is always tricky.
At times I was reducing the shutter speed to 1/8 sec with the ISO (or ASA/film-speed) wound up to about 4000. The tripod helped to reduce the movement/blur from my end, but any sudden movements from the dancers would obviously induce subject blur, so I needed to use the slow shutter speeds with care.
Although the Nikons’ ISO (or ASA/film speed) can be pushed remarkably high, the trade off for this apparent ‘night-vision’ ability is image quality, as noise and other artifacts are amplified and introduced into the image. I therefore usually try to restrict ISO to about 4000 for stage work, unless I am all out of options.
I had also brought along some fast prime lenses in case I needed the extra speed that the expensive glass offered. But these primes (or fixed focal length lenses) have very shallow depths of focus when wide open at f/1.4, so are not ideal for fixing a focus on fast moving dancers. And besides, my trusty f/2.8 zooms proved ultimately more versatile.
Getting accurate exposures would be more critical than two weeks ago in the studio, as mistakes made in the theatre would prove difficult to recover from and ‘save’ with software. Nailing the exposure is probably the single most important part in producing high quality images of work on stage.
I keep a close eye on the histograms (graphs that show the range of brightness in an image) and the highlight-clipping indicators to ensure that I am not over-exposing any highlights, which on stage are usually faces and bodies. Once blown out, this detail is lost forever and no amount of clever software can recover what ultimately is no longer there. Judging exposure solely from the jpg image displayed on the back of a camera, when eyes are accustomed to the dark, in a darkened room is not best practice and should be avoided.
The lighting for work on stage is designed by the lighting designer, who is employed to create mood and atmosphere by shaping and controlling how the stage is lit. And it is these choices of brightness, colour, contrast etc that the photographer has to follow closely and adjust for accordingly.
Operating cameras in the dark does take some practice, and with their numerous buttons and wheels (not forgetting button/wheel combinations) it is all too easy to alter settings that confuse and perplex when not expecting them.
Shooting from the front of the theatre felt entirely different to the personal and intimate shoot a few weeks previous. Safe in the knowledge that I was now not encroaching on the performers’ personal space (less likely to put them off or be mown down!) the only clue that I was there was the clatter of my camera’s shutter.
Now that I was shooting from the intended direction of view, I was able to follow the progression and subtleties of the work far easier than before. This new viewpoint enabled me to link up the passages and spot connections between the dancers and their sequences.
The dancers and musicians were just as impressive as when I had last saw them, and moved through the piece effortlessly. There was no indication of them holding back or struggling to adapt to the new space, and although the distance between myself and the dancers had increased considerably, none of the energy and power of the piece had been lost.
At the end of the last rehearsal in the studio, the dancers and musicians had all ended up piling onto the bed, but instead of finishing on the bed and singing as they had done previously, an almighty pillow-fight broke out with pillows bursting open and white feathers flying everywhere. I scrambled to adjust my exposure knowing that I was wildly over-exposed for this sudden explosion of white covering everyone and everything. I now understood what Mark had meant by the ‘surprise’.
I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project, and was blown away by the dancers and the musicians. My only regret was not being able to sit back and enjoy the performance without a camera stuck to my face!