Plays are by nature ephemeral, and so it's natural to want to be able to preserve them, whether by taking photographs, videotaping or, in the case of a musical, recording a cast album. This area will discuss both what is permissible, as well as provide tips for being more effective in your efforts.
Production photos benefit everyone. For a playwright, not only do the photos serve as a valuable record of a production, but quality photos can also act as an advertisement for future productions. For designers, they may become part of a portfolio that showcases their past work. Like the playwright and designers, production photos can show off a director's ingenuity and promote her skills to future employers. For actors as well, they're an opportunity to show themselves working in a variety of roles and (hopefully) being expressive. For your school theatre program or theatre company, production photos make your website much more compelling, and they make great displays in your building (if you have one), showing off your tradition and the quality of your work.
It would be foolish not to take photos, but having said that, there are a few legalities to take care of first. Typically, this will mean getting each performer to sign a consent form, giving you permission to use the pictures. In the case of Equity actors, one may also need to get permission from Equity (check your specific contract). Click here for a link to a sample photographic waiver. Feel free to modify it as necessary to suit your purposes.
Acclaimed Los Angeles and New York production photographer Michael Lamont shares his three decades of experience...
The production photographer is responsible for documenting the production for marketing, publicity, press kits, flyers, ads, and posters. Far beyond documentation, it is about capturing the moments that make up the dynamics and arc of the production. What separates a snapshot from a production still? The most important element for me is that the emotional life in the photo touches the viewer. The old adage of every picture tells a story could not be more true.
I have been shooting stills for almost 30 years, and shooting production is still as exciting and challenging as it was on my first shoot. It is a dance between the actors and the photographer, and you all have to be in sync with the rhythm of the piece. It is like doing an improvisation with a constantly changing energy from shoot to shoot. Every production is a different entity with very different dynamics and challenges. It is always a first-time experience.
COMPELLING PRODUCTION STILLS
…are shots that tell a story, that have a fully realized emotional life and/or interaction.
1. Would the shots make you want to see the production?
2. Is the moment captured, powerful, thought provoking, funny, intriguing?
3. Do you have a visceral reaction to the image?
4. Does it make your heart beat faster?
5. In the end, does it capture the essence of the production?
Familiarize yourself with the material if you do not know it. Ask questions. What is the storyline? Who are the central characters? What are the relationships? This will give you a more specific focus on what to go for in the context of the shoot.
THE NOVICE PHOTOGRAPHER
Never use flash when shooting production. It obliterates the onstage lighting, leaving you with very flat shots that have no depth. If you’re working with a point and shoot camera, you’ll have no manual control over your F stop/shutter speed, but if you do have control, always set your ISO to at least 3200. That will give you a higher shutter speed to help you stop action and avoid blurs. With the available technology, you are better off starting with an entry level SLR for little more than you would spend for a point and shoot. It affords you the opportunity to build a system, adding and changing lenses as you grow. The camera body is as good as the glass you put on it. The fixed aperture pro lenses are what to aspire to, but can be quite costly. I started with an entry-level Canon SLR and one consumer lens. Once I realized I loved it and started having a career, I began investing in higher end equipment. You don’t need to invest in top of the line equipment to start shooting.
Set ups are very important. They give you a fail-safe for press shots and what you might not get during the performance. Before shooting, confer with the director and choose the eight or ten most powerful moments in the production. Then restage and tighten the scene. This will also give you the opportunity to bring up the lights, if needed. The pitfalls of set ups are that they can look posed, indicated and lifeless. To avoid that problem, have the actors start the scene before they get to that magic moment that you and the director have chosen. Have them hold that moment, as you begin shooting several frames—until they start to lose the moment. Go back and start again until you feel you have it. Don’t be afraid to tell them if they are looking posed and held. Make sure they are working at performance level, and have a fully realized emotional life.
On new shows, I usually do a pre-production shoot in my studio a month or so before opening. These shots are used for posters, flyers, and any pre-press. The production stills are usually shot at the last tech run-through before previews, giving the design team the time to work out any kinks. I prefer to shoot the performance with set ups after the run. It gives me the opportunity to see where the press moments are and go back to get the coverage. Once the shoot is done, I work with the publicist and producer in selecting the finals, which I then rework in Photoshop for any retouching, cropping, color correction, clean up, sizing, etc. It is important to remember that digital media is so much more fine-tuned and less forgiving than film. The post work is as important as the shoot.
HOW TO APPROACH THE SHOOT
There are so many factors to consider. After doing this for so many years, it has become instinctive for me, and difficult to find the words to describe it, but I will try. Equipment is very important to me. My cameras are like an appendage to my body. You must be comfortable and prepared. I carry three Canon 1D bodies, two working and one back up. My two principal lenses are 24-70 F2.8L and 70-200 F2.8L. My backup is a 24-105 F4L, which given enough light is a great all-purpose lens. I like to be able to move in the context of a shoot, so I don’t use a tripod. My short lens is strapped to my shoulder, and my long lens is on a monopod, which gives me the freedom to move. I have found great moments from angles I never would have seen had I been in lockdown on a tripod. Follow the action, not only with your lens, but with your movement as well. You must find your own comfort zone, and work from there.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Listen with your heart, from an emotional point of view, as well as your head from a technical point of view. Learn to find the balance between them. Your instincts will tell you where the moments are, and eventually let you anticipate when they are coming. Sometimes you will find a more interesting, layered moment from the actor who is actively listening, rather than speaking. Don’t stay with the obvious. Once you have it, look for choices, and trust your instincts.
CHALLENGING THEATRE STAGES
The "thrust" and "in the round" stages are the most challenging. How do you shoot actors without showing rows of empty seats behind them? A thrust is less difficult than in the round, in that you can shoot from center without showing seats. I recently shot a play that had an extreme thrust with staging that had the actors playing to the three-sided audience. There was no way around it, so I shot at high and low angles when possible, which is also the way to shoot in the round to avoid the seat background. In the end, with the chosen finals, I had to rework them in Photoshop, basically taking the background to black. When you can’t find angles, going to black in post is your only option.
A NOTE FOR PRODUCERS
Whenever possible, hire professionals, or at least someone with some experience. Production stills are not easy, and in the technological age of everyone with a camera phone being a still photographer, and everyone with a handy cam being a filmmaker, it doesn’t always work. The odds are not in your favor.
As I said earlier, digital media is much more complex than film. Point and shoot looks like what it is called. Not too long ago, I did a seminar for a local photo lab to talk to their “photographers” about film and digital differences. It was attended by over 60 people working as photographers. When I got to the highlight/shadow ratios, which are hugely different than film, a hand went up: “How do you figure that out?” I answered, “When you meter the highlight/shadow and evaluate your exposure. Show of hands—how many of you work with manual metering?” Not one hand went up. In shock, I told them to take their cameras off auto, switch to manual and learn how to be a photographer and not just a person with a camera. The question is…would you want that person shooting your production?
THE VALUE OF PRODUCTION STILLS
I have shot many productions over the years. Not all the productions were well received by the critics, but they managed to get an audience from the ads with powerful stills. That led to word of mouth, which allowed them a successful run. Audience members have told producers that they saw the photo in the ad and had to see the show. One should never underestimate the power and importance of production photography.
Video recordings function similarly to photographs, in that they act as a record of a production. While they're nothing like experiencing a play live, for Aunt Sarah and Uncle Bob visiting from the other side of the country a month later, video might be the only way to see young Jane's starring role in the school play.
Recording a performance, however, requires permission—video rights are a separate category of rights, and not automatically granted when you license a script for live performance. So if you'd like to record your production or any part thereof, your first step is to contact the rights holder or his representative (i.e. his agent or publisher). Video policies can vary. Some publishers allow you to make one archival copy for free, and possibly to distribute a limited number of personal use copies (free of charge) to cast/crew of the production. Others may charge a video rights licensing fee, which allows you to make a limited number of copies and sell them. Always ask first, and keep in mind that these rights almost always prohibit distribution of the video through online media (e.g. personal websites, YouTube).
A special note to producers of shows involving young people: parents setting up their video cameras is almost never legal. It would be much better to get official permission and then preempt these pirate (and usually low-quality) recordings.
Further, if you plan to distribute the video in any way, make sure to get a signed release from the performers (or their parents if they're under 18). Best to do this either as part of casting or immediately thereafter, so that you're not chasing down release forms after the fact. If you're dealing with Equity performers, be careful to read your contract for the steps you must take to secure permission, and any responsibilities you may have in this area.
In addition to being a record of the production, video, like photos, can also help promote a production during its run, and for the playwright, good performance clips can advertise the play to prospective producers. Read more about this on the Publicity page.