Each May, my wife’s musical theater school puts on their end-of-season performances. It’s incredible to see how far the young actors have progressed throughout the year, and it’s my pleasure to capture those performances and to provide digital memories for the students and their parents. This year, it’s Peter Pan.
A typical show might result in 300 or more images. Over the course of the month of shows, that results in a few thousand images that I need to import, pick, process, and export. After many years of experimentation, I’ve been able to combine simple in-camera considerations with the powerful tools that Lightroom provides in to a theater-centric workflow that allows me to efficiently delivery the best images that I can. In this post, I will share some of the highlights of my workflow with you.
If you’re interested in photographing theater performances, I wrote two posts on my personal blog that you might find interesting, especially if you’re just getting started.
The first step to getting a great image out of Lightroom is to give it a good image to start with. The same guidelines apply to photographing theater performances as every other type of photography. That is, the more you can do in camera, the easier the post-processing will be and the higher the potential for each image to be a great one.
Specifically for theater photography, there are two things that I do to ensure that I have the best quality image going in to Lightroom.
I tend to shoot raw all the time, but I understand that there are times when shooting JPEG will work, too. This is not one of those times. Mixed lighting makes getting the white balance up front tricky, especially since it might change with each scene. The exposure might change suddenly, resulting in an underexposed image. There are so many variables that are easily corrected in Lightroom if you have all the information available in a raw file. Once you let the camera make some choices and generate a JPEG image, you lose options in post processing.
Do yourself a favor and always shoot raw.
Exposure Above All Else
White balance, sharpness, and saturation are all easily adjustable with Lightroom in post, especially since you are shooting raw. One aspect that is not as easily correctable is a severely underexposed image. When you try to bring up the exposure of an underexposed image, one side effect is the introduction of noise, especially since you are likely shooting at a higher ISO. While Lightroom’s noise reduction capabilities give you some flexibility and recovery options if you are slightly underexposed, the further away you are from a good exposure in camera, the hard it’s going to be to get the best quality output. The noise reduction in Lightroom is amazing, but there can be too much of a good thing.
Shutter speed typically can only go so low without introducing motion blur, so in theater photography, the two variables that you are most likely to use to affect your exposure are aperture and ISO. A lens with a wide aperture provides better light capture, but that wide aperture also reduces your depth of field, so keep that in mind. Boosting your ISO will help in a low-light situation, but will also introduce noise. Most likely, you’re going to need to find a combination that accounts for the drawbacks but provides the closest-to-ideal exposure. I usually find the widest aperture I can that gives me a reasonable depth of field based on my distance from the action, and then adjust the ISO. When I do that to get a better exposure, Lightroom can more easily handle the noise introduced by the higher ISO, and I get a better output.
Getting my images in to Lightroom, keywording, and finding my picks is the same as my standard workflow. Also similar to my non-theater work, I will apply a preset on import to give a head start to my post processing. The theater preset is similar to my standard preset in that it applies some of my camera-specific adjustments to the camera profile, contrast, saturation, and clarity. But it also has a few adjustments that are specific to shooting a performance.
I know I’ll be at least at ISO 800 for the entire shoot, so my preset aims to deal with that in the noise reduction by setting a baseline noise reduction level to start from. When I shot with more than one camera, I had a preset for each camera, since noise at higher ISO was worse on the older camera, which resulted in a different baseline.
If I shoot at ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 for some images, I’ll adjust noise reduction accordingly. But I don’t want to over-apply noise reduction to accommodate the higher ISO because it will make the lower ISO images look like plastic, so I start from the baseline and adjust the value from there.
Since I’m shooting raw images that will not have any sharpening applied, I know that in post processing I will need to apply some sharpening. How much depends on a number of factors, including how much noise is in an image and how much of it I am taking out with noise reduction. So, similar to the noise reduction, my preset will create a baseline for sharpening based on on camera, and I will adjust the sharpening value appropriately for each image.
Color And White Balance
As I mentioned in the shooting section, white balance and color are tricky in theater because there is often a lot of mixed-colored lighting to set a scene, and that lighting will change from scene to scene. One of the components my preset does not have is a white balance value. Over the years, I’ve found that my camera does a better job getting my white balance closer to reality than Lightroom does, but in most cases I still need to tweak the value. What I wind up doing is getting the white balance right for one image in a scene and then applying that value to the rest of the images in the scene, usually by copying and pasting the development settings. When I come to a batch of images from another scene, I’ll repeat the process.
The final component of my workflow is exporting the processed images. What I’ve been doing the last few years has been creating a Photo DVD that includes web and print versions of the images from each show. Lightroom makes this easy through the use of export presets.
I have one preset for the web images that includes shrinking the size and resolution of each image to make them web-friendly, additional sharpening for the screen, adjusting the embedded keywords and copyright information, and possibly adding a watermark. That way, if someone shares the image on Facebook, the school or my brand will be visible.
The print preset is focused on creating the best quality image for printing, and includes some print sharpening. I also leave my copyright information in the final image.
Once I have my images processed, I’ll filter the view in the library to only show the processed picks, select all the images, then run both presets and point them to a web and a print folder and let Lightroom do the rest.
If you’re interested in doing theater photography, Lightroom is an excellent choice for your workflow. By being mindful of capturing a good quality image in the camera and taking advantage of the powerful tools and presets that Lightroom provides, you will create consistent, amazing images from every performance.