It’s school play season as I write this and many will attempt to photograph their child’s play with mixed results. This article seeks to stack the deck in your favor and give you a better chance of coming away with great images.
Even if you don’t have children and don’t plan on shooting a school play anytime soon, the info below is solid and will help improve your skills.
Before we jump in, let me say that if I can shoot a school play with less-than-ideal lighting using a $550 Sony a6000 mirrorless camera and a Sony 70-200mm f/4 lens, you can easily handle this with your DSLR.
The techniques are the same. Light is light.
Anyone who thinks that shooting a play would be too challenging for a mirrorless camera should think differently after this article. While I have many years of experience shooting these events as a newspaper photographer, gear can be limiting. There’s no question about that. A f/2.8 lens, of course, would’ve been even better as it’s one stop faster than f/4 and allows in twice as much light, thus giving you a twice as fast shutter speed (or the option to lower your ISO by one stop), but Sony doesn’t currently make a f/2.8 E-mount lens. So you throw more ISO at it to compensate when needed.
Since the a6000 has an APS-C crop sensor just as in many DSLRs, the 70-200mm lens is effectively a 105-300mm lens. That extra reach is always helpful when shooting plays and that’s quite a nice working range.
So let’s dive in to how I approach shooting a school play. I’m going to put you inside my head as I go over the decision making process and explain why I made a particular decision along with alternatives.
Don’t forget, click the photos to open them in a new window and see them much larger.
Before you arrive
People are always tempted to bring too much gear. Resist that. It’s a school play, not the Super Bowl. You can get away with just one body, a zoom lens for shooting the play and a fast 50mm or a wide-angle lens for the photos of your child and their cast mates on stage after the play as well as shots with family members.
Leave the flash at home. It’s NEVER allowed for stage plays. Ever. In fact, if your camera has a flash in it, disable it just in case. You don’t want to disturb the kids and get kicked out.
Make sure your batteries are charged and you have a spare of course. Ideally, you’ll have a fully charged battery so you won’t be changing batteries in the dark.
Turn off your camera’s “beep” that happens when you acquire focus. Most people turn this off anyhow as it’s annoying. Extremely. It’s especially annoying to those around you during a play. Remember, they’re there to see their kid and enjoy the performance. Don’t be THAT parent.
Choosing the best shooting position
Chances are you’ll be arriving at least an hour early so your child can get into their costume, have hair and makeup done, get mic’d up with an audio pack, etc. So will most everyone else.
Get there early enough to ensure that you can get as close to the front of the line as possible and choose a seat which is going to give you the best shooting position.
Even better would be to talk to those putting on the play in advance and arranging to tape off a seat with masking tape so it’s reserved for you. Taping it off can be done the night before the play during a dress rehearsal or hours before the play, but permission should be sought well in advance. If need be, offer to upload the photos later so everyone can see them. They’ll love you for providing this service.
If the venue has a walkway behind all the seats or an area where the crew runs the lights and audio, that may be a better position to shoot from. You may be able to arrange in advance to shoot from that area, but this is definitely not where you’ll be shooting without having cleared it first.
So get there early to get the best seat for shooting the play dead center or arrange to have a seat taped off for you. The most ideal situation is having complete freedom of movement to shoot from the side aisles (never the center as you’ll be a distraction) as well as the back of the auditorium.
When I arrived at my daughter’s school play with my family to drop her off, they hadn’t yet opened the doors and we were about 10 people back. So I knew I had a great chance of finding a great shooting position.
As we entered, I noticed that the auditorium was split in half with an aisle cutting across it laterally. So I chose a seat dead center in the first row of that back half of the audience as it gave me what looked to be a mostly clear shot above the lower half of the auditorium’s heads. I could’ve gone higher up in the audience, but wanted an angle which wasn’t looking down at the stage. As straight on as possible while clearing the heads of the audience is more ideal.
Now let’s go through the photos and my approach…
While we’re waiting for the play to start, let’s see how the camera does in the dark audience
With 30 minutes to wait for the play to begin, I decided to test out the Sony a6000 with the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS. The photo below was shot in the audience which was not very well lit of course. I don’t feel comfortable going much higher than 6400 ISO on the a6000 due to noise, but as you can see in the photo below, it’s pretty well-controlled in cruddy lighting.
The widest aperture I could do with my chosen lens was f/4, so with those settings the camera chose 1/20 of a second. That produced blur in her hand and she’s not tack sharp.It’s not too bad though with 3 stops of image stabilization. If you absolutely needed to make an image in a rather dark audience, you could.
For purely creative reasons, let’s try a super slow shutter speed
I wanted to try a really slow shutter speed for a creative effect so I set the a6000 to 400 ISO, f/4, and that gave me a crazy slow shutter speed of 1/13 of a second. Remember, OSS (Optical Steady Shot)…aka image stabilization…is to steady me, not the action I’m shooting. Since we were going for motion blur, that’s what we got.
With a faster shutter speed, the dancers would’ve been slightly more sharp, but there’d have been less motion blur, thus defeating the purpose of what we were going for with this shot. This is why I don’t use super slow shutter speeds much.
OK, let’s start making some sharp images
Click the photo below and you’ll see how nicely controlled the noise is at ISO 3200 on the Sony a6000 as well as how clean the image is. I shot this handheld…no tripod…no monopod. The Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS‘s image stabilization is helping me out here.
If you don’t have a lens with image stabilization in it, you’re likely missing out on shots when the lighting is sketchy and use of a monopod or tripod is not allowed. For sports/action it’s useless, but for situations where you could use a little help, stabilization is a wonderful thing. To me, it’s worth the money if you’re doing a lot of photography it pretty awful lighting conditions…such as with school plays. These aren’t professional venues. The lighting is not always ideal for photography.
The above wasn’t at all a very well lit scene as evidenced by the 1/80 of a second shutter speed, but if you click on the photo you’ll see how nice the noise is at 6400 ISO in a moderate amount of light. It’s a little bit soft due to the rather slow shutter speed though.
This is a situation where it’d have been helpful if the lens was f/2.8 as that’d have given me a 1/160 of a second shutter speed. I could’ve gone to 12,800 ISO, but at the expense of noise.
So what should you shoot?
If you’re there to photograph your child then obviously concentrate on photographing them. That goes without saying. If they’re one of the lead roles or on stage a lot then you’ll mostly have photos of them. If they’re a background player, make sure you know when they’re going to be on stage and in what costume so you don’t miss them.
What most parents do of course is concentrate on photographing their child even though others are in front of them. That’s fine to a certain extent, but hundreds of photos with one’s child in focus in the background with other children in front of them performing isn’t very appealing visually.
It seems counterintuitive, but personally I feel it’s also important to shoot the main players so they’re in focus while still having your child seen in the background slightly out of focus. It adds context to what they’re doing. You’d be surprised how well that works. But by all means make sure you get plenty of in-focus shots of your child. It just takes very little effort to refocus and get a variety such as I’ve described.
When your child isn’t on stage, that’s your time to get the shots you need of their cast mates so you can provide great photographs for the other parents. If you’re getting paid for this as well (more on that in a bit), it’s imperative that you photograph everyone and especially key moments…even if that means missing some shots of your child.
Ideally you’d have first seen a full dress rehearsal so you know what to expect. Ask if you can shoot one. They’ll usually say yes. In fact, you may shoot the dress rehearsal and kick back and enjoy your child’s play during the public performance. By seeing a dress rehearsal first though, you’ll be prepared to get better shots at subsequent performances. Knowing what to expect helps. It could mean the difference between nailing the shot…or missing it. There have been times I’ve missed someone leaping across the stage because I didn’t know to look for it. If you know it’s coming, you’ll snag those great moments.
From a fixed position you can’t control your backgrounds so you’re at the mercy of the angles you’re shooting at. But that’s ok. Concentrate on capturing great facial expressions and emotion, getting the peak moments of action, and looking for moments that really tell the story.
Don’t forget of course that at the end of each performance, the entire cast comes onto the stage to take their bows. So make sure you have a wide enough lens to get that all in…especially if you’re getting paid to shoot the play.
Color rendition and Auto White Balance (AWB)
I usually don’t set my cameras to AWB. I’ve been shooting long enough to know how color temperature works and set my camera for the given scene before me. I prefer to set the color temperature (measured in degrees Kelvin…represented by a “K”), select all photos in that light and, in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, change them all en masse. But for the purpose of testing, I set it to AWB and let it roll. I usually don’t do that as it’s a moving target, but with theatrical lighting it’s all over the place so I wanted to see how AWB would handle this.
As you can see in the photo above, the Sony a6000 does a wonderful job of figuring out the color temperature of a scene. I was surprised just how well it did. The colors pop and any parent would be happy to have a photo like this of their kid.
Dealing with motion blur and stopping motion
Click on the photo at right to see it larger and you’ll notice that at 1/125 of a second we’re getting motion blur in his hands, legs and feet while the rest of him is acceptably sharp.
It’s not a deal breaker. He’s jumping, so the motion blur actually conveys a sense of motion.
To stop the motion completely, we’d had to have had gone up to 12,800 ISO, but image quality would’ve been reduced with the additional noise. Doing so though, would’ve given us a 1/250 of a second shutter speed. Since he wasn’t moving super fast, that likely would’ve frozen him in place.
Here again, this is where having a f/2.8 version of the 70-200mm f/4 lens I was shooting with would’ve been helpful. Being able to go to f/2.8 would’ve given me that 1/250 of a second without having to go to 12,800 ISO.
That said, if you look at all of these photos, I think you’ll agree that the Sony a6000 with the Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens was a capable combination. I got the job done without a fancy DSLR. I left my $6,500 Nikon D4s at home.
In the photo above, I had enough light at the time to get 1/400 of a second shutter speed at f/4 and 6400 ISO. That was enough to mostly freeze the action. Remember, the lighting is changing during a play. Since I was shooting a mirrorless body at the time, I could see my exposure live in the viewfinder. I was shooting RAW so I could’ve gone quicker on my shutter speed to completely freeze motion and adjust it in Lightroom, but I didn’t feel it necessary. If the lens was f/2.8, I’d have been at 1/800 of a second and would’ve completely frozen her movement.
Depth-of-Field (DoF) on stage
You’ll want to click the photo at left and see it larger to fully appreciate the depth-of-field in this photo. At this size, the girl in the back appears to be a lot more in focus than she is in the larger photo. But remember that if your photos are destined to be viewed online or via a mobile device, what you see here is going to be more accurate.
Keep in mind that if you’re shooting from quite a distance away, even with a fancy f/2.8 lens, the girl in the background will not be out of focus enough to make a huge difference. She’s simply too close to the boy in the foreground. When you’re shooting from let’s say 100 feet away, a person that’s 104 feet away (4 feet behind the boy) isn’t that much different than the boy who is 100 feet away.
Subject-to-background distance is a huge factor. Now if you were 25 feet away and shot tighter, the girl in the background would be a lot less in focus. When shooting school plays (or stage productions in general), your shooting position and freedom of movement is severely limited. If you can arrange to shoot a full dress rehearsal instead, you’ll have that freedom of moment to make more interesting photographs with more shallow depth-of-field (if desired).
In the unprocessed version of the photo of the boy at left, his face is lost in the shadow created by his left arm and the giant pocket watch he’s hoisting above his head.
Thankfully though, by shooting RAW, I was able to bring out detail in his face. I could’ve brought out even more detail, but it just wouldn’t look natural. The goal is to see his face, not make it look obvious that you’ve lightened it.
1/800 of a second is a bit quick for this scene, but unless you’ve watched a run through of the play ahead of time, you wouldn’t know what to anticipate. A f/2.8 lens would’ve yielded 1/1600 of a second and that would’ve been overkill for this, or any, scene.
In Lightroom I added half a stop of exposure to open things up a bit, but that’s not too bad as the photo holds up nicely thanks to having shot it in RAW. It’s a bit more noise than I’d like to see, but shooting at 3200 ISO would’ve given me 1/400 of a second and perhaps that wouldn’t have been enough for the changing light in subsequent scenes. You just never know what to expect from scene-to-scene so you need to make a decision based on the gear you’re shooting with at the time.
With my Nikon D4s I could’ve shoot at 6400 ISO no problem during the play and coupled with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, have plenty of shutter speed available to me yielding nearly noise-free images. But I wanted a challenge and to prove it could be done. Remember, full-frame image sensors gather more light and a given ISO will be cleaner than on a crop-sensor body. But as you’re seeing in this article, a $550 Sony a6000 and a Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS lens gets the job done nicely.
So I’ve proven that it can be done. You don’t need Nikon’s flagship D4s or even the great D750 or D7200 to shoot a school play. Or any of the Canon equivalents. You can get the job done just fine with a $550 mirrorless camera and a f/4 lens.
Settings…everyone wants to know about settings right?!!!
This is going to largely depend on the body and lens you’re shooting with, but if you handed me your camera and told me to shoot a play, here’s what my approach would be:
Set your ISO rather high. The highest you’re comfortable going without venturing into the expanded ISO range (H1, H2, etc.) as those are crazy noisy. If we’re talking about cameras made in 2014 or later, you should be able to set your camera to 6400 ISO without a crazy amount of noise as I did for this play. Remember, a camera with a full-frame sensor will have cleaner ISOs than those with a crop-sensor in them.
- Shoot at your lens’ widest aperture. If you have a fancy f/2.8 lens…now’s the time to use it. The goal in these dark venues is to gather as much light as possible and not have blurry images. A f/2.8 will gather twice as much light as the f/4 lens I shot with. That gives you the luxury of twice the shutter speed to help stop action or to use half the ISO to get cleaner images. Options are good. If you’re shooting with a zoom lens whose aperture changes as you zoom, dial in the smallest number. Your camera will do the rest. You may be in the 200-300mm zoom range and be stuck with f/5.6 at best. That’s half the amount of light than at f/4. But that’s ok. It just means that you may have to double your ISO. More noise is better than blurry, unusable images.
- Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode (A on Nikon, Av on Canon, etc.). Since you’re going to want to use your widest aperture, being in Aperture Priority will make that happen. That’ll allow in the most light and give you the fastest possible shutter speed.
- Turn off your flash. It’s generally not allowed.
- Use image stabilization. It won’t steady the motion of the performers, but it’ll help steady you when you can’t use a monopod or tripod and that’s extremely helpful.
- Use a sound dampening device (or your camera’s quiet mode). It’s a bit of a luxury, but an item I never shoot a stage play without as I don’t want to disturb anyone…especially the performers…is the Camera Muzzle. It’s a bit unwieldy to deal with, but it drops the decibel level of your shutter/mirror low enough that it’s nearly imperceptible as you shoot. It’s more desirable that a camera’s “quiet” mode as, in practice, you’re going to miss shots.
- Turn off your back LCD screen. You’ll most likely be seated in a dark audience so if your screen keeps lighting every time you take a shot, you’re going to draw unwanted and unneeded attention. The goal is to be as discreet as possible. So go into your camera’s menus and make it so your screen only lights when you press the “Play” button.
- Don’t be afraid to use burst mode. I generally recommend against the so-called “Spray and Pray” technique, but when you’ve got a play with sketchy lighting, quick, unpredictable movement, etc., one of your best friends is going to be burst mode. Take a lot of shots because many will be out of focus due to the circumstances you’re shooting in. Think of it as “controlled chaos”. Don’t go too crazy on the shutter button. Spend those burst shots wisely. You don’t want to run up against your camera’s buffer and miss key shots…especially when it’s your child.
Selling the photos
Many people are going to see shooting school plays as an opportunity to make some extra cash by selling photos to parents of the cast members.
However though, the vast majority of the time this is not allowed as schools license the right to put these plays on from production companies who provide the scripts, the music, etc. for a fee. Most, if not all, of these contracts strictly prohibit the sale of photographs and video from the play. The school, therefore, will not be able to grant you permission to sell your images to parents as they’d be exposing themselves to a lawsuit.
So, unless it’s an original production, and you have their written permission (anything less than written permission likely isn’t going to protect you), you’re exposing yourself to being sued. Hey, it’s happened many times before. Don’t let it happen to you.
It wouldn’t hurt though to check with the school and ask them what their contract with the production company allows. If you’re able to sell your photos to parents, you might be able to make a decent amount of money. What people generally do is offer to give the school a percentage of the sales. Doing so may further help you to make this happen.
Shooting with the Sony a6000 mirrorless camera specifically…
The inexpensive, little Sony a6000 constantly amazes me. When you read about pros and amateurs alike fawning over this camera it’s with good reason. Who’d have thought this class of camera could do as well as many DSLRs?!!! And yet it does. Sure it’s not perfect, but if you work on your technique you can really make it work as you’ve seen in this article. The photos prove that it can be done.
I didn’t feel severely limited by shooting my daughter’s play with the $550 Sony a6000 vs. my $6,500 Nikon D4s. Having shot the a6000 for awhile now, I knew I could make it work otherwise I would’ve left it at home. I don’t feel like the D4s would’ve yielded shots I didn’t get with the a6000. Since the D4s is a full-frame body and has much less megapixels crammed onto the sensor, it’s able to gather more light and thus the ISOs are going to be cleaner. As I see it, that’d have only been the real benefit in choosing the D4s over the a6000 to shoot the play. But as these photos are destined for Facebook so friends and family can see them, the noise, as you can see in the photos above, is not at all a problem. Should I decide to make prints, they’d be 4″ x 6″ so again, that noise wouldn’t be a problem.
In photography we often talk about “using the right tool for the job”. Cameras, whether they be a DSLR or one of the mirrorless offerings, are very capable of getting the job done. So long as you have a solid game plan going into a shoot, use good technique and you know how to properly operate your camera, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do what I did during my daughter’s school play.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you need a fast f/2.8 lens and an expensive camera body to shoot these things. It’s simply not true.
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