Since the outbreak of the pandemic a year ago my photography has become focused almost entirely on local landscapes. Social distancing meant the end of organized gatherings in theatres and sporting venues and so my events photography has become non-existent. However, with the recent success in reducing the virus in Sydney, life has returned almost to its pre-pandemic state and there is the opportunity to now indulge in more socially-connected gatherings.
This week I was invited to photograph the dress rehearsal of a new theatre performance “The Foul of the Air” created and directed by my friend and colleague Michelle St. Anne of Living Room Theatre. I’d been badly missing the chance to shoot performances and so I jumped at this opportunity. Theatre provides that marvelous combination of lighting, costume and the physical form that is such a gift to shoot.
The brief was simple – capture images of the performance that could be used for promotion and marketing, aiming for enigmatic and striking compositions that captured the mood of the play which ‘explored the unchecked forms of violence that seep out into the world around us, hidden in plain sight’. I knew there would be dance and music and that the space would be dimly lit but beyond that, it was going to be a surprise.
For camera gear, I packed my two Olympus EM1ii cameras and two lenses – the 40-150PRO f/2.8 and the 75 f/1.8. The 40-150PRO is my ‘go-to’ sporting and events lens and has the full-frame equivalent range of 80-300mm which is brilliant for zooming in when you can’t get close. The 75 f/1.8 is my favorite portrait lens – sharp as a tack with a creamy smooth bokeh. Given I was unsure how much mobility I would have around the stage, I figured these lenses would be the safest bet.
When I arrived at the performance space, I realized just how dark this venue really was. Located on the second floor of an old clothing factory in Summer Hill, the space was dimly lit, although backlit glass bricks on one wall and louvres provided some illumination. Added to this, the performance once it began was lit with spot lights that varied in colour and intensity throughout the performance and dry ice mist added to the dark and demonic feel of the play (a real challenge for a photographer). The performers, dancers and musicians wielding double basses provided fantastic images to shoot and it was a super-enjoyable session, trying to anticipate movement and frame compositions in an ever-changing tableau of movement and light.
Now a regular criticism of micro four-thirds cameras like the Olympus OMD system is that the sensors can’t handle low light and generate too much noise. Technically, there is no doubt that a 35mm equivalent camera has a distinct advantage in these types of settings. However as Robin Wong has pointed out, this does not mean m43 systems can’t generate amazing results in low light situations. Firstly, the image stabilization of these cameras is outstanding, negating the need for tripods which means you can be far more mobile and shoot handheld. Second, the silent shutter on the OMD cameras is a brilliant feature which means you can shoot events like concerts and, in this case, a performance that was being video and audio recorded, in complete silence. I set the cameras on low multiple exposure silent mode in order to capture the movement of the dancers and expressions of the musicians. I kept the apertures wide-open at f/2.8 and f/1.8 and again the greater depth of field of the m43 system meant this was perfect for gathering the maximum amount of light while still capturing the areas of the scene I was focusing on. Auto-focus was lightning fast and seemed untroubled by the rapidly changing lighting and dry-ice mist. While I could have upped the ISO to better freeze some of the action (I was mostly shooting at ISO3200), I actually liked some of the blurred effects that resulted from slower exposures that added to the movement of the dancers. Yes, there is some noise in the images, but I like this slightly grainy look given the theme of the performance is grim and possessed (think Suspiria and you get the vibe!)
I ended up taking well over a thousand images over several hours during the makeup, run-through and full dress rehearsal. My post-processing was done on Adobe Lightroom with varying styles and looks.
Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Shooting theatre and live performance is a very different photographic challenge to landscape. In landscape you can take your time composing a shot and working with the technical dimensions of an image. In live performance it is rapid, fast, gut-instinct shooting as movement and light shifts and morphs in front of you. Sometimes you get lucky, other times you miss the moment!
Here’s hoping there are more opportunities to shoot live performances in the future as, with a bit of luck, we return to a more socially-connected life.