Theater Photography and White Balance

March 06, 2015  •  1 Comment

This is a follow up blog post to A Basic Explanation Of White Balance.  I now delve into Theater / Stage Photography. 

The Beast looking at the magic mirror.  He's a bit blue, but you know what?  It's all good.  That was the scene.  I added some warmth to the photo to how I remember it to be, but the director wanted the scene to be like this, so the final photo will have casts of blue. (Beauty and the Beast)

First Thing's First!  For Theater Photography, follow some common courtesy concepts (think of them as "hints") so that you don't get people around you upset and may lead to an escalation of incidents that usually turn out bad for you, the person with the Camera.

  • Are you allowed to be taking photos or recording the performance?  This is usually not an issue for school plays and such, but it's always good to ask the Director or any of the Administrative people if you can take photos.  It will save you the embarrassment of being approached and possibly being asked to leave.  Getting permission is a MUST if you see that they are selling photos of the performance at the lobby or online.  Get it in writing way in advance if possible.  Doing this prior to the event may have its merits... if the venue needs a photographer for the event, you may get a chance of shooting and getting a gig.
  • Put that huge phone or tablet away.  Doing this is this just inexcusable!  You see this everywhere... someone decides to take out their iPad / Tablet to use it as a camera and is holding it up to get a good angle of the stage.  Forget that the people behind them can't see the performance any longer, and are having to duck around to get a view.  Don't be this fool!; you are blocking the view of other patrons and you are probably distracting the performers and embarrassing the life out of your child / friend that you are recording.  Block your own view if you need to but be courteous to others.  If you do this, I hope someone gets security to lead you out of the venue.   You ruin the experience for everyone.  Put the tablet away.
  • No FLASH please!  You are putting the performers in danger if you are blasting a strobe into their eyes as they are moving on the stage.  Distracting the other patrons is another reason not to do this, the safety issue should be concern number one.
  • Set your camera to silent mode.  Turn off the beeping as well as the preview on the LCD after each photo.  Don't know how to do this?  Read your manual or don't use the camera for performances until you figure it out.  The key here is not to be a bother to people around you. 
  • Get that tripod off the isle.  That's a trip hazard.  Dark venue, broken camera, another person gets injured, embarrassed actor and a potential lawsuit!   Sounds bad already?  Just wait until their lawyer contacts you.
  • Don't walk to the front of the stage, and start blocking everyone's view while rationalizing that you are entitled to do that because it's your child you are photographing.  News flash...if everyone there uses that same reasoning then everyone will be standing in front of you as well.  Sit down and shoot from where you are.  Lens not able to zoom in close enough?  Too bad.  That still does not give you a right to be the village idiot and block everyone else's view. Sit down.
  • If you think you are bothering other people, ask them if you are, and be prepared to stop what you are doing.  Try to practice common courtesy.

Okay! With those courtesy suggestions out of the way, here we go with WB for Theater photography.


Adjusting White Balance for theater photography can be a nightmare if you are fighting it and you are trying to get skin tones that you would expect from portraits and studio shots, but remember, this is Theater (or Stage) performance, not studio portraits.  Those color casts that are overwhelming your sensors are what the director wants.  This is the director's vision, not yours.  All you are doing here is capturing the work of other artists... the Director and the performers. 

These photos have a LOT of magenta on them  I chose to keep them this way because that's how it was in the show. That's how the director wanted it, that's how the audience saw it that night, and that's how it gets preserved in photos. The photo below is a pulled back shot of the scene.  Notice how a the actor's positioning on the set changes the color cast on his skin as well? (Aladdin)


One of my friends was directing a Christmas concert and he had photographers approach him saying the color casts were not acceptable for their photos!  As the photographer, this is not your moment to direct, change colors, tell people to move their chin up or hold a pose a few seconds longer so that you can capture it...Nope!  You are here to capture things as they happen.  Capture the energy, capture the drama, the moment... you get the drift. 

So how should you do this?  This is where your creative brain comes in to observe and adjust; but here are some tips that may help you out:

  • Shoot RAW.  Why RAW?  You have more leeway in post processing if you want to adjust some color casts to get better skin tones.
  • Try to shoot during rehearsals or press nights so you can walk around freely and change angles.  
  • Familiarize yourself with the show. I can't emphasize this enough.  Even if you feel you are just that good with your shooting skills, and your ability to cover events is impeccable; having an idea on how a scene develops will give you better photos than just shooting without this information.  Knowing what angles to shoot at certain scenes will give you an idea of the flood lights and when and when not to shoot.

The colors in the scene above changed drastically in a matter of seconds.  Positioning and familiarity allowed me to catch this before the blue lights flooded the scene to give the ominous sense of despair. (Les Miserables)

Unbalanced lighting is also a part of shooting theater.  You can't fight it, so learn to work with it.  This shot was color balanced off the actors' costumes.  Look for a piece of the costume that you know is white, and balance off that. (Cats the Musical)

Isn't that a lot of work to get a few photos of your child / friend's performance?    Well yes, yes it is.   The performers, stage crew, lighting, sound and the Director have already put in weeks or possibly months of work, so get out of their way, let them do their work, and just try to do your best to get good photos... and put that tablet away.


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