Theatre Photography With Fujifilm X-H1

· 11.November.2018

In the distant past I’ve been both sports and landscape photographer but these days I’m more interested in urban portraiture, specialising in people at their work, especially if they have an interesting job.I live in Scarborough, a fishing port and holiday town on the Yorkshire coast (UK), where the cultural jewel of the town is a theatre housed in a former art-deco cinema. It’s named after Stephen Joseph, whose name is synonymous with ‘theatre in the round’ – a stage form where the audience completely surrounds the stage and actors can get very close indeed! Both the town and the theatre are also home to Sir Alan Ayckbourn, the world-famous playwright who premiers his plays at the ‘SJT’ before taking them to London’s west end.

Onstage – 35mm f1.4 1/50th ISO 800

My love of Sir Alan’s work drew me towards helping with fundraising efforts, so at the end of 2017 I pitched the idea of documenting an entire year in the life of the theatre, little suspecting how much effort that would involve! What a great opportunity, not only to show actors as they are, but also as people they aren’t, occupying both ends of the reality spectrum! The aim of the project is to mount an exhibition to encourage new audiences and raise money for new script development and ‘outreach’ projects in an endeavour to improve the cultural lives of the local community.

Onstage – 56mm f1.2 1/15th ISO 400

From a second-hand ‘F’ purchased in 1972 all the way up to a D3 I was a loyal Nikon user, but a serious back injury forced me to reconsider and I concluded that carrying twenty kilos of camera gear around was no longer a good idea. I dipped my toe in the ‘Fuji waters’ with the diminutive X10 and weeks later had to buy another for my wife who kept borrowing it. I took it on a Las Vegas holiday soon afterwards and was delighted with the freedom it bestowed, so I embarked along the ‘more serious’ Fuji road with a pair of XE-1s, an 18mm f2.0 and a 35mm f1.4 which has always been my favourite lens.

Onstage – 23mm f2.2 1/15th ISO 800

Later I traded the XEs for a pair of XT-1s and additional primes which have served me well all over the world. Subsequently I added an X100T which still goes everywhere with me. When the XPro-2 appeared on the scene, I switched over to that as my main camera body and on the whole life was good! I was so happy! Until Fuji announced their bombshell!

In the theatre I work mainly with primes (16mm f1.4, 23mm f1.4, 35mm f1.4, 56mm f1.2, 90mm f2), generally at full aperture, so when the X-H1 was announced early this year with in body image stabilisation I just HAD to have it! A call to my favourite dealer secured me an early example which unfortunately developed an intermittent problem but Fuji UK were magnificent and shipped me a brand-new replacement without question. Suddenly my life changed again. My prime lenses were all stabilised and I could use ridiculous hand-held exposures such as 90mm @ f2, 1/15thsec and end up with a sharp image!

Backstage (audience visible) – 23mm f1.4 0.4sec ISO 1600

Well, as it happens, not always. First you need to get the subject in focus quickly enough, which is easy enough in daylight, at least nowadays. As a sports photographer in the early eighties I would spend a fortune on film and processing for a single shoot, and because auto-focus hadn’t been invented yet the success rate was one or two tack-sharp images per roll, mainly due to having to manually follow-focus a 400mm f3.5 on a sprinting footballer! By comparison today’s Fuji AF does a remarkable job of focusing under normal lighting conditions but I think there is a great deal of room for improvement when the lights are dimmed.

Backstage – 23mm f1.4 0.5sec ISO 1600

My X-H1 doesn’t lock on so readily in typical low-light conditions and although the XT-3 might promise to improve matters (-3EV compared with -1EV on the X-H1) I’m unlikely to try it because the one thing I love about the XH-1 is the stabilisation. Let’s hope that the X-H2 remedies the situation and lets me acquire and track a dancer on a very dark stage! I’d even be willing to give up a bit of sensor resolution in return to get a super-fast autofocus! Of course I’m not always working towards a scene that’s frozen in time, but frequently attempting to convey a sense of dynamism by shooting lowish shutter speeds (1/8th, 1/15th, 1/30thetc.,) knowing they’ll result in subject movement in the final image. This technique has a relatively high failure rate, but as in sport there is almost always a point of inflection where the subject becomes temporarily ‘still’ enough to yield a focused image. For me this kind of movement is what gives a picture that ‘wow’ factor and it doesn’t need the latest technology to achieve it – which is why I held onto my X-T1s.

On stage – 90mm f2.0 1/80th ISO 1600

In the old days I used to shoot Tri-X which is why I look for that same high-contrast push-processed feel in my contemporary monochrome work. For me, a monochrome image has a timeless feel to it. When you put a collection of mono prints together on a gallery wall they seem to bind together by a kind of grayscale sympathy that sometimes makes colour hangings look a bit of a mess. My preferred film simulation is Velvia which is a good basis for colour work since with make-up and coloured lighting there are few natural skin tones to be seen on stage. When converted to monochrome Velvia is already close to what I want, requiring only a slight increase in exposure (around half a stop) and a bit of extra contrast and presence. I never shoot raw, since the volume of work doesn’t support it and in any case I have always been perfectly happy with the quality of Fuji’s beautiful jpegs.

On stage – 90mm f2.0 1/60th ISO 1600

In professional theatre there is rarely chance to shoot a production ‘live’ since audiences are prohibited from taking their own photographs and would quite rightly be aggrieved if they saw someone else doing so. For that reason, production photos are usually taken during a dress rehearsal, when all the lighting and costumes are as they would be in a normal performance. Another opportunity is to shoot during early rehearsals, which are usually conducted in a dedicated room that’s usually well lit. Beware though the dreaded fluorescents which cause banding and ugly colour shifts. Another downside is that actors are in normal dress and the light will be flat – nowhere near as dramatic as that seen during the actual show or dress rehearsal. That’s why I prefer to shoot full dress rehearsals, even though the dramatic lighting often makes things a lot more difficult. Stage lighting can and does change rapidly, and actors moving from lit to unlit areas of the stage present you with a lot of unpredictable targets. If you attend early rehearsals though you’ll know just where and when the actors will be, and you’ll be ready for the peak of the ‘action’ just as you might prepare to capture a racing car clipping the apex.

Backstage – Actor awaiting her scene. 23mm f1.4 1/20th ISO 400

Actors are accustomed to being watched and filmed but as a matter of respect I try not to intrude audibly, visually and especially not physically whilst they are working! I use the electronic shutter where possible to avoid distraction, wear dark clothing and move around as quietly as possible, attempting to stay out of sightlines. My metering is set to follow the focus point and because the actors are frequently lit against a dark background I’ll begin with -1 stop on exposure compensation and adjust as required. If necessary I’ll adjust ISO too, generally aiming to keep to ISO 400 or less, reluctantly creeping up to ISO 3200 if necessary. For three main shows this year though I was lucky enough to be granted permission to shoot backstage during the performance where I had to resort to ISO 12800 under some very challenging conditions.

Backstage – Actor awaiting his scene. 23mm f1.4 1/13th ISO 1600

The lighting backstage is very low, especially near the stage entry points where the audience might otherwise see the stage crew. This is why they (and photographers!) dress all in black, frequently with matching gloves and Ninja masks! As mentioned earlier, I use mainly primes, the most popular being the 35mm f1.4 and the 90mm f2.0, with the 56mm f1.2 not far behind. I could occasionally use a 200mm f2.0 but I work close-in for the most part so a long lens isn’t a priority, particularly when I need to sell my car to buy one! I am seriously enthusiastic about the 33mm f1.0 though and will get one as soon as they become available.

Onstage – 56mm f1.2 1/50th ISO 800

If anyone at Fujifilm is listening, my ideal kit would be the X-H1 with low-light improvements, a 16mm f1.0, 33mm f1.0 and a 70mm f1.0 which I found myself doodling one day between acts. My favourite lens in years gone by was a Nikkor 105mm f1.8, but they have a 105mm f1.4 now, so come on Fuji, let’s see some more exotic glass, perhaps with a matching teleconverter! Just in case anyone else likes to dream about that sort of thing, here’s my sketch of that fantasy lens.

Mark Lamb

Mark Lamb

Mark Lamb is a Scarborough based photographer specialising in urban portraiture, street-art, theatre, modern art, architecture and modern dance. In a parallel life he is a computer scientist and fantasy novelist and likes sci-fi movies and fiery chillies.

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