Photographing the arts: what skills are involved?

T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. by TR Warszawa, director Grzegorz Jarzyna

T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T. by TR Warszawa, director Grzegorz Jarzyna

When I was studying drama at university, I went for an interview to spend the summer at the Banff Centre For The Arts. I'd been focussing on the technical side of theatre at that point, including a bit of stage management, and thought this might be an interesting way to spend a few months between school terms.

The Sound Of Silence by New Theatre of Riga, director Alvis Hermanis

The Sound Of Silence by New Theatre of Riga, director Alvis Hermanis

The question was asked: did I read music? And frankly, it had never occurred to me that this might be a useful skill - our university programme was pure theatre, not even musicals, much less opera or dance; so it had never come up, and of course I didn't. So, I didn't go to Banff, and I didn't become a stage manager.

I was thinking about that recently, and it made me consider what skills I use all the time as a photographer that I learned incidentally along the way, without every considering that they might be needed for this particular career. What wouldn't a high school guidance counsellor tell a budding arts photographer to study?

Here are a few to consider, from the abstract to the concrete:

Physics and algebra: you will need to understand light, and lenses - you may be called upon to work out the circumference of a cone at a certain distance, knowing its internal angle. i.e. when pointing a 200mm lens at a stage from a distance of 10m, how big will the image be of a person on stage? (Real world example: you're only allowed to photograph from the sound desk at a concert, do you bring your 70-200mm zoom, use a tele-extender, or hire a 300 - 400mm lens...?)

Or, if you're pointing a 30° zoom spot at a stage from a height of 4m, how big will the circle of light be on the ground, or at head level? And, if you gel that light with a colour that has a transmittance rating of 44%, how much extra power do you need to put through the light in order to maintain that exposure?

You may also need to be able to figure out, on the fly, how big the difference in brightness is between a person standing 1m from a light, and when they move to 4m away from it. (Hint: inverse square law may apply.)

And, of course, the difference in brightness between using an f/4 lens vs. an f/1.4 lens, and how much you need to change your shutter speed or ISO when changing the aperture on the lens - again, a logarithmic scale is involved.

Database Management: when you get home with a batch of images from a shoot, how will you keyword them so that you (or your client, or your assistant - or your heirs!) can locate them quickly, in 20 to 50 years' time? What are the important pieces of information to include now, so that the results later will be what you need?

Image Editing: as I mentioned previously, this is a lot of the time spent on photography - frequently, more time than capturing the images took. The faster and better you become at going through your own work at speed, while still doing it accurately and consistently, the better you'll be at this. Plus, you need to be able to make artistic decisions based on the intent of the designers and director of the show - which means understanding the art form you're working in.

Aarero Stone by Carol Brown Dances / Charles Koroneho

Aarero Stone by Carol Brown Dances / Charles Koroneho

Business Administration: it's not the sexiest part of the industry, but am I ever glad I did a week-long course on small business management before I started out. I thought photography was so unique and specialised, that a course about how to run a corner store or a painting business would barely apply to what I wanted to do; but boy, was I wrong. If you haven't got your administration under control, it's very, very hard to succeed - no matter how good your images are. Insurance, tax, asset depreciation, cashflow projection, location permits, everything!

Also, how do you keep track of your clients, and your invoices / estimates? Keeping accurate records isn't just useful when you get audited, it will help you spot upcoming cashflow issues if an invoice arrives before you get paid for that latest job.

Okay, there is one good thing about admin - if you've done it right, when success does come along, you're ready for it!

Sales & Marketing: understanding your client's needs is of course the key to any business; explaining what you do in a way that lets clients see how you would help them means it's a win for both of you. Communicating who you are, what your brand represents, is crucial.

Contract Negotiation: When the client's budget is this, but your estimate is that, how do you find a middle ground that you can both be happy with? Do you give up and accept their offer, or do you change what services or licensed use you're offering, relative to what you'd initially quoted? How do you know when it's no longer financially viable for you to accept a job - when you'd actually be spending money to be there, rather than earning it? Or at what point does cutting the budget start to affect the quality of the images, or worse, safety on set during the shoot?

Diplomacy: not optional. I can't recall the number of times I've been asked to photograph something, and on arrival, discovered that no-one knew I was coming, and the artists don't feel ready for a photo shoot right now. At that point, I need to explain (diplomatically!) that I'm not from the tabloids, I'm here to make us ALL look good; and while I appreciate that more notice would have been nice, why don't we see how these images could look before we cancel and re-book?

Of course often there are production issues that would barely register in a still image - lighting states that arrive late, or props that aren't final - and if I know what those are, I can often work around them. (Sometimes, when the images are reviewed, it's been discovered that the temporary costumes & props are actually better and should stay!)

Anticipation: as a production stills photographer, I'm often photographing an event or show the first time I've seen it, without a chance to read the script or study the story ahead of time. So getting a feel for the piece while watching it lets me start to understand where the story might be going - though sometimes there are surprises, of course. Understanding the rhythm of the work - which is often the director's rhythm - lets me start to anticipate when something may happen, when a scene could shift, and where I need to be to capture it.

How do you learn that? See plays, see operas, see dance. Understand how these things work - get to know whether the choreographer tends to use repetition, so you can be ready for a certain move to come back a second time, but not hang around in the wrong place for long if it's not going to. If you can go to a rehearsal ahead of time, great - but don't count on that, it's not always going to happen. With festivals & touring productions especially, there may not be a rehearsal before they open! (But there might be a DVD, if you know who to ask.)

Yours truly (top left) in James Cameron's Avatar

Yours truly (top left) in James Cameron's Avatar

And I haven't even mentioned anything to do with cameras, yet! Understanding (and anticipating) how your camera meters a scene, how much dynamic range the sensor can capture, how far you can push it in low light before the grain gets too bad, how far you can pull an image back in the RAW conversion, even just knowing where the controls are on the camera itself - everything is important when it comes to working in the arts, especially when you're not the one in control of the situation or the lighting, as is usually the case in rehearsals and performances.

In some ways, the best thing I did to learn a lot of this was to work in theatre myself - as an actor, director, stage manager, lighting designer, marketing manager, box office manager and photographer - so I've been through a lot of situations before, and understand the stresses around a rehearsal period without needing them explained to me. I can immediately relate to the people I'm working with, so they know right away that I understand the room I've walked into - so already, I'm not an outsider in that sense.

Knowing photography is one thing; but understanding your subject goes a long, long way!

[The other thing I remember about that interview for Banff was someone cheerfully telling me that if I did end up there in the summer, to be sure to bring a can of bear mace. I'm sure they enjoyed terrifying the city kids with that thought!]

Keep an eye on this page for more updates to my series on photographing the arts, or to catch up on previous instalments - and follow me on Twitter or Facebook to hear about them immediately.