Photographing the arts: working with (or against) light and space

Francesca Savige, Grant Cartwright, and Bjorn Stewart in Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River at Griffin Theatre. (See the shape of the stage?)

Francesca Savige, Grant Cartwright, and Bjorn Stewart in Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River at Griffin Theatre. (See the shape of the stage?)

Jamie Oxenbould & Richard Sydenham in The Dapto Chaser

I was working on a new production of Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River at Griffin Theatre here in Sydney recently, and chatting with the lighting designer before the dress rehearsal, he told me a couple of useful things. Having been there not long ago for The Dapto Chaser, I knew the stage was...let's call it unique. It's a wedge, between two seating blocks - not quite traverse, but certainly not a proscenium, either!

On that show, I'd found myself photographing much of it from the point of the triangle, rather than from the seating blocks; not least because you can see the other seating block in the back of the photos, if you're looking across the stage. But this was a different show, and of course, different designers.

"I've mostly lit the show from either end of the stage," he said, "so you might not want to photograph it from there."

I could see his point, on one level. If you're photographing someone with the light coming from directly behind you, they're going to be quite flatly lit, and it's not going to be very interesting; on the flip side, looking across the stage means having a view of the seating block on the opposite side! So while the lighting designer would be happy, the set designer will wonder where all their hard work went.

As I've mentioned before, the solution is to cover both options - because what the marketing department needs is dynamic images, showing the relationships between the characters on stage, that work on a two dimensional page or screen - often at very small sizes.

This is what photographing the arts is about, in a lot of ways; the dance between the performers on stage, and the photographer somewhere out in the audience. While an individual watching the show can shift their attention between two people having a conversation (perhaps with a third person looking on), and take it all in that way, a photographer has to condense it into a single, compelling instant - spontaneously deciding the point of view, and the field of view, of the person seeing the photograph.

So it becomes about anticipation behind the camera as much as anything - where is the next scene going to be, which way will they be looking, is this actor going to turn or keep facing away from me, who is this scene really about - and, where is the light going to be best, how much context do I include in the frame, and could this work as a square crop for Instagram, or a cover image for Facebook? Where do I need to be positioned, and what lens do I need to have ready, to best capture the interaction between these characters and their environment?

Sometimes, you have to give up one element in favour of the other - more character, less lighting; more face, less context; but, sometimes that also gives you something new you hadn't expected. Shooting with the light behind me would sometimes throw up a shadow of a character entering a scene before they actually became visible in the frame, for example; but that implied their presence in the image, over top of another character's reaction to their arrival. So, once in a while, having the light in the wrong place is exactly the right thing to do!

Grant Cartwright in Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River, at Griffin Theatre.

We did have another quick conversation at intermission, the lighting designer and I - he was concerned that, because he'd used a lot of primary red lighting gels, the camera might not have been able to cope.

Fair enough, too. Most cameras do struggle with red light particularly, it's usually the first channel to clip or overexpose, which means the images have no real detail left - unless the photographer knows their camera well, and can anticipate how to compensate for that on the fly.

I told him not to worry, I'd have it all under control - and I think it turned out quite well in the end. I hope he agrees!

Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River is at the Griffin Theatre in Darlinghurst until Saturday, 30 January 2016.

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