Photographing the arts: creating depth in production images

Grant Cartwright and Sean Hawkins in Stones In His Pockets

I've worked with the good folks at Critical Stages a couple of times recently, and I was happy to hear from them again late last year about a new tour of Stones In His Pockets - a marvellous, funny Irish script I'd seen performed some years ago in New Zealand.

Grant Cartwright in Stones In His Pockets

We did a studio shoot for the poster & promotional images, and then a couple of months later (due to a last-minute cast change) we did it again; then recently I was out at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta for the dress rehearsal, and something about the way the stage was set up got me thinking while I was editing the images.

I've written before about trying to create a range of images of a production that will please everyone from designers to publicists; but of course, there are a huge number of other elements I'm looking for, to make a great production image.

One thing I'm always trying to do is create a sense of depth and presence of the actors on stage. It would be easy to pick one point of view, the best seat in the house and capture a show from there; but that would wind up making the show look too flat, in most cases - like watching TV or a movie, not a live performance.

When I studied theatre lighting at university in Canada, we talked a lot about bringing visual depth to performers on stage through the use of three dimensional, modelling light. We read about Stanley McCandless, one of the pioneers of lighting design, and his book, "A Method of Lighting the Stage" - which involved lighting the stage from the corners of a theoretical cube, and adding to the sculpting of the performers' faces.

Of course, the advantage a photographer has is the ability to choose the viewer's position on the fly, and change that relationship of lights to actor dynamically during a scene - which also gives the opportunity to see the set from a number of angles - and to vary the perspective and relative scale of people on stage, through the use of wider angle lenses to create apparent space between them, or longer lenses to compress that distance.

Trouble is - if I have all of those options, how do I choose which one(s) to use, at any given moment?

What often drives me is wanting to have more than one person in an image; so usually, my movements around the venue are because I'm trying to line up two people in a three-dimensional space, so they'll fit together in a 2D image on paper, or on screen. It's a dance, of sorts - my race to stay along this imaginary line that connects them on stage, and extends out into the audience.

Grant Cartwright and Sean Hawkins in Stones In His Pockets

But also, I want to show as much of the set as I can, in as many ways as possible - without looking too far into the wings, and showing the edge of the illusion. So the design of this show suited me perfectly, in that sense - the sides of the stage were defined by a row of directors' chairs representing each of the ~15 characters the two actors would play over the course of the show. I could move around freely, tracking Grant & Sean as they worked, lining up the light to look its best - and the set would look right, every time.

And, of course, I want variation in light. I want the performers to stand out from the set, and seem to be inhabiting the space. Depth of field can help isolate a subject from the surroundings, and pull the viewer's attention to the most important part of the image; but how I choose to place myself relative to the actors on stage is just as key to creating a collection of images that create interest in a production - that don't just show what happened in sequence, like a visual plot summary, but that frame each moment in a new and different way.

Marketing the performing arts is about convincing people that what we're doing is something beyond what they'd get at home; an experience that can only be had in person, by being in the room. I think it's really important that the images we use convey that - and give a real sense of being dynamically present with the performers, engaged with what's happening on stage - not just sitting back and watching a show.

Stones In His Pockets is touring extensively until July 2017 - see the full list of dates here!

Cast: Grant Cartwright and Sean Hawkins
Director: Chris Bendall
Designer: Dann Barber
Costume Designer: Michael Hili
Lighting Designer: Alex Berlage

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!