Photographing the arts: is your photographer part of your creative team?

Richard Sydenham in a promotional image from The Dapto Chaser, for Apocalypse Theatre / Griffin Independent

Richard Sydenham in a promotional image from The Dapto Chaser, for Apocalypse Theatre / Griffin Independent

Theatre, dance, opera and music are some of the things I most enjoy working on as a photographer.

But surprisingly often, I get a call or an email that starts off, 'I know this is short notice, but' - and it can be anything from 'we've just realised we need a photographer for next week' to 'our dress rehearsal is in an hour, can you make it?'

Often, this isn’t the production's fault - they had someone booked, something happened, they need to find another photographer on short notice.

But it got me thinking recently, what's the best way to involve a photographer in a show? In an ideal world, how & when would I like to be contacted?

The easy answer would be just 'as early as possible'; but of course, there are a number of ways photographers get involved in a work, even stretching back as far as a brochure shoot a year or more ahead of the actual performance dates, often before the cast are even decided on - or sometimes even before the script is finalised!

So, where are the possible places to involve the production photographer - and what might come out of it?

 The Raft explores the idea of two worlds, which coexist alongside each other, one floating above and one sitting below.

Whoever is on top has gravity on their side. This privilege becomes about power, facilitating the want for more, and abusing the ability to let things go. The debris caused by this privilege becomes someone else’s problem, the problem of those below. How does someone try to find their own way out when they are being impacted so deeply by the desires of others?

Central to this is the raft, a custom-built multi-layered platform, suspended between these two worlds, connecting them and those who exist on each plane.

As the performers interact with each other and the raft the concepts of what we value, what we own and what we need are embodied in the physical interaction between performers and the raft.

Gavin Webber
Joshua Thomson
Luke Smiles
Benjamin Brockman

Photo by Robert Catto, on Friday 19 October, 2018. Please credit & tag the photographer when images are used - @robertcatto on Instagram & Twitter, @robertcattophotographer on Facebook.

Early Development / Workshops

If you’re building a production from scratch, putting together a team, and pitching it to venues and festivals, there can often be a stage of development - or a ‘show and tell’ - where some of the initial ideas get sketched out in a rehearsal space.

Of course, not everyone you’re pitching to can be there; but having great images - even if the set and costume designs aren’t fully formed - can make people want to hear more about your proposal.

 Danny Adcock, Noel Hodda, Jamie Oxenbould & Richard Sydenham rehearse with director Glynn Nicholas for Apocalypse Theatre's production of The Dapto Chaser, by Mary Rachel Brown, on Tuesday, 23 June, 2015.  The show takes place at Griffin Theatre from 1 - 15 July, 2015.  Photo by Robert Catto /

For the Sinclair family, the cut-throat world of greyhound racing is a religion. And their beloved dog Boy Named Sue is more than a greyhound; he’s their heart and soul on four legs. With the crucial Winnebago Classic on the horizon, Cess Sinclair has one shot at reversing his family’s fortunes for good. Against all the odds, he’s betting on a miracle.

The Dapto Chaser is warts-and-all Australian comedy that gets its hands dirty with the adrenaline, sweat and guts of the dog racing sub-culture. The Sinclairs are a family trapped in the pressure cooker of gambling addiction and when things don’t go to plan, they are forced to gamble the most important commodity of all – their relationship to each other.

Playwright Mary Rachel Brown wrote The Dapto Chaser perched in the bleachers track-side, while director Glynn Nicholas will be going on an all-schnitzel diet to get it over the line.

The First Read-Through

As your photographer, I'm responsible for a lot of the visual tone you'll be presenting to the public, to give them a sense of what your work is like. So if I've read the script myself, done my own analysis of the themes, and come along to the first read through to see how the director, designer and cast's thoughts compare with mine, I’m already that much more involved in the production, and even able to feed ideas into the process.

I've also met the production crew, and the cast, who will feel much more comfortable having me around during rehearsals and other shoots - I'm no longer an outsider with a camera who turns up one day, I'm part of the creative crew.

 Theodora is a tale from ancient Rome that speaks to our hearts, here and now. Innocence, love, faith and courage bloom strong and full of promise, only to be struck down by blind hatred and the thirst for power.

Join us this December for a sublime evening as the Pinchgut team, led by the virtuosic Erin Helyard, and directed by Lindy Hume breathe life into Handel's most beloved opera. 

Theodora is the leader of the Christian community in Antioch: a young woman whose life of virtue has inspired many to embrace her faith – including the Roman officer Didymus, who has in the process fallen deeply in love with his spiritual mentor. When the order comes through that all who refuse to offer sacrifice to Jupiter are to be tortured and killed, the two lovers find themselves locked in a battle to the death: each determined to sacrifice their own life to save the other.

Handel’s sublime music takes us deep inside the emotional drama of this tragic story, revealing the characters’ inmost hopes and fears: the pure flame of Theodora’s faith, but also her despair when faced with a fate worse than death; Didymus’s tender love for Theodora; the offended rage of the Roman governor, determined to uphold the letter of the law; the crowd, baying for  blood at the start, but deeply shaken by the martyrs’ quiet courage at the last.

Pinchgut Opera is delighted to welcome home Australian soprano Valda Wilson, who’s been garnering rave reviews in Europe for several years, and also to welcome back to the Pinchgut stage Christopher Lowrey (Tamerlane in Bajazet), Caitlin Hulcup (an unforgettable Iphigénie, 2014) and the thrilling voices of Cantillation, singing the choruses that Handel himself acknowledged to be his finest.

Valda Wilson                       Theodora
Caitlin Hulcup                      Irene
Christopher Lowrey            Didymus
Ed Lyon                                Septimus
Andrew Collis                      Valens

Cantillation                          Chorus

Orchestra of the Antipodes on period instruments
Erin Helyard, conductor
Lindy Hume, director
Dan Potra, designer
Matthew Marshall, lighting designer

Photos by Robert Catto, on Saturday 5 November, 2016.

Design Presentations

As with the script read-through, if I've been to design meetings and presentations from costume, lighting & set designers, won't I have a much richer visual sense of where the production is going - and how to reflect that visually, not just in terms of what the cast are doing and wearing, but in choosing how I light them for the poster / brochure / social media images you're going to be using?

In the same way a good costume designer knows the history of garment design, a good photographer should know the look & feel of the time a production is set in, and how to bring out the tone of the era - if that’s what works for the marketing of the show.

 Angels In America cast members Marcus Graham, Luke Mullins and Mitchell Butel at the Belvoir rehearsal space in Surry Hills, New South Wales.

Announcements, Photo Ops & Media Calls

If I've been part of the process up to this point, I'll have a much better idea of the message you're wanting to convey to your audience, via media releases and social media - and got a much better sense of what your company’s about, artistically speaking.

So, naturally, I've got a deeper understanding of what you want to achieve through the images I'm creating - and I can bring the tone and mood of the production through, as well as starting to show the relationships of characters to each other.

 An obsessive Paula Abdul fan, June, auditions for American Idol in an attempt to impress her hero. A young girl named Sam enters a relationship with her mechanic, Anthony, and cultivates a dangerous obsession with brutally confronting his wife, Carol. Carol, meanwhile, has reoccurring dreams in which a ghostly JonBenét Ramsey visits her, prophesying about the future.

Equally disturbing and humorous, Home Invasion explores celebrity infatuation and our culture's obsession with the relentless mediatisation of violent acts, weaving together three incidents from real life.

At the Old 505 Theatre in Newtown, from 21 March – 7 April 2018.

Direction & lighting design by ALEXANDER BERLAGE
Set design by JEREMY ALLEN
Costume design by ELLEN STANISTREET
Dramaturgy by DANIELLE MAAS

Photos by Robert Catto, on Friday, 23 February 2018. Please credit & tag the photographer when images are used - @robertcatto on Instagram & Twitter, @robertcattophotographer on Facebook.

The Poster / Promotional Image

If I've read the script, and know a fair bit about the design concepts for the production, I'm more than ready to help create a concept image for the production - something that captures the flavour of the show without giving away too much, conveying the essence of the characters and their relationships, and perhaps setting the scene a little as well.

Something that lures an audience to learn more about these people - without revealing the full journey the show will take them on.

 Sport For Jove presents No End Of Blame by Howard Barker; images taken at rehearsal in Sydney.

Featuring : Akos Armont, Lizzie Schebesta, Bryce Youngman, Sam O'Sullivan, Angela Bauer, Amy Usherwood, Danielle King, and Monroe Reimers
Director : Damien Ryan

Photo by Robert Catto, on on Thursday 5 October, 2017. Please credit & tag the photographer when images are used - @robertcatto on Instagram & Twitter, @robertcattophotographer on Facebook.

The Rehearsal Room

The poster / studio images are usually already done by the time we hit the rehearsal room; but being there can also give me a chance to be more prepared for the dress rehearsal, when proper production images are ultimately made.

Why not use this opportunity to create some new social media images, to build hype around the show as it comes together - and also let me get to know the key moments in terms of blocking, so I know where to position myself in the theatre on the night?

 Preparations are underway for the 2008 New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington.

Technical Setup / Production Week

Depending on the production, the technical and design elements can be some of the most interesting aspects of a show; so having images of how things come together can help not just on social media, but for later touring and re-staging of a particular design to different venues, cities, or even other countries - even with different casts, in years to come. This can be particularly important in non-theatrical venues, where the performance space itself is built as part of the show.

 It’s 1954. Everyone likes Ike, nobody likes communism and Baltimore is a topsy-turvy moral meritocracy. At the centre of this world are star-crossed lovers Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker – the coolest boy in Baltimore – and his rich but square object of desire, Allison. Cry-Baby is a bad boy with a great cause – truth, justice and the pursuit of rock and roll – so, fueled by hormones and the new rhythms of popular music, Allison turns her back on her King-of-the-Squares boyfriend Baldwin to become a ‘Drape’, and Cry-Baby’s girl. The stage is set for a pitched battle between the squeaky-clean, close-harmony Squares and the rock-and-roll juvenile delinquent Drapes.

Based on the cult-classic 1990 John Waters film, Cry-Baby boasts an hilariously absurd book from the writer of Hairspray, and an insanely catchy score featuring song titles like “I’m Infected” and “Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue?”. All these elements combine to create a unique, strange and totally endearing musical.

Starring Christian Charisiou, Ashleigh Rubenach, Laura Murphy, Joel Granger, Beth Daly, Alfie Glendhill, Manon Gunderson-Briggs, Bronte Florian, Amy Hack, Hayden Baum, Aaron Gobby, Ksenia Zofi, Blake Erickson, Brooke Almond

Director & Lighting Designer Alex Berlage
Musical Director Nicholas Griffin
Choreographer Cameron Mitchell
Designer Isabel Hudson
Costume Designer Mason Browne
Producer Lauren Peters

Photo by Robert Catto, on Friday, 20 July 2018. Please credit & tag the photographer when images are used - @robertcatto on Instagram & Twitter, @robertcattophotographer on Facebook.

Dress Rehearsal

Of course, having great production images is critical to most shows - for reviewers, publicity, social media, everywhere. But by the time we get to the night of the dress rehearsal, if I’ve been involved at many points through the process, I know what to expect, the cast know what I’m there to do, and everything works.

Plus of course, as I’ve written about before, I’ve already got everyone’s needs in mind - from marketing, to touring, to the designers’ portfolios. It’s all in hand - so the producers and director can focus on the dress rehearsal itself, and not have to think about whether they’ve briefed me well enough before we start…!

 Bonnie Lythgoe presents Sleeping Beauty: A Knight Avenger's Tale - Sydney Red Carpet arrivals.

Photo by Robert Catto, on Friday, 13 July 2018. Please credit & tag the photographer when images are used - @robertcatto on Instagram & Twitter, @robertcattophotographer on Facebook.

Opening Night

Not every show has a red carpet; but would you get extra publicity, if you did? Are there blogs, newspapers, or magazines that would run a social column about the opening itself - but might not send a photographer themselves - that could drive extra ticket sales?

Plus, having worked with me all the way through the process, the cast & crew will react much better to seeing me, than they would to being met by press photographers they don’t know - and the images will reflect that.

IMG_2520 160C Crop © Robert Catto Not Print Quality.jpg


Once a production is up and running, there are still ways I can help.

A limited edition archival print from the show, signed by the cast & crew, is something that can be auctioned to raise funds, or given to high-value donors and sponsors as a thank you gift - or, given away to an audience member at the end of the season, to give them an incentive to sign up to your mailing list. How many people come to the show with friends who booked the tickets, and you never get a chance to communicate directly with them afterwards?

Now, obviously, not EVERY production is going to have the time or resources to involve a photographer at EVERY stage of a show’s life; but isn’t it worth looking for how many different ways you can build that relationship, if the quality of the images - and by extension, all the marketing, social media, and publicity materials that use them - is that much better as a result…?

You wouldn't want to miss having your production, set, costume and lighting designers involved as early and often as possible, in the process of creating a work; and for all the same reasons, your photographer should be there, too.

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! 

Images above:

Early Development / Workshop: Legs On The Wall - The Raft workshop

The First Read-Through: Apocalypse Theatre - The Dapto Chaser rehearsal script with promotional image on cover

Design Presentations: Pinchgut Opera - Theodora design presentation

Announcements, Photo Ops & Media Calls: Belvoir Theatre - Mitchell Butel, Marcus Graham and Luke Mullins in an Angels In America publicity image

The Poster / Promotional Image: An Assorted Few - Chloe Bayliss in a promotional image for Home Invasion

The Rehearsal Room: Sport For Jove - the cast of No End Of Blame in rehearsal

Technical Setup / Production Week: Nick Schlieper at the New Zealand International Arts Festival

Dress Rehearsal: LPD Productions - the cast of Cry-Baby at the Hayes Theatre

Opening Night: The cast of Bonnie Lythgoe Productions’ Sleeping Beauty at the State Theatre, Sydney


Grant Cartwright & Sean Hawkins in Stones In His Pockets, directed by Chris Bendall for Critical Stages