My Equipment-Part 1
Lenses and low low light
When I started out shooting theatre in the late 70′s it was clear that there was no film fast enough to shoot in really low stage light. 400 asa Tri-X was the limit of the fastest film I could buy.
I would go to shoot a dress rehearsal and often the lighting designer would say David, it’s a dark show and I knew I was in trouble. The best I could do was push process my film and raise my asa to about 1200. Tungsten slide film was worse since it was rated at 160asa and push processing it made it very contrasty. So I invested in some very fast prime Nikon lenses that helped give me the ability to shoot in lower light with a wide open aperture. Everything was manual focus in those days. There were lots of thin negatives and out of focus shots.
My favorite lens was a Nikkor 135mm f2 telephoto. It brought you close to the actors from several rows back without invading their space. The wide open aperture also separated the actors from the background in a really sweet way. The next was a 105mm f2.8 portrait lens and a Nikkor 85mm f2.8. Eventually I purchased a 300mm f2.8 Tameron since the Nikon was twice the price. Zooms were not an option in those days. They were too slow and did not have the sharpness of a prime.
Now that auto focus exists and much sharper zooms are available, that’s all I use. I only need to travel with two lenses to cover 5 or 6 lenses in my older kit.
The first early digital SLR were no better than film. My $10,000 Nikon D1 produced a small file and anything beyond 400iso was really noisy and not very usable. The latest Nikon D3S can easily work at 1600 or 3200 iso with very low noise in the shadows. Many kit lenses that come with Nikons and Canon are very slow and you will be in trouble if the fastest aperture is only f4.5 or f5.6. trying to shoot in low light.
My favorite lens now is a Nikon 70 to 200mm f2.8 zoom. There are still times that there are just a few candles or practicals on stage and getting a high shutter speed is impossible. One way to get more light on the sensor is to use a 50mm f1.4. It’s reasonably priced these days but on my full frame sensor it’s a bit too wide unless I am really close to the actors. I think I am spoiled by the zooms now and feel more limited with the primes. Generally I have two camera bodies set up in the theatre, one with a 24-70mm zoom on a D3s and the other a 70-200mm on a D3. I never shoot any lower than 1600iso on either.
I’ve seen Joe McNally work with a Nikon 200mm f2. That’s an amazing low light lens. Beautifully sharp but way to expensive for most mortals to buy. Nikon has an 85mm f1.4 lens if you can afford it that would be great for stage work.
Something you might not know, if you join Nikon’s NPS membership they will lend you the big gun lenses like the 300mm f2.8
or 400mm primes. You just need to give them a few days notice and they will bring one in for free. Or course you better take care of those babies since they are worth over $5,000 each.
I am a big fan of using a tripod in low light. But I do use a quick release plate in case I want to move quickly to somewhere else.
It’s especially useful when I want to shoot set shots for the designers and stop down or get some creative blurs at 1/4sec.
I recently started playing with video on a Canon 7D. The only lens I own on that camera is an amazing 50mm f1.2 The 7D is not a full frame sensor camera so the 50mm is equivalent to an 80mm lens.
If you are investing in gear make sure you consider how much you will be shooting in bright sunlight and how much in more difficult situations where 2 extra f stops might set you apart from other shooters.
When getting a new camera body be aware of the auto assist light on some models.
We learned the hard way that this is really distracting to some actors.
Always set your camera to the lowest ISO possible to get the best results from your camera’s sensor. But if you are capturing movement it’s better to sacrifice quality with a really high iso like 3200 and go for a higher shutter speed.
A blurred grainless shot with the camera set to 200iso and taken at 1/60 is useless but a grainy and noisy and clearer image shot at 1/500 might become the poster for a show.