What exposure mode to shoot theatre?

Viewing 5 reply threads
  • Author
    • #96771

      When shooting a stage performance in a theatre, I found that automatic exposure modes don't work because the stage is usually dark with brightly lit performers. Automatic modes (P,  shutter priority, aperture priority), in an attempt to average out the exposure, always overexpose the performers unless it is zoomed into one performer.

      I ended up always using manual exposure with the aid of zebra. However, whenver the brightness level changes, I have to re-adjust the exposure, which is labor intensive. Is there a better way to do this? Would camcorders with face recognition do better in auto exposure?

      This may influence my next camcorder purchase, which is likely to have a larger sensor or 3 sensors.

    • #301433

      Let’s start with this premise: the theatrical lighting designer intended to have bright and dark scenes during the play. Having worked in and around the theatre for nearly 70 years, I believe it is the job of the videographer  to understand this aesthetic and to capture as closely as possible the lighting on stage, even if to some extent this is at the expense of what we would think of as good video.  To the extent that it’s possible, I want someone watching the DVD of the performance to experience the same production that a member of the theatre audience saw, not something that's illuminated consistently throughout.

      A few years ago when shooting  DV with Sony PD-150s and 170s, I would ask the stage electrician to show me the lighting for the darkest and the brightest scene in the play and set up the iris accordingly – midway between the extremes. Today it’s harder to do this, owing to the design of many HD cameras which change iris settings in manual mode as zoom is applied (e.g., Sony NX5U, X70.) The workaround for me is to shoot in full auto and limit both ends of the auto gain control so overly bright scenes which employ a follow spot won’t clip and dark scenes will remain dark:  -3db and +6db, for example.

      In my experience, trying to adjust iris settings during the performance is not only difficult but results in a noticeable jump in light levels. Moreover, it works against the aesthetic of the theatre artists.

    • #278245

      I had to smile. Labour intensive? Exposure of theatrical stuff, like Jack says is always tricky. Some scenes are deliberately gloomy, others excessively bright and video cameras hate both. The use of face light to for the performer is common, and allows all sorts of brightness and colour changes elsewhere, so every scene, or sometimes more than once in a scene manual intervention is required. Theatre video (what 90% of my business is) requires plenty of hard work. manual focus and manual exposure are number one on my list. Auto might work in an evenly lit, choir concert, but it will fail you so easily – burnt out faces are difficult for auto systems to cope with – on the stage – one face is far too small for the camera to determine it even IS a face!

      I find that finding the brightest state they are using and setting that as my maximum, works fine, and as my lenses have iris dials, I can ride the iris if I have to, but during the sscen it's rare. Worst case is when a scene is mostly dim, but then ramps up for the FUF – full up finish! Not as common as it was, but musicals often have a bump on the end, where levels perk up – maybe not full up – as that's an old concept, but a song that ends de-de-DE-DE DUH! is a warning. Personally I'm quite happy riding the iris.

    • #278251

      @Paulears: I'd love to be able to have control over the iris but with our NX5U cameras that isn't possible. What camera(s) are you using? I'm ready to change.

    • #278252

      @hivideo: I think we should clear up the idea that there are "unintentional" areas of light and darkness on the stage. Having been married to a professional lighting designer for nearly 60 years I can assure you that the location and intensity of every light on the stage is intentional, carefully plotted and rehearsed by the lighting designer and stage electricians. Theatre lighting isn't lighting for the camera; it's lighting for the human eye. And it is intentional that a performer walk from cool to warm light, or from light to darkness — the intent of both the lighting designer and the production's stage director.

      So our challenge as videographers, as I see it, is to figure out how to approximate that lighting for delivery via DVD, YouTube or hard drive. Like you, as I've indicated in my first response above, I use control of gain to approach this approximation, setting upper and lower gain limits. This works rather well, I find.

    • #278254

      Jack and I agree on this – it's a biut insulting to the lighting designers to have their carefully planned lighting described as having unintentional hot spots. Nothing is ever unintentional. 

      My old work camera was a PMW-400 series, but my own cameras are JVC 251 x 2 and a 750.

      Hivideo's comment about in this day and age isn't really how it is. I still do a bit of broadcast as a freelance, and am a member of the Guild of TV Camera Professionals, and in the studio and on OBs, all the cameras are still racked by a person. The iris and sensitivity being done live by a dedicated person, and of course our cameras don't even have autofucus. My theatre work means I work in low light a lot, and manual focus isn't the big hassle people think it is. The viewfinder always gives you clues. If the subject is blurry, but the background sharper, you know you have to focus forwards, but if the background is blurry too, then you need to focus back. In a lot of cases, you know how close top infinity you are focussed, as there's usually a little knobble on the lens ring on proper lenses. My normal shooting setup is a zoom demand on the pan handle, and my left little finger sits on the focus ring, and my first finger can adjust the iris, as I leave the iris auto/manual switch on manual. One big problem with modern lighting is that designers now use lots of backlight, which makes the actors stand out, and their facelight comes from the front. These lights for plays are hidden, but for music events they are not, and with moving lights sweeping around, the last thing you want is the mover shining into your lens and the auto system shutting the iris down. Bleaching out is better out of the two choices – but you do have to be careful that CMOS chips can have horrible vertical smearing – and worse, if the lights are dimmed then these vertical stripes can move!

      To Jack – I've been using the JVCs for years now – started on the 110s, and while I like the 750 for the same shape, I don't like it's response to colours on stage – the older chips seem to render shades between red, through magenta to blue, but the 750, like my Pentax DSLR just has red, then the same pink, then blue. It isn't gradual. I don't miss the Sony that much. It was a lovely camera, but was on a lease deal, so at the end of the term, it went back, and I picked up the 750 at about the same time. I don't find much depth of field with the 1/3" chips as for the majority of the time, the gain has to be on 0dB so the lense working nearly wide open.

      A good example of how auto control would be thwarted is in this recent video – where the movers often shine straight at me. This was shot on two of the 1/3" cameras.





    • #278250

      One of the worse scenerio is uneven stage lighting such that some performers are unintentionally brighter than others. Or there may be only one performer on stage but moving through unintentional bright and dark zones on the stage.

      I usually set iris to the largest aperture that won't change as I zoom in and out. E.g. on a lens that is f2.0 to f4.0 through the zoom range, I set it to f4.0. Then I "ride the gain". If I ride the iris I may accidentally set it to f2.0 when zoomed out, then when I zoom in the lens becomes f4 and underexpose. Unless there's a way to limit the iris range not to go below f4, or I upgraded to a camcorder with constant aperture zoom lense.

      In this age of automation, AI, …, it feels a bit strange to have to use manual exposure, or manual anything at all. It's good to hear I'm not the only one. I avoid having to manual focus by using small sensor (1/3 inch) camcorder. This way most performers are in focus. How can you manual focus when a performer is moving back and forth on stage? You must have sharp eyes and quick fingers

Viewing 5 reply threads
  • The forum ‘Professional Camcorders’ is closed to new topics and replies.

Best Products

The best video monitors — 2021

We rely on our video monitors to show us an accurate representation of our images throughout the production process. Here are some of the best video monitors currently on the market.



Given away to one lucky winner

Competition is open worldwide


Need help making a stellar first video?


Download our free eBook with 8 tips to get on the right track and create a video that you can be proud of.