ABOVE : The young narrator of YMTUK's Cautionary Tales at Plymouth's Barbican Theatre
Light, they will tell you, is the medium you must paint with as a photographer. It is not as though It will be expected to perform miracles for you under your hands but you will be told that you must work with it less like a sculptor would with organic material and more like a painter trying to capture a moment in time.
Your plate, your film, your negative or more accurately today, your camera's sensor will be your canvas ,and on it you must frame and compose passing moments for posterity using your own brilliantly attuned and practised eye to select the perfect moment. Each photograph like some untimely matrimony between Martine McCutcheon and Henri Cartier-Bresson must be decisive and perfect before it passes and is gone forever. And it will be your ability to read light like a fortune teller translating what to everyone else is just plain old builders tea that will endow you with a magic that means you can read the luminant landscape and pick out a vision from the mist.
Much of this is misleading or hopeful at best.
ABOVE : Promotional Performance and Theatre Photography for YMTUK in Plymouth
As an event photographer, particularly a performance photographer, (which is what I consider myself to be whether it is sport, music or theatre unfolding in front of me), you are aiming to reflect and re project somebody else's vision and in doing so, tell a story.
There is though, nothing quite like photographing promotional material for theatrical productions.
In theatre photography the lighting has already been designed, the peopled canvas staged, as a story lovingly created in glorious 3D, reveals itself right in front of you. Prescribed scenes , recurring characters and set ups unfold and an unfurling parade of colour, characters, shadows, fog and vignettes plead for you to document them, and pass on the whiff of sweat, greasepaint and inspiration to an audience that have not yet stepped into the auditorium.
It is very rewarding, but not quite as straightforward as it appears.
Youth Music Theatre UK has since 2003 been at the pioneering front of the UK performing arts sector in imagining, creating and producing new music theatre, providing a much needed stepping stone to drama school and conservatoires for young people pursuing careers as singers, actors, dancers, musicians, emerging artists and stage technicians.
Working with young people age 11-21 across UK and Ireland they have amassed over 110 productions of over 90 new works since inception and have already trained 8000 with an impressive list of alumni who learned much of their early trade at YMT including Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Lauren Samuels, Charlotte Ritchie, Jack Bence, and Lucy Griffiths.
ABOVE : The rehearsal for Cautionary Tales at Barbican Theatre in Plymouth
As a photographer I could not have been more delighted than to be offered the opportunity to work alongside YMTUK (Youth Music Theatre UK) in capturing the promo shots for their original musical Cautionary Tales. Based on the stories of Hilaire Belloc, who was himself parodying the stern cautionary tales popular in the 19th century, YMTUK's enchanting, quirky and magical production does the original material proud with Rebecca Alpins brilliant score ( I spent all weekend singing the main theme to myself) pulling together magnificently some fantastically realised ideas and dismantling the idea of admonition for it's own sake in this study of individuality and childhood imagination.
The drama is punctuated by the rich eccentricities of it's characters and the dark dour Gothic undertow that threatens to drag Gloamsville into an eternal grey fog of mediocrity is saved by children with superpowers.
With a set and costumes that remind me of the best of Gormenghast, Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children, Fantastic Beasts and where to find them,Edward Scissorhands and the Adams Family, the musical puts you right into the pages of this meditation on cautionary fairy tales and makes my job as a photographer much easier, with such a clearly and elegantly laid out map of the landscape before me.
ABOVE : Some of the young cast from Youth Music Theatre UK on stage at dress rehearsal
Nathan Benjamin's lighting design and it's execution was exemplary, in what is after all a smaller theatre, and the subtle changes held together well, making it more straightforward for me to jump through the scenes with three different cameras and a variety of prime lenses.
Lighting and stage design often subconsciously nod to painting and the expressive and tight choreography here also help in drawing strong dynamic diagonal lines across the stage, making the photographs sing and illustrate effectively, the story YMYUK have so expertly crafted.
ABOVE : Hilaire Belloc's 'Cautionary Tales' realised as a musical by YMTUK in Plymouth
It's not just about weighting your exposure triangle when you have a scene in which the full width of the stage is full of moving performers vying for the audiences attention. Balance the light, the action and the position of characters within the frame. When writer/directors as talented as Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Choreographer Mark Illes, coach performers who are on point, Irish dancing, walking on their hands, somersaulting and jiving, make sure you reflect that attention to detail, and show just how beautifully laid out their blocking is in your photographs. If the lighting designer has managed to reproduce crepuscular rays, don't obscure them by zooming in too tight and leaving no space above the performers.
BELOW: Meet the Children of Gloamsville - The Bittingworths could lift an elephant
When props and gestures/actions are used to express the qualities of characters, be sure to include this as shorthand for expressing this. After all you will rarely be including text or dialogue in your images, so do not miss this chance to illustrate who the characters in the musical or drama really are. Captured at the right moment and cropped tightly, you can exaggerate this and hammer home what these folks can do.
BELOW : The narrator is still while the cast move around him at the Barbican Theatre
Movement is never more clearly expressed in photographs then when there is a stationary element that can be used to contrast with the blurred moving elements of a long exposure. If this is a character in the play (in this case the narrator), then it becomes even more powerful. You will often be forced into operating at longer shutter speeds anyway, so do not be afraid to use a tripod, but do so sparingly for long telephoto lenses and shots that isolate one character as others move around them. You are not there to watch, so move from one perspective and document as you do so.
ABOVE : Aspect Ratio can help to emphasize an Images inherent dynamics in Photography
FORMAT / ASPECT RATIO
Obviously at times it will depend on your client and what they ask for, but often the traditional 3:2 of 35mm will not be the best choice for every image. There is no rule that dictates 1:1 or 16:9 or even 4:3 are superior choices. The shot above at close to 8 x 10 is more reflective of a traditional print size but it works with the strong diagonal of the trombone and the character raising her fist in the background. The original had too much wasted space on the left and a true 1:1 or 6:6 Medium Format Square would crop too tightly. Use what works in context.
ABOVE : Exquisite lighting design and posing a gift for any portrait artist or Photographer
DO IT JUSTICE
When the lighting designer, Producer and Director present you with tableaux that could have been set up by Rembrandt or Caravaggio then don't over think and get them down onto your sensor. There is a reason why at University or evening classes/camera clubs studio portrait lighting set-ups are called things like Rembrandt lighting. They have been around a long time and predate photography, developed by the old masters and refined by Hollywood, this is the same toolbox theatre dips into. Theatre lighting designers and techs have access to a lot of great and flexible solutions and out of respect for the way they wield their craft, make sure you capture some of that skill.
ABOVE : Don't be afraid of the dark. Embrace the shadows and contrast spots will provide
DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK
With modern cameras and their ability to pull out detail from the shadows in RAW files, that at first glance seem lost, it can be tempting to over do this. With stage photography though this can be a mistake. The spotlight is there to pick out that face, and this is where spot metering to protect those highlights, and keep those blacks inky and impenetrable, will serve you well.
ABOVE :Youth Music Theatre UK smashing it at Barbican Theatre in Plymouth
There is no such thing as over the top with theatre photography. Parody started as far back as Aristotle, and so one should never be afraid of using it, especially in the context of a musical like this. 'Cautionary Tales' is dramatizing the work of Belloc, whose stories in many ways were parodying the moralizing that went before him.
Children's stories, fairy tales, theatre and the musical, are by their very nature writ large, so express yourself. Throw some shapes yourself, and push yourself creatively to reflect what is happening on stage when realising the companies vision. Masks,stage make up,huge gestures etc are amplification techniques for those at the back, so do not shrink back from including the melodramatic.
ABOVE : Cast member sings in YMTUK's 'Cautionary Tales' at Barbican Theatre Plymouth
SHOW WHAT IT IS
I have long been an advocate of going wide or going home. For me the sweeping panoramic view is often the only way to do an event justice, and for theatre it is a great way to convey both what the audience will see, and the excitement and drama that will be generated in witnessing the spectacle of the production. It has become common place in an industry in which a production is sold on the stars that the stage shots advertising or documenting it, focus solely on the close up and three quarter mid waist up shots of the leading members of the cast. Don't neglect these though, just do not make them the sole focus of your shoot. Here above, in a musical, the actress singing is useful in signalling exactly what to expect, but without the wide and mid shots, audiences will not have their appetites whetted for what makes each production unique.
ABOVE : Young cast members choreographed in a dynamic scene from ' Cautionary Tales'
There is an obsession with sharpness in modern photography that can sometimes render people in photographs as lifeless mannequins. Whether it is the blur of an arm from a boxer throwing a punch, or the arc of a drummers stick heading towards a snare at a punk gig, do not be afraid to show the energy of a performance. Pick your moment and try to balance elements, so here for example you have the luggage in a merry go round arc, with it's trajectory mapped out by all four actors. Two have their backs to us, two are facing us, and the seated backline in profile help exaggerate the whirl of motion and excitement that we are missing without visible dancing and audible music.
ABOVE : The Fishbucket siblings comfort each other in YMTUK'S 'Cautionary Tales'
Getting low, whether that means putting your DSLR onto the floor, flipping out the monitor and using live view, or simply lying on the floor, can give you into a unique perspective. Not only will it provide you with direct eye contact when actors are seated, but if they are stood up it can exaggerate the space above them and be used to increase either their sense of vulnerability or endow them with power. Your job is to convey emotion, and when the characters on-stage sync with the lighting, their faces and body language, make sure you have anticipated this, Change position and perspective in response to the action on stage, and you will put yourself into a position to give your images a unique strength.
Learn to use you manual settings intuitively, and ride the roller-coaster. There will have been many weeks of work before you come and capture the dress rehearsal, so prepare to sweat and work hard in capturing it, and it will show in the dynamism of your own photographs.
You can find out more about Youth Music Theatre UK here and see details of their latest shows and Summer courses HERE
If you would like to book me to capture your Theatrical Production, Performance, Exhibition, Gig or any other kind of event, you can contact me HERE
All Images © Youth Music Theatre UK 2018