Recently my wife and I went to see Cirque du Soleil’s Volta in San Francisco. Cirque du Soleil has become an annual tradition for us and every year they manage to jump over the bar they raised for themselves the previous year.
Somewhat surprisingly they allow (non-flash) photography from the audience. They won’t allow a full DSLR, but a good pocket camera like a Sony RX100 or a Canon G7 X Mark II will pass muster. The past two years, we’ve gotten what I consider the best seats in the house: exactly center stage, first or second row in the second section—a perfect vantage point for photography.
All that said, I went to enjoy the show. That was my main mission. Nonetheless, there were some shots I just couldn’t resist—like this one:
Yes, this amazing dancer/aerialist was suspended by her hair. I had no idea this was even possible. Turns out it’s a rare specialty and has been for a long time. It takes years of practice and training and the results are astonishing. This dancer’s name is Danila Bim.Look her up. And if you can, go see Volta.
What Makes a Great Performance Shot?
Going through the Volta shots got me to thinking more broadly about what makes a great performance shot. I’ve been reading what other performance photographers have said in various blogs and the advice they give is all technical: it’s all about lenses and focal lengths and apertures, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity. All good, necessary stuff—but I think all this technical advice misses an important mark:
A performance photographer must develop the ability to see the performance as it is happening and capture the fleeting moments of the show as they occur.
For many years I’ve been doing performance photography for a theater group in the Greater Sacramento area called El Dorado Musical Theatre (known locally as EDMT) and all that practice has resulted in my isolating three factors that are vital in photographically communicating the essence of any show:
Feature the characters as characters. The actors and directors work hard to bring their characters to life and their aliveness brings vitality to the show. If the photographs themselves do not capture and radiate life, then all the rest is for naught.
Show the motion as motion. Any theater—but especially musical theater—is dynamic. Actors move, dance, interact. Action must explode from the images.
Display the spectacle as spectacle. A big part of the magic of theater is the sets, the lighting, costumes, makeup, special effects, and the dance formations. All of this is to make the audience go, “wow!” So should the viewer.
It comes down to one basic thing: show the show.
Again, here’s the one point that all the advice I’ve read seems to have overlooked: in order to show the show, the performance photographer must—above all—be in the moment and watchthe show as it’s happening. All of photos below were shot during the only dress rehearsal for each show, the afternoon and evening before opening night. I only had one crack at it. I had to get it right the first time, because there really was no second chance.
One more thing: Each image has to stand on its own as a great photo. The whole purpose of professional performance photography is to promote the show and the theater company so that people will want to buy tickets. If the image doesn’t instantly grab the viewer, what’s the point?
Show the Whole Show
These three shots—all from 42ndStreet—exemplify much of what I’m talking about. They each have all three factors—Character, Motion, and Spectacle—to varying degrees.
This shot happened in the first few seconds of the show. As the curtain rises, a dance number is in progress and forty dancin’ feet are doin’ their stuff. The curtain goes up to waist-high and then pauses for a few seconds so all you can see are those talented, active feet tapping away. And right then, that’s all you need to know. This is show business!
Toward the end of the show there is a big production number. It is all about motion and spectacle. There are scores of opportunities for great shots, but some are better than others. Here’s where character, motion, and spectacle all came together in a perfect composition. This dip lasted about one second. Then they danced on.
Before this happy ending, there’s a point in the story where it seems like total disaster is inevitable. All will be lost. A total bust. The main character stands all alone on the stage in utter frustration and despair. He is standing in the spotlight, not in triumph, but defeat: What. The. Hell? Then the spotlight fades and he’s gone.
Any show is about characters. Characters are people. They’re alive. They have feelings. They interact with others. Characters tell the story and carry the audience with them through all the action and emotion and spectacle that provide the payoff in any production.
The guy screaming into the phone is a relatively minor character in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He’s a Junior Junior Deputy Assistant Nobody who wants desperately to be an Executive Somebody—but he’s really only there by the dubious graces of nepotism—and things are going very badly for him.
Not all characters are people. Here’s a scarecrow in search of a brain. But of course, we know he already has the biggest brain in all of Oz. It shows here—along with top-notch costuming and makeup.
On the other hand, Thoroughly Modern Milly has a brain. She also has a heart—and it has just been broken. After being jilted, she runs to her door and begins to close it as the lights are already starting to fade. I had less than a second to catch this crushed expression before the stage went dark.
On the brighter side, a triumphant Peter Pan has just vanquished the evil Captain Hook. Character and Spectacle—and amazing color abound in a composition that flaunts Peter’s position as King of the Mountain. It also flaunts the theater company’s exceptional production values.
In A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Past gives Scrooge a history lesson. The book is illuminating—but as we know, it’s going to take two more ghostly visits for the old grouch to completely get his redemption. Still, it’s apparent that the lesson is starting to make an impact:
Motion and Spectacle
These photos still feature characters and motion, but the emphasis shifts to the Wow factor.
What’s Singin’ in the Rain without some rain to sing in?
Later in the same performance is a dance number that gives the main character a unique perspective—for a split second. Knowing the characters and knowing that this number comes at a key point in the story, all I had to do is watch for a moment that I knew would arrive.
Beauty and the Beast. Spoiler alert: Beast gets girl. Or is it girl gets beast? Whatever—they both seem happy. Here’s where character, costume, makeup, motion, and set design all merge into a spectacle shot in a classic composition. Watch the dance and follow until the dip lines up with all the diagonals in the set for one whole second and there’s the shot.
And speaking of sets, this was the opening scene in The Music Man. Spectacular. But still, the set alone is only a set. It’s a matter of watching and waiting till all the characters are in a perfect position for the picture to tell its own story.
Finally, here’s Peter Pan taking a flying bow. Character, Motion, and Spectacle—and how. (I’m not above removing the cables for dramatic effect.)
Nuts and Bolts
Here’s the technical stuff, for those who are interested. For all this talk on other web sites about lenses and focal lengths and apertures, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity, my technical advice might come as a bit of a disappointment. The EDMT photos were shot with Canon and Nikon DSLRs. The earliest with a Canon 7D and the later ones with Nikon D750 and D500 bodies. Lenses were all wide-to-telephoto zooms. Purists will scoff at my lens choice as sub-par and very unprofessional. They’ll tell you that zooms such as these are fraught with optical compromises. And they’re right. On the other hand, their flexibility allows me to cover an entire fast-moving show with one body/lens combo and I don’t miss shots while fumbling with multiple cameras and lenses. I consider that a good tradeoff.
Another reason I don’t miss shots is that I mostly shoot aperture-preferred auto—usually one stop down from wide open—with ISO sensitivity set to auto. Some motion shots are done shutter-preferred at slow shutter speeds, down to about 1/15 sec to get the swirl and blur. I switch back-and-forth between spot and matrix metering depending on the scene. Auto ISO means that I frequently get up into scary-high-oh-my-God-that’s-noisy ISO numbers, like 12,500. But the Nikons handle high ISOs quite well—and in post processing, DxO PhotoLab Elite’s Prime noise reduction does a remarkable job killing noise without damaging detail.
All this allows me to put 95% of my attention on watching the performance as it happens so I can catch the magic and life and show the show.