Serene Life

by garik

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I am taking pictures of performers on stage. Sometimes they have tungsten lighting, but then they can also have funky color lights of all sorts go off at them.

Here is a Flickr Album of the pictures I recently took: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8160217@N02/sets/72157629788799877/

I'm shooting with a Nikon D7000 on Auto, No flash, high speed multi shot, RAW mode. I took about 1000 pictures, and about 15 of them were worth editing.

I figured that a monopod would be really helpful in keeping the camera steadier (most of my shots were blurry), and keeping me mobile to change angles. I got a monopod, and I will use it at the next event.

I did see this question, but it is more about a point-and-shoot than a DSLR

What can I do to improve the quality of pictures that I take?

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Could someone please tell him how to improve this question? Questions don't get auto improved by downvotes. –  TheIndependentAquarius Apr 11 '12 at 3:35
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You might also want to take a look at this question: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/7579/… –  forsvarir Apr 11 '12 at 10:15
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I can only guess on why this got negative reactions, but it might help if you can focus specifically on where you're having problems, maybe even as several separate questions. Is it the lighting colors, improving your "hit rate", dealing with blur....? As it is, the question is so open-ended as to almost not be a question. –  mattdm Apr 11 '12 at 11:21
    
Tx @mattdm. I will focus on the blur now, and move up to colors later. What is "hit rate"? –  Raj More Apr 11 '12 at 15:55
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"hit rate" is jargon for "15 worth keeping out of 1000". –  mattdm Apr 11 '12 at 16:13

3 Answers 3

If you are primarily unhappy with the blurriness of your photos, and you are shooting with no flash, then you need to fix two things:

1) unwanted movement of the camera, and 2) shutter speeds to stop the action of the subject being photographed

For #1, as you've suggested, a monopod will help steady the camera. Another thing that will help is to use a lens with vibration reduction.

For #2 (to stop the action), increase your shutter speed to a minimum of roughly 1/250th or 1/320th of a second (faster if possible). I'm making an assumption that the stage is fairly well-lit, but still dark. In order to accomplish these faster shutter speeds, here is my suggestion:

a) set your camera on manual exposure and auto focus

b) set your shutter speed to 1/250th

c) open the aperture as wide as it will go for your lens (f/3.5 is wider than f/4.0, for example) so it will allow more light to hit the sensor

d) use center-weighted light metering so your meter can give you a reading from your better-lit (center of the frame) subjects and minimize the effects of the dark background

e) adjust ISO upwards until your meter says you're within 1 stop or less underexposed. I think 1600 is probably the practical upper limit for ISO with the D7000, based on other references online. The reason I say "within 1 stop" is that you want to use the minimum ISO that will allow you to get the shot, in order to keep the digital noise minimized. Also, since you're shooting RAW, you can push exposure somewhat lighter in a post-processing program.

The costly answer here is that buying a zoom lens with vibration reduction and a large maximum aperture (f/2.8) will allow you to push up shutter speed a little further without having to push ISO up as far. You can get a less expensive lens with a large maximum aperture, such as a 50 mm f/1.8, but the lack of zoom limits your ability to take pictures as a spectator at an event.

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If you're shooting at 1/250, then VR is probably not going to give you much bang for the buck as you wouldn't get much blur from camera shake for an exposure that short (assuming proper technique). Also, although manual mode and fixed shutter speed makes sense, you may be even better off with shutter priority mode and auto ISO. –  SoftMemes Apr 13 '12 at 14:46

With the advent of i.nst.ag.ram and resurgence of "lo-fi" photography, it is easy to be lulled into the false sense of security that "equipment doesn't matter". And a lot of times it doesn't. Stage photography is not one of those times.

Since the use of flash is generally discouraged (if not outright disallowed) for many dance/stage productions, it is essential to have FAST lenses AND a sensor that can give good quality at high ISO speeds. Some skill helps, too. Each of these covered below:

1) Lenses/speed: in my experience, you will need f/2.8 or better to get the necessary shutter speeds. Generally you will need to be shooting a minimum of 1/60th, but even that will generally have some blur due to subject motion. More likely you'll want to be at 1/250th or faster. Even the best zoom lenses top out at f/2.8 so you may want to look into primes. (Looking at the images on the linked Flickr account, I would say most of your problem lies in shutter speed, not camera stability.) Oh, and Image/Vibration-stabilized lenses won't help you much here...they can counteract camera shake, but not subject movement. You need the fast shutter speed, especially for dance.

2) Camera/high ISO: the D7000 is actually fairly decent at high ISO...not awesome, but really no camera is. The thing is, you have to use it. That means getting out of Auto mode and setting the ISO yourself. Unless you have a remarkably well-lit stage, you will need to be shooting at least at 1600, probably 3200, and maybe even higher depending. A good post-process noise reducer will help, because you will end up with noise.

3) Skill: a monopod (plus a good ball head) will help for those cases where camera shake is responsible for blurriness, but you still need to know how to use it. There's a good tutorial at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KfR8mM4dtI or you can search around for others.

Additionally: it may not be feasible for you, but I have found it useful to shoot with 2 separate bodies, since I generally only use my best/fastest prime lenses and switching lenses can be cumbersome. I put a tele (135mm) on one and a wide (24mm) on the other.

Good luck! Stage photography, dance in particular, can be very difficult, but it is rewarding when you get a great shot!

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"the D7000 is actually fairly decent at high ISO...not awesome, but really no camera is." Setting aside cost as a factor, the most recent full frame cameras from Nikon and Canon are pretty awesome at high ISO. That said, probably not a realistic option for the original poster. –  cadmium Apr 12 '12 at 14:46
    
The pro models are "good" (usable), and maybe "awesome" relative to lower-end models, and certainly much improved from even a few years ago, but I still would not use that adjective to describe the high ISO (>3200) of any camera. That wasn't really my point though...the point is, you have to use it. If you're trying to shoot dance/stage at 400 or even 800, unless you have a TON of light, it's not going to be enough. –  djangodude Apr 12 '12 at 22:31
    
+1 for "you will have to use it". I did a bit of photography in a martial arts competition and thought that I would be doing OK with my newly acquired 105/2.8 (an awesome lens btw). I still ended up having to peg the camera at ISO 1600 to get anything half decent. –  SoftMemes Apr 13 '12 at 15:47
    
Yep. Even with 135/f2 (my best "dance" lens), I'm almost always at 1600 unless it's an exceptionally well-lit venue...but those seem rare :-) –  djangodude Apr 13 '12 at 16:02

What Cliff says

AND

Auto mode is probably a mistake.
No apparent EXIF available on your photos, but you really want to be able to select the conditions for each photo yourself. ISO, aperture and shutter speed all influence how likely a photo is to succeed. When pushed to the very limits manual mode can actually be easier on the brain than any auto or semi auto mode.
Manual mode allows you to experiment more easily.

Experiment so that you are CERTAIN where your degredations are coming from and what the limits are.
How much is camera shake.
How much is subject movement.
Is this the sort of subject where panning will help?
How much is ISO an issue (noise, camera noise correction quality reductions).

Be well acquainted with how what live-view or immediate post-view shows you, and the final results you can expect. Some cameras have superb LCDs and and images that look very good on the LCD may be far less impressive 'back home'. And for some cameras just the opposite applies - final photo quality may be superior to what the LCD shows. (In my case my A77 & A700 make/made mediocore shots look better and my Minolta 5D (6mP, still going) makes good shots look bad on the LCD).

Look at noise levels you get with a given ISO and decide what you can tolerate.
Find the best noise reduction post processing program you think you can afford and then buy the next more expnsive one if it's better.
The max ISO and best pgrogram you can manage sets the noise limits.

Translate the ISO and acceptable light level into the sort of apertures and shutter speeds you are going to need. If you have a zoom that varies aperture with focal length, know where the change points in effective aperture are and try to maximise aperture (ie minimum f.stop of course). You may only gain a 2X shutter speed by keeping the zoom in its high aperture range, but a factor of 2 can make a large difference.

Be aware of the limitations this places on your depth of field and necessary focusing accuracy and difficulty and speed of focusing. I'll indent the following narrative as it is highly relative but some people here have low attention spans and vote down chain of consciouness material - no matter how relevant.

  • Some personal experiences of the relative merits of large aperture lenses in non-flash low light night photography: When wandering around night markets and similar taking photos without flash I often use an 18-250 f/3.5-f/5.6 zoom.
    f/3.5 lasts only from 18-24mm, f/4 from 24-40mm, f/4.5 from 40-75mm and f/5.56 from 75-250mm. The difference in light input from f/3.5 to f/5.6 is (5.6/3.5)^2 (ie stop ratio squared) = 2.6:1 or slightly more than a halving in shutter speed as aperture g=changes from minimum to maximum. That's not vast, but 1/15 to 1/30 is a great help. 1/30 to 1/60 can be extremely useful. 1/60 to 1/125 and the Ninja stabilised hand is well dealt with and you are starting to address dancer blur.

    BUT when I bought a 50mm f/1.8 I thought it would vastly improve my ability to take night photos. (3.5/1.8)^2 ~= 4:1 os 4 x shutter speed. 50mm (75mm equivalent on an A700 APSC) means camera stability issues are much reduced. Rule of thumb says you need 1/50th second minimum. Ninja breathing and concentration and leaning on a post may take that own to 1/10th second and a stabilised lens may help a bit more. Pushing it you MAY get sharp shots at 0.2 s up IF the subject does not move.

    BUT my night market lens of choice is now still my 18-250mm. Apart from the ability to zoom widely, it is far far far easier to rapidly focus and frame. The rather narrow depth of field of the 50 mm f/1.8 makes dealing with dynamic subjects much harder. Stop it down to f4 or so and things get better - but you may as well then use the zoom lens.

Despite the above, try a largest available aperture lens to see what it can do for you. Changing fro f/5.6 to f/1.8 (rather extreme) gives 9 times more light or 9 times higher shutter speed. 1/30th s at f/5.6 =~ 1/250th s at f/1.8. MAY make the pain of use worthwhile. Even f/4 to f/1.8 allows a 5 times shutter speed increase.

You can't choose which dance moves occur where on stage, but you can look for locations where lighting is better - especially when you are getting very poor % of good shots, selecting which ones to concentrate on based on lighting probably makes sense. Some of your shots look substantially more brightly lit than others. The light falls more from the side in some cases. If your lights are far off the brightness may not vary much with position. If lights are close then falloff will follow inverse square law. A dancer twice as close to a light will be 4 x as brightly illuminated - 2 stops or 4 x shutter speed gain. Even 30% closer = twice as bright. Or 40% further away = half as bright.

Can you use flash at all ? - probably anathema, but maybe not.

Can you afford a D700?
Can you afford a D3s? :-).

You probably don't have any control over lighting, but if you do, some additional reflector material to increase brightness may not be at all obvious to dancers or viewers but may more than double light levels.

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