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. Here's an example image:

by Raj.More, on Flickr.

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. So, 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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    \$\begingroup\$ Could someone please tell him how to improve this question? Questions don't get auto improved by downvotes. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2012 at 3:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might also want to take a look at this question: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/7579/… \$\endgroup\$
    – forsvarir
    Apr 11, 2012 at 10:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Apr 11, 2012 at 11:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Tx @mattdm. I will focus on the blur now, and move up to colors later. What is "hit rate"? \$\endgroup\$
    – Raj More
    Apr 11, 2012 at 15:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ "hit rate" is jargon for "15 worth keeping out of 1000". \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Apr 11, 2012 at 16:13

4 Answers 4


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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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$
    – SoftMemes
    Apr 13, 2012 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ The biggest problem with Auto ISO is that the light often changes between the time the meter measures the scene and the shutter opens. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Jun 22, 2017 at 7:58

Photography in a theatrical setting is one of the most challenging forms there is, both in terms of pushing the equipment you use to the absolute edge of their capabilities and in terms of requiring every bit of skill and experience you might have as the photographer.

Footloose2 Manual exposure with Evaluative metering at about -1. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II @ 200mm, ISO 1600, f/2.8 (notice only the front line is in sharp focus), 1/200 second. I'm right on the edge of motion blur at 200mm and 1/200 second even when timing the kick at it's apex. But the faces are sharp and that's what counts the most.

Photography is the art of capturing light. Most theatrical settings don't offer much light to capture and what light there is to capture is changing rapidly and the subjects are usually very animated.

The traditional solution to not much light (longer shutter speed using a tripod to hold the camera still) doesn't work because nobody on stage stands still for 10-15 seconds while you take a picture.

The traditional solution to capturing motion (faster shutter speeds) doesn't usually work because there isn't enough light to capture a good image on a small sensor with a narrow aperture.

In the end you have to balance the two as best you can AND use gear that allows you to capture as much of the scarce light that is present in the scene in as fast a time as possible. That means fast lenses (wide apertures), larger sensors, and cameras that are highly responsive (fast handling and AF). It also means you must use impeccable timing when you release the shutter. If a performer is jumping you can get by with a slower shutter time if you catch the performer in the instant they stop going up and start going back down. If they're running back and forth across the stage, catch them in the instant when they transition from moving right to moving left or vice versa.

I've shot theatrical performances with both APS-C and full frame cameras. With even the best APS-C sensors I wouldn't try to shoot using any lens narrower than f/2.8. With a FF sensor I sometimes will use an f/4 zoom for the wider angle stuff where motion blur from slightly slower shutter times is not as much of an issue. For tighter shots using longer focal lengths I use an f/2.8 zoom or even a wider aperture prime such as a 100mm f/2 or 135mm f/2 to allow fast enough shutter times in such a setting. I often use a monopod with the 70-200 lens just to help with camera stability. (Most of the time shooting high school and community theater I have free run of the theater. I tend to wear all dark clothing and be as invisible and non-invasive as possible. It helps if the theater has outside aisles. Moving about is not always an option, though, especially in commercial/professional settings. Fortunately the lighting is also usually better and a lot of the time with such productions you're only allowed to shoot the dress rehearsal anyway, where you do have more freedom of movement.)

If at all possible it helps to be familiar with the production before you shoot it. Attend a few of the last rehearsals when the lighting crew is also participating if such rehearsals occur with the dance program. Even if there are no rehearsals with the same lighting as the show, catch a few of the dancers' rehearsals to learn their routines. The best shots you'll get will always be the ones you anticipate and set up for in advance of when the action actually happens.

The Wedding Singer
Shot from the orchestra pit during a dance number. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-105mm f/4 IS @ 24mm, ISO 1600, f/4, 1/160 second. Shot using Evaluative metering in Av exposure mode with -1 1/3 stop exposure compensation. I timed the shutter when the nearest briefcases were at the apex of their trajectory.

Manual exposure mode with Evaluative metering showing about -1. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II @ 75mm, ISO 1000, f/3.5 (to get enough DoF for the multiple rows of performers), 1/125 second. Timing the up/down movement of the dancers is critical when using such a slow shutter speed. Notice how much blurrier the dancer at the far right is who is out of sync.

Manual exposure with Evaluative metering at about -1. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II @ 70mm, ISO 1600, f/4, 1/125 second. The performers who are at the apex of their leaps are fairly sharp, those who were a little early or late show motion blur.

Notice that even though three of the four shots above of the same production were done using manual exposure the ISO, AV, and Tv combination are different for each shot. Learning your camera's controls enough to adjust ISO, Tv, and Av by touch without moving your eye from the viewfinder is critical to successful theatrical shooting. So is paying careful attention to the light meter and knowing which metering mode you are in and how each metering mode will affect the readings you are seeing.

For tighter shots the needed Tv to freeze motion gets shorter. Sometimes you must concede that you won't be able to freeze every part of a performer's body with the options available to you (light, lens, camera's high ISO performance limits). In such a case the key thing to remember is to place the face at highest priority. Even if you have to pan a little to track the face during the exposure and blur the entire rest of the scene, it will look better than the rest of the scene sharp but the lead performer's face blurry.

EOS 5D Mark II, EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II @ 200mm, ISO 1600, f/3.2, 1/200 second. (I could have gotten a slightly better result at f/2.8 and 1/250 if I'd been totally on my game!)

Shooting raw images so you will have latitude in adjusting color as well as exposure in post-processing is paramount. Having all the raw data from each image available opens so many more possibilities with regard to color, exposure, contrast, etc. than the much more limited information in a jpeg file (please see this answer to the last question linked below for a fuller explanation).

There's another question here that deals with shooting a music concert from a near stage location. I'm having trouble getting sharp pictures while shooting a concert from a press pass location Much of what is said there is applicable in your situation as well.

There are also a few other questions and answers that you might find helpful:
Regarding lenses:
What are appropriate lenses for concert photography?
What kind of filter (if any) should I use when photographing a theater scene? (hint: Lose the filter on the front of your lens!)
Canon 70-200 f2.8 non IS or f4 IS
Regarding metering/exposure issues
What went wrong with this concert photo and what could I have done to make it better?
Blown out blue/red light making photos look out of focus (particularly this answer)

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for being the most challenging kind of situation. Insufficient lighting, often dark backgrounds that can throw metering, shooting at the very edge of the lens and body's capabilities, and a set of unpredictable fast moving subjects. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 21, 2016 at 9:12

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!

  • \$\begingroup\$ "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. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 12, 2012 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$
    – djangodude
    Apr 12, 2012 at 22:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ +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. \$\endgroup\$
    – SoftMemes
    Apr 13, 2012 at 15:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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 :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – djangodude
    Apr 13, 2012 at 16:02

What Cliff says


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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