Imagine this scenario. Your 7-year-old granddaughter has been selected to be a maiden in this year’s Christmas play. You are excited to photograph this momentous event, so you get to the venue early and set up in the front row with your camera and long lens.
As the play starts, you begin taking pictures and notice that the resulting images all look blurry and soft. In a panic, you set the camera back to Automatic mode in the hopes that the camera is smart enough to figure this out on its own. Unfortunately, the camera’s automatic settings don’t help, so you come home from the play without a single decent photograph of your granddaughter’s Broadway debut.
Don’t be THAT photographer. Instead, use the autofocus and shutter speed tips I outline here to create great images of theater and stage productions.
It is a little known fact among newer photographers that one of the most important camera settings for getting sharp photos during stage productions is to use a fast shutter speed. That’s right. Your autofocus settings don’t matter one bit if your shutter speed is too slow.
In my book titled The Nikon Autofocus System, I write extensively about the interaction between autofocus settings and shutter speed. You can have all your focus settings properly configured, but if you shutter speed is too low, then it is all for naught. I’ll get into the details of shutter speed later in the article, but for now, let me discuss the best autofocus settings on the camera.
Before moving to shutter speed details at least get the AF settings correct before talking about shutter speed. Most stage performances are fairly slow moving, so you don’t need your camera’s wide area dynamic autofocus modes to track moving subjects. These would be analogous to settings such as dynamic 51-point, 3D, or auto-area autofocus. Quite often the problem with using these larger area autofocus patterns is that they will mistakenly focus on bright objects in the background.
Rather, it is better to use something like single area autofocus or dynamic nine-point auto focus area. These settings allow you to pick out an individual actor and focus on their face.
Again, since the action is relatively slow, you might want to use AF–S, which is a single servo autofocus. This allows you to focus on the subject and then recompose before taking the photo.
Now that your autofocus system is set up properly, the next thing to consider is your shutter speed. There are two types of movement you have to consider when working to achieve a sharp photograph – subject movement and camera shake.
Subject movement is motion from the actors as they move about the stage in dialog or while walking and dancing. Each of these activities has a different level of movement and requires a different minimum shutter speed to freeze the movement. Here’s a list of movements and the corresponding shutter speed you’ll need to freeze the action:
You might be able to get away with longer shutter speeds than I mention here, but using these shutter speeds will almost guarantee freezing the motion of the actor/actress.
Camera shake is caused by the photographer while handholding the camera. The longer the lens you use, the faster the shutter speed you’ll need to get a sharp picture.
The general rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should equal your focal length. In other words, if you are shooting at 100mm zoom, then you need about 1/100th second shutter speed. If you are shooting 50mm, then you need 1/50th second shutter speed. A 300mm lens requires approximately 1/300th second.
You can get around this rule of thumb by using a monopod or by using your lens’ built in vibration reduction. Usually, VR (vibration reduction) or IS (Image Stabilization) settings will allow you to use shutter speeds 2 to 3 stops longer than normal. So, if you are using a 300mm lens, then VR might allow you to use a shutter speed of 1/30 second or 1/60 second.
VR/IS is all well and good, but you also have to consider the subject movement that I mentioned above. If your VR allows you to handhold the camera at 1/60 second but you are trying to photograph a dance, then you’ll still get a blurry photo because of the subject movement.
The only way to get fast shutter speeds during a stage production is to use high ISO values like ISO 1600, 3200, 6400 or higher. If you try to shoot at low ISOs such as 100, 200 or 400 then your shutter speeds will be around 1/2 to 1/15 second. At those shutter speeds, you are bound to have a lot of subject movement.
I know, the purists among you scoff because you know that cameras produce more noise & grain at higher ISOs. However, you can always deal with the noise in software like Adobe Lightroom but you can’t deal with a blurry photograph. So, use the higher ISOs in order to get your shutter speeds up to 1/125 second or higher.
The last piece of the puzzle is to use a wide aperture to let as much light into the lens as possible. I suggest using an aperture of f/2.8 or larger. If your lens is a lower-cost model then at least use f/4.5 or f/5.6.
Ok, that’s it for this autofocus tip. Want to learn more about autofocus on Nikon cameras? Check out our brand new book titled The Nikon Autofocus System, Mastering Focus for Sharp Images Every Time.