The Play’s the Thing: Top Tips for Photographing Live Theatre

According to The Broadway League, more than 11 million people attended live performances on Broadway last year. When you take on the job of photographing plays and other live theatre performances, you’re trying to appeal to all people who are dreaming of attending these plays. That puts a lot of pressure on the photographer to properly capture the significant moments, emotions and plot development in the play. There’s also many technical difficulties to overcome in this environment.




Know exactly what’s going on in the play ahead of time. It’s impossible to know when you should be prepared to take a photo if you aren’t familiar with the play, its characters, the stage layout and the other details that make Broadway plays compelling to a wide audience. If you’re an official photographer for the event, sit in on rehearsals to familiarize yourself with the overall flow, the high and low points, important characters and any other significant aspects that add to your composition.


Live performance shooting, especially in a theater, makes controlling lighting difficult. You’re at the whims of the play’s own lighting needs, which are rarely ideal for still photography. In most cases, you are best off setting your white balance to automatically calculate itself without any input from you. The light sources rarely stay the same long enough for you to manually adjust these settings. Understand the lighting you’re dealing with ahead of time and prepare for particularly dark parts of the play. A 2.8 lens and camera that can achieve noiseless high ISO settings are also essential for your equipment set. Show up for a photo call to acclimate yourself to the theater, the lighting available and the performers.

Exposure is another difficult setting to handle in a theater. You should fully control your exposure in this situation, since most cameras err to the side of overexposure, which destroys the details in your photographs. If necessary, underexposure the photos and take care of the exposure issues in post-editing.


Once you have everything as close to technically perfect as it can be in a live environment, turn your attention to composition. Focus on shots that help tell the story. You don’t need a picture every second of the play. Instead, focus on key points in the plot and interesting angles that help tell the story. Have shots that showcase the emotion the actors are conveying. Some emotions require the whole body shots, while others are conveyed perfectly with a silhouette or close-up face shot.

The composition of the photos helps to sell the play and entice people to come to it. Whether you are creating the photos for the play’s program or its marketing, you want to show what it’s all about without giving too much of the story away. Try to tease without revealing everything, and make sure that your composition has a variety of angles even if you’re restricted to a small portion of the theater.

Be aware of the crowd around you, potential angles for the next shots and the safety of your equipment. The exact area that you want to set up in depends on the play. Some work best if you get your shots from up close, off to the side of the stage, while others require a more expansive view of the stage. Your best work in those situations might happen from the middle of seating or up in the boxes.