Photographing “The Nutcracker”

Last month, I shot a dress rehearsal for a local dance school’s production of “The Nutcracker.” They’ve been doing this for decades and have some top flight instructional talent, so I knew it’d be fun. The best part? Dress rehearsal is basically wide open for family members (my niece was Clara), and they allowed flash. I didn’t use flash, but it was nice to know they were open to it.

The theater was smaller than I had pictured. There was still room for hundreds of people — maybe a couple thousand, I don’t know — but when walking around the arena seating to look for a good place to shoot, I was consistently amazed at how close I was, and how difficult it would be to shoot with a long lens. I brought all my lenses with me, so I had my options open.

This is a case where I used black and white because I thought it would work, not just to cover high ISO noise.

Which lens was the favorite? Click through to find out. . .

And which lens did I wind up relying on? The Canon 70-300mm f/4 – 5.6. I love this lens. It’s an unsung hero of the Canon line, and I bought mine from Adorama as a refurb unit for around $400, as I recall. The images I get from this lens in all sorts of situations never cease to amaze me. It helps, of course, that the stage is brightly lit with plenty of spotlights following the action. It’s the same lens I used in similar circumstances at the Wiggles concert earlier in 2010. (Stay tuned; I’ll be running that story here in the weeks ahead.) 70mm gets you a full body shot of someone in front of the stage, while 300mm gets the same of someone at the furthest corner of the stage. I sat against the wall about 10 rows up.

The biggest lesson I learned from The Wiggles was to shoot in Manual mode. That helped me keep the shutter speed up while still allowing enough light in. It kept the aperture at something decent to prevent light blowouts. Aperture mode would often result in overly bright or blurry images.

I tried manual with The Nutcracker, but that was a lost cause. I was following the action across the stage and the lights varied greatly from front to back, and left to right. If I was taking a picture of someone not in the spotlight, there’d be a full stop or more difference from someone in the spotlight. Additionally, with a lens whose maximum aperture changes with the amount you zoom in, I couldn’t keep that additional variable straight in my head at the same time.

So I shot Aperture and rode the exposure compensation dial. I got pretty good at that, keeping my right thumb on the wheel and rocking back and forth as I shot people in and out of spotlights, near and far on stage.

Here’s the biggest lesson I learned from this outing: Joe McNally is right. Photographing ballerinas is fun!

The other major improvement on this experience over the Wiggles concert was the hardware. The Canon 60D beats the pants off the XTi, obviously. I shot at 2500 – 3200 ISO the whole night. And with the new noise reduction in Lightroom3, I got some pretty smooth-looking images. Yes, there’s lots of noise in the RAW files, but the noise reducing software handles it beautifully, most of the time. It works best with brighter images, so that’s something to think about in the future.

I’m going to go back to those Wiggles pictures soon to run the LR3 noise reduction feature against those pictures, just to see if LR3 does the job better than Noise Ninja.

Having 18 megapixels per picture, I also didn’t worry about framing shots that had extra space along the edges. I knew I could crop those out and still have a huge JPG file for the screen or print out. Honestly, I didn’t need to crop too many pics, but cropping in did save a few pics from some nasty intruders along the edges.

I took 985 pictures for the night. Can’t believe I didn’t take 15 more. UGH! Come to think of it, though, I probably did. I took a lot of test pics when I first got there, but deleted those in camera to save room for the action pics. So, yeah, I probably set a new single day personal best for Shots Fired., indeed. =)

The End

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