Theatre and photography. An interview with Mihaela Bodlovic
Tue 18 Aug Article 5mins
We recently spoke with Mihaela who is a self-taught photographer working in the performing arts. This career began in 2009, after she moved to Edinburgh to study History of Art and English Literature, while also taking part in student drama with the Edinburgh University Footlights. Recently, she worked as Festival Photographer at the Edinburgh International Festival 2016.
Read our interview with Mihaela below where we discuss photography techniques advice and stories for capturing theatre on film.
How did you get started taking photos for theatre and/or performance?
It all started with theatre, really. I’d experimented with photography at school but it was coming to university in Edinburgh and joining the student theatre community that got it all started. Even then, it was a while before I picked up a camera. I produced, directed and designed various shows and eventually managed to save up for a DSLR. I actually found my very first theatre photos recently on an old memory card, taken in 2010, and I’d offer to show you but no one needs to see that! It’s been uphill from there!
What is your process when asked to photograph theatre?
In a perfect world, I’d always love to see a rehearsal and read the script beforehand. Capturing theatre is so much about being in the right place at the right time so it helps hugely if I’m aware of the show’s blocking. before we’re actually there running the dress rehearsal and I’m falling over the seats to get the image I want. As we live in a decidedly imperfect world, the best course of action is usually to consult the director about the key scenes and how they’re laid out - what the blocking is like, light levels and any sudden transitions between states. This is all assuming you get to photograph a dress rehearsal and not a very awkward live show with an audience glaring at you for clicking throughout, but that’s rarely been the case outside the Fringe environment.
What equipment do you regularly use for event/theatre photography? Any ‘can’t be without’ pieces or accessories?
I’m on a Nikon D810 camera, which is a fairly recent purchase, and has been absolutely marvellous in low light environments, paired with a selection of prime and zoom lenses, with a Nikon D700 as an occasional second camera. And I wouldn’t be without my 50mm f/1.8 prime lens.
Theatre is often photographed on zoom lenses, and the 50mm is what’s called a fixed focal length lens, meaning that you cannot zoom in and out on a scene by twisting the lens and standing in the same spot. If you picture ‘a photographer’, chances are you’re imagining someone double-wielding a pair of DSLRs with two zoom lenses attached, one wide angle and one telephoto. While this is kind of the perfect set up, ready for whatever the show throws at you, it’s unbelievably heavy! I’ll take a prime lens and a pair of legs any day.
How do you allow/adapt for lighting conditions in the theatre?
It was definitely a lot more difficult before camera sensors got really good! And can you imagine capturing theatre on a film camera?! I’m certain I would be absolutely awful at it. Generally, understanding how different lighting conditions will affect your camera settings helps, as well as knowing how the changes in the theatrical light filling the stage will affect the look of the image.
Sometimes you’re just lucky and the lighting designer is a genius and there’s a good-looking photo no matter where you point the camera but sometimes you’re working with two lights and a torch, so understanding the position of performers in relation to the lights makes a huge difference.
For example, say the show features one simple side light - it’s not an angle the audience will necessarily see, but outlining the actor in silhouette against that light can often look gorgeous.
With theatre, it isn’t so much low light that’s the problem as uneven or suddenly changing light. I’ve rarely underexposed images beyond repair but there are times when the light suddenly changes to a really bright scene and you’re rushing to make sure your images aren’t overexposed while also observing the action.
What are the challenges involved in shooting performance theatre?
Everyone keeps moving! No, I’m joking, I guess the main challenge is to overcome the static nature of photography and capture the actual feel of the show - weave a narrative into your images.
It can be quite physically demanding and takes a lot of concentration, you’re basically on alert for the duration of the performance.
What makes a good promotional photograph? for marketing or press distribution for example?
Something that just hints at the show’s central theme without laying it all out really sets the tone for the audience’s experience of the show.
I’m a big believer in promotional imagery that exists as artwork in itself and not just something used to promote a particular show. My kind of promotional photograph is something that makes you pick up the flyer/newspaper/magazine with the image because you want to see the image, not because of what it’s trying to sell you.
Do you like to use staged photos or prefer to capture the action? Or can both have their place?
If an image is supposed to be a ‘production photograph’, it generally looks so much stronger if taken in action.
Promotional imagery is often staged, out of necessity - marketing timelines start months before production starts. So yes, both certainly have their place, although I personally enjoy action more.
Do you have any influencers, both within or out with photography?
In photography, Joan Marcus. The most extraordinary theatre photographer who’s covered most of Broadway’s largest hits. She’s an absolute powerhouse and her contribution really highlights theatre photography as an art form on par with the art form it captures.
Everything is an influence, though. I look at things, and try to see them from a variety of perspectives.
What would be some of your top tips in photographing theatre?
There’s often a point in a performance when the performers really, tangibly embody their roles. Keep an eye out for those moments - they transform even the most subtle gesture into something beautiful on camera.
On a practical level, in theatre photography always shoot RAW (as opposed to JPG) and know your gear. You don’t need a top of the range fancy toy but you do need to know what it does. There’s a fantastic thing another Edinburgh alumnus, photographer Idil Sukan said about cameras - “Buy a camera – it can be a terrible camera – and don’t buy another camera until you become thick with rage at its limitations. So many young photographers blow their student budget on the best possible camera and don’t appreciate the technical wizardry of what you can do with it. You need to take so many photos with your terrible camera. Then feel free to go shopping. It’s the best moment in the world because you know you deserve it.”
And make friends with Adobe Lightroom, there’s little it can’t fix.
Any tips for producers or theatre companies in preparing themselves for a photographer, organising a photoshoot or selecting a photographer?
Find someone who can help you interpret your show in such a way that the potential audiences won’t just see a series of images of people standing on the stage, but will also understand key relationships and perhaps want to find out more about them, entice them to see the full production.
In general, the photographer is there to help you share your vision of the show with a wider audience. A good one will try to understand your take on the show and see it from your perspective, whether you’re working with them on staged promotional images or production photos. Trust them to do that job.