The challenge of shooting theatre

by theatre photographer, Ollie Robinson

Tis Pity

Theatre photography above all else lures you in. A meticulously constructed environment, designed specifically to be seen, populated by thespians keen for (let’s admit) edgy social media glory. Theatre work is nowhere near as frustrating as capturing the split-second glory in sports, or avoiding the spilled Jägerbombs at events. But still, the stage is a mixed bag. I could even talk about the times I dodged pyrotechnics, or the shrapnel from an exploding mug, but I don’t like to be called a hero…

Time is the first illusion. Shooting an hour long play should fit in easily around all the other work I definitely should have already done, but a dress rehearsal running on time has yet to be documented. So it helps to either to have the virtue of patience, or to have already started that essay on the virtues of Plato due at the same time. Light is almost as unpredictable, since without flash most cameras give up, especially when the actors are lost in darkness or swallowed by blinding psychedelic pink. The miracle of a wide aperture prime lens is something I learned one play too late, since actors staying motionless long enough not to blur is uncommon in a play most likely to be about sex and stabbing. But when the camera sensors can pick up enough light, theatre shots can turn out some of the best, having dramatic illumination while being more dynamic than the poses of fashion photography.

The theatre experience itself is surprisingly enjoyable through a lens. The nearness of the actors makes it easy to get absorbed: several captivated minutes have definitely passed when I was just watching through the viewfinder without remembering to actually take pictures. Pretending to be professional in a student environment also gives a welcome excuse to creep further onto stage. Getting in close gives a flexibility of perspective and raw pixel quality that can set photos apart, although it’s still unknown whether the actors’ lack of complaints is from their professionalism or for their love of a good profile picture.

But even with the occasional challenges, theatre photography is a great way to hone the skill of managing extremes of light, while still feeling the atmosphere of an excellent performance. Even when the actors share your photos with added speech bubbles: who says culture is dead?

Ollie was production photographer for Commensal’s ’Tis Pity and Jerusalem, as well as Hexagon Theatre’s Othello and Plenty, and starred in the RadCam Pictures film James. He earned a degree in Philosophy and Theology from the University of Oxford at the same time, and his services can be found at