How to Photograph A Recital and Other Stage Performances

Beth Presler, Senior Violin Recital, Shaw Auditorium, Graceland University, Lamoni Iowa

The first thing to do is to ask permission ahead of time. Some places do not allow photography during the performance or they limit the number of photographers. In this case, Beth asked me to photograph her recital and I was the official photographer. One of the keys to photographing an event is not to become a serious distraction from the main event. That means not doing a lot of wandering around, and certainly not getting in front of people who are watching the event. Be as discreet as possible. If you need to move during a performance, if at all possible do it during the applause between numbers.

Whenever possible I prefer to photograph a dress rehearsal so it is just me and the performers with no audience around. You can do your job and not worry about bothering an audience. With some excellent shots “in the can” the stress is off and you can catch a few live shots later during the performance.  In this case there was no dress rehearsal so that was not possible.

Beth Presler, senior violin recital, Graceland University.

Check out the venue well ahead of time. I was at the Shaw Auditorium early to check out the stage set up. The stage was arranged so Beth would generally be facing the right side of the stage (from the audience’s point of view), so I needed to be on the right side of the audience to be able to see more of her face. From the left side I would mostly be seeing the right side of her face.

Musicians in an orchestra are seated in large curves around the director. At an orchestra concert in this auditorium I did photos from each entryway so I could get faces on both sides of the orchestra. 

Shaw Auditorium and Entryway

On each side of the Shaw Auditorium there is a walk in entryway (marked in this photo with a blue E). I could stand back a little in one of those entryways and have a view of the stage and still be hidden from most of the audience. The wall between me and the audience not only blocked their view of me, it also provided a little bit of a sound barrier between me and the audience. My camera has a “silent” mode which I had turned on. There is still an audible click of the shutter in silent mode, but it is much quieter than one of the regular shutter modes. It is also helpful to take pictures during the louder portions of the performance. A soft, delicate violin solo with no piano playing in the background is not the time for the click of a shutter.

Gray card before and after setting a custom white balance.

White balance is important for accurate skin tones. Some spotlights turn people yellow.  Other spotlights have a blue tint. The human eye compensates for that, but the camera sees the color tint. So I walked out on stage long before the performance, stood where Beth would be, and asked the light person to light up the stage like it would be during the recital.  I pulled out an 18% gray card card, took a picture of it with the stage lights fully on and set a custom white balance. You can see the yellow-orangish tint of the stage lights in the before photo of the gray card above. After setting a custom white balance the gray card is a nice neutral gray. That insured accurate colors when I took photos during the recital. Photographing the gray card also allowed me to check the ideal exposure. When I was done the light person dimmed the lights until the recital began.


Beth, violin recital, uncorrected iPhone photo.

As you can see from this uncorrected iPhone photo, during a stage performance a camera meter is often fooled by the darker areas of the stage behind the spotlit performer. So the stage looks normal and the performer is washed out. This is another reason to check the exposure of the actual lighting conditions ahead of time with a gray card. You can also see my vantage point in the entryway with a wall between me and most of the audience.


Beth Presler, senior violin recital, Graceland University.

With my white balance and exposure preset before the recital, I was all set to go. During the performance I did horizontal and vertical photos of Beth, and some photos that included Beth and Jack Ergo, the accompanist. As you can see from these images I was careful to take pictures with the bowing arm in various positions.

The only thing missing from these photos is the beautiful sound of Beth playing the violin.


How To Set A Custom White Balance On Your digital Camera

How to Use an 18% Gray Card

Beth is also in these articles:

Violinist in the Snow – Beth playing her violin outside in the snow

Beth: Planning for a Fall Water Portrait

POTD: Beth, Lake LaShane