Getting great shots in the light of Shakespeare's day

Shooting in low light at the Blackfriars Playhouse

“Now Thy Image Doth Appear…”

- Claudio, Much Ado About Nothing, Act V, Scene 1

Getting great shots in the light of Shakespeare’s day

In the early 17th century, William Shakespeare began staging plays at the Blackfriars Theater in London, England. It was the second of two theaters built upon the site of a Dominican priory that once existed just southwest of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Among the many innovations at the Blackfriars was the concept of artificial lighting – large candelabras suspended over the stage and audience complemented other natural light from skylights – so that everyone in the theater shared a universal, but somewhat dim, light from multiple sources. The actors saw the audience in the same light as the audience saw the actors themselves, and by nature of that sharing, the audience became an integral part of the production.

The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. Photo courtesy Lauren D. Rogers. Used by permission.

The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. Photo courtesy Lauren D. Rogers. Used by permission.

Shenandoah and Shakespeare, together at last

Fast forward to today. The picturesque Shenandoah Valley city of Staunton, VA has something remarkable in the heart of its thriving, eclectic downtown. A historically-accurate, painstakingly constructed replica of the original Blackfriars Theater.

The structure is part of the American Shakespeare Center, home to two talented, nationally-acclaimed companies. Shakespeare scholars and enthusiasts worldwide treasure the Blackfriars as an educational resource.

No flash photography allowed, please

While the light inside the Blackfriars Playhouse (as the replica is called) is certainly more than enough for the audience’s eyes to enjoy the show, it’s a bit dim for many cameras and camcorders. And you might note, this is a similar situation to challenges faced by many casual photographers in areas where using a flash might be considered disruptive.

Have you ever tried to document an elementary school play in a drably-lit multi-purpose room? Get a shot of your high school graduate during an evening ceremony at the gym? Or perhaps get a shot of a friend’s first open-mike performance at a local coffee house? For every good shot you may have gathered, I’ll bet you’ve got far more that didn’t turn out because they were either too dark or too blurry. Maybe one of these cameras can help you down the road.

We decided that the Blackfriars Playhouse was the perfect location to evaluate the low-light performance of some of our most popular cameras. But we wanted to do so with a minimal impact on the theater and the actors. After consulting with the ASC's management, we secured their permission to shoot during the touring company's dress rehearsal of Shakespeare's Love's Labour Lost.  We took along a good sampling: the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, the Canon 5D Mark II (with a light-gathering Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II lens), the Nikon Coolpix P7100 compact, the Canon PowerShot G1 X, and a camcorder -- the  JVC Everio GZ-VX700. Our initial aim wasn’t to pick one over the rest – although we eventually did -- rather, it was to see if we could get decent performance out of each camera that we took along for the ride, and maybe to see some strengths and weakness along the way.

Our cameras perform, the actors do too

Canon PowerShot G1 X

Our test Canon G1 X does well in low light, giving vivid colors with low noise

Our test Canon G1 X does well in low light, giving vivid colors with low noise

Canon PowerShot G1 X

Take this tasty little shot, for example. It was taken with Canon’s large-sensor compact, the G1 X. It’s got a lot of what you want from a camera in low-light circumstances. Good punchy colors. Low overall noise - the variances in overall color and luminance values from pixel to pixel that make pictures look "grainy.". The ability to freeze a moment of action.

We liked this shot so much, we used it for the main shot in our October/November catalog spread. We can attribute a lot of our approval to Canon’s overall design. The large sensor and wide-aperture lens give this camera some serious tools when dealing with low-light situations. Note that there’s still definition in the shadow areas, and that highlight areas have a nice roll-off – in other words, the areas of maximum brightness aren’t hard-edged, but rather blend into their neighboring shades.

Nikon Coolpix P7100

Our Nikon P7100 spotlights the fixtures that simulate the theatrical lighting of Shakespeare

Our Nikon P7100 spotlights the fixtures that simulate the theatrical lighting of Shakespeare's time

Nikon Coolpix 7100

The next shot was taken with the Nikon P7100 and an f/2.8 lens, and it shows some of the chandelier fixtures on the ceiling in the theater. Note the fine detail and the low noise. Now, to be fair, this subject isn’t moving, so it’s less of a challenge to get a good exposure with no blur. But overall, we were pleased with the ‘7100’s ability to “dig out” the subtleties of the darker elements of this picture.

Sony Cyber-shot® DSC-RX100

Our sample Sony CyberShot® DSC-RX100 really captured the fine detail in this shot

Our sample Sony CyberShot® DSC-RX100 really captured the fine detail in this shot

Sony Cyber-shot® DSC-RX100

Here’s a shot that surprised all of us after we got back from the shoot. It was taken with the Sony Cyber-shot® DSC-RX100 compact, a camera that bears some similarities to the Canon G1-X above (large sensor for its class, wide aperture, compact form factor). The 'RX100 delivers a wonderfully exposed picture, full of detail and nuance.

How did we achieve this? We got up close to the subject, enabling us to leave the zoom at full-wide. When the zoom is full-wide on this camera, the lens is able to make its widest aperture, and consequently we had more light for our exposure. Still, the delicate lace of the parasol, the fine details of the jewelry, and the delicate modeling of the theater’s light on our actor’s face really come through on this shot.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II with EF 85mm f/1.2 lens

The Canon 5D with its 85mm f/1.2 lens was our overall best producer in low light

The Canon 5D with its 85mm f/1.2 lens was our overall best producer in low light

Canon EOS 5D Mark II with EF 85mm f/1.2 lens

And finally, here’s a picture from our low-light session champ: the Canon 5D Mark II, with a very light-thirsty 85mm f/1.2 lens. Quite honestly, this one should be our winner; the camera body and lens combo represents a significant investment. As you can see, the longer lens lets us get a bit farther back, and the ultra-wide f/1.2 aperture really increases the camera’s ability to see into dark places. Plus, the wide aperture isolates focus on the subject, putting the background out of focus in a pleasing way.

JVC Everio GZ-VX700 Camcorder

JVC Everio GZ-VX700 camcorder

Even our test video camera, the JVC Everio V700, did well in the theater’s available light. Because of our agreement with the American Shakespeare Center, we can't show you live video of the actors, but we can show you the next best thing - the Crutchfield team working during the dress rehearsal to get the shots under the same lighting conditions. Though the images were somewhat noisy due in no small part to the small sensor, the f/1.2 lens made it possible to see well-defined images, even in shadow areas of the theater.

Practice, practice, rehearse, rehearse

It pays to keep trying to get shots: this one features motion blur from handheld camera shake

It pays to keep trying to get shots: this one features motion blur from handheld camera shake

Even the best camera setup can be challenged by low light. We have to admit, during our 90 minutes of shooting, we got our fair share of shots that looked like this one to the right. So we'll present just a few points to consider when shooting in low light, and encourage you to remember this one fact: the more pictures you take, the more likely you'll find ones you want to keep. Above all, practice as much as you can with the camera you have, preferably in the venue where you'll want to take pictures later. You'll discover strategies that work along the way.

A starter list of things to consider for better "no-flash" low-light shots

  • Read your camera's manual, and learn what low-light options it has. Then test them extensively.
  • Choose a camera with a "fast," wide-aperture light-gathering lens. Generally, these lenses are rated f/2.8 or lower.
  • Experiment with higher ISO settings (sensitivity) and discover at what point noise becomes objectionable.
  • Use a tripod and consider remote triggering to avoid vibration and camera shake
  • Explore the interplay of aperture, ISO and shutter settings when you need to minimize blur from fast action
  • Shoot in RAW mode, if available, to maximize your exposure options when editing the shot.

Above all, keep taking pictures! Memory cards are cheap. Enjoy the learning along the way.

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