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How to photograph in a dark theater 

click to enlarge The Incredible Circus Millibo. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • The Incredible Circus Millibo.
I photographed the The Incredible Circus Millibo performance last weekend at the Millibo Art Theatre. My son Harper, 10, was on of the performers and it was a great event featuring a lot of talented acrobats, jugglers and more than one clown.

Photographing a circus performance inside a dark theater is super difficult. A lot of cameras and their camera operators are just not up to the job.

For one thing, point-and-shoot and phone cameras see all of the black background and will often employ a flash to take a picture. That’s not good when you’re photographing performers who are trying to balance objects or do a difficult stunt in the air. Another problem is capturing the fast-moving action. If you don’t have a fast enough shutter speed you can’t capture the performers without a little motion blur.

If you find yourself trying to shoot a theater performance these two problems can stop you in your tracks. But there are ways to make sure you're capturing the action as you see it live.

Before shooting any performance I like to arrive early and take some test shots without a flash. A few test shots inside the theater, especially with the stage lighting, allows me to find the right settings in my camera before the performance begins.

Because I’m trying to capture action shots in a dark setting without a flash, I also need a high ISO setting. In this instance, I used an ISO of 16000. You read that right, there are three zeros there.

Until a few years ago, 16000 was an unheard of ISO. But newer digital prosumer cameras now allow photographers the ability to increase the ISO or light sensitivity of their cameras quite a bit more, and without very much "noise" apparent in the pictures.

By increasing my ISO I was also able to increase the shutter speed of my camera to stop the action. For the Incredible Circus my shutter speed varied between 1/320 of a second and 1/500 of a second, making a world of difference for capturing the action. With a high ISO and shutter speed I was able to photograph the fast-moving performances without worrying that my images would be blurry.

The final piece of the puzzle is having a great seat. The circus was sold out, but Jim Jackson, the theater’s director, allowed me to sit on a staircase in the middle of the theater with a perfect, uninterrupted view of the performance.

The MAT's circus performances will resume next year, but you can still catch another circus performance at the RMPBS Fun Fest in Acacia park on June 2 — without having to worry about a dark theater.

Happy shooting!

Sean Cayton is a wedding photojournalist of 19 years and operates a successful, award-winning wedding photography studio in Colorado Springs. He's also an award-winning photojournalist. Sean is happily married to the love of his life (also his business partner) and is father to three beautiful children. When he’s not working, Sean can be found outside flying kites with his kids, hitting golf balls or casting a fly rod to hungry trout.

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