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The end of term is drawing nigh and primary schools across the country are preparing to roll out their annual festive act featuring a miserable Mary, a startled Joseph, three kings, a flock of shepherds, a mega-flock of sheep, and likely a rendition of that well-known Christmas classic, 'Let it Go'. If you're a proud parent, doting aunt or uncle, or adoring grandparent and want to capture the event on camera, what's the best way of going about it?
Little people and the law
First of all, if anyone tries to tell you that you're prohibited from photographing the nativity play because of data protection tell them that they're wrong. The Information Commissioner's Office has stated quite clearly that family members wanting to photograph or video their children's (or grandchildren's, nieces', nephews' &c) school plays in no way violate data protection regulations, provided that it is for personal use. So ner! (Insert sticky-out tongue here.)
Individual schools might have tighter regulations relating to photographing their pupils, especially if any of them are looked-after children—that's young people who are in the care of their local authorities, and most likely are being fostered, are in care, or are in the process of being adopted—whose identities need to be protected. If photos of them made their way onto social media sites, it could lead to difficult, or even nasty, situations. Please do bear that in mind.
Get in before the act
If you're really intent on getting the best photos of the show, ask the school if you can drop by for the dress rehearsal. Everything should run just as it would for the real thing, but the children won't feel under pressure from a huge audience and you should be at liberty to move about to get into the best positions without disturbing any other spectators. It also means that you get two bites of the mince pie: one to photograph it, and another to enjoy it and swell with pride like a Christmas pudding in a steamer.
Of course, the school might not want the dress rehearsal descending into the production's semi-official photo-shoot or it might not be convenient for you to attend. In which case, you'll need to make sure that you're at the real thing in time to get the best seat. Ideally you want to be close to the front, but make sure you consider your fellow audience-members. They're just as invested in this production as you are and will not appreciate their enjoyment of the show being obscured by you and your kit wriggling, fidgeting, and readjusting.
Selecting the kit
The best camera is the one that you have with you. If you've only a smartphone or a point-and-shoot, so be it. The important thing to remember is to turn off the flash. First, it likely won't have a discernible impact on the shot; second, it will distract the Angel Gabriel. If you can, bump up the ISO to give you the best chance of getting a blur-free image. It might be as noisy as Hark the Herald Angels Sing, but grain beats blur.
For anyone with an interchangeable lens camera, I'd advise selecting one lens and sticking with it if you're photographing the real thing. You don't want to be changing lens mid-performance. It will disturb the audience and possibly the cast, and you might well miss something crucial in the process. You have more latitude at the dress rehearsal, though.
Ideally, you want something fast, with a focal range to enable wide-angle and zoomed-in shots, and image stabilisation to help defy blur. We're not all blessed with these sorts of lenses, so select the fastest glass you have. You're going to need all the light you can get.
The two key points for performance photography have already been mentioned: turn off the flash and set the ISO as high as you reasonably can. You should be shooting in Raw anyway, but if you're not, go make the change the now. Skin tones under stage lights will thank you for it.
Plays and shows are fast-moving things: you're going to need a fast shutter speed coupled with a fast aperture to capture anything that isn't as fluffy as a sheep. Around 1/100 second should freeze action, but if you want to capture the blur of dancers spinning, you can always slow it down!
Switch your auto-focusing mode from one-shot auto-focus to something that can help you capture moving subjects; either Continuous/Servo or Intelligent/Automatic auto-focus should help you.
When it comes to metering, you might find that if you want to capture illuminated faces, switching to spot metering will give you the best chance of doing so. Just remember to meter what's in the light: if you accidentally meter off the dark backdrop, you'll end up with a ridiculously over-exposed image. For anyone with a smartphone, tap your focus box onto your subject's face: it'll meter better and do its best to get the subject sharp.
It's already been mentioned, but it's so important, we'll re-state it: don't distract the cast and don't disturb or obstruct the view of anyone else in the audience. You need to be as discreet as possible. Keep your elbows in and noise to a minimum. And for heaven's sake, don't stand up.
If you can, try to take a photo of every person on stage, and those who've worked behind the scenes, too. You don't want anyone feeling left out. And in contravention of our general guidance, take lots of photos. It's the best way to ensure that you capture the action because things happen so fast.
Don't forget to keep an eye out for things that are happening away from the main action, too. Small children get bored, pull faces, and do cute and funny things. These are always worth capturing if you spot them.
Finally: enjoy it. Don't become so focused on taking photos that you miss your daughter's big line or your son's solo. They're meant to be the stars of the show and the centre of your attention, not your photos!
You have a shiny new camera with interchangeable lenses, more knobs and dials than the TARDIS, and enough buttons to keep a three year old happy for hours. It's thrilling and exciting, and you cannot wait to get started. But where exactly do you start? How can you get off of the automatic mode and take control of all the picture-making marvel that your camera has to offer? You could always sign up for the Photocritic Photography School.
It's a year-long course, with a lesson and an assignment delivered to your email inbox every three weeks. Once you complete your assignment and share it in your class' pool, you'll receive some feedback on your endeavours. (We also encourage our students to comment on their classmates' work: the more thoughts the better!) It starts with some simple techniques to see an immediate improvement in your photos and moves through technical, creative, and practical exercises to see you taking better photos week on week. No pressure, and lots of fun!
Even better: if you sign up for the class that starts on 3 January, it's free! What are you waiting for? The sign-up form's here!